Sadly the music publication MTV Iggy closed down late last year — and took all of the writers’ work with it. So that my articles may live on, I am going to publish a few of them here. Beginning with this profile of Icelandic artist, Uni Stefson from July 2014.
Uni Stefson Finds Inspiration in the Icelandic Landscape
For his first solo outing, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson has taken quite a departure from the frantic bouncy electropop and infectious hooks of Retro Stefson, the band he has fronted for eight years. Performing as Uni Stefson, his new release, titled Enginn Grætur (“Nobody Cries”) is an evocative, slowly building composition, built around a 19th century poem and backed by an emotive string arrangement by Viktor Orri Árnason.
Stefánsson first learned the poem, Stökur (“Quatrains”), when he performed it, set to a different composition, with his high school choir. “Eight years later”, he says, “I was in Berlin over the winter, writing music for the new Retro Stefson album. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I spent days, weeks by myself so when I had to do the vocals I couldn’t use my voice, I felt I had nothing to say so, out of frustration, I took up the guitar and started playing random chords and sung a melody to this poem.”
The poem’s author was Jónas Hallgrímsson, romantic, naturalist and advocate of Icelandic independence. Hallgrímsson wrote the poem during his last year of life while living in Copenhagen and suffering from a great depression. “He’s one of the great Icelandic poets”. Says Stefánsson. “It is said that if his mother tongue would have been English, he would have been one of the most famous in the world.” That’s not to say that Enginn Grætur is yet another Icelandic landscape-inspired cliché. “It’s more a personal poem I could relate to rather than another ode to the Icelandic nature”. He says. “You can get sick of that. People who look at Iceland from the outside are a little obsessed with the Icelandic musicians being inspired by the nature, but I think Icelandic musicians are just inspired by each other.”
Indeed, Stefánsson credits the size of the Icelandic music scene for fostering the environment in which musicians can experiment more freely than perhaps they could in bigger cities. The downtown neighborhood of 101 Reykjavík, where he estimates 90 percent of Icelandic musicians live, is “kind of like a village. That’s what makes Icelandic music special. It’s totally different to other cities.” Moreover, he says, “If I was in a band in Central Europe, I would have to go to an expensive studio. I would have to write something that sells. I would have in the back of my mind that I have to write a hit song that will get played on the radio. In Iceland, you never earn any money from music, so you can forget about that from the get go and just write a good song that you want to hear yourself.”
Still, while Enginn Grætur is an interesting contrast to the more global sounds of Retro Stefson, Stefánsson did not set out to write something quite so Icelandic sounding. “I was a little afraid of having the lyrics in Icelandic because of the nationalist political parties that are coming up in Iceland. Singing a 19th century poem, a romantic poem, seemed kind of off for me.” He spent six months working on the track, but halfway through, during the period of Reykjavik’s mayoral elections, the specter of nationalism entered civic life with highly publicized Islamaphobic comments made by one of the leading candidates. While Stefánsson claims Iceland is the least prejudiced country he has lived in — he was born in Portugal to an Angolan mother and has lived in Germany — the controversy affected him. “I was quite sad and it slowed down my process. But, in the end, I said that as a half-African and half-Scandinavian, I can sing this poem just as anyone else could. That was the way to be true to myself. I don’t want to mix too much of a political message in my music, but if I can release a song that has a personal statement, then I am happy.”
Stefánsson is will be releasing more of his solo “minimal” tracks over the next few months. He will be playing at Iceland Airwaves and in Toronto later this year. As for Retro Stefson, they will start recording a new album in January.
While Stefánsson doesn’t put much stock in naturalism, he says that the crescendo that the track’s three minutes slowly build up to is meant to sound like a volcano erupting. What’s a more Icelandic sound than that?
Photo by Saga Sig