Words by Jeff Obermeyer
When you tell people you’re going to be interviewing Steinunn Harðardóttir, they immediately begin to sing her praises. Her partner in the Sparkle Poison musical experience, Guðlaug Mía Eyþórsdóttir, told me, ‘I’ve worked with all kinds of people but Steinunn is one of the most gentle and giving people I have ever gotten to know. She has a special way of seeing the positive sides of things and a unique quality of showing you sides of the world around you and yourself that you might be unaware of!’ Gunnar Lárus Hjálmarsson, a.k.a. Dr. Gunni, agreed. ‘I have nothing but praise for Steinunn,’ he told me. ‘She is just a wonderful human being and it was effortless and fun working with her. She lights up every room with her positivity.’ The common thread is that not only is she a talented musician, she’s also a pretty great person.
I first saw Steinunn perform as her musical alter ego dj. flugvél og geimskip (which translates as DJ Airplane and Spaceship) at Airwaves back in 2014, and I was little prepared for the journey she took the audience on, one that involved cats and snakes and spaceships and her leading the crowd in doing karate chops so we could all get back to where we started from in the space-time continuum. There was a lot packed into that 30-minute set, and the joy was evident on people’s faces when they surrendered themselves to her vision and fully embraced the experience. It was one of the happiest audiences I’ve ever been in.
Steinunn has put out four albums as dj. flugvél og geimskip: Rokk Og Róleg Lög (2010), Glamúr Í Geimnum (2013), Nótt Á Hafsbotni (2015), and most recently, Our Atlantis in 2018. The release of Our Atlantis was preceded by a free online video game in which the player navigates through a psychedelic landscape in an effort to rescue creatures, while fighting off enemies using a Pomeranian battle axe (yes, you read that last part correctly). I played it, and let me tell you, it was a complete and total trip. Steinunn is also a member of Skelkur Í Bringu and Sparkle Poison, has collaborated with the likes of Oyama, Dr. Gunni, and Muted, and is a talented visual artist. As if that isn’t enough, she’s also the mother of a young daughter. Art, music, video games, parenthood — to say Steinunn has a lot going on would be an understatement.
We connected via email to try to figure out how to best do the interview. Would she prefer to get questions by email, or be more spontaneous and do a Skype call? ‘I am not sure what is best to do about the interview,’ she wrote back. ‘I like to not know the questions and just say something, but also it is good to have time to really think about them and give maybe better answers – but sometimes they are not better because I think too much!’ Eventually we agreed on the best of both worlds — I’d send some questions by email so she could take her time with them, but occasionally I’d shoot her an in-the-moment question via Facebook Messenger that she would answer immediately and spontaneously. It’s hardly a typical approach, but then again, there isn’t anything typical about Steinunn.
It should come as no surprise that Steinunn’s earliest musical influences came from far-away lands. ‘The first that I can remember that inspired me greatly was Martin Denny,’ she recalled. “My parents had a cassette with his music and I thought it was music from Australia [Denny was an American known as the ‘Father of Exotica’], which was the most exotic place I could think of. I remember listening to that cassette and being transported to a different place. I was no longer in Iceland or my room or in a car – I was just suddenly in a forest by the sea filled with strange animals and moonlight and blue, purple, pink and green colors. It was amazing! I was four or five, and this was an experience that had great impact on me. This showed me that where you are, and when, is not something fixed, it can change with music. You can travel to another dimension with music. Martin Denny was a real magician. And music is not only music, it is a special power that can transform things into something else.”
Another inspiration for Steinunn was Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac. ‘My parents had her record. She sang like all the animals in the forest, and she was so beautiful, wearing gold with long black hair. She could transform into animals with her voice. When I heard her music my parents told me that she was the last Incan princess, that she grew up in the forest with the animals and learned to talk to them and that is how she can sing like that – I wanted to be a singer! I wanted to change into animals and talk to other beings with my voice, with music. Music is another world inside our world, it is world within world within world, it is travel, it is a gate or a portal to other realms.’
Steinunn got started early, singing as soon as she could speak and recording her music into a Fisher-Price recorder by the time she was five years old. She continued all the way through high school, though at that time there weren’t many young women making music. ‘When I was starting to make music I did not think much about this, but I found out early that being a woman made things (for me at the time at least) easy. People did not expect me to be able to do the things that boys do when they make music, so I had to do very little to impress people. If I just turned on a bass-amp and played one riff many were impressed.’
But it hasn’t always been easy being a woman in music. ‘By recording my own music, people could not believe it. And that is also a problem if you like to get credit for your work. My friends have told me that many people they know think I always work with someone who programs my MPC, or something like that. But I don’t really care. It sometimes makes me sad when I work with guys and hear that people then think the guys make all the music, but that is something that is not that important.’ Has that changed at all in recent years? ‘I think it really has changed. Today I think that women are much more seen on stages and part of the scene.’
Glamúr Í Geimnum put Steinunn on the map, a poppy, wandering journey that seemingly broke all the rules. But her follow-up Nótt Á Hafsbotni was a departure, a darker, more structured, beat-driven album. “I did not know about song structure when I wrote Glamúr Í Geimnum. I did not know that things should come back and repeat and I did not know the rules of how to make a pop song. Then I went to Japan to work with others in a writing camp for Sony Music, and they told me, ‘We need a hook now,’ and I was like, ‘A hook? What is that?’ Then they told me about how to structure a pop song, and I thought, OK, that is a good way to get the listener on board so they don’t fall off somewhere in the middle of the song, and if they do, the hook gets them back to the ship.” But the differences on Nótt Á Hafsbotni weren’t solely due to what she’d learned about song structure. There were also other influences. ‘Then also I love DnB music, so I got an MPC to make better beats, I wanted to be able to dance and for people to dance to the music. I always see in my mind that some DJ will put my songs on in a club, but that does not happen often, or maybe never, but that would be a dream!’
