A Truly Prodigal Talent
I thought I was quite a busy person until I met Jófríður Ákadóttir. It turns out I more closely resemble a three-toed sloth with a weed problem.
I also thought I was quite well travelled, maybe even a little talented. Those things aren’t true either, not by comparison anyway. I’d really hate Jófríður if her music wasn’t so great and her company not completely charming, even when hungover. In fact, I think the hangover is one of the few things we have in common when we meet, but mine is a result of watching awesome bands all week, rather than playing in them.
Ákadóttir has been releasing music since she was fourteen years old, first with her twin sister Ásthildur as mesmerising indie folk duo Pascal Pinon, then in electronic trio Samaris, then the sporadic but brilliant collective GANGLY, then a secret project I’m not allowed to write about but was probably the best thing I saw at the entire Iceland Airwaves festival, and now solo under the name JFDR. She is still only 22.
Though little of it is available for public consumption at the moment, what I’ve heard of her solo work, and the many shows I catch of hers at Airwaves this year, leave me confident in saying that it’s her best work yet. This is really saying something, given she’s been a huge part of a lot of the most important music Iceland has produced in the last decade. Björk even named Ákadóttir as one her inspirations in a recent Guardian interview saying, "I got obsessed with her band Samaris a few years ago and then it was amazing to see her do her own stuff. She’s surrounded herself with a really authentic community of friends."
I meet Ákadóttir in a Reykjavík cafe on the penultimate day of gruelling but wonderful-as-ever Airwaves festival, in one of the brief moments when she isn’t playing a show. I’m instantly stuck by how friendly and forthcoming she is in conversation, even if she readily admits her mind is elsewhere.
Are you living in Reykjavík at the moment?
Kind of. I was flirting with the idea of going to London, but I think I’m going to go to New York. I always come back here. I’ve been trying to go away, but I just don’t know where to, so I never move all my things to one place. This is my starting point, this is where my stuff is. Is that where your home is? That’s kind of fucked up. But I don’t have a bed, even at my Mum’s house I have to stay on the sofa. So it’s not really my home here, is it? Maybe it is, I don’t know. I have home complex issues. But I did grow up here. I had an apartment until July 2015, so it’s been almost a year and a half since I fucked off.
When did you start playing music?
We started doing music professionally when I was 14 or so, that’s when we started Pascal Pinon, me and my twin sister Ásthildur. We had been doing stuff together on Garageband - we made two albums actually, they were hilarious, completely all over the place. It started because we went on this hike for three days when we were 11 years old with my Mum and her friends. Ásthildur and I were so bored - there was nothing to do, just walk around and look at nature being lovely and all that. So we started a radio station of us singing and improvising songs, talking in ‘radio voices’. We would make up a band name and some tunes, and when we came home to Reykjavík, we picked it up where we left off and recorded a few of the songs. So maybe that’s one starting point. The recordings exist somewhere, on an old computer. Some of it’s really good, most of it’s… really weird. I can’t even listen to the first Pascal Pinon album, I just can’t.
When we started the band there was this little bit of hype around it here in Reykjavík, and we wanted to record an album. There were two studios that also had labels attached who wanted to do it. But our Dad was influential in the sense that he wanted us to do everything ourselves. He said he would lend us his equipment, and he’d talk to our aunt and we could go to her house in the middle of nowhere and set up a little recording space. He said ‘you guys should just record the music that you play live’. I don’t even know why we decided to do that, because today it’s so obvious that you should not do that. We had no idea how anything worked. I had never recorded, and he wasn’t there because he had to go on tour. He just said to go anyway and do it without him. He wrote these little instructions on the sound card; put this in here, do this, put that there, hit record. We didn’t even use headphones when we were making those first albums. We didn’t know the purpose of them. We did one take of everything, and if there was a take that was better we would just delete the other one, because why would we keep it when we already had a better one? My dad was listening to it like, ‘ugh’. And then he helped us mix it.
What’s his musical background?
He’s a composer. Both our parents were in music school for many years, so we have that background. It ended up OK, we got signed with the label we still work with, and people actually bought the album. It’s a really healthy thing to do as a young person of 14, not to go straight in to a studio with an older person who's telling you what to do and how to do it, so you never actually learn. We always had that DIY attitude. We ended up self releasing it as well. We were 15 years old walking around Reykjavík record stores, sending invoices, trying to keep track of everything. We didn’t know what we were doing but we just did it anyway. And it kind of worked. Or maybe it didn’t work. It’s just what it is, but it happened, and we learned so much.
