Hórmónar is the feminist punk band we need right now
A solemn guitar plucking is accentuated by the occasional strum of the bass, a soft saxaphone, and gentle tapping of the drums. The story the guitar tells for a solid minute is that of nurturing yet sadness, weeping and tenderness. A lullaby is sung in a whispering voice about putting a child to sleep with Bob Dylan songs before imploring the infant to please “go to sleep, my love”. The intensity builds, the guitar starts wailing, the bass booms in, the drums join in full force, and the pleading turns into desperate and shrieking begging.
At Hórmónar's album release show earlier this year, guitar player Katrín Guðbjartsdóttir took to the mic after the song concluded and confided with the audience the perplexing and extreme demands that are put on single mothers like her today. “People expect me to complete my education, get a job, have an active social life, play and rehearse with my band, and be there 24/7 for my child,” she said. “There aren’t enough hours in the day, and a single person can only do so much. It’s not fair that these expectations are put on the mother while the father can go through life unfettered.”
One by one, the band members stepped forward in a non-hierarchical manner with a personal message after each song about their journey, about the importance of solidarity, prevalence of sexual violence, and more.
Hórmónar won the 2016 Músiktilraunir, Iceland’s annual battle of the bands competition, and has since then played extensively, appearing at most of Iceland’s major festivals, music venues, and punk spaces. The members have proclaimed that when the band was formed, they had collectively very little musical experience, and in the space of these two and a half years they’ve grown by leaps and bounds.
While their eponymous EP that was released two years ago contains half of the songs on debut album Nanananabúbú, the original entry sounds very dated and low-key compared to the powerhouse that is the newly-released album. The songs retain their endearing sincerity and the lyrics are unchanged, but all the dials are turned up to eleven to deliver a gut-punching capital-F Feminist punk ride with an emotive soundscape.
Before the #metoo social media revolution, Hórmónar had been writing and performing songs about female agency and liberty, contradicting desires, complicated love lives, and sexual violence. Since their formation, this five-piece band led by three women has been attempting to map the female identity in a patriarchal society.
24-year-old singer Brynhildur Karlsdóttir says the band’s first steps were taken at a gallop; that winning Músiktilraunir propelled the band to heights it wasn’t prepared for. Hórmónar had formed shortly before the competition and had only met to rehearse a handful of times. Brynhildur described in an earlier interview how she had no expectations of winning the final round.
“I felt like I was outside of my body and every passing second felt like an hour,” she said. “Then when the announcer said we had won, I completely lost my cool! I felt like I would vomit and shit myself at the same time.”
"I’m willing to go further than before in my personal convictions, in being provocative and daring while still remaining humble and true to myself"
Following that victory the band started performing all over, but afterwards they would often be accosted by newly earned fans who felt compelled to give them unsolicited advice. “They’d approach us after a show and give us tips on our stage performance,” Brynhildur says. “We’d be told how we had to release our album right away, release English translations of our songs and tour internationally, and so on.”
She says that they were still so new at performing that they took this advice seriously. “I think it made us more nervous about our next steps. We honestly believed these people when they said that if we didn’t do X, Y and Z that people would lose interest in us and that we’d become yesterday’s news.”
Asked about the demographic of these advice-givers, Brynhildur laughs and says it was only men with no experience of being in a band. “I’m not a mother, but it kind of felt like an older person telling you how to raise your kid.”
Brynhildur ponders whether this form of mansplaining was somehow easier for these men than being vulnerable and saying that they genuinely like something. “It always felt like they thought they knew more than they really did. In retrospect they were clearly interested in what we were doing, but it’s not nice as a performer to feel like people are telling you what to do. But I don’t want to be too judgemental, I think it’s their way of trying to give us a compliment.”
As for her personal growth since the band’s formation, Brynhildur says she’s learned to take herself and her agency more seriously. “I’m willing to go further than before in my personal convictions, in being provocative and daring while still remaining humble and true to myself. We as a band don’t have to prove ourselves as much and take our art more seriously. Of course I pretend to be cooler than I really am when I’m on stage, that’s where I vent and get my release. As a band, we felt like we were so rushed to get everything done in the beginning, but now we’ve grown accustomed to how the industry works, what’s expected of us, and how we can continue getting better on our own terms.”
