Words by Stína Satanía
Most Icelanders first heard about Sólrún Mjöll Kjartansdóttir in 2012. At the age of 16, she participated in a famous young talents contest called the Battle of the Bands (Músíktilraunir) in Reykjavík. In the 30-year-long history of the competition, it was the first time that a girl was crowned best drummer of the competition.
Nowadays, Sólrún performs and records with various artists, such as electro rock band CeaseTone, indie-rock/electro project Major Pink, and jazz singer and pianist Una Stef. Sólrún Mjöll also studies drums at the department of jazz of the FÍH School of Music in Reykjavík. We decided to check up on her, five years after her memorable performance at the Battle of the Bands.
At the age of 5, Sólrún started her adventure with music. She started with piano, moving to trombone a little later, and finally drums when she turned 8. We hope she thanked her teacher deeply for putting her behind a drum set. Once, she was thrown out of the classroom for tapping beats on every surface available. She was allowed back in school on the condition of spending her excess energy behind her drums. No one had to tell her twice.
Since 1982, the Battle of the Bands has become the most important experience for Icelandic youngsters who want to take their first steps in music. You get to know other bands. Developing a network with others is the most important thing you can do as a musician, especially in Iceland. If you want to become known or play a concert you have to be a part of the network. The Battle of the Bands is a great start for that – explains Sólrún.
The first time she joined the contest was 2012 with the band White Signal, performing a mixture of pop, funk and rock. The jury noticed Sólrún’s potential right away and awarded her the title of “best drummer”. This opened up many opportunities for her, but also created a lot of buzz around her person.
Sólrún then took part in the first international contest for female drummers, called Hit Like A Girl. The competition received hundreds of video entries from female drummers from age 8 to 55, based in 30 countries. Sólrún discovered she was not alone as a drumming girl, even though she was the only one contestant from Iceland. This led to an unexpected wave of support in her homeland. Asked if she recommends the competition, Sólrún Mjöll answers: For all girls – beginners and more experienced – it’s worth to take part in the contest or simply check out the website to see what other girls do and maybe to find some influence there.
A new experience
Sólrún quit White Signal shortly after her Battle of the Bands and Hit Like a Girl episode. Through a series of events in 2012, she ended up joining a new band named Kjurr, with Klemens Hannigan (Hatari) on guitar and vocals, and Einar Stefánsson (Vök, Hatari) on bass. I walked into rock accidentally. With Kjurr we simply wanted to form a band and we shaped it into more or less prog-rock stuff – she laughs.
After a full winter of rehearsals, Kjurr presented their new material at the Battle of the Bands 2013. That is where she started developing her contacts in the music scene. When I played with Kjurr, I met Margrét Rán and Andri of Vök, the guys in Retrobot, and In The Company Of Men. Kaleo were also playing the same year.
It was time for new experiences so Sólrún went on her first tour that summer. Together with Kjurr and Vök she visited the Netherlands, and life on tour was a valuable lesson to her. A month after the gigs, Kjurr debuted their EP entitled Brak. Time showed that this band was a kind of trampoline for all of the members. Later on, they focused on other more conscious and serious projects.
Among other participants of the Battle of the Bands 2013 were also Axel Flóvent (modern folk singer) and Hafsteinn Þráinnson, who was hoping to transform his solo folk project CeaseTone into a band soon after the competition. He needed a drummer, and his choice fell on Sólrún, who at that time was beginning her studies at the jazz department of the FÍH School of Music.
In the spring of 2016, CeaseTone debuted on the other side of the pond. The band got good reviews after several shows in Chicago, Boston and at the SXSW festival. Then came the time to release their highly-anticipated debut album, entitled Two Strangers, which turned out to be a skillful mixture of indie-rock and electronic. Two Strangers even received a nomination for the Icelandic Music Awards 2017 in the Rock Album category!
Crazy Iceland Airwaves
Hafsteinn and Jökull Brynjarsson of CeaseTone were intensively performing abroad with Axel Flóvent, so Sólrún decided to get involved with other artists like Una Stef and Major Pink. Last year, during the biggest local music festival, Iceland Airwaves, she gave 22 shows in barely one week.
