Deep North Episode 74: Chasing Ghosts

icelandic musician laufey

Every once in a while, an Icelandic musician or band will be picked up by foreign audiences in a big way. Björk and Sigur Rós made waves in establishing Iceland as a major music exporter, and Of Monsters and Men continues to be played worldwide. But one artist has the potential to go even bigger than any of these artists: Laufey. And certainly a bit too big for us. We reflect on Icelandic society and the nature of fame on our small island home.

Read the article here.

Chasing Ghosts

icelandic musician laufey

RUMOURS “Not a dry eye in sight, I tell ya,” Ísleifur Þórhallsson proclaims, standing near the ticket desk inside the Harpa Music and Conference Hall in Reykjavík. “Shoulda seen it!” He’s referring to the poignancy of last night’s Laufey concert, the first of three at Harpa. The final concert – added this January due to high […]

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Laufey: From Icelandic Sensation to Global Fame

Bewitched / From the Start

Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir, simply known as Laufey [Lay-way, lœy:vei], is a Grammy winning singer-songwriter from Iceland. With her unique voice and musical talent, she has captured the hearts of listeners worldwide. 

From bewitching melodies to Grammy-success, her journey from the shores of Iceland to the pinnacle of the music industry is nothing short of extraordinary. Raised in a household immersed in music, Laufey started playing the piano and cello at a young age. She performed as a cello soloist with the Symphony Orchestra of Iceland at age 15, appeared on talent shows, studied music and singing at Reykjavík College of Music and earned a presidential scholarship to Berklee College of Music.

It was her debut single, ´Street by Street,´ along with her pandemic concerts on the social media platform TikTok, that propelled her to stardom. This marked the emergence of a true musical phenomenon, celebrated as the ambassador bringing jazz to the forefront of Gen Z culture.

 


Early life and influences

Born in Reykjavík on April 23d 1999, both Laufey and her identical twin sister Júnía, come from a mixed heritage, with an Icelandic father and a Chinese mother. Laufey speaks Icelandic, English and Mandarin, having grown up both in Washington DC and Iceland and spending her summers in Beijing. 

Central to the twins’ upbringing was a deep immersion in classical music, nurtured by their mother’s skill as a classical violinist and their grandfather’s legacy as a violin educator in China. The sisters embarked on their musical journeys at an early age, with Júnía finding her forte on the violin while Laufey studied both the piano and cello. 

Laufey has many times said that her classical background influenced her love of music greatly, but it was also her father´s jazz record collection, featuring artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, that inspired her musical career. 


Laufey´s rise to fame

Laufey´s musical journey took a significant step forward when she performed as a cello soloist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at just 15 years old. Her path to musical success continued as she appeared on Icelandic versions of popular talent shows like Ísland Got Talent, where she was a finalist, and The Voice where she made it to the semi finals. 

Following her graduation from Reykjavík College of Music in 2018, where she also studied singing, Laufey went on to continue her musical education. With a presidential scholarship in hand, she pursued further studies at Berklee College of Music, from where she graduated in 2021.

Surprisingly, a career in music was not Laufey´s goal all along. In an interview on the Icelandic talk show Vikan með Gísla Marteini, she told viewers that she initially intended to study economics at St. Andrews in Scotland alongside her sister Júnía. However, it seems like fate had other plans. Júnía explained that it seemed like the world kept interfering to redirect Laufey towards a musical career.

In 2020, Laufey´s career started taking off with the release of her debut single Street by Street. This was followed by her first EP, Typical of Me, in April 2021. A year later she reached yet another milestone with the debut of her first full-length album, Everything I Know About Love, which resulted in her being the most streamed jazz artist on Spotify in 2022.

 

Bewitched: From a record-breaking album debut to a Grammy win

Laufey accepting her 2024 Grammy. A screenshot from YouTube / The Recording Academy

Laufey´s musical journey reached new heights with the release of her second album, Bewitched, in September 2023. The album reached an all-time record, making history as the biggest debut for a Jazz album on Spotify. With over 5,7 million day-one streams Laufey´s Bewitched surpassed Lady Gaga´s and Tony Bennet´s 2021 Love For Sale album.