"The only way to learn in this world is by doing; do it by yourself, or do it with other people, just never get lazy."
We also did that with Samaris. We did all of the recordings ourselves. Obviously it’s more electronic, so it wasn't necessary to have nice equipment at the start because we just needed to record vocals and clarinet and then put shit loads of effects on everything. Þórður mixed it all himself - we did that for the first two EPs. And why not, you know? It was so easy. I don’t know, things were different back then. Now everybody’s like, ‘who are you going to work with for your next album, somebody amazing?’. But it’s also really good to work with other people, you learn so much from that too. The only way to learn in this world is by doing; do it by yourself, or do it with other people, just never get lazy. If you get lazy and let people do everything for you, that’s when you start losing something.
What instrument did you start out on?
Clarinet was first, I studied that for way too long. My entire childhood and teenage years were heavy on classical clarinet. I had a few good spins on it, but I also had times where I just didn’t want to do it, and wanted to quit. But I was stubborn, I was like, ‘I’m going to finish this because I’ve spent so much time on it’, and I'm really glad I did because I didn’t just learn to play the clarinet, I learnt so much about performance and expression. I had good teacher who was aware that I wasn’t necessarily going to become a clarinet player, but I think he knew that I was always going to be doing music. He really taught me a lot that I didn’t realise until later, a lot about singing and what sets something apart. In classical studies you’re always playing somebody else’s music, something that has been played a hundred thousand times by people throughout history. So you have to find what it is that you’re trying to say. Why would people enjoy listening to you, and not somebody else? It’s a combination of playing something perfectly - which is frustrating and annoying - and putting feeling and expression in to something and giving it life. You have to do that when you sing too, you can’t just sing the thing. People sing because they have their own voice, but they also have their own phrasing and expression. It’s the same with a classical instrument like a clarinet. It’s harder to hear the difference between players because it’s the same instrument, but there’s such a difference in the way that people express the music and mood. It’s huge, and really fascinating, and healthy to think about that.
Were you ever tempted to go the classical route?
I don’t know, it’s a very steep hill and I’m not sure I have the passion or stamina. I’ve done pieces for solo clarinet, and clarinet choirs I was in. I’ve also written for a trio of clarinet, flute and bassoon - I love that combo. I’ve also written for piano, my sisters, both of them, they play piano and they asked me to write for them. It’s fun, I should do more of that sheet music stuff. It’s nerdy, and nice. But since I started using Ableton and producing I’ve kind of stopped doing sheet music.
When you started Pascal Pinon, was there any discussion about what kind of form it would take?
None. It just… was. Imagine you’re this shy little 14 year old girl. I played guitar, my parents got me one for Christmas, and I would learn it by writing songs. I couldn’t play anything but chords. It was all super cute and sweet. And I like that stuff, I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake at the time. But I was also listening to James Blunt and Avril Lavigne, horrible music.
But when you’re that young, all music is the same - there isn’t a lot of difference between James Blunt and Nick Drake to a kid.
Exactly, it just moves you. You don’t hear the… shit. But I'm happy that my parents never tried to influence my music taste. Even my Dad, who’s a hardcore avant garde contemporary composer, would never ‘say listen to this, don’t listen to that’. I think it would have killed my enthusiasm for music if it became something other than something for myself.
What does the music scene in Reykjavík look like to two fourteen-year-old girls with a self produced album?
It was a fun time, very different to what it is today. There was a kind of hippy culture going on. MySpace was still happening, people were still buying CDs, and Reykjavík hadn’t exploded into the tourist bubble that it is now. It was more homegrown, more kooky. There were a couple of different venues that we would play, small festivals that would happen, and there was always something happening in weird places where there are now fancy cafes, all these shitty bars that are now really nice like Húrra, they were like that too. I’m not saying that it was better - I’m against nostalgia, there’s always good and bad - but it was a good time because you could reach an audience through MySpace but you could also reach them by just walking into a record store and playing shows and selling your record. It was very lively, even if we played so many shows where people just didn’t give a fuck.
