Ásgeir

The voice of the volcano

People

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Iceland is known for its fantastic music scene. Its latest, and perhaps greatest, export is Ásgeir, a humble artist who is trying to strike a balance between small town charm and big, worldly ambitions. For this story, we visit a concert in Reykjavik shortly before Icelandic National Day.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Hörður Sveinsson
  • Video: Ivar Kristjan
  • Editing / Post Production Moodmacher

It’s a warm, dark night in Reykjavik. Eyes quickly glance from the clock to the stage. People are waiting. There are some murmurs of small talk as the pre-concert tension takes hold in Reykjavik's spacious Harpa Hall. There are 1,300 velvet seats, all of them sold out. People are here to see Ásgeir, except he’s not here. Perhaps he’s having another glass of red wine backstage. Perhaps he’s succumbed to another case of stage fright. He had said he needed to be left alone in some empty hallway or a room where he could quietly sing to himself in peace and calm down before the show. He knows his concert is about to start, right? A cone of light falls on the stage. They're waiting, Ásgeir. Come on out.

One day before the concert – two days before Iceland's national holiday – Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson, the island's newfound hero, is relaxed. He's wearing white Chucks and a plaid shirt, a large skull tattooed on his chest. With his broad shoulders and rippling muscles, he doesn't really look like a singer-songwriter – he's more a cross between Ronan Keating and Michael Fassbender. He used to compete in track and field, spending his days hurling spears through the Icelandic sky. At night, he would spend hours watching videos of Olympic medal-winning javelin athletes. When an arm injury ended his career prematurely, he turned to music. Ásgeir, a pop star forged from bashfulness, a musician for whom music was not his first choice – a story that, perhaps, has to play out in Iceland.

He's been back home for two months now. This is where it all began – but also where it ends, because he always comes back. Ásgeir has spent two months practicing for this concert on the eve of Iceland's national holiday. Before that, he toured through Asia, Australia and the US, hitting all the big festivals. He spent months on the road. You can see it in his face – Ásgeir looks tired. "I never saw myself as this kind of frontman that I am now," he says. "I never imagined doing that. I miss being home. It's good to be back, finally." Sometimes the 23-year-old seems to still be overwhelmed by all the hype, as if he can't believe what has happened. You can take the boy out of Iceland, but you can't take Iceland out of the boy.

In 2012, his album "Dýrð í dauðaþögn" catapulted him into the spotlight. It was one of the island-nation's best-selling debuts and made the introverted Ásgeir an instant star. The numbers, if they can be believed, suggest every tenth Icelander owns a copy. To confirm Ásgeir's status, a British DJ recently picked a random number out of the Icelandic phonebook during a live broadcast and called it. Sure enough, the woman had one of Ásgeir's CDs sitting at home. Take a stroll through Reykjavik and you'll see the LP everywhere: in record store windows, of which there are many here, and at the cash registers of souvenir shops, of which there are even more. Ásgeir is featured next to Björk and above Sigur Rós. By now, he's totally mainstream, but in Iceland, consensus doesn't necessarily mean conformity or trash, it just means good taste. "Dýrð í dauðaþögn" won four Icelandic Music Awards and was nominated for the renowned Nordic Music Prize.

Asgeir

To appeal to an international market, Ásgeir's first album was also released in English. John Grant, a songwriting legend from Great Britain, helped with the translation. But its success was far from certain: Icelandic is more singsong than actual language and many words simply have no English equivalent. The first release sounded magical, like a fairytale tainted by grief. The singing was sometimes distant, but other times close, as if Ásgeir was being crushed by a mysterious sorrow. "In The Silence" also made it onto the English charts. The Guardian, the venerable trend bible, was impressed and called Ásgeir the "biggest musical export since Björk." The man in question blushes when asked about such praise. Björk? The woman who heard his songs on the radio while driving and then brought Ásgeir onto her record label? Who paved his way to the world? That Björk? For him, that sort of comparison is a bit overblown. He's just Ásgeir from the small town of Laugarbakki.

Laugarbakki is a village in the middle of nowhere. Its flat houses, which provide shelter for 40 or less inhabitants, seem glued to the mountain. This is where the man is from, the one who is so often cheered by thousands of people. It helps explain why he is still so shy in the great, big world with its massive concert halls. And why he'd sometimes rather say nothing at all than say too much. Ásgeir grew up in Laugarbakki. As a young boy he fed his neighbor’s sheep and planted trees just a few fjords down the road. Back then, each tree earned him 15 kroner. It was a measured, intimate childhood. His parents still live here – the father, Einar, is tall and strong, and the mother, Paulina, plays the organ at the local church and prays that her Ásgeir will at least make it home for Christmas every year. He doesn't always. He has to tour the world.

