What's in the ice up there? Ásgeir is a 21 year old musician from Iceland whose carefully crafted pop songs and beguiling voice have him poised to be the next in the impressive series of breakout artists from that island nation. In 2012 his first release went on to be the best selling Icelandic debut ever. The English version, In the Silence, was released last fall.
As I understand it, most of the lyrics for your songs were originally written by your father. That seems like an amazing kind of collaboration, but not one that every young musician would think of doing. Why did you ask your father to be your lyricist and what does he think about it?
Most of the lyrics that I had originally written for the songs were in some kind of a made up language that sounded like English, and when we decided to record a whole album and release it in Iceland we thought it would be a good idea to have the lyrics in Icelandic. The first name that came to mind was my dad because he has been writing poetry ever since I remember myself and he has written many lyrics for other musicians in Iceland, mostly my brother’s band Hjalmar. We tried one song with my dad’s lyrics and it fitted really well to the music so we kept doing the same process with most of the songs on the album. He thinks it’s great to be involved in this and this is sort of just what he does now a days, writing poetry and stories, he’s retired from teaching so most of his time goes in to that.
For In the Silence, American musician John Grant helped you translate the original Icelandic lyrics from your debut, Dýrð í dauðaþögn, into English. Translation is an art in itself, but were you concerned that some nuances would get lost or that you wouldn’t be able to connect to the songs in the same way when performing them? How did you feel about this process?
I guess it crossed my mind but I wasn’t really thinking about that, a lot of new things happening in my life at that time, and everything was happening really fast so I don’t know if that was the main thing that concerned me. But I believed in the people I was working with so I knew it would turn out well. When we got back to the idea of doing an English version of the album, someone suggested John Grant since he was living in Iceland at that time and still is. We thought it was a great idea, we sent him an email, he also liked the idea so we met up and shortly after that John had started working. He did great work and successfully made the lyrics as poetic as they were in Icelandic. Also when he was with us in the studio when we were recording he helped me with the pronunciation and other things, and it was really great to work with him and get to know him better. He’s a really nice guy.
You grew up in quite a small town, however you also grew up in the Internet age, so despite being physically isolated I imagine you were at the same time completely connected. As a teenager, what kind of music were you listening to or seeking out? Did local or traditional music play much of a role in your musical growth?
I listened to a lot of Icelandic music growing up and as a teenager, singer songwriters such as Mugison, KK, Lay Low, Pétur Ben.. acoustic guitar based and folky. Also some singer songwriters from across seas such as The tallest man on earth, Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens, Elliot Smith, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan… But before that I mostly just listened to rock music like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Audioslave, Radiohead, Mastodon, Meshuggah, Tool, Primus…
Some of your songs, I’m thinking of Torrent and King and Cross, have odd time signatures or additive rhythmic patterns. The King and Cross beat had me counting and clapping along to figure it out. Where did these more intricate rhythms come from? Is it simply the way you hear it when you’re first writing or is it kind of like a compositional game?
It’s a mixture of both I think, at some point of time I started to experiment with odd time signatures and really got interested in that and in the end when I had been doing it for some time it almost became more natural for me to play in 7/8 or 5/8 or something instead of playing the basic 4/4 or 3/4 so the songs I was writing became really influenced by that. Also some music that I had been listening to such as Meshuggah or Tool…
In your music, I hear a kind of tension between a sense of intimacy on the one hand and an expansiveness and epic scale on the other. Do you think about it in those terms and how do you decide what kind of arrangement and production a song should have?
I don’t really think about it that way but it makes sense. I try to not think to much about how a song should be or sound, but usually when I’m writing a song, I can sort of hear how the basic arrangement should be, like the song just tells you what it needs.
Elsewhere you’ve mentioned that apart from music you were very serious about track and field. In fact, word on the street is you know your way around a javelin and have even set some national records in Iceland! How did you decide to devote yourself to music instead of sports and, for you, is there a connection between the two?
When I was growing up, from when I was 7 years old, music and sports were always equally important to me. But when I was 14 I started to compete in javelin throwing in a serious way and it sort of was my life and what I wanted to pursue. But music was always as important to me and I knew I would never give up on that either, and when I was 18 I got really injured and had to stop competing so I probably started focusing more on my own music then. But I guess you could find some connection between both like being disciplined and always wanting to better yourself in what you’re doing.
Your 2012 debut album, Dýrð í dauðaþögn, was the best selling debut for an Icelandic artist ever and it also received numerous awards. Now you’re on a world tour in support of an upcoming worldwide release. That’s a lot to happen in a short amount of time! I should also mention that you’re 21. Is it overwhelming at times? How do you cope?
It doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you just don’t let it be, just by thinking about things differently can take you a long way getting rid of stress and things connected. I try to just stay on the ground whatever happens. So most of the time it’s really easy to cope with.
OK, a quick word association game. When I say "Taipei", you say…?
You say hello! hello, hello, When I say Taipei you say hello.
Thank you, Ásgeir! See you soon!