Laufey’s ascent to musical stardom soared to even greater heights after the release of  Bewitched, resulting in her first ever Grammy award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. This milestone marked a crowning achievement in Laufey’s career, affirming her talent and influence on the global stage.

Laufey´s success not only resonates with her global fanbase but also with her fellow Icelanders. Whenever someone from this small island in the North achieves greatness on the world stage, the whole nation swells up like a proud parent. Even though Laufey´s journey is just beginning, she serves as an inspiration, not only for aspiring musicians but for anyone with a big dream. As she continues to bewitch audiences worldwide, we eagerly await the next chapter of this extraordinary young artis. 

 

What ethnicity is Laufey?

Laufey is half Icelandic and half Chinese and mostly grew up in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Who is Laufey’s twin?

Laufey has an identical twin sister named Júnía. The girls are very close and even work together. Júnía is the creative director of Laufey´s brand and the two spend a lot of time together even with Laufey living in L.A. and Júnía in London.

How did Laufey get famous?

Laufey´s ascend to stardom has been fast. She started off by participating in the Icelandic versions of The Voice and Ísland Got Talent. During the pandemic she started performing on TikTok that quickly earned her a huge social media following from all over the world and she even caught the attention of famous musicians such as Willow Smith and Billie Eilish. After releasing her music, Laufey has appeared on talk shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live! and collaborated with musicians like Norah Jones. She then won her first Grammy in 2024 for her second full-length album, Bewitched.

What is Laufey’s genre?

Though the exact genre of Laufey´s music is hard to pinpoint, jazz is very obviously her main musical influence. Her music also includes elements of pop, classical and bossa nova. Her genre has been described as jazz-pop or traditional pop due to the mixture of elements in her music. Laufey´s Grammy win was in the category of Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album where her fellow nominees were industry icons such as Bruce Springsteen and Ricky Lee Jones. 

 

Two Wins for Laufey at 2024 Icelandic Music Awards

Bewitched / From the Start

The 2024 Icelandic Music Awards were held at Harpa’s Silfurberg auditorium last night. Twenty-two accolades were distributed, with Grammy-winner Laufey securing wins in two categories.

Elín Hall and PATRi!K among night’s performers

The 2024 Icelandic Music Awards were presented last night at the Silfurberg Auditorium within the Harpa Music and Conference Hall. Among those who took the stage were Elín Hall, Hipsumhaps, Bára Gísladóttir, and PATRi!K. The awards were hosted by Freyr Eyjólfsson.

A total of 22 awards were distributed, including the Honorary Award of the Icelandic Music Awards, received by organist and choir director Hörður Áskelsson, and Best Newcomer, awarded to Kári Egilsson.

Grammy-winner Laufey received two awards: Performer of the Year and Vocal Performance of the Year in the categories of Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, and Electronic.

Here is a list of the winners:

ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

Classical and Contemporary
Atli Heimir Sveinsson: The Complete String Quartets – Siggi String Quartet

Jazz
Innermost – Mikael Máni Ásmundsson

Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, and Electronic
Museum – JFDR

Other
BRIDGES II – Ægir

Film and Theatre
Knock At The Cabin – Herdís Stefánsdóttir

PERFORMER OF THE YEAR:

Jazz
Andrés Þór Gunnlaugsson

Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, and Electronic
Laufey

Classical and Contemporary
Sæunn Þorsteinsdóttir

Other
Mugison

VOCAL PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Jazz
Kristjana Stefánsdóttir

Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, and Electronic
Laufey

Classical and Contemporary
Jóhann Kristinsson

SONG AND COMPOSITION OF THE YEAR:

Other
Wandering Beings – Guðmundur Pétursson

Classical and Contemporary
COR – Bára Gísladóttir

Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, and Electronic
Skína – PATRi!K, Luigi

