NXNE: Ten Questions with Svavar Knútur

Iceland’s spent a lot of time in the news recently because of Eyjafjallajokul, its tempermental volcano, but I think it’s about time we got back to talking about the European island because of its music. Iceland has only about 320,000 people — less than London ON — but has managed to spawn a rich outpouring of musical talent. I have a bit of a fascination with Iceland, partly because I love islands in general; I feel like that isolation and physical removal spawns a unique cultural output, more defined by the land and sea than you find in other spots. Troubadour  certainly proves me right on that front; you can read more about why below.1. For such a small country with a tiny population, Iceland has developed an impressive number of musicians with international profiles. To what do you attribute your country’s artist success?

I have been thinking about this for a long time. The ratio of artists to “normal working folk” in Iceland is very high. My best educated guess is that it has something to do with long winters and a lot of time to be introspective and try to make sense of the world. A lot of us tend to be philosophical and humorous about life.

2. Does Iceland’s unique geography affect your music and you as an artist?

In no small way, I think. The continuous proximity to the sea and the mountains, the barren landscapes and the ever present danger of volcanic eruptions, avalanches, sheets of icebergs and other natural catastrophes have had a deep impact on me personally. Also, the barrenness makes it all so real, there is no hiding in the forest behind a tree…It’s somehow always in your face.

3. You’ve done a lot of international touring, as far away as Australia. How difficult has that been to work out, and what are the strongest rewards?

I’m so happy you asked me that 😀 It is always a challenge, but I do have an army of helpers, called the International Troubadour Conspiracy, a network of singer/songwriters that a group of friends started a few years back. This network helps visiting songwriters with booking shows, accomodation, promotion and all kinds of support. I’ve helped a lot of Australian and European artists play in Iceland and it pays back a tenfold. All these people help me out when I visit their countries. It’s also a kind of pay it forward kind of thing and thus, a lot of emerging songwriters have enjoyed the support of the Conspiracy. My strongest rewards, personally, are more friends everywhere. People that I enjoy visiting and that like coming to Iceland. We have great adventures together and it’s growing every month!

4. Your songs often have a sense of sadness, but not in a depressing way. What is it about that emotion that works for you as a songwriter?

I’ve had a lot of sadness in my life. Personal traumas, deaths of loved ones, difficulties and betrayals; both by my own hand and others. Icelandic history and poetry is also filled with sadness. My songwriter heroes are all pretty melancholic. I think it’s just beautiful to plant happy seeds in melancholic earth. Because you really can’t appreciate the good things in life without realizing the darker sides of yourself and the world.

Maybe the thing also is that I was always a bit of a dark child, kept to myself and had strange daydreams. My parents were worried, but I turned out alright. I actually think I’m one of the happiest people I know.

5. What’s appealing to you about working the with ukelele?

I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog. I’ve seen people treat the ukulele as a novelty joke instrument but I sensed that it had great potential. I think it kind of sounds like a little harp and has a deep connection to the sea. It also fits a baritone voice very well, as it’s a kind of a tenor-soprano instrument. It’s also a very nice way to break up your day and do things differently, and that’s very important.

6. I read that you like to record live, without spending too much time laying the songs down. Why do you take that approach in the studio?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love elaborate sounds and arrangements. But, as a boy raised by the seaside, constantly contemplating ways to just approach things naturally, I’ve always had a passion for experimenting with the “here and now” element. The kind of “what can we do together with our spontaneous energy and dynamic abilities?” work. I like getting people together, teaching them the songs really fast and then just seeing what we can accomplish with our raw abilities. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll try again and maybe do things differently, or I’ll get an idea and just throw it in there for fun. I love the live element, mistakes, imperfections and accidents. A bit of chaos. Those are to me the elements of beauty, not form and organization.

7. Not a lot of people outside of Iceland speak Icelandic. Do you find there’s a language barrier between you and audiences, or does the music transcend that?

My lyrics are around 70/30 English to Icelandic. I have seldom, if ever, felt any barrier because of my Icelandic lyrics. People normally embrace them like they embrace me as a person and an artist, because people are awesome. However, there is a distinct difference between my English and my Icelandic lyrics. In my English lyrics, the subject matter is usually a bit more focused on love and the difficulties of interpersonal relationships. (Probably the influence of the perpetual self-pity of anglo-saxon songwriters.) However, in Icelandic the lyrics are a lot deeper and often more connected to nature. I’d never be comfortable with saying “glacial river” or “birch tree” in a song. “Jökulá” and “Birkitré” sound much better.

8. Tell us a bit about your band, Hraun.

Hraun is a great group of friends. We got together to play at an impromptu party a couple of years back and we liked it so much that we decided to start playing some of my songs together. Classic story. We’ve all had our share of great adversity and depression and Hraun has since become a kind of therapeutic folk rock band. We love playing concerts that stretch into parties that stretch into all night jam session shindigs with an impromptu Beyonce or Justin Timberlake cover thrown in there just for fun. I love those guys and I hope that some day I’ll have the means to bring them along on my travels.

9. What are some of your favourite Icelandic musicians?

Oh lord!!! Where to begin!

Mugison is a great friend and a beautiful musician. Pétur Ben is no small potato. Ólöf Arnalds blows me away and so does her cousin Olafur Arnalds. Emiliana Torrini is a continuous inspiration as well as Lay Low and of course Björk. A band called For A Minor Reflection has also struck a chord in my heart and also some of my fellow singer/songwriters in Iceland, such as Myrra Rós, Mysterious Marta, Heiða Dóra and The Friday Night Idols.

10. Is this your first time in Canada? What are you looking forward to seeing or doing?

This is actually my second time in Canada. The first time, in 2007, I snuck over to see the Niagara falls. It was very nice. I’m looking forward to having pancakes with real maple syrup, meeting some real-life Canucks and hopefully for a life-long friendship and connection with fellow singer/songwriters in Toronto. I love bringing people over to Iceland and then showing them a good time, so I encourage all interested artists to come and say hi to me at the Cameron House on Saturday and just don’t be shy! I’m all about people.

Do it! You can catch Svavar Knútur at the Cameron House, as he mentioned above, on Saturday June 19 at 9PM.

Photo by Bjorn Giesenbauer, used via Creative Commons license

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