Hi Svavar! How are you? What have you been doing lately? You’re always “on the road”, in Iceland and/or abroad…
Hey hey, I’m doing wonderful. Got a week long vacation and managed to chill out for a week in the north of Iceland. Otherwise, I’ve been touring, promoting my new album, “Brot (The Breaking)” and also working in a theater in Germany.
Yeah, that was an amazing journey. I actually visited Australia twice, once in 2007 and once in 2010. It’s definitely time for me to go back there and possibly visit Japan and Singapore as well.
Tell us a bit about your childhood. You grow up in the Westfjords, far away from the ‘big city’ RVK?
I actually grew up all around the country. My parents moved around a lot. A couple of years in Stokkseyri, eight years on a farm in Skagafjörður, two years in a boarding school near Akranes, one and a half years in Akranes and then my family moved to the Westfjords, where I would spend summers and vacations in my college years. I’ve always considered the Westfjords my adopted home and I hail from there, as the spirit of the Westfjords is exactly the spirit I resonate to. It’s hard to explain in short terms.
However, this “Gypsy life” of my youth left me very accustomed to a roaming lifestyle.
When did your passion for music saw daylight? Already at young age?
I’ve always had music in my life and been very interested in it. I played shortly in some bands when I was a teenager, but the rootless lifestyle and constant moving around didn’t afford any resources that could have been invested in that kind of social venture. I didn’t even find the quiet to sit and write songs as a teenager. I was also so shy that I couldn’t even bring myself to approach other musicians for collaboration when I finally started living in the same place longer than a couple of years.
It wasn’t until much later in my life that I discovered that I really wanted to write songs and sing for audiences. You could say I’m a very late bloomer.
Which instruments did you learn how to play (at young age)?
My parents urged me to play the piano and they bought us a very “modern” home organ that I played the hell out of as a kid. It wasn’t perfect for developing the nuances of piano playing, but it introduced me to Keyboards.
When I was fourteen, my older brother gave up on the guitar he was starting to learn and I found it while skulking through his room. I slowly thought myself guitar after that. Only took a couple of lessons years later. But the guitar became my best friend from that moment on.
Your father died tragically in an avalanche. Hraun’s fist album was built around the loss of your dad, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s true, Hraun’s first album was my first attempt at channeling the grief of his loss, but actually, all of my albums from the beginning have featured songs about the grieving process after the avalanche. I actually consider “Brot (The breaking)” the final chapter in that “requiem” for my father. The name of the album and it’s first song actually refer to when the waves break on your vessel and the sea prepares to take you, broken and beaten. But sometimes you survive those harsh storms, and that’s just what happened.
My father and his fate have basically been the prime motivator of my artistic career. Working through that pain has fuelled all of my ambition.
It took a while to record the début album by Hraun (2003 until 2007). How come? But then a year later, nr 2 was released!
Well. Not all the songs were ready in 2003, but also, we had ridiculous setbacks in the process. In 2008, there were already a lot of songs ready, but we might have not rushed that album so much.
The second album by Hraun, “Silent treatment”, was not received as positively in Iceland as the first one was. The second album, always difficult to make, or not?
I don’t know. Hraun was growing pretty fast at that time. We had been going through a lot of growing pains, and were gathering some international acclaim, getting noticed by NME and BBC as well as some fans abroad. I guess the main reason it didn’t do better is that the band kind of broke up half a year after it came out. It imploded and I don’t think there are any regrets. “Silent treatment” has since sold out as my more dedicated fans in Europe and Canada have demanded copies, and every tour I had to bring some 50 copies along until there were no more.
Regarding the recording and creative process of the second album, I always felt that I didn’t involve myself enough. I guess I was going through some tough personal stuff at the time and couldn’t focus properly on the process, so I left a lot of the work to my bandmates and didn’t press my ideas much. I ended up doing the vocals in one short session, while sick and demoralized. It was a tough process and I think we were a bit to hard on ourselves regarding deadlines and such.
Wasn’t it meant to be to have a CD trilogy “Songs of misery and redemption” with Hraun?
Yes, that was the larger plan I had in my mind. And the songs from what was supposed to become Hraun’s third album and the final part of the trilogy have been spread over my three solo albums, “Kvöldvaka”, “Ölduslóð” and “Brot (The Breaking)”. Those songs are: “Undir Birkitré”, “Yfir hóla og yfir hæðir”, “Brot”, “Hverjum hefði getað dottið í hug”, “Prayer for the dead”, “Humble Hymn”, “Vetrarsól”, “While the world burns”, “Wanderlust” and “Tiger and Bear.”
Tell us about “The next big thing”, BBC World Service competition you were in with Hraun back in 2007. How did Hraun ended up in this competition? Good/bad experiences of performing abroad, with the BBC
It was amazing in so many ways. We were also very humiliated by the experience. Our drummer Jón Geir submitted our song “Ástarsaga úr Fjöllunum” into the competition and eventually, we got into the final five.