Jazz
Íslend­ing­ur í Uluwatu­hofi – Stefán S. Stefánsson

MUSIC EVENT OF THE YEAR:

Summer Jazz at Jómfrúin – Jómfrúin and Jakob Einar Jakobsson

PRODUCER OF THE YEAR:

I Am Weary, Don’t Let Me Rest – Snorri Hallgrímsson
Recording Directors: Bergur Þórisson, Cécile Lacharme, Hafsteinn Þráinsson, Martyn Heyne, Snorri Hallgrímsson, Styrmir Hauksson, Viktor Orri Árnason, and Þorsteinn Eyfjörð

LYRICS OF THE YEAR:

Hún ógnar mér – Vigdís Hafliðadóttir

MUSIC VIDEO OF THE YEAR:

Waiting – Árný Margrét
Director: Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson

BEST NEWCOMER:

Kári Egilsson

HONORARY AWARD:

Hörður Áskelsson

The award for Album Cover of the Year was not presented last night, as the award, bestowed in collaboration with the Association of Icelandic Illustrators (FÍT), will be presented at the FÍT Awards on March 22.

ALBUM COVER OF THE YEAR (NOMINATIONS):

Átta – Sigur Rós: Design: Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson
v2,2 – Róshildur: Design: Þorgeir Kristinn Blöndal
Museum – JFDR: Design: Gréta Thorkelsdóttir and Dóra Dúna
Gleypir tígur, gleypir ljón – Tumi Árnason and Magnús Tryggvason Eliassen: Design: Héðinn Finnsson (Íbbagoggur)
How to Start a Garden – Nanna: Design: Davíð Arnar Baldursson and Ragnar Þórhallsson
Ást & praktík – Hipsumhaps: Design: Viktor Weisshappel Vilhjálmsson

Iceland News Review: Three Icelandic Women Do What The Government Hasn’t

INR

In this episode of Iceland News Review, we bring you the story of how three Icelandic women took it upon themselves to begin rescuing Palestinians with Icelandic residence permits from Gaza–something the Icelandic government has said would be “complicated” and has still not yet taken action on–while fundraising efforts continue.

We also bring you the latest on the newest Reykjanes eruption, a Grammy win for an Icelandic musician, Russian hackers cyberattacking a university, local drama surrounding a celebrity cat, and much more!

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

Icelandic Musician Laufey Wins Grammy

Icelandic Musician Laufey has won the 2024 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for her album Bewitched. The nominees in her category included Bruce Springsteen and Pentatonix. Rather than resting on her laurels, the jazz singer-songwriter is setting off on a Europe tour.

“I never in a million years thought that this would happen,” Laufey said in her acceptance speech at the 66th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles last night. She thanked her team, parents, grandparents, and the classical and jazz communities of the world, reserving the “biggest thanks” for her twin sister Junia, whom she called her “biggest supporter.”

Broke streaming records

Bewitched set a record for the most streams in the jazz category on Spotify on its day of release, accumulating 5.7 million streams. The previous record was held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s 2021 album Love for Sale, which received 1.1 million streams on its first day.

In an interview with Billboard following the awards ceremony, Laufey called the honour “very validating and exciting.” Laufey left the US today to start a Europe tour of the music from Bewitched, which will be followed by a North American tour later this spring.

A musical nation

Laufey was not the only Icelander nominated for a Grammy this year. Musician Ólafur Arnalds was nominated for his album Some Kind of Peace (Piano Reworks) in the Best New Age, Ambient, or Chant Album category. Ólafur has been nominated twice before.

A few other Icelanders have won Grammy awards in the past, including composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has won twice, and classical singer Dísella Lárusdóttir. Björk’s album Biophilia won in the category of Best Recording Package in 2013, but the musician has never taken home a statue from any of her other 15 Grammy nominations.

2023 in Review: Culture

Diljá Pétursdóttir iceland eurovision

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest culture-related stories from the year.