How does that feel, to a fourteen-year-old?
Horrible! There is this really funny video I found online of when we played Airwaves for the first time. We were in this tent outside the festival where they had a meet and greet for opening night. It was really loud, and then a guy comes up to interview us afterwards and I go, ‘I thought it was HORRIBLE!’. He asked ‘Why? People are drinking beer, enjoying themselves…’ and I was like, ‘I know, they should just listen and be quiet!’. I was raging about it. But I think it’s just something you have to go through. People suck, sometimes. They can be totally arrogant like that. I think it’s good that we powered through. Sometimes we’d come home after a great gig and be really happy, but most of the time we would have this ‘ugh’ feeling, a little bit of depression. But we still did it, I don’t know why, it’s not like we were getting paid. But I'm also so happy that we did it at that specific time, because it didn’t matter so much. We were at school - not even high school, elementary school.
Did you notice a moment when people came to see you rather than you just playing for people who were there?
It was a slow transition. We also started going abroad, where people were a lot more polite.
Even in London? Audiences are horrible in London.
I’m going there soon, with Pascal Pinon. It’s been kind of up and down recently. My sister has been very ill. Trying to do this album has been a headache and a learning curve for me - not in terms of music, just… human beings, and how to help people who don’t want to help themselves. Also, how do you be a band when that’s the case? So, she cancelled on the tour, she’s not coming anymore. We’re going to do something a little bit different. We’ll have two friends coming over who are lovely wonderful musicians, we’ll play a little bit of their music, a little bit of my solo music and some new Pascal Pinon songs. We have no expectations. Earlier this week, a week before the tour starts, my sister cancelled. I haven’t had the headspace to organise anything this week. I need to start doing that. Today. But this is good, it’s getting my brain going. Talking, remembering…
How soon after Pascal Pinon did your other projects start? I counted five things you’re currently involved in; Pascal Pinon, Samaris, Gangly, JFDR and [the secret band we can’t talk about]. Have I missed anything out?
No, I mean, I sing with a bunch of different people but, that’s five, that’s enough. So Samaris started in 2011. Áslaug, who’s our clarinet player, and I were studying together. We met when I was 13, she was 14. We sat down in a waiting room and she said, ‘hey, do you want to hear a story?’ and I was like ‘yeah, I really want to!’. It was such a good opener. We didn’t live in the same neighbourhood but we were in the same music school, so once a week we would see each other and chat. Really slowly we just became best friends, and we’ve done everything together since then. We wanted to make electronic music, wear costumes, and we wanted to dance. We approached a producer duo from her Neighbourhood called Bypass - Áslaug was really good friends with one of them. So were were like, ‘we have these ideas, do you want to work together?’, and he laughed at us. He was like ‘no way, I don’t want to do anything with you’. He was just shy, and didn’t really believe in it. Maybe it did sound really wonky, like we weren’t talking it seriously, I don’t know. But the other guy in that duo was Þórður, who is the producer in Samaris now. We asked him just in the hallway in our school, just ‘listen, do you want to try meeting up and being in band together?’, and he was like ‘yeah, I’ve been thinking about that too, I want to try doing something with people, something with live elements’. So a few nights later we met up at his music school and made a track “Hljóma Þú”, which is the first one on the first EP. It just worked. It was weird.
You had a meeting to decide what the band would be like. So totally the opposite to how Pascal Pinon started.
Totally. We made references, like Fever Ray, and we loved James Blake and Portishead… all these things that people picked up on, we deliberately went and started talking about them. It’s a clever way to do things. Maybe that’s also why it worked; we talked about where we wanted it to go, but it was just for reference, it didn’t have to be that way. It just worked.
So when you would write songs, would you just give them to whichever project that was the most comfortable fit?
Samaris is 100% collaborative. I look at Pascal Pinon as like an intro to my solo stuff, which hasn’t really started. The majority of those songs are my songs. I definitely didn’t have a say in the production; my sister is a very serious producer, no reverb, no nothing, she likes to do it cold as shit. Everything’s super minimal and simple. But those are my songs. Samaris and Pascal Pinon are bands; it’s diplomatic, everyone has a say and you have to ask people about things before you go ahead and do them. And I was fine with that, it’s a support thing, you stand together and fall together, when things go wrong you’re there for each other and when you can’t handle something you can hand it over. It’s nice, the dynamic. But it can also go wrong, putting more of the workload on one person than another, that kind of thing.