That was crazy and super busy – she reminisces. I was waking up at 10 in the morning, having three cups of coffee, playing about five shows per day and coming home around 11 p.m. I didn´t see anything else than the Internet and Digable Planets. Sleep, wake, repeat. I didn´t feel my shoulders after moving all my stuff between venues with cymbals on my back that weigh 20kg.
Queens of spades with Bubbi Morthens
In 2015, Sólrún drew the attention of legendary Icelandic singer-songwriter Bubbi Morthens, who has been active on the local music scene since 1979. Bubbi gathered a group of talented female musicians that he called Spaðadrottningar (The Queens of Spades). The queens were Ingibjörg Turchi (bass), Brynhildur Oddsdóttir (guitar), Margrét Arnardóttir (accordion) and Sólrún on drums. They worked together on Bubbi’s 28th album, entitled 18 konur (18 women), which was released the year of the 100th anniversary of voting rights for women in Iceland. The album is of course devoted entirely to women.
That was a very exciting project – says Sólrún, sipping her coffee. It was interesting to work on music only with girls, of course except Bubbi. He gave us so much freedom to let us express ourselves, which was amazing. He came up with certain lines and put them in our hands so we could do whatever we wanted with music. I found it was a beautiful idea to make an album about women, with women and it was a privilege to do it. He is a real professional and knows exactly what he is doing.
Needless to say, 18 konur has been very successful and received much attention in Iceland. Sharing the stage with Bubbi, Sólrún became once again a great example for other women. She is conscious of the additional role that women play in the music industry: Naturally, when women are visible in music it pays back to other girls that would like to play. It encourages them to do something more and go out of the comfort zone – she admits. I think it’s much appreciated to push girls forward, so it’s good to have more women that are visible in music and do a lot of good things.
When asked about her musical influences, Sólrún Mjöll mentions her drummer hero Vinnie Colaiuta, as well as Icelandic female musicians such as Sigríður Thorlacius, Ólöf Arnalds, the girls of Mammút, Margrét Rán and Björk. My favorite Icelandic musician is so far Jófríður Ákadóttir of Samaris and Pascal Pinon – she says without a hint of hesitation. – She’s such a role model for others by doing exactly what she wants. I totally adore her. She makes beautiful music. The last album of Pascal Pinon [Sundur] that came out before Christmas is, in my opinion, the album of the year. Jófríður and her sister [Ásthildur Ákadóttir] do great things in Pascal Pinon.
However, her list of inspirations is not over yet. There are a lot of inspiring men like drummer Magnús Tryggvason, my drum teacher Einar Scheving, the amazing vocalist Valdimar [Guðmundsson] – she lists. – Then lately Erykah Badu and d’Angelo have a huge impact on me since hip-hop is quite a thing recently. Hip-hop and jazz connect at some point and blend together.
What about jazz?
Apart from a rich variety of Icelandic music festivals that can be observed lately, Sólrún is most excited about the fact that jazz – a genre that always gives her a sense of freedom – is back in fashion in Reykjavík. I’m really happy to see how popular and widely known jazz has become again – she says.
In the capital, there are jazz shows almost every day – on Mondays at Húrra, Tuesdays at Kex Hostel, Wednesdays at Sæta Svínið, and Sundays at Bryggjan Brugghús. There are also jazz shows at Múlinn Jazz Club in Harpa and at Hressó. Look around, and maybe you’ll find even more!
A final word of motivation
At some point in her career, Sólrún stopped playing because of criticism she received. But now, she is well aware of the power of motivation: Don’t be shy – she says. – Try to push yourself beyond the limits and get out of your box. Usually people think that either you don’t know anything because you’re a girl, or that you’re incredibly good, better than all the boys. I often thought like that and it depressed me a lot. Don’t let others push you down, be persistent and do what you love. It’s all about expressing emotions and bringing your music to the world, not about what other people say.
Reykjavík On Stage wishes Sólrún the best for her career and lots of collaborations with other talented artists!