Asgeir

Biggest musical export since Björk? He blushes when he hears this.

This is where Ásgeir taught himself to play guitar during the period between boyhood and manhood. It was an acoustic guitar, of course – his parents don't care for electronic music. He played folk and classical music, rock and grunge, metal and punk, and a lot of Elliott Smith and Nirvana. The bands in nearby towns wouldn't let him jam with them because he was too young, they said. That left an impression too -- rejection usually does leave a bigger mark than encouragement. Ásgeir wanted to get better. Eventually he got so good that John Grant once said in an interview, with a tinge of consternation in his voice: "On some days I want to tear my hair out at how young and beautiful and talented and simultaneously nonchalant about it all he is. His knack for melody and gorgeous harmonies coupled with his amazing sense of rhythm and virtuosity on acoustic guitar should make him a household name." It wasn't that Ásgeir was particularly eager to excel, he was simply a fast learner. The casualness he exudes is something you have or something you don't – it's not something you learn. Ásgeir's music is a gift.

A gift like his may only be possible in a place like Iceland, a grotesque impossibility of a country, a black-green-gray lava landscape where the clouds hang so low over the moss that it feels like you could reach out and touch them. It often seems like the island is writing its inhabitants' music with them, as if the songs were crafted only partially by human hands and the rest comes from the depths of volcanoes, geysers and fjords.

Ásgeir's global success notwithstanding, he has remained one of the most Icelandic artists out there. He embodies the island, he sweats it, lives it. His humility is such that if he can do without roadies, he does. He just carries his equipment himself. He hasn't forgotten his roots either. His childhood friend Julius Róbertsson still accompanies him on guitar. And he still books his buddies from the reggae band Hjálmar. He’s rooted enough that when he has time to kill in Reykjavik, he still dips into his favorite pub for a beer. The tightness of the island keeps people from putting on airs. "We’re just 300,000,” Ásgeir says. “And you see all the people all the time around here. That keeps you grounded. I’m always really on the ground." He doesn't believe that he has changed. He greets the photographer and cameraman booked for the interview for this article with a handshake. He knows them. No big deal.

Asgeir
„I don’t believe that I’ve changed much since it all began.“

During the interview – it must be said because it’s so rarely the case among artists in the press these days – he's totally himself. A bit cautious, a bit excited. He had to get used to the media attention at first. In fact, he hasn't stopped getting used to it. There's no veil, no hard outer shell, no costume. He looks older, but not more aged – just more experienced and mature. He looks like someone who has seen more than most other people his age. He drums with his fingers on his chair, his view fixating on a distant glacier peak. Now and then his inner child shines through with understated charm and a heartbreaker smile.

Outside, flags are being hung for Icelandic National Day. Inside, Ásgeir declares that he would like to be an entertainer on the night of the concert. He's not looking to be Sinatra or anything, but a few words to the audience, that much he'd like to achieve. Audiences are notoriously more judgmental of performers who have left their home country to travel the world. They wonder if he still likes them, if he is still one of them, if he is too big for them, or if they are too small for him. These days, Ásgeir is trying very hard to be very Icelandic. He posts photos of himself on glaciers. He tweets – more than once – about how much it means to him to perform in Harpa Hall. Sometimes it seems like he's not only trying to convince his countrymen that he's still the same Ásgeir that he always was, but also himself.

The evening of the performance has arrived. When Ásgeir finally takes to the stage, where he is accompanied by a large orchestra and a small band, his nervousness is obvious -- even from as far as row 16. How had he put it earlier? "All of a sudden I was this musician and singer – that I had never been." It takes him until the third song to say anything at all. Yet when he does, his voice resounds like a fog spreading to the far corners of the concert hall. Ásgeir fulfills the artistic goals that everyone claims to sense in his songs. His lyrics come from his father, a poet. It’s so positively Icelandic: A father, a 70-year-old man, writes the lyrics for his 20-something son.

He plays his entire set in Icelandic. Once he dares to utter a greeting to the audience, the ice is broken. He is the home team playing in a familiar stadium. At the end, the crowd gives him a standing ovation that lasts several minutes. Bowing, Ásgeir leaves the stage. He's done it.

He's already working on his next album, to be released in English. Later. First, he wants to release it in Icelandic. He owes that to his country.

Asgeir