Dýrð í dauðaþögn

At this point, it’s far from a secret that Iceland produces some of the most uniquely talented musicians in the world. Acts like Sigur Ros, Bjork and, more recently, Of Monsters and Men have solidified the international awareness of Iceland’s magical music scene. Although each artist brings something vastly different to the table, there does seem to be a sort of ethereal, mythological nature that ties them all together.

In 2012, Icelandic folktronica artist Ásgeir emerged in his home country with his debut album, Dýrð í dauðaþögn, which broke the record for best-selling debut in Iceland surpassing some of his immensely successful predecessors. The ten-track project features Ásgeir’s phenomenal oft-falsetto Icelandic vocals over folky guitar and subtle electronic elements, most notably employed in the bouncy “Leyndarmál” (later adopted in English as “King and Cross”). With his album owned by nearly 1 in 10 people in Iceland, Ásgeir took to spreading his music to a broader audience by releasing a fully English-translated version titled In the Silence earlier this year taking him around the world touring.

We had a chance to catch up with Ásgeir’s after his incredible set at this year’s Treasure Island Festival to discuss his musical background, home country and plans for the future. Give the conversation a read below and make sure to keep Ásgeir on your radar.

TMN: Tell us a bit about your first experiences with music and how you got started.

Ásgeir: I started playing guitar when I was about 6. My first guitar was a classical guitar and my parents are classically educated so I went to school pretty early playing classical guitar. Pretty soon after that, I started having an interest in writing songs. Then, I bought a cheap subwoofer and I started listening to rock and grunge music. I eventually wanted to play electric guitar and started forming different bands. It pretty much started with my family who had a lot to do with encouraging me.

 TMN: What were some of the artists that you were listening to a lot growing up?

Ásgeir: I went through different periods. From 6 to 11, it was all Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica and that kind of stuff. At the same time, I was playing classical guitar and I didn’t really feel connected to the instrument until I grew up more at 13 or 14. At that time, I started listening to more folk artists. I got my first acoustic guitar with steel strings and that’s where I kind of found country music. Johnny Cash was one of my favorites and an Icelandic artist Mugison. Sigur Ros was always one of my favorites as well as Sufjan Stevens and Kelly Joe Phelps.

 TMN: Icelandic artists tend to have a very distinct, unified sound. How has that played into your music and why do you think that is?

Ásgeir: A lot has to do with just the music in Iceland and what we grow up listening to, which inspires us. I grew up in the northwest side of Iceland in a really isolated small town and I was always really close to my environment as well. I can’t really put my finger on what it is that connects us and makes the music how it is. But there’s definitely an Icelandic vibe and sound that comes from our unity. I think its just how small of a nation we are, how few people live there and everything like that.

 TMN: As a songwriter, what has been your approach when you sit down to write a song?

Ásgeir: Usually I start with writing chords on the guitar and kind of figuring out the melody. As I’m playing, the chorus will come to mind. It depends on what mood I am in and where I am and what instrument I’m playing. Nowadays when we’re touring, I tend to just start with programming electronic beats and making some synthesizer chords or sequencer stuff over it kind of forgetting about melodies. I’ll make a few demos that, when I come back home from touring, I can listen to and then start making melodies. It’s kind of different, but exciting.

 TMN: Your album, when released in Iceland, broke records as the best-selling debut album. That was about two years ago now. How quickly did all of that happen? And did you already have a sense of the receptiveness audiences would have?

Ásgeir: My expectation when we decided to release an album was just to sell maybe 300 copies to my hometown and family and friends. Those were my expectation and dreams and I would’ve been happy with that at that time. I hadn’t been in the music scene at all before that and I was just completely new to everything. I wasn’t trying to do what I did. We were just playing around in the studio and we recorded 6 or 7 songs. We started talking about making a mix of an album. When we finished all the songs, I really didn’t like the album when I first listened to it. We released two songs on the radio stations in Iceland and it just blew up in a few weeks. After we released the second single was when I started to think about it turning into something bigger.


TMN: You chose to translate the album into English working with John Grant on that. What was that process like? And why did you decide to translate it?

Ásgeir: The Icelandic version is always available for everyone so they can get to it if they want. I prefer that album more than anything and most of the people around me and my fans really like the Icelandic version better. That’s the record we made and its more natural in a lot of ways. But the English version is exactly the same except that its a different language, which gives it a different flavor. The basic reason was just to connect with more people. It’s really hard for Icelandic bands to get their music out of Iceland. I felt that having the Icelandic lyrics stood out so much while performing the songs but with the translation people actually start to understand what they meant. That was probably the main reason. I think it helped in many ways also because we got radio plays and exposure much more than we would have.

TMN: So, what’s next?

Ásgeir: I’m doing a tour with Hozier here in the States in February and, before that, I’ll be doing some shows in Europe and Asia. After February, we’ll go back to Iceland for maybe a year or a few months to focus on the next album and try to make it good!

Special thanks to Ásgeir for taking the time to chat with us. Photo cred: Mike Lei

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