In the most talked about standup show of the year, Nanette, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby talked earnestly about the trauma she had gone through when she was violently assaulted. In an interview with Vulture, she said she was “basically reliving trauma, quite significant trauma, every night” when she toured the show. While Brynhildur admits she hasn’t seen Nanette, she strongly identifies with Gadsby’s words.
Brynhildur divulged last year that songs “Ekki sleppa” and “Frumeynd” were respectively about destructive romantic relationships and the aftermath of sexual assault. “I haven’t been able to create any mental barriers or defences to make the songs any less impactful and about my personal life,” she says. “Every time we play, I’m experiencing my heart being broken all over again and the repercussions of sexual violence in front of the crowd. I don’t think about it when I’m performing, but afterwards… After the show I’m extremely vulnerable.”
Brynhildur collects her thoughts before continuing. “When you’re on stage, you, the band, and the audience are experiencing something together, you’re sharing the space and emotions, and you’re somehow more than the sum of your parts. But when you finish and step off the stage, you’re an individual again and it feels very lonely. We expend all of our energy on stage, and leave nothing behind, so when I’m done I’m shattered. I remember one show in particular that when everyone had finished clapping and saying they loved us that I thought to myself: ‘You don’t really love us!’
“Once I’ve stepped off the stage, I feel this incredible need for a real and personal connection, for intimacy, because I’ve been disconnected from everyone and am just alone at a bar. No matter how much someone tells me how great the show was, it doesn’t fill up the hole that’s left in me after the performance. I’m always hoping someone will hit on me after a show.”
Not a moment after those words have left her mouth does Brynhildur start cackling with laughter. “No, please don’t do that, that’s not what I want! Honestly, after every show, I’m feeling so vulnerable I go to my mom’s house to get real and genuine affection.”
Hórmónar’s debut album Nanananabúbú is named after an Icelandic expletive often used in a playful manner. “It’s something children say while sticking their tongue out while misbehaving,” Brynhildur explains. “It’s also about attitude and not giving a shit.”
This expletive is then married on the cover art with a middle finger in a field of colourful flowers. “It frames our artistic vision of being playful while giving the patriarchy the middle finger. It’s simple, beautiful, yet chock full of attitude. The songs on the album often have a catchy melody and chorus which hides grotesque lyrics. I want people to dance and have a good time, and then take a U-turn in the middle of the song when they realise that the lyrics are about something very serious or profound that may at times be difficult to listen to.”
Another theme of the album is the battle between desire and reality, and the hard-to-swallow compromise that ensues. “‘Glussi’ is a song that’s about how woke I am, how I only buy second-hand clothes from charity shops to not support third world slavery, how I don’t eat meat to protest animal cruelty, and how I live a car-free lifestyle to protect the environment,” Brynhildur says. “But at the same time, it’s a song about how hypocritical I am, because I’d probably not be this virtuous if nobody was watching me. Would I act this way if I couldn’t tick my woke boxes and feel like I’m a good person? The chorus goes: ‘On the inside I just want to be fucking rich and famous’. Maybe I just want to be the Britney Spears of Iceland. I don’t know what I really want, and how much is just virtue signalling.”
Brynhildur tries and gives up numerous times to continue this train of thought before saying: “What I want to do is to let other girls be able to take as much space as they want, to be foul mouthed and forthright. We don’t always have to deliver everything perfectly, we're allow to be imperfect.”
"Most girls I know didn’t start getting to know their bodies until later in life, and their first sexual experiences was mimicking the unhealthy sex they’ve seen in films.”
