MOKB in Iceland : Five Questions with Dr. Robert : Snorri Helgason

The Reykjavik Music Mess is a new indie music fest in the clubs of Iceland’s capitol featuring some of Iceland’s best acts as well as attracting some other European acts to the tiny island. When we first arrived in Iceland we weren’t sure what to expect. We knew that the sun stays out for 20-24 hours a day and that this time of year is treated as a party in and of itself as the doldrums of winter (4 hours of sunlight a day) were officially over. The people were all in great moods and the clubs/bars obliged by staying open until 4 am on the weekends.

When we first arrived, after an overnight flight, the excitement of being in a foreign land helped us overcome our lack of sleep. Our first impression of Reykjavik was how small it was. Not in a bad way, more that we were impressed that so much creative output comes from a country of only 320,000 people and only 180,000 in Reykjavik. We spent the day touring the natural wonders of Iceland’s geology, hot springs, boiling mud pits, geysers and tectonic plates. The natural beauty and the unusual sun patterns seem like the perfect palate to create whimsical, otherworldly music and the Reykjavik Music Mess (RMM) did not disappoint. Before we arrived I did some research checking out the bands that would play in the fest as most were unfamiliar to me. After a week of listening to Finnish noise rock, Icelandic punk and the rest I came across the artist that would prove to be the highlight of the festival and our trip in general, Snorri Helgason.

Snorri’s latest album Winter Sun took me totally by surprise and instantly became one of my top 5 records I’ve listened to all year. I was also pleasantly surprised at the level of hometown support Iceland gives its artists. On the IcelandAir flight from Denver, the in-flight entertainment included an all Icelandic music station which had Snorri’s first record I’m Gonna Put My Name on Your Door (which I had been frantically searching for prior to our departure). It turns out Snorri is two for two in making great albums. His English lyrics and bedroom, singer-songwriter style perfectly reflect the wonder that is Iceland. After seeing Snorri live I know that he won’t be foreign to American listeners for long and I’m honored to provide his North American debut here on MOKB.

MP3 : Snorri Helgason – Mockingbird

Dr. Robert: How/when did you decide music was what you were going to do with your life?

Snorri Helgason: I was 19 years old when I made the decision that I didn’t want to do anything else with my life than to become a musician. I’d always been very interested in music but I never studied anything or even learned how to play an instrument until I was about 17 years old. Then I snuck into my brother’s room and got his guitar out and found out with the help of the internet how to play the Come As You Are riff. Then I found an old Beatles chord book at home as well and studied that intensely. From then on it was just a matter of finding out what songs I liked and exactly which parts in the songs I liked the most and figure out the chord changes and melody movements in those songs. That’s how I taught myself how to write music.

DR: Your first album had a more upbeat feel when compared to Winter Sun, was this a reflection of the seasons, sunshine or lack of sunshine in the winter vs. summer?

SH: I think so yes. Winter Sun was definitely influenced by the Icelandic winter. It was recorded and partly written during two weeks in early January in 2010. If you have ever been in Iceland in early January you’ll know that the sun only shines for a few hours a day and the weather is usually very miserable. It can really have a huge effect on you not seeing enough sun and be stuck inside with nothing to do because you don´t want to go out in the shitty weather. But the idea behind the title of the album title is the fact that the music on the album is not that miserable. It’s actually quite bright and hopeful. That’s what inspired the title. The contrast of creating something warm in the cold of January.

The first album was completely different in every way possible. I used to be in a band here in Iceland called Sprengjuhöllin where I wrote and sang most of the songs. I was still in that band when we recorded my first solo album and so I think that influenced a lot of the writing on that album. They have more of a band feel than the ones on Winter Sun. I was also very much into power-pop and soul music at the time, I remember. And of course that album was recorded in May-June when everything is bright and sunny and the sun never sets here in Iceland. I’m sure that influenced the way the songs were performed and recorded but maybe not in such a direct way as in the Winter Sun sessions.

DR: How has Iceland affected your songwriting and music?

SH: I think being from Iceland and being born and raised in Reykjavík has influenced my entire personality, not just my music. But I guess that is the same for people from Des Moines or Tijuana. I can’t really compare it to anything else because I never really lived anywhere else except when I lived in London for a year and half in 2009-10. I think the one thing that has influenced my music the most about Iceland is just being a part of the Icelandic music scene. I think the scene here is a little more close-knit than, f.x. London or New York or big places like that. Here, everybody knows everybody and we all meet each other in parties or at the movies and at gigs and stuff like that. So if you need any help or advice or if you want to make something happen, everyone is just a phone call away and that makes things very easy. There is a lot of musical inbreeding of sorts that goes on as well because there are so few of us so a lot of the same people are in a lot of different bands. Take my band for example; Gummi, who plays bass in my band is also in Hjaltalín, Tilbury & Borko while Silla who sings and plays ukulele with me is in múm & Mr. Silla. I think this melting-pot effect has a lot to do with the high-level of quality of the eclectic music that has come out of Iceland in the past 15 years or so.

DR: Any plans for a new record? What have you been listening to that will influence the new record?

SH: Yes of course! I’m always working on new material. Me and my brother-from-another-mother, Gummi the bass player, just moved into new studio space and are just getting settled in. We plan on starting to record some cover songs and stuff like that to kind of get the feel of the studio when Gummi returns from his honeymoon in Majorca in mid-June. I think the new album will be recorded more as a kind of group effort with my band (Silla & Gummi) as apposed to Winter Sun which was recorded mostly by me & Sindri and then we got Silla, Gummi and Sóley to come in and do overdubs. I think the guys are going to be in from the start with this one.

I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff that is often (wrongfully) classified as “easy-listening”, Tony Bennett, Bobby Vinton, Chet Baker… stuff like that. And I’ve been studying the writers of the music behind those old-timey crooners: Hoagy Carmichael, Gershwin, Irving Berlin. I think that stuff has influenced a lot of the new material. The chord movements are a bit more complex and I’m singing in more of crooner type voice. I experimented with this style a bit on Winter Sun on songs like Boredom. I want to see how far I can go with that. Then I’ve also been listening to a lot of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry for the past few weeks. Man, that stuff is good. I’m also listening to a lot of old folk music, like I always do. Other stuff that always seems to be able to amaze and inspire me like Bob Dylan and The Beatles. You can’t fuck with that shit.

DR: What other bands from your lovely country should we be listening to?

SH: Oooh. There are too many to great bands here in Icleand right now. The stew is really cookin’ these days. Here’s a little list: Sin Fang, Sóley, Seabear, Nolo, Tilbury, Mr. Silla, Ólöf Arnalds, Ojba Rasta, Retro Stefson, Hjaltalín, Fm Belfast, Lay Low, Prins Póló…. that’s all I can think of right now….

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