Laufey Sets New Jazz Standard

It’s been a big year for Icelandic musician Laufey. In September, Laufey’s sophomore album, Bewitched, set a record for the most streams in the jazz category on Spotify on its day of release, accumulating 5.7 million streams. The previous record was held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s 2021 album Love for Sale, which received 1.1 million streams on its first day. Bewitched features the British Philharmonic Orchestra on two of its tracks and consists mostly of original compositions, along with one cover song.

On November 10, Laufey released two Christmas songs in collaboration with Norah Jones, a cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and an original composition entitled Better Than Snow. Both of the songs were recorded in a single take.

 On the same day that the duets with Norah Jones were released, Laufey announced to the crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, that she had received her first Grammy nomination (for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album): “I especially love Austin now because this will forever be the city where I found out that I received a Grammy nomination,” Laufey remarked.

Laufey is the artistic mononym of Icelander Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir. A former cello soloist and talent show finalist, Laufey graduated from Berklee College of Music. She released her debut EP, Typical of Me, in 2021.

Power Outage: Diljá Misses Out on Eurovision Finals

Earlier this year, Diljá Pétursdóttir was chosen to represent Iceland in the 67th annual Eurovision Song Contest. Diljá, a long-time Eurovision fan, went on to perform her energetic ballad, aptly named Power (co-written by Pálmi Ragnar Ásgeirsson), during the second semi-final night of the Eurovision Song Contest. It took place in Liverpool on May 11, and ten entries advanced to the final. Despite Diljá’s performance receiving favourable reviews from Icelanders, she did not advance to the finals.

Read More: Power Player (Brief Profile of Diljá Pétursdóttir in Iceland Review)

Diljá spoke to Eurovision commentator Sigurður Gunnarsson for the National Broadcaster (RÚV) following her performance. Despite failing to qualify, she was pleased with her performance: “It went amazingly well.”

Icelandic Lamb Receives Protected Status

In March, the European Commission approved the first-ever Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from Iceland for Icelandic lamb (ice. Íslenskt lambakjöt). The product name is applied to the meat from purebred Icelandic lambs, which have been born, raised, and slaughtered on the island of Iceland. The designation is the same type granted to champagne and means that no product that does not fulfil the above conditions can be labelled as Icelandic lamb.

Read More: Labour of Love (A Profile of a Young Farmer)

“Sheep farming has a long and rich cultural tradition in Iceland,” a notice from the European Commission read. “The characteristics of ‘Íslenskt lambakjöt’ first and foremost consists [sic] of a high degree of tenderness and gamey taste, due to the fact that lambs roam freely in demarcated wild rangelands and grow in the wild, natural surroundings of Iceland, where they feed on grass and other plants. The long tradition of sheep farming passing down generations on the island has led to high standards of flock management and grazing methods.”

Trouble at the Opera

On Saturday, March 3, the Icelandic Opera premiered its production of Madame Butterfly, authored by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed publicly in 1904. Three days after the premiere, Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, published a post on Facebook in which she accused individuals involved in the production of yellowface (i.e. where a non-Asian performer uses makeup to make their skin look yellow in order to portray an Asian character). Liu shared pictures of the performers, who were shown wearing makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and black wigs: 

“Are we bringing yellowface back, Iceland?” Liu asked. “Furthermore, Madame Butterfly is Japanese. Those are Chinese characters. ‘All look [the] same,’ right? It’s disturbing to have to repeat this: yellowing up is the same as blacking up. When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanisation. Do better.”

On March 9, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Opera, addressed accusations of racism and cultural appropriation in an interview with the radio programme Reykjavík Síðdegis. 

Steinunn iterated some of the points made by her colleague Michiel Dijkema: “I was very clear about not using yellowface in this production,” Steinunn stated, adding that the producers had taken “different routes” to make the production believable, Kabuki makeup, for example.

When asked what she made of the accusations, Steinunn replied: “We celebrate this discussion and listen with an open mind to these different perspectives.”

