An interview in 30 Questions: Iceland’s Soffía Björg
Joining us from windswept Iceland (and specifically the small town of Borgarnes, north of Reykjavik,which plays a central role in The Valhalla Murders on BBC4 right now) is singer-songwriter Soffía Björg (Óðinsdóttir), whom we’ve featured a couple of times this year. Exploding on to the international scene with the entertaining retro song ‘I lie’ in 2016 ago Soffía writes everything from folk to driving rock, and has been compared widely with Norah Jones. She has a full album under her belt with another one on the way, and her band comprises some of the leading contemporary musicians in Iceland. She has been a regular at festivals such as Iceland Airwaves and Secret Solstice in recent years.
In a candid and sometimes humorous interview Soffía tells us about her musical family, her previous job as a tour guide, and how she writes her songs, but is coy about her favourite song and won’t be drawn into a discussion about her forthcoming album except to say that it will be “different”. She does however reveal that she might even rent an ice cream van to help promote it. They have them in Iceland?
NMR: Hi, how are you?
SB: Hello David, I am as good as I can be during a time of a pandemic. Thank you.
NMR: What’s the weather like there?
Well today it is snowing and cold outside. I love it.
NMR: How do most of your songs start off? A piano part? A chord? Or melody?
Oh are you talking about how I write songs? What comes first? It depends. Sometimes I get an idea about a story in my head. Or just a word. Or a sentence. Then I sit in front of the piano or take the guitar in my hand and just do. See what comes. And sometimes it is the other way around. I get obsessed with a chord progression and usually the melody comes very easily. In my head it makes total sense.
NMR: What is more important to you, the music or the lyrics?
Ahh. That is a tough one because I am a storyteller. They would not survive without the other so it is a love story between lyrics and melody that you cannot mess with. Sorry - both.
NMR: Tell us about your new album. I believe you are getting close to finishing it now? How will it differ (if at all) from your first one?
I am not going into any details about the music because it is a work in progress and I would like to work on it and then tell you all about it when it is ready and released. But I can tell you this. It will be different from the first one.
NMR: You released that first album initially in three digital blocks of four songs. Have you any little tricks like that up your sleeve for the next one?
Maybe I will rent an ice cream truck and drive around Iceland blasting my album continuously.
NMR: Who is your producer this time? I believe it was Ben Hiller last time, who has worked with bands such as Elbow and Blur
Well, I was looking around and took a few meetings but ended up wanting to do it myself because I have a definite vision for the album. It was such an experience working with Ben on the first one. Just a brilliant producer and a wonderful person.
NMR: How do you spend your days just now with no live shows to play?
Well, I am working on my album most days. At my home I write and rehearse the songs. And then I spend a lot of time doing arrangements for instruments before the musicians come to the studio. Other than work - I love reading books. I also go on walks to clear my head and keep myself grounded. Love being outside. And I also take care of the few horses that we own at our farm and go horseback riding when the weather is not crazy.
NMR: Before you became a full-time musician you used to work as a tour guide, showing visitors around the inside of a glacier. What was that like? I heard you used to sing to them during the tour?
Yes I did that for about almost 4 years. This part time job was so awesome. We would transport the people in these 20 ton super trucks in all kinds of weather. It was not an option for us to be car sick or scared if we maybe got stuck or something in a blizzard for a few hours. Learned alot about myself during the time I worked there.
I actually lost my voice a few times because I would have to talk in a higher register for people to hear me and the dry and cold air did not help. So it was not the best job for me as a singer but I got like - a lot of practice talking in front of groups of people - so that helped me with my stage performance.
Yes I usually did sing for the groups, but kind of when they were a bit closed off and shy. It always worked - people opened up to me and each other after me singing for them in the glacier chapel. Music just does that - its magic.
NMR: You were raised on a farm in Borgarnes, where you still live, and come from a big family with manysiblings. How did you become a musician? Is it ‘in the family’? Are any of your brothers and sisters musicians?
We are eight brothers and sisters and I can truly say we all are/have been in music - full time/part time or as a hobby. My oldest sister would deny - but I think she did learn how to play the accordion a few years ago. Also my mother is a soprano, used to sing in choirs and my dad writes songs. So yeah, about everyone is in music in some way.
