At the beginning of this year, the electro-acoustic orchestral pop music project MIMRA released its latest single ‘Right Where You Belong’. Behind the project is María Magnúsdóttir, born in Iceland in 1984. María is a singer, composer, producer, and music teacher as well as a vocal tutor. Even before releasing her solo material as MIMRA, she had gained well-earned attention throughout the years for her wide-range jazz vocals and distinctive musical arrangements. María carves her own sonic space between the electronic vibes of beats, loops and synths, and multi-layered classic arrangements. We met on the occasion of her single release to talk about her musical path.
Perhaps María’s parents were not deeply immersed in music, but María still grew up in a house with a record player and a few albums. The music heard in her home ranged from Vivaldi to classical and church music to…Stuðmenn.
‘I think I still know the whole Stuðmenn catalogue backwards and forwards because my dad loved it’, she laughs when asked about her music adventures in her early years. ‘That caught my attention. But I had my little Sony [player] for kids, with a microphone. I heard about Michael Jackson somewhere and heard bits of his music. I think I was five when I asked for his music for Christmas — a cassette of Bad by Michael Jackson, which I got from my aunt’.
An old organ in her parents’ living room was quietly tempting María to step onto the music path. ‘From a very early age, I started asking to study an instrument’, she remembers. Though music school seemed too expensive at that time, María found her way around the organ, pumping the air into it and picking up songs by ear, as she had a natural aptitude for it.
‘Finally, when I was 12, I was sent to music school. There, I started to learn piano. Two years later, I decided to move on to classical singing. I’ve always been in the choir as a kid’, she explains. But growing up in a church environment provided an opportunity for her to sing on stage every Friday. In María’s opinion, this was as good as a real music school, and as she claims, ‘a lesson in both musicality and performance and everything in between’. Certainly, such an experience was useful when the artist started working on her own music.
When María turned 20, she began to rise as an original material songwriter. ‘The first songs I wrote were crap. It happens to everyone, I guess. I don’t know of anyone who writes good songs at first. It’s exercise. But it was a revelation for me to realise that [writing songs] was that easy. Of course, it was a craft that I have been developing ever since. For example (in my opinion), writing lyrics is not something that you just shake out. You have to know what you want to say. That’s what I focused on’, admits María.
First Independent Steps
On the 15th of September, 2009, the world heard her first album, Not Your Housewife, released under the name María Magnúsdóttir, since MIMRA didn’t yet exist. Not Your Housewife contains ten original compositions and took one and a half years to make. The sound belongs to the space between R&B, soul, funk and pop.
María asked her friend Pétur Atli Antonsson to design a cartoon cover, and she surrounded herself with some great musicians from funk bands like Börkur Hrafn Birgisson (Jagúar), Daði Birgisson (Jagúar), Jóhann Ásmundsson (Mezzoforte) and Magnús Trygvason Elíassen, who is currently one of the most sought after drummers in Iceland. A great team, no question.
She then rolled over jazz vocals studies and FÍH music school, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Vocals and Composition at The Royal Conservatory in The Hague in 2015. And that wasn’t all. María moved to London, where she did a master’s degree in Popular Music at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2016, graduating with honours.
‘[Goldsmiths] was a very open school. People were experimenting a lot, and I had a music studio that I could record in all day long to finish my project. My album that I released in 2017 [Sinking Island] was my master’s project. I recorded, mixed and did all of it in London at Goldsmiths University’, María notes, describing her experiences at the university.
The sonic journey of MIMRA started in the Netherlands under the influence of the Brooklyn-based instrumental fusion ensemble Snarky Puppy. María and her German friend, Lydia Hendrikje Hornung, were impressed by YouTube videos of Snarky Puppy’s 2013 recording sessions, where around 30 musicians and different guest singers gathered on stage in a circle during a live performance. Everyone had headphones on. There was no overdub, almost no editing and a live audience. An audio engineer was working in real-time on the mixing, and the event was documented on a video.
So why not put together such a ‘headphones’ concert on their own? María and Lydia gathered musicians and a big band and used this as the opportunity and much-needed motivation to write for symphonic instruments and create bigger song arrangements. As a result, two headphones concerts took place with their colleagues from the university. A few live videos of the songs ended up on YouTube. This was literally the birth of MIMRA.