On Saturday, March 11, Steinunn Birna was interviewed by the nightly news, in which she stated that a few minor changes would be made: “We had a good meeting yesterday with the performers, and the director, where we listened to their experience. We decided that we would tone down the makeup. Even though we believed that we had not been guilty of yellowface, we decided to remove painted-on, slanted eyebrows and wigs, for such a thing would not serve to detract from the overall performance. There are two guidelines that I follow: that my people feel good, and making a good show even better. 

Háskólabíó Movie Theatre Shuttered

The Icelandic company Sena cancelled its contract for the operation of a cinema in the Háskólabíó theatre as as of July 1 of this year. Konstantín Mikaelsson, Manager of Sena’s Film Division, told the media that Sena’s decision was informed by increased consumer demands for facilities and declining attendance.

Sena has managed the operation of Háskólabíó since 2007, but Háskólbíó’s history stretches back to the year 1961. During the first decades, the theatre featured a single large auditorium. Smaller auditoriums were later added. The building was the main concert hall of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for years until the Harpa Music and Conference Hall was put into use in 2011.

In addition to film screenings, Háskólabíó has been the venue for university classes, concerts, and various events. In June, Guðmundur R. Jónsson, Director of Administration of the University of Iceland, told the media that the university would likely continue to use the building for concerts, conferences, meetings, and teaching.

Iceland’s Christmas Book Flood Tradition Goes Global

Iceland Publishers' Association 2023 book fair

The Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóðið, or the Christmas Book Flood, seems to have achieved global popularity. Heiðar Ingi Svansson, Chair of the Association of Icelandic Publishers, has told Morgunblaðið that while he has long sensed interest in the phenomenon among international publishers, the enthusiasm among the general public has been surprising.

“Thousands of posts” on social media

As noted in an article published in the newspaper Morgunblaðið this morning, reading enthusiasts around the world have increasingly shown interest in the phenomenon of the Christmas book flood (i.e. jólabókaflóðið, referring to the Icelandic tradition of gifting books for Christmas and spending the holiday reading in cosy surroundings, often with a cup of hot cocoa or chocolate in hand). Morgunblaðið claimed that thousands of posts celebrating this tradition can be observed on social media.

To substantiate this claim, the news outlet pointed to a post from Junía Lin Jónsdóttir, sister of Icelandic musician Laufey, who recently introduced her followers on TikTok to the Christmas book flood. Likewise, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who boasts approximately 10 million followers, shared an Instagram post about the phenomenon.

The origins of the Christmas Book Flood can be attributed to Iceland’s deep-rooted literary history and, during World War II, stringent currency restrictions. These restrictions curtailed the import of various gifts, but with more relaxed rules on importing paper, books emerged as the go-to Christmas present.

Surprising popularity

Morgunblaðið spoke to Heiðar Ingi Svansson, Chairman of the Association of Icelandic Publishers, who agreed that the Christmas Book Flood appeared to have attracted global attention: “I’m on the board of an international publishers association, and I am often asked about this phenomenon. But it’s surprising to see how widespread it has become among the general public. It travels through some channels on social media, and you see people all over the world celebrating the tradition,” Heiðar Ingi stated.

Morgunblaðið noted that determining the exact origins of this trend was challenging. The Christmas Book Flood may have gained international attention in 2012 with coverage on NPR’s website, possibly marking a sort of inception point. Whatever the case,  media attention has steadily grown annually, contributing to the widespread popularity of the phenomenon. “A quick online search reveals that the Christmas Book Flood has now reached audiences in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the UK, and various European countries,” Morgunblaðið noted.

Eschewing the phones, embracing the books

“This romantic idea of us cuddling in log cabins with hot cocoa, in a land of fire and ice, is appealing. Many people may also want to encourage more family time during the holidays, with people uniting over books instead of spending time on their phones,” Heiðar Ingi stated.