"It’s not about doing it perfectly, its about feeling."
I had never thought about solo music until I met Shahzad Ismaily who produced my solo record. He and I met here in Iceland. There was a party at my house, and everybody had been jamming on instruments in the middle of the night, loads of Icelandic musicians and some from abroad. People were starting to leave, but as it was my house I was just stood there. I was like ‘can I play you a song?’. I’d just written it a few days ago, I plugged in my keyboard and played it to him and he was like, ‘do you want to come over to my studio tomorrow night and record that’? I was like ‘yeah sure, let’s do it - when?’, and he said ‘midnight’. I didn’t have his number or his email, I hardly knew him. He would just knock on my door and hope that I was home, so old school. We met on the street and just went to his studio and recorded it. That song, “White Sand”, that version, we just released a few days ago. It’s that recording, the one that we made that night. I was like, ‘don’t you want to do that again? I made a few mistakes…’ and he said ‘no, that’s perfect’. I was very like, ‘but, but… it’s not perfect!’, and that was quite a lesson for me, learning how to let go. It wasn’t perfect and it doesn’t have to be. It’s such a destructive thing when you get stuck in that loop. Nobody gives a fuck, it’s not about doing it perfectly, its about feeling. So much of my favourite music, like Grouper, is not perfect. It’s not supposed to be, and I love the mistakes. Why can I love somebody else’s mistakes and not mine? It doesn’t make any sense. That was 2014, and we kept on meeting each other. I was like, ‘this should be a Pascal Pinon song’, but Shahzad was like ‘I think you should go solo, man’. It was a lot to take in. I’ve never thought about it. I felt bad for leaving my sister, and thought the people that we work with might feel left out, but I knew it was right and that it had to happen. That’s also why it took so long. When I started doing this project it was a secret. I didn’t know how to approach it, or how to communicate it with other people. But it’s the best thing that’s happened to me, it’s so good. I can do so many things that nobody else would want to do with me. I can have a different relationship wth people, and a different relationship with my songs. I can have a set up where I play live with certain people and it’s its own thing, and I can play with a different set of people where it’s a completely different arrangement but the same songs, and it’s its own sound. That’s so rewarding. It’s like you made a picture and then it’s got different colours. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, to be doing this right now.
And now, when a song comes to you, is it easy to know where it will sit, or which project will get it?
I don’t know, it’s been a really long time since I’ve written any songs. I’ve been really busy. But I did write a whole other album, after this one. And I went and recorded it. So there’s that too. I think I’ll turn it in to an EP, because it’s more conceptual. That makes sense to me. So I’m going to put this album out of mine and then do an EP shortly after. And then probably go in and record a totally different one. I don’t know, that’s far away, probably a year from now.
Are there enough hours in the day for all this? Aren’t you constantly exhausted?
Yeah. It happens quickly though. I don’t sit on songs for days weeks and months… maybe a day. I’ll do one song, and be like, ‘that’s done, go think about something else’. I travel a lot, and that is exhausting, but it can also be a rush, like you have to keep on going. I kind of got addicted to it. I started doing that when I had a really bad break up here in Iceland. I lived at my parents house and I didn’t want to do that anymore, but I didn’t want to get a different place and I didn’t know where to go. There was this period where I would just go for the sake of going. I got stuck in that loop, and I’m still in it. I'm still just… gone. But I’d also be touring a lot with Samaris at the same time. I would do longer stays in different places; I went to Ireland a lot for writing, and Berlin, and spent a lot of time in London when I had a boyfriend there but I never moved there really because it just didn’t feel right.