‘At the beginning, it was always about being an orchestral folk-pop. I was also super inspired by Laura Mvula. She is a British singer and songwriter who released the first album [in 2013] and then was invited by an orchestra to do this album again with a full orchestra. [Laura’s experience] was an extreme inspiration for me, and I dream of playing my music with an orchestra. That would be the best thing ever’, declares María, adding that since the release concert where she gathered 16 musicians on stage, she’s wanted to bring her music to a bigger platform again.
The Pearl of Sinking Island
MIMRA explores different sonic areas—sometimes jazzy, sometimes more electronic. One thing is sure—she puts in the effort to make her song arrangement bold, which takes a toll on her emotions and energy. But María just flies on the wide-spread wings of her mind-blowing vocal range in the operatic soundscape, though she would never call herself a classical singer. How, then, did ‘Coraline’ come to life?
‘That’s probably the most emotional song I’ve written. I wrote it with tears in my eyes in the midst of a break up of a long relationship, and then I did the very suitable string arrangements around the song. I moved to London and recorded it while I was going through the post-breakup stage, when I was experiencing a lot of anger. That’s when I put all the electronic darkness to the song’.
Women in the Industry
Somehow, our discussion channels into the topic of the challenges that women face in the music industry, as María is in the frontlines as a performer and also knows the depths of the producing industry. It turns out that this is a subject especially close to her heart since her bachelor’s thesis addressed the reasons that women are still underrepresented in the music industry.
Even her majesty Björk, with all her achievements in music in the past 30 years, is still not given proper credit for her music production as she last mentioned in a 2015 interview. Recently, the winner of numerous music awards for movie scores, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, cast a light in her acceptance speeches on women’s participation in the industry as well. A very inspiring light. Women dare to make music as often as men and of the same quality, but they seem to not be trusted enough to be heard and appear in the public spotlight.
‘When I try to find people to work with, I have in the back of my mind that I want to have a one-to-one ratio of women to men, just for the sake of it. It’s how I think it should be’, claims María, then she goes on about her collaborators. ‘One of the women in the Netherlands that I have worked with the most with is the sound engineer Nina Kraszewska. She recorded with me and was the sound engineer in charge of everything at the headphones concert. She is really great at her job. I’m a producer, but sometimes I get a bit shy about saying so. We have to do everything so perfectly to prove ourselves. That’s a problem’.
With her latest single, ‘Right Where You Belong’, María entrusted ZÖE (Zöe-Ruth Erwin), the LA- native and Reykjavík-based music producer and singer who wrote the title track for Baldvín Z’s 2018 movie, Lof Mér Að Falla (Let Me Fall). ‘She works fast, and she’s good at what she does. And her music is also very cool. She’s an asset to Iceland’, María says of ZÖE.
The collaboration between the two of them went very smoothly. ‘I heard what she had been producing with Elísabet. I was intrigued and thought it was done very beautifully. We met at her studio at Grandi. I wanted to have a piano there and to keep it minimal. I had a lot of ideas beforehand, but I wanted to give my producers the space they needed, of course. I can be really strict and a horrible backseat driver, but because it’s my music, I have to represent it my way and be satisfied.’
ZÖE managed to push María into the unknown and turned her habits of working on a production upside-down. Up to that point, in MIMRA, the vocals had come last. But that was exactly the first thing that ZÖE wanted to do. She asked María to experiment with different notes and gently pushed her out of her comfort zone. ‘I can sometimes be a bit mathematical, like I have to know what I’m doing. She got me out of that mindset. I had to randomly sing some notes, and that’s what you hear in the beginning [of ‘Right Where You Belong’]’, explains María. ‘Some of the notes became either simple or very jazzy and not what I had in mind. Then [ZÖE] brought the brightness, all these bright sparkly sounds that are in this dramatic piano ballad I had written. I will probably perform it live in an acoustic setting with a piano and this dark core, but she made it as optimistic as possible with a message that I had not necessarily been able to originally get across’, states María. The song is an ode to a loved one who is going through a hard time. ‘It’s a subject kind of dear to me’, she discloses. ‘People need to hear not that everything will be ok but that there are people there for them, people they can trust, and that there is always hope. We all need encouragement, especially in our darkest hours’, she concludes.
As for MIMRA, we shall be patient and keep our fingers crossed that María will find the time and balance between the very new and precious state of motherhood and the urge to let her music be heard. Meanwhile, enjoy the uplifting brightness of ‘Right Where You Belong’ in its full grace. And who knows? Perhaps we will get a beautiful and unexpected gift of an entire EP out of the ideas that have already been boiling up in María’s mind! That’s what I am quietly wishing for in 2020.
Words by Stína Satanía