Brynhildur wrote the album lyrics herself and says they are all in one way or another about being raised as a woman in a patriarchal society. “It’s an investigation into my background and myself as a woman, to wonder how that relates to my identity. Nobody is free from the patriarchy, and we’re all tasked with the endless job of self reflection on what desires and needs are our own and which are implanted. I’m a feminist, and I’m constantly discovering new depths and layers of my identity and my relationship with men and women. Most of the programming is invisible and elusive, and it’s hard to point at because we’re all caught up in it.
“We’re all just showing people this ideal version of ourselves, but I think deep inside we’re all battling an imposter syndrome because we don’t believe we deserve the success and recognition we’ve received. That’s why we’re constantly out to prove our worth and how far we’ve come, but our identity is still tied to being a five-years-old that was teased, or a sixteen-year-old that was rejected. And being a woman, I also have to project this image of being a real woman, whatever that means. But nobody actually gets what they want so there’s this balancing act, this compromise that’s struck, but it’s never satisfactory, so you bluff.”
She takes a deep breath before saying that that’s what she's conveying on “Glussi”: “I’m a vegetarian. Does that mean I’m a good person, or just that I want recognition? I don’t know. And in ‘Kynsvelt’, I’m talking about needing my satisfaction, how you’ve gotten your orgasm so where’s mine? But if I’m really this horny, why don’t I just masturbate? Why do I spend so much time and energy looking for a man to satisfy me? There’s always a compromise, and for a woman sexual compromise is rarely satisfactory. Most girls I know didn’t start getting to know their bodies until later in life, and their first sexual experiences was mimicking the unhealthy sex they’ve seen in films.”
When asked what sort of films she’s alluding to, Brynhildur grins and says: “You know what kind of films I’m talking about.”
On the subject of feminism, Brynhildur says she’s very happy with the feminist icons that are bursting onto the musical scene in Iceland. “Bands like Reykjavíkurdætur and Cyber are absolutely smashing through the glass ceiling. These all-female or female-fronted outfits are stepping forward with difficult and uncomfortable stories, and I applaud them for the effort that they’ve had to put in to get their message through. There’s of course a backlash, with some artists releasing songs that just talk about booties, bitches and breasts. Sometimes it makes me less optimistic, but deep inside I believe society is progressing and that people are rebelling against the patriarchy.
“My generation is still raised with role models like Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls, who are all incredibly beautiful and sexy women that dance in an erotic fashion and are represent as commodities. It puts immense pressure on young girls to conform to these impossible beauty ideals.”
"I don’t think it’s taboo to express my sexuality, because it’s my informed choice to do so...women should be free to express themselves, to shake their butts when they want to regardless of where the original inspiration came from without being harassed or subject to violence.”
Those who have seen Hórmónar perform live know the band members are anything but shy to dance in a titillating manner on stage to their songs, with Brynhildur regularly grinding against the microphone stand while singing “Kynsvelt”. “It’s how the music moves me,” she says. “I don’t think it’s taboo to express my sexuality, because it’s my informed choice to do so. We’re all feminists and sexual beings in the band, and I realise where I learned this sexualised dance routine, but it’s performed with purpose; it forms a dissonance between what I’m doing with my body and the provocative and feminist singing I’m performing. Sometimes the viewer doesn’t know how they should feel, and I think that’s maybe perfectly okay. Also, I think women should be free to express themselves, to shake their butts when they want to regardless of where the original inspiration came from without being harassed or subject to violence.”
Brynhildur says her preferred platform for voicing these thoughts is through punk. “I think there are exhilarating things happening in the scene. There are bands like Tófa, Gróa, Dead Herring, and Kælan Mikla that are all kicking ass and exploring new frontiers. Punk in particular is a good avenue for these explorations because there’s no expectation that the performers have a background in music.
“Trying to be a woman in a patriarchal society is enough to drive you mad, and punk offers an avenue to express justified anger about an unfair world. It is, after all, a tool to rebel against something, to stand in opposition to something morally wrong. I think that’s why women are flocking to punk these days, because it’s a scene that’s very inviting towards outsiders, it’s very accessible, and it encourages people to express their inner rage through explosiveness and screams without being violent towards others. That’s at least how I connect to punk.”