Back in 2009, Icelandic group amiina – once upon a time the string section of Sigur Ros – were invited to undertake a unique summer tour of their homeland, playing unusual venues which included, in particular, some of the country’s lighthouses.
Writing music especially for the unique venues, Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Hildur Ársælsdóttir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir and Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir embarked upon their tour, playing these specially composed tracks for tiny crowds in spaces such as the Dalatangaviti lighthouse.
Over three years later, the band returned to the project of “little nocturnes” and made The Lighthouse Project, a collection of old and new tracks that recreate the special, intimate atmosphere of those shows. If you know amiina’s beautiful and hushed music in any way at all, you’ll know they’re a special act already, but these recordings push the band to another level of gorgeousness.
Recorded live, they capture how it must have felt to see the stripped down amiina in such a unique venue, and although it’s only five tracks long it’s amongst the Icelanders’ best work to date.
Best Fit recently caught up with Maria and Edda from the band to discuss the project, Lee Hazelwood and the practicalities of touring remote places.
I ask Maria and Edda how the project came about: “Well, this is something we did about three years ago,” begins Maria, “a project here in Iceland that was based on songs for a ‘living room setting’. We wrote some songs for that and did some arrangements.”
So it wasn’t initially for playing in lighthouses? “No, it was for the Iceland IS festival, and as part of the project they sent us to play at a lighthouse,” she explains. “So, playing in that lighthouse and seeing the reaction of the people…it was such a magical experience.
“Lighthouses are special places, but also some of the people said the music was pushed through the ‘cone’ of the lighthouse and out to sea instead of light…so it was like trying to reach out to the sea with music instead of light.”
Out of that came the first shoots of The Lighthouse Project. “Basically we wanted to explore more, and we decided on a tour of Iceland with lighthouses the only destination,” says Sigfúsdóttir, who plays violin and accordion, amongst other instruments, “and although that was three years ago but we always had the urge to finish it and make something beautiful from it because it was such a unique experience.”
Although the recordings on the record are a fine representation of the shows at the lighthouses, did amiina find it difficult to re-create the feeling and experience of the shows three years down the line? Maria confirms: “Yes! It is totally different. Three years later – and four kids later! – I guess we had to try and recreate the intimacy; a lot of the focus was on that. Also, travelling to a place and playing for people in a very small, intimate place – we wanted to keep that feeling as a main goal.”
Was there a certain vibe that they wanted to rediscover when in the studio, and was there a set process to follow? “Yeah, like to have someone play or sing in your living room,” says Maria. “So all the recordings were live; no overdubs of any sort, keep the intimacy as much as we could, even though we were in the studio.”
There’s no variation in the quality of these tracks, but it’s clear that ‘Bíólagið’ and ‘Perth’ are two of the stand out tracks so I ask if there were some pieces of music that they knew would work better than others in a lighthouse setting: “That’s a good question,” ponders Maria. “I guess, I guess… well, we played several lighthouses and each one had different acoustics so some songs worked better in some lighthouses than others. But our favourite songs, or the ones we really cared for, are the ones that grew out of the project – and that’s also why we wanted to finish the project off, to release these songs that hadn’t been heard before.”
Edda reveals that the set-up and structure of the songs had to be re-thought due to the constraints of playing in a lighthouse: “Oh yes, it had to be quite different in some cases!”
Maria adds: “Of course when you think of a lighthouse you think of those tall buildings, and when we got to the buildings it wasn’t like that at all!
“ were these small buildings for the actual light,” explains Maria, “and attached to it was the main room where the machinery to run the light was, and also a big horn – because when the fog gets really thick you have these gigantic horns that produce sound instead of light.
“That’s actually where we played; playing on top of big machinery, it definitely had a big influence on us.”
Wasn’t that going to affect the instrumentation or the gig itself – was it not a distraction, all this machinery buzzing away? “In the beginning we were too romantic about the whole idea,” admits Maria. “It’d be all these big lighthouses and there’d be lots of reverb haha! But in the end it wasn’t quite like that – it was very charismatic!
“But also, one of the places – because it’s a very important navigation point – the easternmost point of Iceland, totally in the middle of nowhere they have to send out a Morse code signal, and we didn’t count on having this constant code over the whole concert – it was quite funny!”