Following our brief introduction to Ásgeir Trausti’s music in the luistertip of a couple of weeks ago (see here), we now get to discover a little about what’s been happening in his world recently.
Ásgeir is a busy individual, so we were very happy when he agreed to take the time to chat to Nordic Vibes. He was speaking from a studio in London where he had some down-time, in between his bout of dates supporting fellow Icelanders Of Monsters and Men in Europe.
His first gigs of this year were in the Netherlands – way back in the wintery days of January – and next week he’ll be back here again. Sandwiched between big stadium dates and festivals (he played Roskilde this last weekend), his upcoming show at Bitterzoet, Amsterdam is a comparatively small, intimate gig. ‘I’ve been quite busy so far this year, I don’t quite recall where I’ve been playing or what’s upcoming. So, it’s a small venue?’ he asks. ‘For that gig, and the rest of the tour, I’ll have a full band with me, whereas there’s only been three of us supporting OMAM.’ Ah yes, well I think it might be a bit of a squeeze to get everyone on the stage, thinking back to the show in Stadsschouwburg at Eurosonic when I was somewhat surprised by the number of fellow musicians in his band.
Acoustic or full band?
In a live setting, Ásgeir creates a big sound but at the same time, it is delicate. His folk melodies are interwoven with an ambient electronic thread, that suits well to stripped-down acoustic sessions but which sound so much fuller with the entire band. It is always a quandary though – loud or quiet, acoustic or full band? ‘I prefer the full band because it represents the music more fully than just acoustic,’ comments Ásgeir. ‘There are lots of sounds on the album, big sounds – I like creating this in a live setting.’ It is in the acoustic sessions though, that his classical guitar training is apparent and it is not surprising to hear that he is inspired by fellow singer-songwriters – not only Bon Iver, but also the picking style of The Tallest Man on Earth.
Life and loves
Iceland has a magic that captures the hearts of anyone who has set foot on its lava-clad ground. To Icelanders, that connection to the mystical landscape – their native home – must be magnified by an unfathomable number (almost as unfathomable as the number of musicians that are spawned from its treeless terrain). Not surprising then that Ásgeir has strong links to where he grew up. ‘I come from a little town in the northwest of Iceland, Laugarbakki’ (cue my attempts at pronouncing this in my best Icelandic and apparently I don’t do so bad!). ‘Growing up, I was pretty into sports, and I’ve always liked to be creative – drawing and painting, and of course there is my music.’
He comes from a musical family – liking to mix things up right from the start, at around the same time as he first picked up the classical guitar at age 7, he also bought his first album (Nevermind by Nirvana) – and he is still surrounded by a number of talented compatriots. Fast forward to the beginning of 2012 when, after writing demos for a year, he ended up in Reykjavik meeting with a producer – which resulted in his award-winning album Dýrð í dauðaþögn – and also saw him making the move to the big city. Considering the number of countries he has been touring in since the success of his record, I ask if he might ever consider moving away (meaning to live overseas). ‘Yeah, I’d like to move to the country one day.’ Which country? ‘Oh, perhaps somewhere in the north of Iceland. Not for a long while yet while though!’
Death – not so much
So with this wholehearted sense of ‘home’ being Iceland, it surprises me that he should like to veer away from his lyrical mother tongue. (He has an English version of his album due out soon.) True, the songs may not be understood by anyone outside Iceland or those not particularly au fait with grappling with the Icelandic language but we can still give our own meaning to the music – we can feel it, enjoy it. His keening vocals, emotional and beseeching – maybe he is luring us with his enchanting voice and music like a (male-version) of a Greek mythological Siren, enticing us to be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of his island. Maybe this is where the translation of Dýrð í dauðaþögn comes in to full force: it can literally be translated either as ‘Glory in the silence of death’ or ‘Glory in dead silence’ (it actually means the latter by the way). So is that what the album is about? Death? Has it (or you) got dark undercurrents? Ásgeir laughs, ‘No. I’m generally a happy person. Death – not so much.’
‘It was always my intention to start working on an English version of the album as soon as the Icelandic one was done, I just didn’t know how to go about it.’ Already having collaborated on the Icelandic lyrics with his father, as well as his fellow band member and long-time collaborator Julius Róbertsson, it was not long before serendipity took over and someone who has a particular knack of picking up languages came into the picture. ‘The American musician John Grant has been living in Iceland for a couple of years and he is crazy good at learning languages – I think he knows about seven different ones at this stage – and his Icelandic is great already. So I just contacted him to see if he wanted to get involved and he was up for it. We just gave him the Icelandic lyrics and he took it from there.’ Is it his take on the album, so his vision but set to your music? ‘The English album is actually very much linked to the lyrics of the Icelandic songs. I’m feeling really good about the translation.’
As much as I love John Grant’s music, I am really quite reassured to know this but I wondered if it was kind-of strange for Ásgeir to get his head around the new songs and whether he will be singing in Icelandic or English for his upcoming gigs. ‘Once we had our practice sessions, the English songs came quite easily to me. At home, we will always sing in Icelandic, it is only overseas that we will play the English songs. I think it is necessary to reach a wider audience. We already had our first run with them in May when we supported John Grant in the UK and they had a great reception.’
As Ásgeir sings in the translation of the last track of the album (‘On That Day’), ‘You don’t get to call the shots that way’, I have to agree. Sing in Icelandic or English, it’s your call (preferably a bit of both though, please?). Either way, I trust you. And I trust the performance will be as show-stopping as always. I realise now that perhaps I was missing out on something of the essence of the original album by not understanding the meaning of the lyrics. My love for the poetry of the Icelandic songs can now also sit happily alongside the equally poetic English turn of phrase that Grant has crafted. I’ve fallen in love all over again.
And with that, we end our conversation with some random serendipitous discussions: of a festival that I dream of putting on in the west of Ireland (linking with the west of Iceland) one day, to which I get a quick ‘I’ll play it’ before I even think about asking (perhaps it will be only in my dreams, but ‘Ásgeir in Achill’ does have a nice ring to it!); of another dream that came true for me when I played on-stage with Cheek Mountain Thief and, it turns out, with one of Ásgeir’s close friends who is actually in the band; and of any Icelandic bands tips that he might like to share – his suggestions for fans of Nordic Vibes to check out include Retro Stefson, Mugison and Hjálmar. We finish up with me telling him that the Retro Stefson gig was the most crazy dancing gig I’ve ever been to in Amsterdam. Maybe his gig next week will also include some crazy dancing? 😉
The English album will be called In the Silence and is to be released worldwide in the autumn on One Little Indian Records. The (UK) debut single will be ‘King and Cross’ (originally ‘Lindermal’), due out in August, and is currently available on Soundcloud.