Like the valley where she comes from, Ösp’s music is a well-preserved and inspiring Icelandic secret. The singer/songwriter from Svarfaðardalur (in the North of the country) has never followed the electro-pop or ambient hype prompting the Icelandic music scene to become one of the most vibrant of the world. Instead, she decided to delve into her tradition, recovering and reviving her cultural roots, folk stories, and repertoire.
On the day of the release of her debut album, Tales from a Poplar Tree, and only a few hours before its launch happened at Sands Films in Rotherhithe for Tuned in London music series, we had the pleasure to have a chat with Ösp and understand a bit more about her music, which is deeply inspired by the Icelandic folk imaginary and how much London has influenced it.
“I have always been singing and my parents are singers and musicians as well. They also used to be in an acapella quartet for years. So, I would kind of grow up with music just being part of the everyday family life. I never really thought I would become a musician, but somehow, it happened. I started studying classical singing when I was 18, but then I kept being asked to do performances. First, with my family members asking me: ‘can you come and sing with me in this and this?’ Then, more and more people started asking that and, before I knew it, I was just kind of doing it a lot.
When I moved to Reykjavik, I started playing in a bluegrass band called Brother Grass with three other girls from the musical school I used to go to as I also went to study jazz. We decided to try to do some bluegrass and, eventually, my brother joined that band too. The project went on for five years and we released two albums and toured. So, I reckon that it was after that when I realised that there was no turning back”.
Her life, like her music education and career, are following a steady but gradual trajectory… with every step forward embodied by a different city.
“I am from a farm in a valley in the north of Iceland, so my first step was to move to Akureyri, which is populated by 18,000 people. That was quite a big change and then I moved to Reykjavik, which was an even bigger change. But when I moved to London, that was kind of a cultural shock! It took me a while to get used to all the external inputs, but it is a nice contrast. Part of me loves to be lost in a city where no one knows who you are. That’s because I come from a community in which everyone knows who you are, so it’s sometimes nice to be lost. However, after a while, you start missing being a part of a community, so it’s kind of back and forth”.
Despite the fact that London has today become Ösp’s second home, she’s never wanted to become a “permanent resident.”
“I decided to move to London in 2011 because I wanted to broaden my musical horizon… actually, it was about my cultural horizon in general. I have been mostly living in London for the last five years and only gone home for holidays, but now I am moving back to Iceland to reconnect a little bit and have some more time to write and do some music. To be honest, London is a tricky place to make a living and survive.
After five years, I feel like I need to go home and see what I can do there as well. The plan is to go back and forth a bit more, maybe every two or three months. I have another band here in London, which is a kind of electronic/folk band, so I do want to keep the contacts that I have here because my dream is to be based between the valley and the city”.
Her “in-between” situation is inevitably mirrored by her debut album.
“I wrote Tales from a Poplar Tree over a period of seven years, mostly while I was living in London. So the songs are both in Icelandic and English. I have to admit that they are very personal. They’re about homesickness, the idea of having your heart between two places and always torn between your two homes: you feel like you’re always missing something, wherever you are. Then, they reflect what is going on in the society as well. For example, one of my songs is about the picture of the Syrian child that was washed ashore by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote a song for him called ‘Neverland’. So, my album is a combination of my own emotional states, what’s going on in the society, and how I react to it. There are also two other songs that are poems. One of them is an old Icelandic poem, while the second one was written by a friend of mine. I can say that my songs are stories of people for people and it’s kind of like dreamy folk, I guess, it’s music that takes you to a different place and there’s definitely a mixture of themes, moods, and languages.
I like to write songs in Icelandic and I like to write them in English as well. When I play them live, I always try to get people in the right mindset: I explain what is going on, so they can somehow relate and try to imagine it. I explain what I am about to sing and what the song is about. I think people do like to hear singing in a different language and sometimes, to listen to music without understanding the words. That’s because it’s a different way of listening: you listen to a song differently if you don’t understand its lyrics, don’t you?”
As we discovered, Ösp’s music is not only in the balance between Iceland and London or countryside and city, but also between singing and song writing, because of her country tradition and relation with the English people’s music scene
“I feel a bit in between, I don’t really feel part of any scene, but at the same time, I feel part of both… The Icelandic music scene is really good today and very strong too. There are a lot of things going on and coming up: it’s amazing, even I am amazed by it. It’s the same with the English song writing scene. That’s why I feel a bit in between.
Here, in London, there is a singer called Brooke Sharkey. I think she is quite amazing and we kind of connect with our songs and style. While, in Iceland, there is this guy called Ásgeir who is doing quite well. Then, in the Scandinavian scene, I listen to a Faroese singer called Eivør, who is magnificent. She is a bit folksy but quite epic as well. I recommend her.
To go back to Icelandic music…There’s a very strong singing tradition in Iceland because we didn’t have a lot of instruments. There’s also a big choir scene there and I do really love those harmonies: that’s something I always try to take and bring into my music. For example, I love three part harmonies and it’s really nice to sing with people too, because it gives me very special feelings. I’m also moved by traditional lullabies and melodic songs. But, at the same time, I’m deeply attracted by storytelling. I think that folk music is so much about stories and their lyrics. My dad says: ‘it’s all about the lyrics: you can sing as bad as you can because, in the end, it’s the lyrics that count.’ But then my mum, who is a very good singer, is like ‘no, no, no… if you’re a very good singer, that’s all!’. Anyway, I do agree that words do matter too, so I try to make an impact with my storytelling”.
Storytelling is indeed a decisive element in her first album: a project that came to light a few months ago after a 7-year long process.
“I feel very proud to have released the album, I almost can’t believe I did it. Seven years ago, I didn’t really think that this would be something I could be doing. I didn’t really imagine myself writing songs to be honest. But then, somehow, I started writing and I got a lot of support from friends and, finally, I wrote a full album. My initial plan was to become a jazz singer to sing old jazz standards and few other stuff. Now, I do that as well on the side, but to write an album is different, it gave me more and I am very, very excited about it. But yes, it has definitely been a long process, for example, only the recording part took me over a year”.
Tales from a Poplar Tree represents the first (long) step that Ösp took in her music career. As a matter of fact, the Icelandic singer/songwriter is ready to think about the second one and let her valley inspire it.
“I am preparing to move back to Iceland. I am going to stay at the farm in my valley, where I am going to help my dad, who is a hiking guide. We are planning ahead for the summer. We want to build an artists’ retreat or a residency at the farm and transform the barn and stables into art spaces.
My entire family is pretty artsy. Next to my parents, my brother, who’s the one who arranged all the strings on my album, plays the guitar. He is an amazing musician. Then, my sister is a textile designer. We want to build something around what we all do to open it up and share it with people. So, yes, I’m looking forward to going back home for a while, reconnecting and hopefully starting to think about the next album.
However, I don’t want to have too many plans because I tend to plan too much. So I would like to enjoy getting this album out, introducing it, and hopefully playing it more to people. Then I just want to enjoy the Icelandic summer”.