We got airfare for the band and all our equipment to London and we did a show in King Street. It was a lot of fun. Then we got to BBC and delivered our song. We had soundchecked all our instruments and had every amp revved and all instruments ready to play. But the song is just acoustic guitar and voices. But the underlying message of the song is the waiting for something that never comes, so we decided to do the song in a way that would make everyone hold their breath for when the instruments came in, but they never did. This didn’t exactly pan out like we had hoped. Nile Rodgers and William Orbit among with some other fine folks reaaaally hated us. They declared themselves deeply offended and “betrayed” by the stunt and proceeded to berate us during the broadcast recording. And the tirade kind of escalated as we just stood there, having been really happy with our performance, although we had been forced to cut the emotionally charged 4.5 minute long song down to under two minutes. I tried to make a joke and tell them we didn’t want them to think we were a boyband and laughed sheepishly. Then one of them said I was too fat and ugly to ever be in a boyband.
The moderator ended up having to stop the process and ask them to say something nice for the broadcast, so as not to have the show be too negative. I remember thinking: “Oh my god… My daughter’s in the audience and she’s so excited about this. I hope she’s not getting what they’re saying!” But she did… She knew English pretty well by then. My brothers were there too and they were completely stunned.
I was absolutely humiliated and disheartened by this experience, especially since Nile Rodgers is one of my all time heroes. But I bounced back from it and life has been amazing ever since.
There was actually nothing about this in the Icelandic media until after the fact, when Morgunblaðið ran a story with the headline: “Hraun Lost”. We laughed a lot at that testimony to the Icelandic music scene. Hraun was definitely not considered among the “cool kids” of Icelandic music. It’s an uphill battle I guess to gain the acceptance of an extremely judgmental scene.
See a live performance of the song “Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum” (A love song for the mountains) here:
Always big discussions if you ask Icelandic artists if they are/were “inspired by (the beautiful) Icelandic nature”? Does it create the specific Icelandic (read: Krútt) sound? Just asking because Hraun means ‘lava’, and you wrote a song about your love for the mountains…
Where do you find your inspiration, Svavar? Nature, movies, books, …
I think that of course nature and society really influences one’s creative output. That being said, I really dislike the one dimensional idea of Icelandic indie music being so standardised in a certain stereotype. The “krútt” sound, although wonderful and inventive, does not have a monopoly on interpreting the Icelandic nature.
My inspiration comes a lot from my real life experiences and my travels. I strive to strip the glamour, illusion and myth from what I perceive, like a disillusionist, and tell my stories not like dreams, but a reality, sweet or sour may it be.
Was Hraun your first band? Probably not, but it was the first you released albums with, right? Were was the band Hraun formed, perhaps ‘Café Rosenberg’? Hraun performed a lot in ‘Langa Manga’ venue, in the capital of the Westfjords Ísafjörður? Back to the roots now and then?
Hraun was formed at my birthday party in 2003 at a place called ‘Kaffi Vín’. We just got together in the corner and played all kinds of stuff, jamming some of my songs, jamming some fun covers that we liked and we just did it again and again until we got really good at it. We went all over the country and yes, we loved to play Ísafjörður as much as we could. I miss that time a lot, but also, it’s hard to live that kind of lifestyle of no money and lots of travel when you have a family to support.
After the 2 albums by Hraun, you started to record stuff as troubadour. “Kvöldvaka” was the first very folky one, released in 2009 and recorded as a campfire session. How was it to be a solo artist (again)?
It’s very liberating and it’s amazing to be able to go anywhere and do anything without having to consult five other guys and their families. It also affords me a great opportunity to grow relationships with my audiences during concerts. It’s much easier to chat with an audience when you don’t have a whole band just waiting behind you to start the next song. I know it was pretty harrowing for the guys when i did my banter in the old days. I like to chat with the audience, so it’s kind of a win-win situation. It’s also much easier logistically to be alone, when it comes to travel and accomodation. But I really miss the company and the comradery of a band. It sometimes gets lonely on the road. But eventually, I think I would choose road loneliness over cabin fever any day.
I guess my big weakness is my shyness and reluctance to reach out to people and collaborate. It’s always a bit shitty to dream but not be able to do what you like because of social inhibitions. That being said, there’s nothing I love more than when people ask me to help them with projects.
Listen to and buy the album:
Or order a physical copy here:
The album cover was designed by your daughter, as for all of your solo albums. Very talented girl, like her father A proud father I suppose !?
My daughter Dagbjört Lilja is an amazing human being. Not only has she made all the artwork for the CDs but also seperate artwork for my Vinyl LPs. It’s so wonderful to watch her create these covers out of just the feeling of the albums. The CDs always feature my person, but the LPs tend to feature the “other side” of the album.
