Gyða Valtýsdóttir rose to prominence with electronic experimentalists múm, the lauded Icelandic group that led the charge in the country’s fertile underground scene in the early 2000s and rightfully gained international recognition. She left the band to pursue her studies as a cellist, and in 2017, she released the album Epicycle with her unique interpretations that reach into the core of music. Evolution, her sophomore solo album, released in 2018 and co-produced by Alex Somers, features original compositions and many remarkable collaborators. Bartek Wilk takes a look into the unique sonic landscape of GYDA’s Evolution.
BW: To start, I would like to ask about your relationship with the cello. When did it appear in your life? Was it your first love? Was it a reciprocal one?
GV: I started playing the cello at the age of 7. I knew nothing about it, but my older sister told me that it was dark and mysterious; that resonated with me. I remember how excited I was about our first encounter. My first cello was made of very dark wood, which I loved. But, to be honest, it didn’t come easy and I had a complicated relationship with it. I ended up quitting and got myself an electric guitar. When I was 16, I picked it up again and met a teacher whom I loved. With him, I felt like I was learning everything under and beyond the stars, both about myself and the language of vibrations, energy, expression, truth, connection, and listening – to listen and listen deeper. Today, I feel like the cello is an extension of my body.
BW: When I think about your work, a few things come to my mind – a constant change, movement, searching, experimentation. That’s how it was when you started your musical adventure with múm, and so it is today. But are the Gyða Valtýsdóttir of the late 90s and today’s Gyða the same person?
GV: My first reaction is to say ‘not at all!’ But, in some way, even though I feel so far away from her, I have made a circle or a spiral, so I’m actually closer to her than ever before. When I started in múm, I had that open mind of a child – I lost it very quickly. But I feel like I have gained that mind again, but with the awareness of an old lady.
BW: I ask about it also because of the title of your last album. Can its meaning be read literally in the context of your creativity? Or would that be an over-interpretation?
GV: The name Evolution has a broad meaning to me. It is a reminder that everything is constantly evolving, and it isn’t a linear progression but, rather, like a spiralling whirlwind. The only real death for me is stagnation. I had shied away from releasing a solo album for the fear that it would define me, but I knew now was the time and this was the way. It was a necessary step in my evolution. So, in a way, it is personal, but there is also a more universal theme, an absolute awe of this life and our evolution as conscious creatures.
BW: Let’s talk more about Evolution. It’s a beautiful album – so different from the previous one, Epicycle, not so demanding on the listener and accessible to a wider audience. The cello has given way a little, allowing your voice and the textual layer to nearly match it. Did you feel the need to speak verbally as well as musically?
GV: Epicycle was a step that I had to take before feeling ready to release my own music. On it, I am an interpreter, which is far less revealing. But it also refers to an important part of my past. The cello is my voice, and I love non-verbal communication. But yes, words are a great vehicle for musicality as well.
BW: So, which track is the heart of this album?
GV: I said somewhere that ‘Í Annarri vídd’ was the mother potato of the record. When I was working on that track, I knew what kind of approach I wanted to use on this record and decided to go forth to make it, following a voice that was slightly outside of myself.
BW: Evolution was released under the figureight records label. Although the label is based in New York, it is hard not to see it as almost a family. It is an artistic collective to which many great Icelandic artists belong (JFDR, Úlfur or Indridi). Is that reflected in the atmosphere at the label?
GV: The label is small and in its infancy. The label manager is Icelandic as well, so it makes sense that the radius is still within the rivers of kith and kin.
BW: To this day, everyone associates you with múm – one of the most esteemed Icelandic music collectives. After the undoubted success of múm’s releases, you decided to leave this project and devote time to the cello as well as to collaborating with other artists as a freelancer. You disappeared for a while and then came back with your own work. If you could advise young artists or suggest how they might look for, and find, their own way, what would you say? Should they follow your example?
GV: Everyone has their own trail to follow. My journey felt often like being lost in a labyrinth. Looking back, I do see the importance of all the detours I made and what I found valuable in each cul-de-sac. One thing that would like to say to that younger self is to be softer towards myself and allow myself to be on a journey. I felt like I was running out of time to reach somewhere, as if I wasn’t living my calling. I had to go on a deep journey inwards to get out of that maze. So, I would say, this is a trip worth taking for anyone. Usually, passing through the gate to that path is quite painful; that is how you’ll recognise it, but that is also why you won’t [recognise it].
BW: Do you follow the Icelandic music scene? Whom among the young Icelandic creators has particularly attracted your attention?
GV: I’m in awe of the young generation and how they create! What I love is how they do not define themselves and are immersed in all kind of art, unafraid and uncompromising in their authenticity.
BW: The themes of your musical collaborations are wide-ranging. I would like to ask about one in particular: your amazing performance at the PEOPLE Festival with Kjartan Sveinsson. Many people expressed their hope that a great album could result from this collaboration. Was this performance just a one-time meeting?
GV: That was a song that we did for my next record, Epicycle II, which is a constellation of pieces by ‘living’ composers. Working with Kjartan was effortless and fun, so who knows, we might do something more in the future. In this particular performance at PEOPLE, we performed with Merope – truly beautiful musicians. We took turns playing on each other’s songs. We will be doing a small tour next year with these elements coalescing.
BW: Your twin sister Kristín Anna, whose album I Must Be the Devil was released in April 2019, also performed at the PEOPLE Festival. Are your musical paths intertwined? Do the Valtýsdætur sisters support each other in their solo endeavours?
GV: I feel very grateful for her presence in my life. Although we do not make much music together, we are very supportive of one another, not just in music but in life in general. I did play on her album and I play some shows with her, and sometimes I get her to sing a song or two with me on stage. We’ve only created music together in the context of Ragnar Kjartansson’s art piece, Forever Love, where we created a whole album along with him and the twins, Aaron and Bryce Dessner. One of the songs that we wrote is featured in Ragnar’s new piece, Death Is Elsewhere [premiered on 30 May 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York].
BW: I have to ask about your experience of working on film music. What was it like working on the soundtrack to Mihkel? Is a film score something that attracts you?
GV: I have been around film scoring for a while, playing for, and working with, film composers. I have always found it attractive, but at the same time, I was hesitant to go into it. I felt I had to be more solid in my own voice. Film scoring requires you to be in service and feel and create what the movie needs. You can get lost in it. When I felt ready, I said it out loud, and a few days later, I got a call from the director, who asked me to do Mihkel. I feel very much at home in this medium, and it is really inspiring; it gives me freedom to go in a direction that I wouldn’t do in my own music.
BW: While reading your interviews, I noticed the emerging thread of travel. In fact, you are on the road constantly. You have changed residence, travelled to make recordings and given concerts. Is travelling also a source of musical inspiration? And is there a place in the world that you feel the strongest connection to?
GV: Everything is an inspiration, but I would say that the travels I do within my head are a greater source of inspiration than anything else, as are the people in my life. To answer the other part of the question, I have had such magical experiences in Istanbul that I keep that city close to my heart. Portugal is another favourite, but, uff, there are so many places that I have yet to visit.
Words by Bartek Wilk
Photos by Lilja Birgisdóttir