“Music chronicles the times: the feeling of the times, the emotion of the times,” spoke Snorri Helgason while sipping from a mug of coffee inside of a Reykjavik cafe. “It just makes people feel good,” he continued as he set down the mug, “that is what music does for me, and I hope my music does to others.”
In Iceland, his native land, Snorri Helgason rose to stardom fast as the front man for the pop band Sprengjuhöllin. Songs from their first album spent 27 weeks at #1 on the country’s music charts. After the decline and disintegration of this band, Snorri moved to London where he began rising from the ashes as a solo act, playing an original neo-folk/ indie blend. Having just come off a major European tour, Snorri sat down with vagabondjourney.com to talk about his music, his rise to national fame, the challenges of converting to the international stage, and the struggle of making a living as a musician in an age of infinite options.
“How would you describe your music?” I asked Snorri.
“Well, I don’t know,” he replied quite honestly, “it’s folk based, the songs themselves are based on folk in its purest form.”
I had to admit that I could not describe his music any better, having listened to the singles for his new album, Winter Sun, over and over prior to the interview, I too struggled to find words to describe them. They are just simply good, modern folk with a quirky twist held together with solid, ever churning vocals. I expressed this to Snorri.
“I have also been listening to pop music for my entire life: the Beatles and old 60s stuff, and also 70s pop and 90s Brit pop are huge influences,” Snorri attempted to provide a clearer explanation of the unique brand of indie type music he is now making. “It’s just a mixture of everything,” he admitted, “I’ve listened to all kinds of different music, so maybe that’s why it sounds like it’s all over the place.”
“How did you form your style with having so many different influences?” I tried another approach. “Was there something intentional about how you came up with the type of music you’re playing now?”
“It just happened,” Helgason replied simply as he took another sip from his coffee. “I’ve never written a song that I wanted to sound like something else. I just write songs.”
Listen to River, a song from Snorri Helgason’s new album, Winter Sun
I then asked Snorri how he got into music and how he became a full time musician. I wanted to hear his story.
“At 19 I decided that I didn’t want to do anything else but play music,” Snorri replied. “I was working in this record store in a mall, and it was over Christmas — like one of those really fancy Christmas sales,” he explained, “and I was in this mall all day, and during the winter months in Iceland the sun doesn’t shine except for like five hours a day, so I never saw the sun. I just saw the fluorescent lights of that mall, and after that Christmas sale I kind of had a minor breakdown. I quit my job, I was just fed up with everything, and that was around the time I made that decision.”
The decision to live out his dream, the decision to be a musician.
“Were there signs before you dedicated yourself to music that you had any exceptional musical talent?” I asked.
“No, not really,” he admitted, “I had never sung or anything at that time.”
Snorri Helgason then became a student of his desire. He began studying music obsessively, figuring out the chord progressions of his favorite songs, the tricks that gave top musicians their edge. Snorri had dedicated his life to music, a dream that he would not leave empty and unfulfilled. “I decided to focus on song writing,” he said.
The kid who, like so many others around the world, picked up a guitar started playing Nirvana riffs at age 16, was now dissecting music like a mortician does a cadaver: figuring out how all the pieces came together. He now had a singular mission in life, to live on his music alone. He studied pop history, monitored what was going in the music scenes in different parts of the world, made connections, and began putting this mass of knowledge all together and into action.”I began to pick up all kinds of tricks,” he told me.
At a time when so many of his peers were searching for carrers and going to university, Helgason applied full focus to his passion. “I just wanted to keep [playing music] because it was so much fun.”
He soon found himself fronting the most popular band in his country.
Fame and The Sprengjuhöllin Years
“How did it happen,” I asked, “that in only two years since you decided to become a musician, you became one of the top popular musicians in your country?”
“Yeah, I don’t really know how that happened,” Snorri admitted with a laugh. “I just started writing these songs, these pop songs, and I formed a band with a couple of friends, and we just became very popular. The first song that we sent out was huge, it was like the biggest song for a couple of years. We had singles at the top of the charts for like 27 weeks. It was just ridiculous. I had no idea that was going to happen. Of course I was confident and liked what I was doing, but I didn’t know that other people were going to like it that much.”
For a couple of years Snorri’s face was all over Icelandic television, his voice all over the radio, and his music resonating in homes across his native land. But his success did not end there. Though singing mostly in Icelandic, Sprengjuhöllin played shows and festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, participating at South by Southwest, Canadian Music Week, and even the Halifax Pop Explosion.
Though the bubble did not burst on Sprengjuhöllin, the virility of their popularity did eventually go into decline.
“The members of the band were just not on the same page ambition wise,” Snorri claimed, “I think I was the only one who made the decision that I was going to be a musician. The other guys in the band were lawyers and studying all kinds of stuff. They had different things that they could do. I can’t do anything else.”
Snorri then paused, took a sip of his cofffee, then continued:
“This is the only thing I have.”
Listen to Julie a song from Snorri Helgason’s new album, Winter Sun
After the dissipation of Sprengjuhöllin, Snorri decided that if he was going to make it as a full time musician that he would have to leave Iceland.
“We were one of the biggest bands in Iceland,” Snorri explained, “and we still had to work full time jobs just to make ends meet.” He continued, “Its just too small, there are only like 200 or 300 thousand people [in all of Iceland].”
He moved to London in 2010.
Snorri Helgason Goes Solo
Moving to London in September of last year, Snorri jumped headlong into taking his musical aspirations to the next level. Working hard at establishing niche for himself in a city that is a music and cultural epicenter of the planet provided a new set of challenges for the singer/ songwriter from Reykjavik.