Working with Guðlaug Mía Eyþórsdóttir on their project Sparkle Poison also had an impact on Steinunn during this period. ‘The beginning of our collaboration with Sparkle Poison was when we went to the most boring concert of our lives and we thought – this was so boring we could easily do a more fun concert! And since this band is playing at a real venue, we should make a more fun concert at this venue. So, we just started making music – or something like that. It was not necessarily about the music, but the experience.’ Both Guðlaug and Steinunn were learning together. “[Guðlaug] had never played an instrument, so when she was playing a guitar and I was playing drums I called out to her, ‘Hey Gulla, can you play the song faster, because I want to play the drums faster’, and she said, ‘Which hand should move faster then?’ because she was not sure what the hands were doing exactly, they were just somehow making noise with the guitar. So working with her opened my eyes and mind to different and new approaches to music entirely.”
As enjoyable as the albums are, there’s nothing quite like seeing dj. flugvél og geimskip live. Steinunn constantly interacts with the audience, narrating a journey based on her music and visuals. ‘I don’t think of the story when I’m recording,’ she told me. ‘It just comes in later while I sing, or most of the time the story is just being made while I load the next song on stage and have to wait – so I make up something so there is not a strange silence between songs.’ Lest you think that the story component is just filler, it is clear that it’s actually very important, especially in the live performance. ‘When I listen to music each sound has its own story, so when I listen to music there is always storytelling going on somewhere in my mind. I can hear the story even though there is no text or vocals. But I like to have all the audience with me, like we are all connected like a family or on a ship together, and by telling stories, we all have similar things in our mind at the concert, and I like that. Then we all travel together, and it feels like one big thing, not many separate things. And then it is also easier to play for everyone in the room and create an adventure.’
Her latest album, Our Atlantis, debuted its first track as part of a video game the player has to solve in order to hear the song. ‘I was working in Bíó Paradís and my friends who were also working there were playing a video game called WorldQuest made by their friend Þorsteinn Cameron. I played the game and it was the most fun I had had for a long time so I thought, this is great! I also want to make a video game! And I am always making music so it made sense to combine the two.’ Most people probably wouldn’t have taken the idea any further, but Steinunn isn’t most people. “I learned how to do things in Unity (game engine) and I did not design the game, I just made something and then another thing and another until the game was ready. The concept was maybe because I wanted it to be a game – you had to have a mission. And since the game is more like a world to walk around in than a game maybe, it would be good idea to hide things there for the player to find, and this song ‘Have Fun at Home’ is made out of loops, so to gather them also made sense.”
One of the defining musical characteristics of Our Atlantis is an overarching Eastern influence, with Persian and North African influences that give the whole thing an exotic feel like you’d find in an old black-and-white film. Steinunn’s been infatuated with the Eastern ‘otherness’ since she was young. ‘When I was a kid my father took me to see a Chinese band play concert here in Reykjavík,’ she recalled. ‘They had instruments I had never seen before that made sounds like nothing else. After that, I was really interested in everything that was further away than Italy. It seemed like the rules I grew up with and the boxes things should fit into here in the West did not exist there. Of course, there were just different rules and boxes, but to me everything could happen there! There were strange instruments with new sounds that did not exist here, many beautiful and interesting animals, different culture, pyramids, the 1,001 Nights, deserts and castles, snakes, real magic!’
Our Atlantis finds Steinunn signing in English for the first time. Why the change? It’s primarily about practicality. ‘I have been playing more and more abroad and I like that. I like to travel, and I love to play my music to new audiences. I also like the audience to understand what I am singing about because usually I tell stories in the songs. I also think that singing in English will make my music more accessible to people not only from Iceland and I like that.’ Many Icelandic artists I’ve spoken to find it easier to write and rhyme in English than in their native language, but not her. ‘I find it MUCH harder to write songs in English. Singing and making up text in Icelandic takes no time for me — I just sing something maybe three times and then I sort out the best sentences…. But I cannot do this in English. I have to sit until late in the night or drive forever in my car singing along with the music until I find the right words and ask my parents for help. Haha!’
So, what about those spontaneous Facebook questions, you ask?
What everyday thing or event brings you joy?
‘Coffee, light posts, and doors.’
What did you see or do today that inspired you?
‘Haha today! I listened to a song by Indian singer Kaushiki and it is soooo good! I also listened again to the performance of Ásta Fanney and Daníel Friðrik that was recorded at Mengi last night, which was awesome! A whole different universe there. And then I was driving and singing in the car and that was fun. Also listened to an Elvis Presley song with only bass and vocals and that was reminding me that we don’t always need 50 sounds at the same time, and now I should be going to sleep but am in my studio in the basement and making new music.’
What brought you joy today?
‘HI! Hahaha. I just noticed that I wanted to do things like make music and walk outside and meet a friend, and I thought: aha! I have not felt like this for a long time – I’m feeling good! And that made me joyful. Then I was happy that it was snowing because I like snow. And I just remembered how many movies I still have not watched, and also my daughter was funny and dancing, she is one year old. Also, my boyfriend was funny.’
I asked Steinunn what it’s like being a new parent. ‘Having a daughter has changed how I see the world. I much more see life and death as something real. We are born and we live and we die,’ she reflected philosophically. ‘I cannot really explain it, but it feels a little like when I sit inside and look at the rain outside and imagine how it would be to walk out there and get all wet and have the raindrops on my skin, but then when I am outside it is just a whole different feeling – it is real. That is how I experience life now – I feel it more.’
‘I feel it more.’ That says it all.