The musician is deep in the process of composing for her fourth LP, about a world changed by global warming. “It’s kind of the new hot topic,” she tells me. I’m not sure if the pun is intentional. “I’ve heard more than one or two people say they’re writing about it.”
Though imagining ecological catastrophe is depressing for some, it was actually not doing so that was giving Sóley the blues. She’s recently returned to the project after a long, unplanned hiatus. “I was asking myself ‘why do I feel so terrible?’ I realised during this break that if you’re inclined to create, then you have to do it, otherwise you get depressed.”
Though Sóley’s need is deeply personal, and her topic couldn’t be more current, using art to make sense of the incomprehensible is one of mankind’s oldest pursuits. Like Sóley, ancient storytellers have often made a clear link between chaos and creation.
The world’s big issues and the finished artistic product have one crucial thing in common: they are hard to imagine until they’re right in front of you. “We can’t really imagine what happens at the end of the world. It’s an abstract idea. Especially when you live here in Iceland and have your house and your computer and your day-to-day life. You read an article about global warming, you take it in, and then you either completely forget it or you go into an anxiety spiral. And I can switch between those really quickly, like most people,” Sóley observes.
Yet conceiving the end of the world could be the first step in trying to address it, through art or other mediums. “I’ve been reading some dystopian Margret Atwood novels and thinking ‘wow, maybe it’ll be like this,’” Sóley tells me. “Maybe that’s the role of artists: to create, draw, paint, try to imagine it.”
Sóley’s piano-led pop music is often described using words like dark and theatrical, but the abstract nature of her current topic is inspiring a more abstract approach. “After taking a break and coming back to it, I started thinking maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic.”
She mentions musician Aldous Harding as a particular inspiration for this change of direction. Harding is from another far-flung island country (New Zealand) and her music videos are characterised by a surrealism that is at once playful and uncomfortable. “I never really understand: is she joking, is she serious? I really like not understanding things once in a while, instead of being fed what’s happening or how you’re supposed to feel.” Indeed, it seems silly to tell an audience how they should feel about an event that no one can truly predict.
Our conversation threads through the work of other artists who inspire Sóley: Twin Peaks director David Lynch, electronic music producer (and Björk collaborator) Arca, writer Andri Snær Magnason, known for his dystopian novels as well as his environmental non-fiction. It’s a broad range of artists, mostly connected by their eccentricity. “I think it’s so awesome when people are pure, no matter how strange their ideas are,” Sóley says.
Though her best-known records loosely fall into the pop category, Sóley does indulge in her taste for the experimental, in part on the label Smit (Infection), which she co-runs with her husband, a visual artist and dedicated experimental music listener. Sóley released the album Harmóník via the label in 2017, which features four instrumental tracks of layered accordion drones.
Her drive towards the unconventional is, however, often tempered by practical considerations. “I want to do more experimental music. I guess maybe because pop music sells better, my subconscious tells me I have to make pop music.” It’s not only her subconscious, though. “When you have a booking agent, a label, a publisher, there’s always someone prodding you and telling you the best way to make money. But the worst thing a musician can do is think about money. Those two things don’t belong together.”
Rather than a commercial pursuit, for Sóley the creative process is fundamentally one of experimentation. “I often think of myself as a scientist trying to discover something.” The two disciplines have a lot in common, according to the musician. “I think scientific discovery is often the result of some kind of creative thought process. Someone imagined that it was possible to travel into space before someone else developed the technology to make it possible.”
Science and art are two methods for approaching the inexplicable, whether in the world around us, or in our minds. As Sóley says: “It’s a funny process, trying to fish ideas out of your own head. You don’t even understand them yourself.”
While scientists are experimenters, there’s no doubt about their role in fighting climate change. Sóley believes artists have one, as well. “Artists are also necessary in all of this, to get messages across. And we maybe do it in a different way than scientists. We maybe communicate the message more subtly, in a different way, to more people.”
Yet there’s a difference between communicating a message and telling an audience what to think. Sóley hopes her abstract approach can provoke listeners to make up their own minds. “I think it’s so important for artists to provoke people in some way. Because provocation gets people thinking, and critical thinking is positive, it’s good for us. We get inspired, we start to make decisions based on what we believe is good or bad.”