Words by Jeff Obermeyer
Photo by Marcus Getta
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Dream Wife as I waited for them to take the stage in Harpa’s Silfurberg room. I was already a huge fan of Iceland-born singer Rakel Mjöll, having fallen in love with her performance on Halleluwah’s self-titled 2015 album, but I expected this to be something different from the old-school lounge stylings of that project. And it was. It was punk, and honest, and powerful, and Dream Wife were immediately in heavy rotation on my iPod.
The band’s back story is fairly well-known. In 2014, Rakel Mjöll connected with a pair of Brighton University classmates, Brits Alice Go and Bella Podpadec, to form a band as part of an art project. With Go on guitar and Podpadec on bass, the trio created a This Is Spinal Tap-like mockumentary and performed live in a gallery. Things went so well that they stuck at it. In 2016, they released some singles and eventually combined them into the four-song EP01 – an all-killer-no-filler debut that made a definitive statement to the music world that Dream Wife were here and were going to be a force to be reckoned with.
We may eventually look back on 2018 and see it as Dream Wife’s breakout year. In January, they released their first full-length album, the 11-song eponymous Dream Wife, and immediately set about touring and taking over the world with festival dates in Europe, a few stops in the US, and some shows in Japan. The second half of the year was given over to a 10-week headlining tour that opened in the US and Canada, stormed through the UK, and then headed across the Channel to the rest of Europe, spreading their message of DIY female, female-identifying, and non-binary empowerment. They’re here, and they have something to say. We would all benefit from listening.
I caught up with Rakel while Dream Wife were in Berlin opening for Garbage and getting ready to start the US leg of their tour. ‘It’s really cool that now we’re supporting Garbage and we’re having such lovely chats with [Garbage vocalist] Shirley Manson,’ Rakel Mjöll said. ‘They’re all so brilliant and such good people that it’s so great just hearing her chat, because she’s been in this business for, like, 30 years, and the past years especially she’s been really encouraging. She’s really supporting lots of female-fronted bands and talking a lot about the fucked up things that have happened to her in the music industry, like talking about mental health, talking about eating disorders, talking about how she was treated.’
During my 20-minute conversation with Rakel, one word kept coming up: ‘encouragement’. She clearly recognises that Dream Wife have a platform, and the members embrace their ability to be role models. ‘I think it’s just so important to support other women, or female-identifying and non-binary people, to not be afraid of, you know… not being afraid to just do it and have fun, and just to make a band with your friends if you want to… to make it more of a norm than it is, so you don’t have to question yourself so much.’
It’s one thing to talk the talk. But Dream Wife are also walking the walk. In July, they collaborated with Girls Rock to put out a call for female, female-identifying, and non-binary artists to perform in the support slots of their headline tour. And the response? It was overwhelming! Within a week, they received 433 applications. ‘It was only out for a week – a week deadline’, Rakel recalled. ‘And that was pretty amazing. And it took a few weeks to listen to all of the bands, but it was very great to be able to listen to so many of these bands and sort of see what crazy talent was out there! It was also exciting to read, because we also had questions that were more like… the one question I didn’t realise would bring so many stories is, “What is your local music scene like?” And there were many interesting stories that came from that question, both just people talking about bands that have formed in communities around maybe, like, a queer punk scene – and that’s happening up north in England – and even negative stuff, like stories about somehow feeling like outcasts coming together and changing the scene.’
But as inspiring as the response was, some of the answers were painful. ‘And also stories that were really heart-breaking’, she told me. One in particular struck a chord, from a band in a smaller city with a scene that was controlled by just a few bookers, who simply wouldn’t give them any opportunities. ‘There was once a touring band that was female-fronted, and they were told they couldn’t get on that bill because if the promoter would add them to the bill, the night would be too feminist. It’s like a complete joke.’
Working with Girls Rock is an important part of the band’s mission. ‘Girls Rock is a global organisation, run by volunteers in different cities, that’s really active in Reykjavík. It’s massive in Reykjavík, but it happens in different cities around the world, where they host camps, like these kind of rock camps. And they offer instruments to young girls and teenagers who come to these camps, and it’s all volunteer run, and they can either learn instruments, they can learn about the music business, graphic design… sort of like areas around it. And it’s more about encouraging friendships and to feel like you’re in a safe space. So, it’s really important for our youth, these camps that they put on, and nights. Girls Rock.’ Ultimately, for Rakel, it all comes back to encouragement. ‘If you have any kind of platform, I think you should use… however big or however small it is… you should use it to support others – especially others who need more encouragement, which is why we did this open call.’
Rakel recognises how fortunate she is for having come up as part of a welcoming music scene in Iceland. I asked her about her pre-Dream Wife experiences in her home country. ‘When I was doing Halleluwah, I was working with a producer and drummer called Sölvi Blöndal, and he just had a really interesting kind of world of sounds that he dove into, and it was a really fun collaboration working with him, because we became such nerds together. It was very much a project that was based within his studio, so we sort of, like, spent hours just trying out different vocal loops and really sort of engaging in that type of song writing.’
How was this different from the writing process with Dream Wife? ‘With Dream Wife, it’s sort of the opposite, because we didn’t even step into a studio until we recorded our debut album, and we had spent almost, like, a year-and-a-half… almost two years sort of, like, playing live shows, and a bunch of them, and in all these interesting spaces, like house parties… Sort of just doing it on our own in that sense. So, it’s like completely two opposites as to how you approach music making. And I think, with Dream Wife, that live sound and that sort of live energy are what we really wanted to capture on the record.’
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