I did not intend to become a musician. I was a kid who got overwhelmed by almost anything. My stomach got twisted upside down when I saw other people on stage, because I got so nervous for them (didn’t matter if I knew them or not).
I took my first singing lesson at age 19 - my mom encouraged me to go to her old singing teacher and that's how it started.
Four years later I wrote my first song and then there was no turning back - I had found an outlet for my feelings that felt normal and also scared the hell out of me.
NMR: Your regular band features some of the leading musicians in Iceland in my view, such as the virtuoso guitarist Pétur Ben, in-demand bassist Ingibjörg Elsa Turchi and unfussy drummer Kristofer Rodriguez Svonuson. What is it like to work with them? Are they part of your song writing process?
Those guys are great. Very talented and they made my first album what it is.
My song writing comes from me and then I try to portray a mood to the people working with me. And they are just so damn good they always made it better than it sounded in my head.
NMR: I’ve seen you playing sets with the band and also solo ones, just you and the guitar. Which do you prefer?
Both experiences are extremely empowering and magical. When you are onstage with a band, you are rehearsed and you are tight and the music flows effortlessly like in some trans - that's amazing to be a part of.
But also to have the attention of an entire room with just a guitar and a voice, indescribable feeling. I love both!
NMR: What is your ultimate ambition?
To be a better person and a better musician.
NMR: Have you ever been star-struck?
Yes. Once I was rehearsing with the band and my manager at the time said his friend was going to pop by and get something. Damien Rice came in and I instantly became that twenty something old girl, listening to his album O in my room, daydreaming about love and boys.
We went out for a smoke and he said I had a good voice. I was like what the fuck Damien just said I had a good voice!?
NMR: If you weren’t doing this, what would you like to be?
Maybe a writer? Or a dog walker...? I honestly have no idea.
NMR: What’s your favourite book?
I don’t actually have a favourite. I have the ability to forget things so sometimes I would read the same book again not remembering if I had read it or not.
NMR: What were you like at school?
Shy. Into sports. Then pretending to be cool. Just a normal kid I guess.
NMR: What’s the music scene like in Iceland right now?
A lot of new music is getting made I think, everyone has a lot of time now to get things done so that is good. No concerts but people are streaming concerts and just finding new ways to get the music out there.
NMR: Best gig you’ve played so far?
Well. There are so many good ones but probably the most recent gig I did stands out in a way. It was in February in Switzerland. I flew out with a cellist and we did an intimate gig in a cellar in St. Gallen for Nordklang Music Festival. I had just gotten out of a relationship before we flew out and the cellist was leaving her little girl for the first time for a few days. So we were both kind of freaked out about everything. So the first night we got drunk and ate fondue. Next day we rehearsed and on the third day we played this intimate and very memorable gig for about 450 people. I had decided to play the piano for two songs for the first time in front of people. I asked them to cheer for me if I made a mistake, and they were so great.
NMR: What’s your favourite song?
This is an impossible question. If I tell you - you will know too much about me. It is too private. I just can't.
NMR: What were your favourite artists growing up?
My high school years it was all about Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, The Doors, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Dr. Dre and Queens of the Stone Age. A typical teenager going crazy on hormones.
NMR: What were your favourite albums of 2020?
Literally nothing comes to mind. Did I tell you my memory was bad? But I discovered a new band I have been listening to - Khruangbin. Good vibes.
NMR: Who would you want to play you in the film of your life?
Terrified of the idea of a film about my life. NO.
NMR: Vinyl, CD, Download or stream?
NMR: What’s the best cover version you have ever heard?
Hurt - Johnny Cash, originally by Nine Inch Nails.
NMR: What are your hopes for 2021?
To release an album I am super proud of and to be able to perform it for an audience. That would be nice.
NMR: What would be your dream collaboration if any?
I dunno - maybe write a country song with Neil Young? That would be something!
NMR: You have played at festivals in the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland (as mentioned earlier) and the Faroe Islands over the last few years but not in the UK. When this lunacy is over can we tempt you to come and play here?
I would love that!
Soffía Björg, thank you for joining us and we expectantly await that new album which will make you super proud!
There's also a lovely performance of Silence the Voices, for those on Facebook here.