A full live performance ‘Live at the lobby’ (February 2012)
“Amma”, was your 2nd solo album, dedicated to your 3 grandmothers Svava, Vilborg and Þórhildur, and recorded at your publisher’s living room in the famous ‘art street’ of Reykjavík, Skólavörðustígur nr. 27.
Listen to and buy the album here:
The third one, “Ölduslóð”, was recorded at the famous Greenhouse Studios, the playground of the Bedroom Community label? Big difference with the living room of the previous album! How come? How was it to record there in the footsteps of f. ex. Björk?
It was so much fun to work in the Bedroom Community/Greenhouse Studios with my dear friend and producer Míó Þórisson. He’s got a great ear and amazing ideas that we let loose on the album. We stuck to a very minimalistic approach and it resulted in a totally different sound than on “Kvöldvaka” and “Amma”, but still stripped, sweet and lowdown.
You also collaborated with the Czech Singer/songwriter Markéta Irglová on this 3rd album. How did you meet each other? Touring? How was the collaboration? Good to have a female touch, in my humble opinion… ‘Boy vs. Girl’ you know…
I met Markéta through Míó, as he was also engineering and producing her album in Greenhouse studios. I had to take a break from recording to go on tour. During my tour, Markéta came in to work on her album and she heard my music when Míó was bouncing some takes for me to digest during the tour. Míó then asked her if she maybe wanted to contribute to the album and she was really into it. I was just completely flabbergasted! And when I met her, I came face to face with the most humble and sweet and creative artist I’ve ever known. She also made some contributions to my new album “Brot (The Breaking)”, and it feels like everything she touches turns to complete cosmic sweetness.
Svavar Knútur and Marketa Irglova, Live at Czech radio in Olomouc
Live with Markéta version of “While the world burns”
Listen to and buy the album here:
Then in 2015, you recorded a little EP “Songs of Weltschmerz, Waldeinsamkeit and Wanderlust”. Some songs recorded live in Concert in the tiny village of Reykhólar. Other songs recorded in a living room in the little village of Söldarfjörður in Faroe Islands. “In Stiller Nacht” was recorded in your living room in the middle of a stormy night in Reykjavík, around 2 a.m. It was released on vinyl, in line with the comeback of vinyl ! Tell us more about this EP and those 3 German words from the title…
This little EP is basically a knot that ties together “Kvöldvaka”, “Ölduslóð” and “Brot (The Breaking)” with the main songs from each one in special versions. I made it to celebrate the release of my vinyl collection and the upcoming release of Brot. It’s kind of a complimentary album to the three albums. They are albums of Weltschmerz, Waldeinsamkeit and Wanderlust. Those are amazing words that embody the three most important feeling of the singer songwriter; World hurt, Forest-aloneness and the love of travel and exploration. Without pain, there is no inspiration. Without “forest aloneness” and its contemplation, there is no creation, and without the wanderlust, there is no real sharing and communing with your audience, ending with a perpetuation of the cycle.
“Wanderlust” (Reykjavik Sessions, 2014)
A 2nd release in 2015, your fourth album “Brot (The Breaking)”. Even more collaborations this time. As a Belgian I loved the idea of the ‘ear candy’ chocolate box edition. “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” (Forrest Gump, 1994).
What can you tell us about your latest release?
Wow… Well first off, I’m absolutely convinced that “Brot” is my finest album so far. It finishes a journey I started with the first album by Hraun, taking the final steps of redemption with the words “Come into the light”.
Every album I’ve released has a narrative, like a chapter in a book, with themes and stories. ‘Brot’ starts with the testimony of the breaking and then goes on to explore the journey to redemption. Some of the songs are collaborations with my international friends and that’s a wonderful experience.
Also, working with Stefán Örn “Íkorni” Gunnlaugsson was an amazing thing. I can’t wait to work with him again.
There’s also a secret ingredient that I love on both ‘Ölduslóð’ and “Brot”, which is my dear friend Helgi Hrafn Jónsson, who brings his voice and trombone in to weave a magic carpet in two songs.
Actually my dream team to work on an album with consists of Helgi, Stefán and Míó along with Markéta. I hope I get the chance to do something with all of them in the future.
The Chocolate thing was fun to do, but very expensive. It was basically an experiment, because more and more people don’t have CD players. So we thought, “what if they can get download codes in a box of chocolates instead? Then they get songs, lyrics and something sweet to munch while they listen to the album.” It was really well received.
What brings the (near) future, Svavar? Plans for albums, touring, maybe other (non) musical projects?
Right now, I have a bit too many things on my plate. Not to mention the extraordinary project that is my family. But I do feel a deep desire to spend some time writing and arranging my songs in the privacy of my cottage. But there’s a lot of touring, theater work and other stuff waiting around the corner. I love to keep busy, but I’m increasingly feeling the urge to seek management. It’s just a bit overwhelming these days.
Takk fyrir talking with ROK!
- Wim Van Hooste
All photographs of Svavar performing live by ROK Photographer Sonja Verbeeck