How to be bigger than Björk
Despite a 10th of Iceland's population owning his album, the island's coolest artist is still getting used to the limelight. Ásgeir talks to Florence DerrickFeatured May 17 Words by Florence Derrick
Pop-quiz time: which musical act recorded the fastest-selling debut album in Icelandic history? Most of us would take a punt on swan-toting vocalist Björk or perhaps post-rock band Sigur Rós, but the correct answer actually comes in the form of a softly spoken 24-year-old songwriter from Laugarbakki, a one-horse town on Iceland's northern coast. Country boy Ásgeir shot to fame when his 2012 album reached number one in his home country, garnering a host of awards and proving so popular that it was reissued in English in 2014. “I'd only played four or five live shows, then suddenly I was playing all over the world,” he tells us, still bewildered by his own success. “It was so fast.”
There's something about Ásgeir's soulful acoustic tones, with a synthy hint of electro - the love child of Ben Howard and James Blake - that echoes the volcanoes and fjords of his rural roots. It's an intimacy further underpinned by the fact that Ásgeir's father, the famed Icelandic poet Einar Georg Einarsson, pens many of his son's lyrics. This month, the artist's second album, Afterglow, hits the shelves, paired with a European tour that promises to see Iceland's acoustic darling erupt onto the international scene with the ferocity of one of his native volcanoes.
How do your surroundings inspire you?
“I live in Reykjavík now, but grew up in a really small town of about 50 people, surrounded by mountains and nature. There's really nothing there, just one gas station. My friends lived in another town a 10-minute drive away and I was kind of alone, so I always turned to music. Sometimes I need to go back there now, just to be able to think straight.”
What was it like recording Afterglow?
“I'm always going back and forth, unhappy with a song one day and loving it the next. So, when we finished the album, I just wanted to like all the songs at the same time. It took a while to get there.”
How did fans feel about you recording in English?
“Some people didn't like it. They thought the album should be in Icelandic and nothing else. I don't get it as, for me, being able to connect to a wider audience is one of the most important reasons for doing this. But, weirdly, many non-Icelandics actually prefer the Icelandic version as well, even though they don't understand it. I think they just like its mysterious sounds.”
Where's the best crowd in Europe?
“I always enjoy playing in France. I like doing shows for people who are properly listening and into it, and I definitely get that there. Plus, the concert halls are so beautiful - they've really designed their buildings for sound and music.”
Do you have time to explore when you're on tour?
“We're usually in the bus the whole time, but when we visited Tokyo, we made sure to get out and about. The food is amazing and the people are so polite. I visited the Samurai museum, which was completely fascinating. But I have a habit of getting really into something one day, reading everything I can about it and then forgetting it the next day.”
Where's the best place to hang out in Reykjavík?
“We usually start off at a rock bar called Dillon - I like the raw atmosphere in there - and often move on to Húrra, a live-music venue where lots of new bands play on the weekends. Then there's a fancy fish restaurant called Fiskmarkaðurinn, which means fish market, where people go for proper Icelandic food.”
If one in 10 people in Iceland own your album, you must get recognised everywhere...
“I don't actually go out all that much, but when I do, I see people looking at me or whatever. But it's not a common thing in Reykjavík for fans to walk up to someone and ask for a selfie. It's just not a very Icelandic thing to do.”
Ásgeir's European tour kicks off in Aarhus, Denmark, on 6 May.
Tickets available from asgeirmusic.com