Helgi Hrafn Jonsson is a multi-instrumented and -talented (he also paints) Icelandic singer/songwriter. He has played trombone and other wind instruments since he was a child, has played together with Amiina in the Sigur Ros-backing band, and thankfully for us, has lived and performed in Austria for seven years. Therefore we are able to interview him in German, albeit the fact that he’s answering in German with a funny Austrian accent. Nevertheless, Kai starts the interview with an outburst about how bad Icelanders are in communicating outside of their mobile phones, which I desperately try to turn into a question.
Helgi: Well, I read my mails daily (laughs). But I don’t understand that, I mean when you’re planning a party two days ahead, ok, but when there’s concrete planning involved and money…
Marcel: Do you think it’s different among Icelanders who tour more internationally and are more outside of Iceland? Because here you’d do most things via phone anyway?
Helgi: Yes, or you just meet downtown. I think a lot is down to coincidence, you meet someone on the street and ask if he wants to record bass for your record the next day.
Marcel: Because you’re there anyway – at least when you are not on tour.
Helgi: That’s true.There are many smaller infrastructures, let’s call it like this. Everyone has his own circle of talented friends. Some people don’t work well with certain others, but most musicians here get along very well.
Marcel: But what about collaborating with artists from other countries, or do press work when on tour – you have to plan ahead for this, right?
Helgi: I think a lot is up to bands with international record deals – when there’s a new record coming out or a world tour planned, there’s a certain machinery running. But listening to you I’m surprised that people don’t jump at you to be featured in Sonic Iceland. For example Maria (Amiina) was really interested and said she’ll talk to the others.
Kai: But that’s because you asked her.
Helgi: Sure. I have to say that it changed in the last years, since Icelandic music has become known as something special worldwide. There are a lot of people coming here who have no idea and just want to hang out with the artists, but more like demented fans or squids. But those people don’t do anything professionally, or just keep talking about projects without anything happening.
Marcel: Are we here at a wrong time? Because holiday season starts now?
Helgi: I don’t think it’s that bad – people leave the country at different times. I personally think June is the nicest month in Iceland. Also to make holidays in the country. It does rain more in July, even though it’s a bit warmer.
Kai: And it’s bright all the time.
Helgi: …but I wouldn’t really know. Basically, I haven’t been in the country since February. I was here for one or two weeks in between, but had to lock myself in because I had so much work to do. I also had a huge project in Denmark, playing with a full orchestra in Copenhagen. Isn’t that nice here? (points towards the empty fields and the see beyond). No ticks (laughs).
Marcel: And no spiders! I love it here!
Helgi: But we have those birds over there that’ll attack us any minute.
At this stage of our walking interview, we had reached the headland near the small pond called Bakkatjorn, where multiple birds have their nesting ground. We had all the time assumed that Helgi was joking, but we were soon to find out that the Arctic Tern living in Iceland are very special sort of birds. A sort of birds with balls. They are so aggressive that they attack everyone and everything coming near their nesting ground, from small dogs overs German bloggers to horses, and are so fierce that other birds deliberately nest right next to them to also avail of their protection. So, we found ourselves encircled by a lot of screeching birds, who took turns swooping down on our heads. We first laughed about this, like you laugh at tiny kittens before they sink their sharp needle-like teeth in your flesh, but after Helgi started running away while shouting “Laufts Burschen!” (Austrian for “Run, idiots!”) we ourselves realised that beaks that hit you at 60 km/h will draw blood, and so we also started running towards the nearest road, all the while circling our hands and bags above our heads like imbeciles. After reaching civilisation i. e. a road, we were able to catch our breath and continue with the interview.Helgi: Full action (laughs)
Kai: We know where you live – in case you wanted to get rid of us…
Helgi: I’m very thankful that my girlfriend is coming over from Los Angeles for a couple of days. I basically had no holidays or a real day off for over a year.
Kai: But it pays off, doesn’t it? Or does it stay on a certain level and does not progress?
Helgi: Well, it pays off. The jobs are getting better, you get to learn more people. I mean, I earn ok, but on the other hand I’m not spending much. When should I? (laughs).
Marcel: Is there something like an Icelandic performing rights society, like the German GEMA?
Helgi: Yes, but I’m with the Austrian one. Because I started making music in Austria.
Marcel: And they are not complaining? Or do you still have a place in Austria?
Helgi: Not really a problem.
Even though Helgi spends a lot of his time abroad, he still has strong ties to his hometown – his family seems to have settled all around us.Helgi: The house over there belongs to my grandfather (points to a building across the road that seems to incorporate at least three different architectural styles)
Kai: Icelanders also have a strange way of building.
Helgi: Yes, it’s all a bit chaotic.
Kai: But this is one of the areas where more wealthy people live, right?
Helgi: That’s true.
Kai: When you compare this to where we’ve been yesterday evening…in Vesturbær near the ocean, that looks like in the former GDR.
We also want to know more about how being an Icelandic musician is perceived when you spend most time abroad, and if there’s better educational support then in other European countries.Marcel: But how is it for you as a quite international artist, and also perceived as an international artists, does being from Iceland has a special meaning for you musically, or do people ask after it? Or is it more about your songs?
Helgi: No no, that’s important. But that’s not limited to being Icelandic. For example, if there’s a concert in Germany by a Croatian musician, it’s being announced as such. But as there has been such a media interest in Iceland in recent years, it comes up most of the time when people ask me about my music. But maybe your question is if it is like that for me personally?
Marcel: Of course.
Helgi: I don’t think so. I mean, I identify myself as being Icelandic, and especially as I’m living here now it has an influence. But this influence comes mostly through people that I meet here and that I work with. So it’s down to people, and not the air or the landscape or such.
Kai: But isn’t that something that influenced you earlier, I mean before recent years and before you worked with the people?
Helgi: Since I’m 5 years old.
Kai: So it’s that music was always very prominent?
Helgi: Sure, especially in my family. The house that I pointed out earlier, it’s full of art – my grandfather had been a publisher and book-designer, and my uncles are musicians as well, one pianist and one cellist, they played there all the time when I was young. And later I had my own room there were I could practice the trumpet and paint. So there’s a lot of art and music, in the country – I’ve been to a music school – and in my family.
Marcel: So do you think that it is mostly an educational thing, because many people have an artistic background? Or is this something that comes from federal education, like the music school you mentioned?
Helgi: This is were my other grandma lives, by the way (pointing at another building). What we definitively have is the musical education in school. Kids from the age of 6 can get private lessons…
Kai: All children?
Helgi: No, not all of them. Depends also on the instrument you choose.
Kai: But is it something anyone can avail of?
Helgi: No, it’s covered to 95 % by the state.
This interview belongs to Chapter 5 – Ice Cream is nice.