In Iceland Asgeir is the definitive local-boy-done-good, the heir apparent to a long line of musical contemporaries. Think of Bjork, Sigur Ros, latterly Olafur Arnalds and Samaris and a theme emerges: that of no compromise, innovation, and a flair for the otherworldly. Plus you can't help but suspect they're all a bit crackers, in a lovely, intergalactic-y way.
Meeting Asgeir outside a coffee-shop off Tottenham Court Road he blends into the crowd, while there’s blessedly little sign of pencils in nostrils. His debut album Dyro I dauoapogn won four gongs at the Icelandic Music Awards-Brits equivalent, etc- and went to number one. He’s also had three number one singles, and apparently ten percent of the country own his album. In global terms that might not be that much- Iceland has a population of about 300,000- but on a local level this makes him roughly twice as popular as Ben Howard.
He is in the UK to promote the English language version of that album, In The Silence. Most of the album was originally written by his poet dad, though the translation was helped along by the right honourable John Grant, who has made Iceland his home of late. An unusual journey to a release this may be, but on wax (okay, mp3) it all makes sense. Here he explains why…
What’s it like being a kid in Iceland?
I moved around a lot as a child, different places all around Iceland, but spent most of my childhood in a village called Laugarbakki. It had a population of about 40 people.
How do you get educated in such a small village?
I was in a town of 40 people, and there was a town five minutes away with like 600 people. It was a big city to us! I spent most of my time there, most of my friends were there. But my village had no big buildings, no guys my age. So I was alone a lot, just making music. I started playing classical guitar when I was 7. I was also really into sports.
Does this perhaps explain why there’s such a rich musical heritage in Iceland. Because, literally, there isn’t much else to do?
Yeah, maybe, at least in my case. But my friends from near me were also into it, making music. Eventually they gave up, though I didn’t stop! It has always been my passion, I always wanted to do it. I did not think I want to release an album or focus on being a musician, it was just a hobby. It is still.
How did it turn from being a hobby to a profession?
Well I used to be really into sports, especially the javelin. When I was 17 I think I threw 67 metres, I had the Icelandic record for a while. But I got a back injury, and the music took over. One day my javelin instructor, who I had always looked up to, told me that I should send the demos I was making to a producer. I had never really done the demos for that reason, I just made them because I wanted to. But I had always looked up to this guy, he was like a mentor because he also played the guitar. So I took the demos to the studio. The next day the producer called me, and we started making the album.
That album did amazingly well. You could almost class yourself as a popstar?
Ha, well, I’m pretty big in Iceland. But I don’t think of myself as a popstar!
What’s it like walking down the street?
Well, it’s such a small community, if you walk down the street you’ve seen most of the people in Reykjavik before anyway. People are just happy for you. It’s a bit different if you go downtown and get drunk and stuff. It changes a bit, but it’s okay. I don’t go that often downtown so it doesn’t bother me.
What about the guys in Sigur Ros?
Well, I would say Jonsi and those guys would be able to walk around Reykjavik fine. The people that would bother them are the tourists. People are so close in Iceland, it’s a different mentality. It’s like a big family.
Speaking of family, your dad wrote most of your record. How did this come about?
I always wrote songs, with the melody and how the lyrics sound, in a nonsense way. It sounds a bit like English, like if you imagine when you were younger and you were trying to sing along the a song but it’s actually something totally different?
Like ‘la la la’?
Yes, something like that. But then I played these songs to my father. He’s a poet that has released books and is releasing another next year and has writing lyrics for other bands also. My brother is in a popular reggae band called Hjalmer, and he has written songs for them.
What about writing your own lyrics at some point?
I don’t know. I like to have my father involved, like a family thing! I know that I won’t do as good a job. I trust him, and he’s really into it.
Maybe you need to have your heart broken first.
Well, maybe. I have had a girlfriend since I was 14. I had one when I was younger, we broke up, then I had another 3 weeks later so I am lucky that I haven’t had too much of this problem.
How did John Grant get involved?
He had been staying in Iceland for a year, and two weeks after the Icelandic album we were thinking about whether to translate into English or maybe to do one with a new lyrics. So I called him to see if he would like to help; he liked the idea and two weeks later we were in the studio! It seems so easy, when you say it like that.
Does singing in English change your relationship with the lyrics?
Yes, absolutely, most of the people that have heard the Icelandic versions love them. The idea was actually always to do an Icelandic and English version. We were lucky we got offers from labels from different places, so we just decided to go for it. Things have gone great so far in Iceland, but obviously there’s a much bigger market in English…
In The Silence is out now on One Little Indian, and Asgeir is on tour in December. You can buy the album and tour tickets at his website