Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson shortened his name to Ásgeir Trausti as a musician, after an injury cut short his career as a record-breaking javelin thrower. He achieved a number one hit in his native Iceland with 2012 debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn when he’d only just turned 20. He then cut his name down again to just Ásgeir as his appeal began to broaden internationally, reissuing the album just over a year later with lyrics in English as In the Silence. Its translation was assisted by the US musician John Grant, who has been resident in the Icleandic capital Reykjavik since 2011 (and who made one of Sound of Life’s favourite albums of this year).
Its follow up, 2017’s Afterglow, was almost entirely in English bar one Icelandic song – while Ásgeir’s third album came out last year in both Icelandic and English, as Sátt and Bury the Moon respectively. A new, entirely English EP, The Sky is Painted Gray Today, was released this year, but it was followed up with the original Icelandic version of the title track, titled “Öldurótið”.
The EP and the single are focused on stripped-back, folk-influenced singer-songwriter style, but the electronics which have always been part of Ásgeir’s sound are subtly present throughout. As with the preceding album, the parts are blended with extraordinary maturity, and like Ásgeir’s voice, there is a blending of gentleness and power: it’s easy to find comparisons with his compatriots like Sigur Rós, Ólafur Arnalds and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson in this mix of finesse and elemental sweep. When we spoke to him, we wanted to know how much the Icelandic identity informed his music, and how his relationship to his mother tongue became a part of this.
Hi Ásgeir, how are you feeling about the new material?
The response has been really good; everything I've heard anyway. Some of these songs were written a few years ago and have been around for a while, but we actually recorded them for the last album, but they didn't quite fit. They fit so well together on their own, though, that we decided to put them out as an EP. I think they sound good and feel good like that, as a whole.
And why did you decide to do the single in Icelandic, when you haven't for a while?
That was pretty spontaneous. We always write in Icelandic first, and that's what we've been doing since we started. The plan was initially to release it just in English, but then we thought, let's put just this one track out that we were really happy with in Icelandic – we already had a recording of it, we didn't have to do anything new with it. I know that people who like my music over here in Iceland mostly want to listen to it in Icelandic, so of course it was good for them too.
Do you feel like the songs change much in translation, or do you still feel like you're expressing the same thing?
They feel like different songs in a way. It's funny because they're talking about the exact same thing, and a lot of times they're just straight translations of the Icelandic lyrics. But the way languages sound and feel is very different – how everything flows together and the rhythm of the words – and that makes a lot of difference first to the music, and because of that, to the kind of emotion in it.
Does this lead you to think about the mechanisms of the different languages?
Sure. I could speak English before I began my career, but really doing this has made me understand it better and better. But I think more about different people's approaches. So working with someone like [Iceland-based American singer] John [Grant], I've definitely learned a lot about English, but I learn from everyone I meet. I've worked with a lot of people on lyrics since I began, and each person has their own approach and style, and each has affected me. More recently I've thought, what is my approach and style in writing lyrics? I'm still trying to figure that one out!
As you're recording in Icelandic, do you think ahead to how each song will sound in English too?
My father [Einar Georg Einarsson] wrote most of the Icelandic lyrics in the beginning, and still does – or sometimes it's me, or also my friend Julius [Robertsson] who has played in my band and who I've known since I was six years old. I personally feel more comfortable writing in English than Icelandic, maybe because my father is a poet, so he goes with all these old ways and rules about how you write poetically. I'm definitely not as good at all those things as he is, so perhaps I feel like I can't compare if I write in Icelandic.
Do you feel like there is something intrinsically Icelandic about your songs? Is this something you even consider when you're writing?
No, I wouldn't say so. That never goes through my mind, though people from the outside say they can sense something that connects my music with their idea of Icelandic music. I can see why, in some cases, but I never think about it unless it's mentioned! When I'm writing I try not to think too much about what I'm doing, ever. I know I've been inspired and influenced by Icelandic music, so it connects it somehow.
It's inevitably a tight-knit musical scene there, by virtue of being a small nation which has a strong focus on creative pursuits. What are the ups and downs of that?
The positives are pretty obvious – there are so many great musicians here, and everyone is open to collaborating with anyone. So it's pretty easy to just call up anyone, ask them to come over and do a drum session or whatever, and you know they can be there in ten minutes because everything is so close by with most of the musicians living here in Reykjavik. I could imagine in a bigger city like London it takes much more organising to make a collaboration happen! And the negative? I guess maybe it's that we're pretty isolated, so it's difficult to be part of a bigger musical scene like in the States or in Europe where you're connected to all the other things that are going on there musically. For myself I don't see that as a negative, but I can see why it would be.
So you're happy to create in relative isolation?
I am! I have all the people around me to work with that I could want to have. I have my own studio and space here, it's the same space that I first worked in since I made my first album. I've been working with the same producer ever since and we've built a little bit more around us in this studio, and I'm really happy here.
There is a cliché of Icelandic music having a kind of epic melancholy to it, and this has been said of your songs too. Are you OK with that description?
I'm fine with it! [Laughs] I think I have some happy upbeat songs, but sure, I sing about sadness too. It's true that some people do get a little bit more down in the long winter, because everything is just dark all the time. Some people get depressed in the winter – I don't get depressed, but I think when it is dark the whole day, it probably affects you in ways you can't really put a finger on, and it probably comes out in the music in some way. On a very simple level, we stay inside during the winter a lot, and that's why a lot of people read, or write poetry, or make music! I'm actually making some more upbeat music right now, but we'll see how that develops in the coming months when it all gets dark...
Cover Credit: Jonatan Gretarsson
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.