Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson is one of the more unusual superstars of the modern age. But make no mistake, the 45-year-old Icelander is a superstar.
You’ll have heard him, even if you don’t know it: both solo and in the band Sigur Rós, his work has found its way not just into major movies, but onto every second TV documentary and trailer right across the planet. The slow build to grand drama of Sigur Rós songs – epitomised in the immense 2005 “Hoppípolla” – is perfect heartstring-tugging material and has seen them become an arena-filling success too.
But there’s much more to them, and to Jónsi, than just these big demonstrative moments. As well as singing in his instantly distinctive falsetto – often in the made-up language “Hopelandic” – Jónsi plays the guitar, bass, piano, harmonium, mellotron, banjo, harmonica and sampler, produces electronically, and makes visual art and fiction with his partner Alex Somers.
If you really want to get to the bottom of what makes Sigur Rós quite so ubiquitous, you need to understand their eccentricities. So, on the occasion of the release of Shiver, Jónsi’s second solo album in ten years – itself a radical departure in many ways – here is a look at some of his more unorthodox explorations, connections and collaborations. It’s an unusual trajectory, but it shows just what makes him such a 21st-century star, and perhaps shows why for all the melancholy of his music, he’s continued to invent and adapt for over quarter of a century.
“Bee Spiders," 1995
Iceland is a small enough country that everyone is generally in several bands at once out of necessity. Jónsi had already been in and out of the grunge band Stoned, and formed the embryonic Sigur Rós, by the time this footage of his band Bee Spiders in a national competition was filmed. It suggests a quite different direction he might have taken, had his more flamboyant side won out over the musically introspective styles he became known for.
“Ágætis Byrjun” (1998 Demo)
Such was (and is) Sigur Rós’s abilities that even their relatively early demos sound fancier than most bands’ finished product. If it weren’t for the occasional glitches on the cassette tape this was recorded onto, it could easily have been a “proper” release – and indeed its fragility possibly makes it more appealing than the final version on the band’s second album, one of their international breakthrough tracks.
Frakkur “SFTLB2” 2000-2001
As Sigur Rós began to be a global touring concern, Jónsi quietly busied himself with electronic composition on his first laptop during his downtime, either at home or in hotel rooms, adopting the artist name “Frakkur”. The earliest tracks were “a record of unrequited love for a straight boy at home in Reykjavík”. They’re certainly full of yearning but are also warm, playful and very, very pretty – not a million miles from what fellow Icelanders, the folktronica band Múm, were doing at the time.
Amiina “Hilli (At the Top of the World)” with Lee Hazlewood 2007
Originally a string quartet made up of Hildur Ársælsdóttir, Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir and Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, Amiina began to join Sigur Rós on stage in 1999 and have contributed to their records ever since. They also make gorgeous music in their own right, not least this – the final ever recording by the brilliant and eccentric actor/singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood.
Jónsi & Alex “Daníell in the Sea” 2009
In parallel to his work with Sigur Rós, Jónsi has consistently made art, written and recorded with his boyfriend Alex Somers, originally from Baltimore, since the pair got together in the mid-2000s. Somers, as well as being a visual artist, is a soundtrack composer of some note – and his and Jónsi’s duo work tends to the finest ambient subtleties.
Tiësto “Kaleidoscope” feat Jónsi 2009
The Dutch trance megastar Tijs “Tiësto” Verwest, on the other hand, is not known for subtlety: everything he does is about the maximum impact for huge arena shows. Yet when he recruited Jónsi for vocals on his 2009 album, it seemed to rein in his most excessive instincts. Make no mistake, this is still a big-money banger, but it’s at least as much Sigur Rós as it is mega-rave, and it takes its sweet time to get to its peak moments.
When Jónsi himself turned his hand to Tiësto style trance, though, it was never going to be standard stuff. This remix for old Icelandic comrades Múm has all the signifiers of big, commercial dance music, but it manages to be intensely weird from beard to tail.
Death Vessel “Ilsa Drown (feat. Jónsi)” 2014
But Jónsi can do trad indie too. This guest vocal for the Rhode Island indie/folk band fronted by Joel Thibodeau is simple, pretty and endlessly infectious. It is also, of course, absolutely unmistakable: once again, Jónsi makes pretty much any music he touches his own.
Sigur Rós “End” (Black Mirror Season 4, 2017)
A contribution to an Alex Somers project – the soundtrack to the “Hang the DJ” episode of Charlie Brooker’s cult Black Mirror TV series – this is the perfect combination of Somers’s finest textures with the band’s high drama. It’s almost ambient the whole way through before exploding into the vast-scope post-rock that has made them such a commercial concern.
Jónsi ft. Robyn “Salt Liquorice” 2020
Would we have predicted, when we reported on radical club music influenced hyper-pop that soon Jónsi would be making it too? Well no, but we certainly wouldn’t have ruled it out. This razor-sharp ode to the pains of middle age and Scandinavian melancholy with Swedish alt-pop legend Robyn, with a crunching beat by PC Music’s AG Cook, is well outside Jónsi’s usual style, but on the other hand, he’s always been willing to step outside the comfort zone.
While his new album Shiver has plenty of dreamy and melancholic moments – including a duet with Jónsi’s predecessor in glossolalic bliss, Liz Frazer of the Cocteau Twins – it also has a lot of jagged electronic slammers like this. Somehow it all fits very naturally and strongly suggests that at the age of 45 Jónsi has a lot more experimentation left in him.
trayer tryon, Alex Somers, Jónsi “cul de sac” feat Juliana Barwick, Moses Sumney, Nicole Miglis
When he goes delicate and immersive, though, he still goes really delicate and immersive. This collaborative track is a veritable "who’s who" of modern Bohemian talent – and a really beautiful piece of work – but once again, Jónsi’s voice is unmistakable and powerful, and quietly, softly, from the background, it dominates.
Cover Image: Barnaby Roper
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs