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Exploring Iceland's music scene with artist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir

The lead singer of Icelandic folk/indie band Of Monsters and Men reflects on the country’s prolific creative output, including otherworldly music from the likes of Björk, and recommends the ultimate festival for music-lovers.

Published 14 Sept 2021, 06:05 BST, Updated 14 Sept 2021, 16:59 BST
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir performs on stage at Falls Festival in Fremantle, Australia in 2020.

Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir performs on stage at Falls Festival in Fremantle, Australia in 2020. 

Photograph by Matt Jelonek/Wire Image

It’s strangely reassuring to hear Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, lead singer and guitarist of Of Monsters And Men, acknowledge the malign effects of Covid-19 on her creativity — to hear that even a founding member of one of Iceland’s most commercially successful bands found herself languishing during the pandemic. “I felt like there was this kind of pressure to create. Like, ‘now you have time, make something,’” she says. “People were on social media a lot saying that, but I had a hard time feeling motivated. Creativity is all about play and you can’t play if you’re stressed.”

“In a way, it was kind of familiar — it reminded me of being on tour,” she continues. “When we get back, after some time you have to make another record and it’s like ‘OK, you need to be creative now’ but you can’t force it.”

When we meet in the Ásmundarsalur art gallery and coffee shop in central Reykjavik, Nanna has only recently returned from a retreat in a cabin in the Icelandic wilderness, where she spent time writing songs, playing music and walking her dog. While this has helped give a sense of renewal, the pandemic has meant the band hasn’t played a gig for well over a year. “I really miss it now,” explains Nanna, touching a spot in the centre of her chest. “I really feel it. I think the next time we play, I’m going to cry and be emotional.”

This year, the band will celebrate a decade since the release of its enormously successful debut album, My Head Is An Animal. The group was hastily assembled a year earlier, just a fortnight before Músíktilraunir, a musical talent contest designed to give a platform to up-and-coming Icelandic artists.

Many have seized the opportunity; Iceland famously punches well above its weight when it comes to music. A country with approximately the same population as Leicester, Iceland produced the extra-terrestrial sounds of Björk and Sigur Rós in the decades before Of Monsters And Men emerged. Without looking to belittle Leicester’s most successful band, Kasabian, the comparison does the English city no favours.

Nanna is quick to agree that the creative lineage helped. “As a girl growing up making music, I don’t feel like I had a whole lot of people to look up to, but I did have Bjork,” she says. “It was like, ‘OK she’s Icelandic, she’s a musician’. It didn’t feel like that was impossible.”

There’s inspiration from the surroundings, too. To anyone coming to Of Monsters And Men’s music for the first time, the lyrics teem with nods to Iceland’s mythmaking and heritage of sagas. On My Head Is An Animal, you’ll hear lines about kings, mountain and forests of talking trees. Perhaps surprisingly, Nanna says the link between the country and the band’s music has only become clearer to her more recently: “I hear it more now, with every year I get it more.”

There’s no denying the country’s remarkable creative output. What is it that makes Iceland so predisposed to art? Nanna has been asked about this before, but still isn’t sure of the answer. “I think maybe creativity is encouraged here — it feels like having a third arm. We have long, harsh winters and quite a lot of isolation, so maybe that has something to do with it, too,” she says. “Then when you go out, there’s a community feeling without other artists. Then, of course there’s the magic water…” She can’t quite keep a straight face when making this joke. “Honestly, I’m not sure.”

So there’s really no great Icelandic secret? “Well people are listening,” she says, looking dramatically around the cafe, her eyes flitting side-to-side conspiratorially. “I don’t want to be the one who spills the beans.” 

Check it out: Músíktilraunir, Reykjavik

Literally translating as ‘Music Experiment’, Músíktilraunir is part competition, part talent show and part initiative to give new Icelandic musicians a chance to make it big. The event takes place annually and, as well as Of Monsters And Men, previous winners have included Mammút and Samaris.

Nanna says: “It’s not massive, but it’s got everything. You’ll have someone performing heavy metal, then someone with a glockenspiel, then someone doing electro. What I think is super-cool about it is that it gives young bands this drive to create music, get on stage and perform. A lot of very cool things have come out of it.” 

Book it now: Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik

Iceland’s biggest music festival isn’t held out in a muddy field, but right in the heart of the capital. As well as Icelandic acts like Björk and Sigur Rós, the festival attracts international artists. Previous performers have included Florence and the Machine and Vampire Weekend. This year, the event is scheduled to be held on 3-6 November.

Nanna says: “There are some good venues in Reykjavik, but if you come during Iceland Airwaves, there are a lot of cool things happening everywhere. There are off-venue shows where artists can book their gigs in cafes or record stores, so there are things happening all over the city.” 

Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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