Morgunblaðið also noted that there are instances where bookstores offer specially assembled packages for people to enjoy the Christmas Book Flood. One such package, advertised for sale on Instagram, includes three books, cosy socks, a festive candle, and chocolate. Customers being offered free gift-wrapping and chocolate with every book purchase is also common. Publishers and bloggers have also seized upon the Christmas book flood for marketing purposes.

Heiðar Ingi told Morgunblaðið that he has often been interviewed by foreign media about this phenomenon. Next week, for instance, he has been invited for a live interview on CNN. “It will be fun. I had to send them an audio clip because they wanted to prepare for the pronunciation of jólabókaflóð.”

Laufey Collaborates with Norah Jones on Two Christmas Duets

Bewitched / From the Start

Icelandic singer Laufey released two Christmas songs at midnight in collaboration with Norah Jones. Laufey, a long-time admirer of Jones, described the collaboration as incredible, with both songs being recorded in a single take.

“Pinching oneself”

At midnight, the Icelandic singer Laufey released two Christmas songs in collaboration with Norah Jones: a cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and original composition entitled Better Than Snow.

In an interview with Vísir yesterday, Laufey commented on the collaboration: “Working with Norah was just incredible. I’ve been listening to her since I was a child. My mother always played her music in the car. It’s like working with a deity.”

“I still can’t believe she’s real,” Laufey added with a laugh. “Seeing the cover photo and my name next to hers feels like a mistake.”

Long admired Norah Jones

Laufey went on to explain that when she was taking her first steps in the music industry, agents and representatives from record companies would often ask her “who she wanted to be?” She would commonly respond by articulating her desire to be associated with jazz, although not confined to it, noting that she wanted her music to appeal to a wide audience, especially her own age group.

Whenever she was asked which artist she would most like to resemble, Norah Jones immediately came to mind. “It was so hard for me to find a singer I wanted to be like, and it’s still quite difficult to answer that, but the closest would be Norah Jones; she wasn’t just confined to jazz – but also pop.”

One take

Norah Jones and Laufey first met at a jazz festival in Geneva last summer. According to Laufey, they had a brief conversation, and a month later, they were in the studio together: “I played the cello and she played the piano. It was very sweet. We recorded Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas in one take,” Laufey revealed.

Due to the ease of their collaboration, Laufey recalled that she and Norah felt they should do more together. “It happened so fast, so we sat there and asked: What now?” Norah revealed she had an unfinished Christmas song lyric and asked Laufey if she wanted to compose it together with her. “Yes. Oh my God, yes,” Laufey responded. “She played a few lines, and I thought to myself that this was amazing.”

The songwriting for Better Than Snow took about an hour. Like the previous song, the recording required only a single take.

Laufey Sets New Jazz Standard on Spotify

Bewitched / From the Start

Icelandic musician Laufey’s album Bewitched broke Spotify’s jazz streaming record with 5.7 million day-one streams, RÚV reports. The standout track From the Start has also gained viral traction on TikTok.

5.7 million streams on its first day

Icelandic musician Laufey’s new album, Bewitched, has set a record for the most streams in the jazz category on Spotify on its day of release, accumulating 5.7 million streams, RÚV reports. The previous record was held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s 2021 album Love for Sale, which received 1.1 million streams on its first day.

Bewitched, released by music label AWAL on September 8, is Laufey’s second album. It features the British Philharmonic Orchestra on two of its tracks and consists mostly of original compositions, along with one cover song.

It received a five-star review from NME: “There’s a certain magic in Laufey’s music. Filled with swooning strings and gently sighing backing vocals, her lush offerings can evoke both the Great American Songbook and modern pop greats like Billie Eilish.”

The track From the Start has gained notable attention, particularly on the social media platform TikTok, becoming the most popular song from the album to date.

Speaking to the radio programme Reykjavík síðdegis yesterday, Laufey was overjoyed by the reception: “I strive to focus less on metrics and more on creating the highest quality music possible. Yet, when the album is released and the statistics begin to roll in, it’s always an unexpected delight.”