I started doing all this not really coming from a very good place .What happens to me when I actually get a month in the same place, maybe even a week, is that I just go numb, I can’t do anything. Maybe everyone has this, these mini waves of depression where you really can’t do anything, but it’s definitely because I postpone doing stuff, and when I get in a new room, I feel like I’m existing, like this is being. Writing is a good way to deal with that, but sometimes you go numb, you can’t even write. That’s happened to me now a few times over the last two years. It’s why I hated Iceland for a long time, I come here and I’m like, ‘fuck, I still have to deal with that’. That break up, it took me a year to get over it. I started hating this place just for that reason. But now I know when it’s going to happen, I see the pattern. I had this moment when I was in New York and I could see that it was going to happen and I just prepared for it. I had a room where I could actually close the door - and that’s so tiring, when you don’t have a room where you can close the door and rest and just say ‘nobody is going to come in here today’. When you’re travelling or touring you have to be with people all the time, talking, moving around. Or maybe you don’t know where you’re staying so you’re sitting in a cafe or whatever, and you can't close the door, the only time you are alone is when you're in the bathroom. We were recording an album too so I didn’t have any ‘me’ time, I was just super busy, running that operation. And then everyone left, and I was alone, and I shut the door and it took me five days before I felt normal again. I was more or less just in that room, not able to do anything. I couldn’t write emails, respond to Facebook messages, it was hard to go out and buy food… gradually I got out of it, and I had good friends around, great friends. But I knew it was going to happen so, I just allowed it to. It’s taken a really long time to get the self awareness, to figure that out. And it can’t continue this way. I can’t just keep doing this thing where I build up and then I crash. But its good to talk about it. I’ve never actually talked about it before. It’s good to be hungover, and talk fast, and throw up on you. I should maybe talk to someone else about it, but it’s also good to be in that situation and notice these things about yourself. It’s good, it’s good.
It’s good that you can see those periods coming and manoeuvre around them though.
Yeah, definitely. I think I notice it when I’m on top of my life. When I have a routine. Because I usually live a zero routine lifestyle. The great discovery was that it does just go away. You allow it to be what it is. And you don’t necessarily fight it, you just let it pass. And that works, and that’s crazy. I think I’ve just got to slow down a bit, things are really fast. Like, the other day, I lost my laptop, and I couldn’t get it for another two weeks because I had to get a flight in the morning and I needed to go to a police station and file a report. So I was two weeks without a laptop, which has never happened to me. On that same trip, I missed a flight for the first time ever. So what is life trying to tell me right now, with these little things? That I have to slow down. But because of that I had no laptop, I had two weeks where I had to just chill, make people coffee…
It’s great when situations you expect would be the end of the world turn out okay.
It’s so good. I was in a lucky situation where I could just stay in this free accommodation an extra couple of nights. And this was right before Airwaves, so I really needed that. I think if I hadn’t had that…
Can I ask you about Gangly? I think that’s the only project, apart from the secret one, that we’ve not touched on.
Well Sindri and Úlfur contacted me because they had written the song “Fuck With Someone Else” and they wanted someone to sing. So I came in, listened to it, wrote down some words for the verse and recorded it. It was fun. I can’t remember us ever having a conversation saying ‘this is a band’, but it happened and we just kind of went for it. I really loved it. It took us a year or something to finish that track because we were just doing it for ourselves. But now we’ve got around 15 songs. We’ve just finished one which I think is going to come out this year, hopefully. It’s always been a side project, something I enjoy doing, a place where I would put my ‘pop’ songs, and it’s fun for me to do that, a real challenge. But we work slow.
It seems like it’s good for you to have one thing that goes slowly.
Exactly. We've got good people working with us, at the label, and management. I don’t really do much. Just sing, write songs, co-produce.
Not much, really!?
The interesting thing about Gangly for me is we’re three people who all have the same role in their own projects as main songwriter and leader of a band. We can all see it from that perspective, and so we're all shy of being the band leader because we don’t want to step on each other’s toes. For me, that’s what I need, just to be passive, not really decision making or taking action, but still there when they need me and enjoying myself. It’s interesting to be working with people who are all like that rather than a situation where this guy’s more of a player, this guy’s more of a writer, that kind of dynamic. It’s like a studio/songwriter/collective… something. It’s fun. It’s funny to play that live, I feel like we’re not very ambitious with the live show, but the visuals are beautiful.
The live show certainly doesn’t feel like just three producers.
Well, we’re writers, we’re not really producers. We sing. We could have a band and lots of equipment, but it wouldn’t really benefit anyone. I saw this band aYia and I was really inspired by them, they do everything live and it’s all so complicated. They nerd out about the production, definitely, but also about the performance and their songwriting. It’s so beautiful and so exciting to watch. Maybe we should do more of that in Gangly. But I probably don’t have the time.