“Was it a challenge transitioning to London and becoming a smaller fish in a much bigger pond?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” Snorri replied. “It still is very difficult.” He then added, “I wouldn’t say that I’m very successful in London. I’m still working at it.”
“Is going abroad a common pattern in Iceland for successful musicians and artist?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. My former band got about as big as you could get here. This was one of the reasons why I moved abroad.”
Though in the larger music scened of London, Snorri quickly found some allies from his days in Iceland. Teaming up with fellow Icelander, Sindri Már Sigfússon — from Seabear and Sin Fang — to work as his producer, Snorri headed into the studio and came out with Winter Sun, his second solo album, which is on its way to becoming an indie classic.
“Now I’m a full time musician,” Snorri stated with a touch of pride.
Now the only member of his band, Helgason has found less resistance to living out his musical ambitions.
“It’s just so much fun for me to be a solo artist,” he proclaimed. “It’s so much easier because it’s just me. There is no compromising.”
Describing the difference between his last band and his new solo material, Snorri said, “It’s more intimate stuff. The other thing was like big power pop, it was something people could party to. It’s harder to party at my shows now.” Laughs.
While most of Sprengjuhöllin’s songs were sung in Icelandic, Snorri’s solo material is 100% in English. This was something that I’d previously noticed around the music scene in Reykjavik: most of the performers chose to sing in English over their mother tongue. I asked Snorri why he chose to make the linguistic shift.
“I wanted to have it in English because of the feeling of the songs,” Snorri replied. “Icelandic is such a big language, it changes so much of the feel, because the sounds are so much different. English can be a lot smoother. Icelandic is so strong, it has a lot of strong sounds in it.”
From listening to Sprengjuhöllin’s softer songs, I knew that what Snorri was saying was not a misinterpretation. Icelanders often pride themselves over the fact that they speak a language that derives from the vikings — some even go as far as to claim that it is the language that the Norsemen spoke verbatim. The Icelandic government even has a department whose sole job it is to enforce rigid language rules: no new words are allowed, as they attempt to preserve the country’s linguistic heritage as though it were a piece in a museum. Likewise, Icelandic is a incredibly strong language, it’s sounds are powerful: it sounds like a “viking” language. Snorri’s solo material is as smooth as sea glass, and I had to support his linguistic preference.
“I’ve listened to music in the English language my whole life,” Snorri continued, “and I haven’t listened to that much music in Icelandic. English is my natural music language. When I’m writing songs I sing gibberish English, not gibberish Icelandic.”
Listen to Winter Sun #2, from Snorri Helgason’s new album
I changed up the topic. “As there are so many music groups out there now, so many people trying to promote themselves, so many different musical niches, do you think the value of the individual song is less because there is so much saturation, so much choice?”
“Yeah, I guess so. There’s a good side and a bad side to all of this availability,”Snorri responded. “If you hear about some band now, you can go on your computer and listen to them in like three seconds. It is good. But you also get bombarded with all this shit all day long everywhere, and you hear about too many bands — you couldn’t be aware of everything that is going on,” he continued to explain. “You probably could in the 60s, if you were in a scene, like in London, you could be aware of most of the good stuff that was going on. Now there is just too much everywhere. It is good for bands coming from Iceland and smaller places, because it makes the distance smaller. I can send an application to play at South by Southwest, and they can listen to my music through the internet. So that is very good.”
“So it’s a double edged sword, you can get your music out to more people, but to get any one individual to really value what you are doing over others is very competitive because there are so many other options?” I followed up.
Snorri nodded in agreement.
“What are your future plans?” I asked.
“Releasing a new album, going back to London. Last year I’ve been touring so much, I haven’t had the chance to just be in London.”
“Do you like touring?” I asked.
“Yes, I do, I love it. It’s so much fun. I love touring,” Snorri responded with a big smile, “you see so many different places and its is wonderful. It’s so good,” he continued, “you get to meet lots of different people and get to play music.”
Snorri just got off a big 10 country European tour. “It was an endless party,” he spoke, “it was like one continuous long day. It was the first time I toured in a proper tour bus.”
“That’s pretty rock and roll,” my jest was met with laughter.
But Snorri admitted that because he has been out so often touring and playing in other countries he has not yet had the opportunity to build up a sizable fan base in London. “I have these small factions of fan bases in lots of different places, but no home base.”
“Before, you had nothing to lose,” I shifted gears, “now you’ve grown, and you’re getting to where you wanted to be, does success add pressure to the song writing process?”
“I guess so,” Snorri responded, “but it’s a slow build up, it’s not like you wake up one day and you’re Brittany Spears.”
“If everyone stopped listening to you, if you lost your fan base, stopped making money, would you still keep making music?” I asked
“I don’t know,” Snorri replied slowly and honestly, “I mean, I would have to make a living somehow, but it would take a lot for me to give up. I would have to be miserable before I gave up. I’ve gone through some very bad times in that respect. The old band just crumbled down, and my first solo album didn’t sell that well here [in Iceland]. So I’ve been through all of that. I’ve had to grow a thick skin,” he added, “so it will have to take a lot for me to give up.”
“What are your goals? What are your dreams?” I asked, wondering if his scale of ambition shifted with the accomplishment of becoming a full time musician.
“My goal is to be able to keep doing this for the rest of my life,” Snorri replied with a big smile. “I just want to tour, record, tour, record.”
The musician’s dream.
Visit Snorri Helgason’s homepage.