Ice queens play nice
Kilkenny-bound Amiina share a homeland with Björk and Sigur Rós, and while showing Tony Clayton-Lea around Reykjavik’s highlights, they explain what makes Iceland so special
IT IS THE morning after the night before, and after traipsing around the centre of Reykjavik at 3am – with the sky still as bright as a silver button – your disconcerted correspondent is talking to three demure, quite studious members of Amiina at a small table in a cafe on Laugavegur, the city’s main street. Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, Hildur Ársælsdóttir and Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir (the other member, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, is away for the weekend) are, of course, used to the 20-hour brightness during the summer months (and the 20-hour darkness during the winter period), but for someone who is used to sleeping in the dark, this midnight sun lark is totally messing with my innate, perfectly poised karma.
The previous night, the three Amiina women brought me on a brief tour of the city’s hotspots – a cool and buzzy bar, a quiet gay bar and a stuffed rock venue where one of Amiina’s roadies was indulging his inner Hard Rock God proclivities. It all amounted to a whistle-stop guide to a city that has produced two of the most innovative acts of the past 20 years – Björk and Sigur Rós.
In truth, you can add Amiina to that short list. The most important thing to know about the band – who are coming to Ireland next week as part of the 2009 Kilkenny Arts Festival – is that their music is beautiful, and is very much a constituent product of their upbringing and their unique island life.
It is common in Iceland, they say, for children to study a musical instrument, including recorder, violin, flute and piano; indeed, the study of music is subsidised by the state, which makes it even easier for parents to get it to happen.
“During the second World War,” says Sólrún, who does most of the talking, “a lot of refugees came to Iceland from Europe – lots of musicians – and something started happening, musically. The national symphony orchestra started around that time, too. Before that, there wasn’t much emphasis on music, although many people sang in choirs, and people always sung together, but studying an instrument wasn’t common. We were also lucky enough to get a couple of politicians in the government, and they pushed forward their interest in music to the extent that they promoted the music education system. There are music schools all over the island now. Music is the main arts activity in Iceland, more so than dance and visual arts.”
The members of Amiina have known each other for years – Hildur and Maria from childhood (“We had the same violin teacher,” says Hildur), and all four from the Reykjavik School of Music in the mid-1990s. In 1998, during a government-assisted summer programme for teenagers and young people, the women formalised their ideas for a group. Their output at that point was chamber music from the classical repertoire.
“We didn’t really start to write our own music until 1999,” says Hildur, “which is when we began to play with Sigur Rós for a while. At that point, Sigur Rós would not have been known outside Iceland.”
“The first time we worked with them,” recalls Sólrún, “was the launch concert of [Sigur Rós’s 1999 album] Ágaetis Byrjun. At that time, we hadn’t been doing anything other than reading sheet music and performing music by others. But when we started with Sigur Rós, they really do creatively, because that’s how they work.”
“They also made us realise how much fun it would be,” adds Hildur. “And how different. When we start to create a piece of music, it changes each time. Sometimes it’s a chord structure; sometimes it’s a melody or a soundscape.”
Amiina’s music is best experienced live, but listening to albums such as Kurr (and other rare EPs such as the recently released Re Minore) will give you a sense of how their island environment, if not the actual topography, has influenced them.
Nowhere near as climactic or dramatic as Sigur Rós or as skittish as Björk, Amiina play gentle yet tensile music as if their collective life depended on it. They use an array of instrumentation, including zither, Irish harp, musical saws, music boxes, drinking glasses, metallophone, guitars and harmonium – “We have a theremin but we haven’t learned how to play it yet,” says Hildur. Despite their environment, they claim that their music hasn’t been directly influenced by Icelandic folk music, which is largely song-based. Subtle changes are afoot, however, as the women are presently working with some male musicians, but don’t expect any heavy injection of testosterone anytime soon.
Yet whatever we’ll hear at Kilkenny or on forthcoming releases is bound to be intrinsically connected to their homeland – intricately romantic, rapturous, dreamy, dramatic and not a little bit unusual.
“One thing that is special about Iceland,” explains Sólrún, “is that we are a small community, and as we live on an island we have to work with each other to get along. There is a lot of co-working with bands going on, so there is this good community – not really a sense of competition but more of assistance. Also, the popular music scene has bonds with the island’s classical musicians, because we all grew up together, went to the same music schools. Sometimes we might work with people from the symphony orchestra or with a heavy metal band. So there are a lot of cross-connections.”
“Also, the musicians here,” comments Hildur, “generally don’t depend on making lots of money by having to sell many records, so the feeling is just to enjoy what you’re doing. They have – like some of us, maybe – another job, and they’re doing it just for fun.”
The primary aim for Amiina, imply the women, is to make a living from making and playing music, but that, remarks Sólrún, is the main ambition for a lot of bands.
“It’s a delicate balance, because when you get to a certain level of success, there is a danger that what you then do is directed by money.” It depends on who you work with, she says, and whether there are pressures from managers or record companies.
“We’re still just trying to figure out how the music business works. It’s such a jungle, it’s hard to figure out where you stand. We’re just taking a few months at a time, and that’s all we can do. We all have our separate lives – Maria has a baby, Hildur is expecting in October – so there are no long-term plans. It’s all so hard to predict.”