Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson is the new darling of Iceland, where a 10th of the population owns his debut album and he is stopped in the street to join in other people’s selfies. Now he’s singing in English and coming over here, and bringing a large dose of his country’s strange magic with him.
He’s not the first, of course. Iceland, a nation of just over 300,000 people — that’s the population of Reading — regularly produces musicians that captivate far beyond its borders. There’s something about that volcanic, deserted place, “a naked, cold Hawaii”, according to US singer-songwriter and Reykjavik resident John Grant, that makes the rest of us look to it expecting wonder. A welcome sign on the road from the airport says: “Elves live here”. Blur and Damien Rice have recorded albums there.
“A lot of us sing in English and generally get influences from the UK and US, so we’re kind of on the same page,” says Ásgeir, the latest Icelandic singer to break through internationally. He’s a midnight choirboy of 22 singing oh so sweetly over hushed acoustic music with electronic touches. Trading under the mononym Ásgeir (pronounced “Owsh-gearrr”), he’s about to headline Shepherd’s Bush Empire and, even more impressively, Sydney Opera House — twice in one night.
When we meet, however, he seems increasingly unsure about the English and American influences on his work. He’s going to drive me two hours north of Reykjavik, over a mountain where the sky and the land are an indistinguishable grey-white, to his hometown of Laugarbakki (population: about 40) and show me what really inspired his glorious songs.
“There isn’t anything going on there. That’s why I never let myself dream,” he says. “I only wanted to be in a band. I never saw myself doing anything more, playing my own music or travelling the world.”
When his debut album was released in his homeland in September 2012, it became a phenomenon, a bigger seller than either of the debuts from his illustrious predecessors Björk and Sigur Rós. The statistic that is quoted most often is that one in 10 Icelanders own it. Dermot O’Leary tested this on his Radio 2 show a while back, phoning a woman at random from Iceland’s phone book. She not only bought the album when it first came out but Ásgeir’s mother had taught her son at school.
Small world. Among the Icelanders I speak to there seems to be an intense connection with these 10 songs, a feeling that the nature-themed language and muted, misty music really says something powerful about their nation. “It blew up so fast. Everyone kind of feels like they own something in me,” says Ásgeir. So some were not thrilled when he re-recorded the album with English lyrics translated by John Grant and released it internationally at the start of this year with the new title In the Silence.
The original title translates as the somewhat heavier “Glory in the Silence of Death”. This month it comes out a third time in 35-track deluxe form with additional remixes and rarities, so you can listen to both versions back to back. The original feels more beautiful to me, especially driving through the moss-covered lava fields of Iceland’s wilderness, a world so untouched that you could easily picture a brontosaurus meandering across the horizon.
But I’m glad that the translation allows the rest of us to understand what he’s singing about: blue mountains on Going Home, a passing songbird on Summer Guest, dragons and gods of iron on the uncharacteristic loud one, Torrent.
Ásgeir admits he prefers the original too. “In the beginning I didn’t really want to choose because I was trying to promote the English album. I know I want to keep the Icelandic language in my music. Sometimes with the English we got the meaning but the words don’t really fit as well as they should. Those Icelandic lyrics are so much more.”
With his pop-star haircut, intense good looks and a large tattoo of the angel from Nirvana’s In Utero album peeking out from beneath his T-shirt, he could be mistaken for a cocky footballer as he cruises through the countryside in his silver Porsche Cayenne. He’s allowed to be boastful about the quality of his lyrics, though, because he didn’t write them. Some are by his quiet guitarist Júlíus Róbertsson, whose parents offer me lunch of lamb stew and dried fish at their isolated sheep farm on the way up the coast. Most were written by Ásgeir’s father Einar Georg Einarsson, a 74-year-old retired university lecturer who must be the least likely person to be involved in a worldwide pop hit in recent years.
At Ásgeir’s parents’ bungalow, on a dead-end street of six houses, his mother offers coffee and many different cakes while Einar, a portly, white-bearded man in house sandals, reads a shaky speech about a local hero from the Icelandic sagas.
He won’t be offering insights into his artistic process — he says he hasn’t spoken English since he was 20. “I don’t know how he really feels about it. He doesn’t really talk about feelings too much,” says Ásgeir later. “I think he’s really proud of everything we are accomplishing. But he doesn’t really go outside his home town, doesn’t travel, doesn’t do interviews or talk to people that much. He just isolates himself and writes all day.” On the coffee table is Einar’s newly published first book of poetry, with detailed black-and-white illustrations by his son — payback time.
The trip puts the singer in nostalgic mood. Over there is the chicken farm, where his job was to put the birds in boxes to go to the slaughterhouse. There’s the tiny church where his mother plays the organ on Sundays. We pass the field where he practised throwing the javelin, becoming good enough to represent his country as a schoolboy before a back injury made him focus on music from the age of 18. I spot a seal. We see the very slightly bigger town where he and Júlíus lived as younger children. “Mostly I remember imagining ghosts everywhere.”
In these stark surroundings beyond the back of beyond, I imagine that it must have been almost impossible to conceive of your music being played and loved in London, Paris or Sydney. But this tiny community has come together (lyrics by dad and a childhood friend, guitar lessons from the javelin coach, musicians shared with his older half-brother’s successful reggae band) to create something really big and still growing. The man from the town of 40 really could conquer the world.
In the Silence: Deluxe Edition is out on November 24 on One Little Indian and Ásgeir plays O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, O2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk) on November 26