I first took interest in Soffía’s music whilst I was a Grapevine intern in the fall of 2011. Back then I knew her as one of many voices in a group called Brother Grass. I had seen some of the local press coverage about the band mainly because they seemed to always fill up the place at Café Rosenberg. Though there were many performers with her on stage, Soffía’s appearance always seemed singularly unique; that’s not to diminish the others in her group, but you could really tell, even then, that there was something unique about this woman.
Soffía is a little over a year older than I am, and judging by the subject matter of her songs, the emotional maturity of her lyrics and her goes-without-saying talent, she is capable of doing wondrous things. In her work and persona I see the Folk greats beckoning and cheering her on. There was a seriousness and a wistfulness to her music; it was clear that she put her heart on the line for this performance, you could see it in her eyes…you could tell that she meant what she said, as if everything in her life depended on it going well.
And go well, it did. Not for a moment did I feel condescended or pandered to as a listener; the artifice of the stage vs. audience duality wasn’t present at all. In other words, the narcissism and ego of many starlets (can I use that word in a musical context?) was thankfully absent from her show and speaking. She conducted the whole event in a true, professional manner, taking a curtsey, offering the traditional encore, behaving like you would expect an experienced musician should. Technically speaking, It was also nice to see her not shy away from higher range notes. She clearly is technically proficient as a singer/songwriter.
In this new approach of hers, which as I said earlier, really is a departure from Brother Grass, I think she will find a tremendous amount of sympathetic listeners and success. In the interview questions I prepared for her, I made mention of artists like Nick Drake, Mark Lanegan, and even people as singular as Patsy Cline and Norah Jones as comparable talents. This is because that sound that she and her band offers up reminds me of them greatly, and for that I couldn’t be more pleased. I love the tremolo jazz guitar. I love the minor key. I love the soulfulness and honesty. In her promotional stills, monochrome as they are, you see the hurt. On stage, restraining her anguish, you see it plainly, and therefore, I see the humanity. She clearly is not just another singer/songwriter from Reykjavík; she truly is something special. Not only did she mean her words, as it seems, but if you were there, you felt them.
Simply put, you need to know about the Soffía Björg Band because somewhere along the line, they’ll be there for you, like an old friend or your favorite book, recalling the sweetest (or most bittersweet) of emotions, when you need them most. They do a fantastic job of combining serious learned musicianship and the heart, and do it very, very well. Whereas she could have gone a much softer, safer musical route, she instead chose to place all of the cards out on the table for you to choose from, and for that we should be happy that such people still exist in the Icelandic music scene. I just hope she, in the face of success, never loses sight of the virtue of candor and good faith towards the audience and listener in providing exceptional works. After all, who doesn’t need a powerful emotional punch once in a while?
I asked Soffía if we could record the show, and as well, to answer some questions for us, and she kindly obliged. Here are both in full.
2. The Road
3. La La Land
4. Tveir Haltir Hugar
6. Þeir vaka yfir þér
8. Love for now
9. Lonesome Town (cover)
10. See Me
11. Warwick Avenue (cover)
How did the performance go?
It kind of exceeded my expectations for the nights’ gig. Mengi is a magical room and the acoustics in there are super fragile so we had to be really dynamic and soft. Overall, we were happy with the performance and I think the audience dug it.
How did your band first meet? When did you first start playing?
The band was four years in the making, sort of. I started out solo with a nylon string guitar I barely played and was just doing my thing, and then I met Örn when we formed Brother Grass in 2010 and asked him if he would join in on my solo project amongst other players. We played Iceland Airwaves that year and then it kind of went to sleep for a while, because Brother Grass and school were really time-demanding. Tommi (on keyboards) I have known since we were studying together in FÍH-jazz school 6 years back, I think, and Þorvaldur, the drummer, and Ingibjörg bass player, I got to know through playing music.
There’s a real sense of melancholy in many of your songs, it contrasts with Brother Grass. I notice a lot of interesting musical effects, like vibrato in your voice and the tremolo on Örn’s guitar work. Many of the tracks are in minor key and the lyrics seem quite you are longing for something, particularly on outstanding tracks like 2 Haltir Hugar. Where does this come from within you?
I found it easier to express myself through music than in day-to-day life when I started writing. I was a really shy kid and by then I had so many things stuffed up inside that it was a miracle didn’t have a meltdown of some sort. My way out of difficult times was through music and music helped. For a long time I only wrote sad songs because that reflected on my state of mind. Now I think differently about songwriting because I have worked out many of the issues I had before, but knowing now that a person can experience such hurricane of hurt and emotion makes it easier for me to write with feeling even the simplest songs. It defeats the purpose of the song and experience if I would reveal the story behind each song, because I would like the audience to connect their own lives, triumphs and hurts to it.
Do you feel like you’d much rather play more melancholy songs than more upbeat material? Does this affect the size of the crowd?
I don’t think it affects the size of the crowd, you could say I play for a different kind of crowd. The band is awesome and together we are developing our unique soundscape, even though some of the songs are melancholic and dreamy the band makes them more heavy and powerful.
I get a real feel of Nick Drake, Mark Lanegan and dare I say, Norah Jones and Patsy Cline in your songwriting and voice, Who are your biggest influences, musically speaking?
Eric Clapton is definitely my first strong influence. I remember listening to a song of his on the radio when I was a kid, I was mesmerized by the softness in his voice and gentle guitar playing. Later on, I really got into listening to Whitney Houston and other power ballad singers and just wishing I could sing like them, like so many young girls. Then when I was a teenager I fell in love with rock and grunge, listening to the music really loud while out driving, wearing my leather jacket over some band T-shirt; good times. And to mention one of my favorite composers; Ennio Morricone, I love anything that hints at a good spaghetti western.
Which bands in Iceland really fascinate you, musically speaking?
Prins Póló has his unique thing going on, I am really digging his stuff. Also, I just heard Steinunn’s other band, in (Steinunn is DJ Flugvél og Geimskip) playing live the other night, Skelkur í Bringu, they had my attention the entire time.
Where does your interest in Americana and folk music come from?
I am a storyteller when I write music, and Americana and folk music are usually good stories about something that is dear to you. In the beginning of Brother Grass, we had never sung this type of music before, we were just curious and thought the close harmonies were beautiful.
In terms of composition, if you could use any kind of orchestration and players you wanted, what kind of work would you want to make?
I think I am doing that now in every project I am in. My graduation project from The Icelandic Academy of the Arts; Orfia, which is in collaboration with Örn Eldjárn, is for strings, woodwind, harp, drums, bass, guitar, piano and vocals. We are currently recording the material and are on our final steps.I will try something else later when I get my head around it.
Do you have plans to play outside of Iceland?
Of course, the plan is to travel the world and introduce the music to folks who want to give it a listen. How I am going to do it, I am not sure – but it will happen!
What is your definition of success?
My definition of success is loving your line of work and building a happy life. Basic.
Lastly, are you releasing any new material in the near future?
Yes – Soffía Björg Band is ready with material for a first solo album. Now we just have to get it done. Orfia is well on its way and Brother Grass has recorded 2 albums.
A recent video performance of the band can be found here: