On the Record: Inside Iceland’s music studios
Long before outsiders looked to Iceland for the latest in music, Icelanders looked outward. Infatuated with American music, local groups in the 1950s and 1960s started jazz and rock groups that took to the nation’s stages and made the public dance. While they had their share of performance opportunities, when it came to recording, there were no professional studios in the country. “People recorded at the national broadcasting company, or went to London or New York,” sound engineer Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson, known as Kiddi, tells me. He runs Hljóðriti, the country’s first professional studio, founded in 1975. When Hljóðriti opened its doors, “there was so much demand, it was recording around the clock.”
Some 40 years later, Iceland’s studios are numerous and rather than locals going abroad to record, international artists are seeking them out as a destination for their musical projects. Iceland Review peeked into five of them to give musicians and music-lovers alike a taste of what it’s like to record on this creative island. Despite their differences in size or gear, their owners seem to agree on what makes for successful recordings: a good atmosphere – and good people.
Hljóðriti, Iceland’s first professional studio, was designed by John Storyk, the same architect who designed Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios. “They are both 70s studios, quite dry,” Kiddi tells me. “You don’t have to build booths around the musicians to get an isolated sound.” He says not much has changed since the studio was built, except the gear. He points to a wall decorated with rough stone blocks. “This wall is famous for being a hiding place for hash and weed in the old days,” he chuckles. Since Kiddi took over the studio in 2007, it’s been the home base for projects he produces or plays with, including Hjálmar, Baggalútur, and Ásgeir Trausti. “When we were younger, it was a bit wilder here in the studio. But now, there’s no funny business. Or at least a lot less.”
“It was a bit of a joke,” Valgeir tells me about the name of Greenhouse Studios. “In the beginning, it was in an industrial neighbourhood where there was nothing green or growing. I thought the name would be a fun contrast with the environment: outside, there was concrete, while inside, there was a greenhouse for music and ideas.” The studio has grown from its humble beginnings in 1997 as Valgeir’s personal workspace. He’s since built a permanent home for it in Breiðholt, a suburb of Reykjavík. “Even though it’s close to the city, you feel like you’re in the countryside.” The studio has expanded to contain three interconnected production suites, one of which Australian composer Ben Frost calls home, as well as the in-house Bedroom Community record label. A host of local and international artists have recorded in the space, including Of Monsters and Men, Feist, and Colin Stetson. “I’ve been here for almost 20 years, but new projects and new people always renew the space,” Valgeir reflects. “I never get bored of working here.”
The story of Masterkey Studios begins in 2012. After achieving renown for her songwriting and acting in the film Once, Markéta came to Iceland to record a solo album at Greenhouse Studios, where Sturla Mio Þórisson was working as a sound engineer. “We found out very early on that we worked well together,” Mio tells me. Their chemistry extended outside the studio, and the two have been a couple ever since. After a three-year search for the perfect space, they built Masterkey Studios on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula overlooking the sea. Aside from incredible views, the studio features dedicated spaces where musicians can compose, meditate, or just relax. “We wanted a space that was like a temple,” Markéta says. “Where upon entering, one can clear one’s mind and focus fully on the creative process.” Though the studio is mostly used for Markéta’s own work composing for film and stage, the two occasionally take on other ventures. “We love to be able to develop a project from beginning to end with the artist,” says Mio. “It can be a wonderful process.”
“It was all very simple,” sound engineer Albert Finnbogason says about the founding of the studio he runs at IÐNÓ, a cultural house in Reykjavík built in 1896. “René [Boonekamp, who manages the space] wanted to liven IÐNÓ up, and we wanted to run a studio somewhere. It was a match made in heaven.” Since opening just over a year ago, the studio has hosted Icelandic artists like Sóley and Reykjavíkurdætur, as well as international acts such as Damien Rice and Joan Shelley. Located in the building’s attic and overlooking Tjörnin pond, it offers a unique atmosphere. “Grassroots musicians, who are maybe recording their first album, find it really comfortable to be here, hugged by the age-old walls and balconies and the view.” Albert enjoys it greatly himself. “There’s a certain pride in working in a house that’s been a home for creativity, learning, and grassroots culture for over a century, and in continuing that tradition.”
Around an hour outside of Reykjavík along Iceland’s south coast lies the town of Hveragerði, population 2,000. It might seem unlikely to build a studio in such a small town, but it made perfect sense to Sindri Þór Kárason, one of the owners of Bakaríið Hljóðver. “There is a ton of music in Hveragerði so it was easy to make it happen,” he tells me. “It just made sense to bring everyone together rather than have everyone working in their own corner.” The building that houses the studio was originally an auto repair shop, then a bakery warehouse (the origin of its name, bakaríið means the bakery in Icelandic). “Before 2013, there was a little demo studio here. Then we decided to start building a proper studio with soundproofing. Kristján Björnsson, who runs the studio with me, is a carpenter so he did most of the work.” Musicians who have worked in the studio recently include pianist Tómas Jónsson and singer-songwriter Magnús Þór Sigmundsson. The most important aspect of the studio, says Sindri, is the atmosphere. “It’s very cosy. You just feel good being here.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.