The first thing you notice about Reykjavik in November is the cold rain that peppers down, a thin constant sheet of damp chill.
The second thing you might notice is Björk, perhaps Iceland’s most famous and visible export. Nearly every local and tourist alike has a Björk story. Spotted grabbing dinner with her children, skipping (literally) out of the national concert hall Harpa, her presence speaks less to some mystical Björkian ubiquity and more to the total normalization of Iceland’s most celebrated personalities, living their lives like the rest of us (well, Icelanders). When I arrived in Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves festival a week ago, I found a seat at a communal table at a local hostel bar where I had an interview scheduled with a musician later in the afternoon — only realizing after 30 minutes, through my jetlagged stupor, that she was sitting across from me. I saw her two nights later as we both picked up late-night snacks at a local convenience store, and twice after that around Harpa. On a given night, a government representative might finish a session at Parliament and head into town to play a gig at a bar with his punk band. Ted Cruz is not doing that.
All of this is to say, musicians are everywhere in Reykjavik. Everyone’s in a band and everyone is a songwriter. Airwaves was originally devised as an off season tourist attraction 18 years ago, first held in October. But as Reykjavik has hustled to keep pace with a tourism boom over the last five years, the festival has been pushed further back, the most convincing evidence that, as Sindri Már Sigfússon of Sin Fang put it, “There is no off season anymore.”
Reykjavik is the new Stockholm, except it’s nothing like Stockholm. Where the Swedish capital churns out pristine pop with an edge, there’s no identifiable quality to Icelandic pop except perhaps a preoccupation with its own idiosyncrasies — it’s a country in love with its own eccentricities.
If there is a trend to be highlighted, it might be atmospheric, epic-sounding sonic landscapes. But Reykjavik is also home to a thriving rap scene, a few burgeoning punk bands, and a killer late-night dance scene. (When the winter sun doesn’t rise until 11 a.m, bathing the city in an ambient glow for a mere four hours, bedtime is a theoretical matter.)
“You have to make up your own little identity in this tiny scene,” Sigfússon said. Over the past decade, he has zig-zagged between freak-folk outfit Seabear, his solo project, and the trip-hop supergroup Gangly with Jófriður Ákadóttir of Samaris and Pascal Pinon and Úlfur Alexander Einarsson. “It could sound like the Strokes or something, and that’s fine if it sounds like the Strokes — if there’s no other band in Iceland that sounds like that.”
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, the frontwoman of Of Monsters and Men, echoed this: “It’s such a small scene, you can’t be doing what this person is doing, so you’re always trying to create your own and stand out from the rest,” she told me. Musicians tend not to stick to just one project, even when they’re working in the business full-time. Composer Ólafur Arnalds also owns a chip shop in downtown Reykjavik; he was a drummer for a hardcore outfit before he turned to classical compositions. His latest record features Hilmarsdóttir on the standout track “Particles.”
It’s partly due to the large volume of musicians packed into in a circumscribed environment; there are high-profile names, but the large majority of musicians might never make it out of Reykjavik. “I don’t think anyone even enters their mind that they’re going to make any money off music in Iceland,” Sigfússon said. It fosters a collaborative environment: “People are generally happy when other bands are doing well around them in Iceland or getting some attention abroad,” he added. “It’s just good for everyone.”
The community of musicians is contiguous with the arts at large in Reykjavik — out of necessity, since everyone and anyone is a musician. Icelandic acts tend to support local designers. Björk might have worn a Gucci headpiece to Saturday evening’s concert, but so too will she Instagram a custom ensemble by Hildur Yeoman. Seventeen-woman rap collective Reykjavikurdætur stormed the stage clad in looks by Eyglo, another Reykjavik-based brand who shares the Kiosk boutique, something of a mecca for local designers, with both Yeoman and knitwear designer Magnea.
Film and visual art are also intertwined with music. The artist Ragnar Kjartansson contributed to the Yoko Ono retrospective currently at the Reykjavik Museum of Art, while Sigfússon, once a practicing visual artist, put on a gallery show during Airwaves with Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason of múm. Sigfússon’s girlfriend, the sister of Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, is a graphic designer with whom he collaborates on tour merch and album art; his brother Mani Sigfússon is one of the foremost music video directors in Iceland.
In some ways, Icelandic, with its convoluted grammar and insular vocabulary, might seem an obstacle to music exports. Yet Sigur Rós’s lyrics are largely in Icelandic, or else in Hopelandic — a made-up language the band invented as placeholder lyrics that eventually made its way onto records.
“People are saying if you sing in English, you’re going to do this way better or that way better, but it’s not true at all,” Ákadóttir said. Her band, Samaris, released its first English-language album over the summer, but it was 2013’s Icelandic-language self-titled Samaris that earned her band its initial buzz. “You’ve got to always do your own thing,” she added — no matter how weird. Even its most bankable exports like Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men are not exactly commercial.
“There’s always people making weird stuff here and not giving a shit about how specific it is,” said the composer Nico Muhly, who co-founded the Bedroom Community label with musician and producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Bedroom Community just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a showcase at Iceland Airwaves. “Even the big names are artistically not sure-fire hits,” he added.
With its difficult language, harsh landscape, and 24-hour days and nights, the country has acquired the reputation of being isolated and challenging, perhaps wrongly. “Iceland is actually the opposite of remote,” Muhly said. “I go to Iceland more often than I go to Brooklyn.” And while more people might be coming in than going out — that tourism boom has brought around two million tourists to Iceland in the past year alone — they’re being exposed to music all the while. Airwaves isn’t the only major festival; its binary opposite, June’s Secret Solstice festival, featured Of Monsters and Men, Radiohead, and Die Antwoord. The city’s film festival showed Chloë Sevigny’s debut directorial effort Kitty, so naturally Sevigny herself showed up. And beyond the marquee events, the lush countryside has proved a draw for Beyoncé, the Kardashians, and Justin Bieber, all in search of adventure.
Yet in spite of all the attention thrust on Reykjavik in the past five years, it still comes back to music, the pulsing core of the city’s cultural landscape.
“Music is one of the most important, if not the most important cultural export, from here,” Muhly said.