JFDR is the latest project of the gifted and prolific Icelandic singer-songwriter Jófríður Ákadóttir. Only 23, she has already released a string of albums with Samaris and Pascal Pinon, collaborated with Gangly, Low Roar, and Lapalux, and in March, released her first solo album, Brazil, to rave reviews. On July 30, she brings the curtain down on this year’s GIAF with a gig in the Róisín Dubh.
Ákadóttir is the latest in the rich seam of Icelandic acts to garner international attention, following on from Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, Ásgeir, Retro Stefson, and Björk, who has professed her admiration for Ákadóttir’s music. How does such a small country manage to produce so many successful and innovative musicians?
“It’s a musical society, people are supportive of you playing music and doing it together as an activity,” she replies. “There are choirs in nearly every town and there are music schools, even in small villages. People have a relaxed relationship with music, it feels inviting so people don’t feel intimidated about getting into it. If they find something they really enjoy or are moved by they pursue it. It also has to do with the smallness of the country, people know each other and you can share ideas back and forth and get reactions and that’s really important when you are just starting out.”
Ákadóttir’s father is the distinguished composer Áki Ásgeirsson and she cites him as a key influence. “He was a big inspiration," she says. "He is a very DIY person and encouraged me to try everything out first by myself and that has influenced me to try the strength of my own voice. If you do something yourself no matter how bad you are or how little you know you get more personal results and that’s really important in any form of art; to stay true to yourself. That’s one of the most important lessons I got from my dad.”
Another key factor in her development were childhood and teen years studying clarinet. “It’s how I learned how to sing," she said. "The clarinet is very close to the human voice and it’s a solo instrument and it has a particular abstractness to it and a particular logic that has informed how I sing and perform. What I learned from my clarinet teacher about interpretation and expressing something beyond just the music and the notes and the instrument was so valuable to me.
"It was probably the best schooling I ever had and I didn’t realise it until much later, when I had given up on the clarinet and I was angry with the clarinet, because it didn’t fulfil what I wanted out of music. I realised what I took from that tedious classical journey is so rich and so particular; there is a quality to doing the same thing repeatedly no matter how stupid it is.
"Some people read passages from the Bible over and over again, and they don’t do it because there is so much truth in the book, it’s because there is truth in the experience of when they do the same thing repeatedly. I feel like that is what I have taken from my studies even though I didn’t necessarily like it, but there was that quality in repetition that happens within your person and character.”
With her twin sister Ásthildur, Ákadóttir formed Pascal Pinon and released their debut album when she was just 14. “That project was something my dad encouraged us to do, to just go and record the album ourselves,” she recalls. “He helped us if we needed it but he said ‘You should record it, you should mix it.' That’s where I’ve been very lucky in how I was raised.
"I never doubted I could do something or felt that my age had anything to do with my abilities or that I wasn’t qualified to be part of the music scene. I just wanted to do it and age had nothing to do with it and nobody said differently. It was only later on I realised how ridiculously young we were and how strange it was.”
Is Pascal Pinon still a going concern? “Yes and no,” Jófríður responds. “It’s one of a few side projects. We went into the studio and re-recorded some of our songs with strings so we’ve been going back to the past and seeing what we have there and reinventing it. But I’ve been so busy with my solo stuff and my sister has been busy with her own things we’ve not found time to work on that project.
"Pascal Pinon and JFDR are very similar to me in my approach but JFDR has a lot less compromises, so obviously I am more inclined to do that at the moment when I am exploring my own voice. When I want to work with somebody again having Pascal Pinon is great; it’s not active at the moment but it’s not dead, it’s just having a low tide.”
She expands on what prompted her to make her first solo album; “I just wanted to do something without compromising. I wanted to be the boss, to say this is what I want to do, and this is how it is supposed to sound and how it is supposed to feel. In a band you learn a lot and you are pushed to do things you would never have done on your own but you also have to sacrifice something. Sometimes that’s OK and sometimes it’s not, so I wanted to see what would happen if I don’t do that anymore. It’s just one other experience and one other way of doing things. At the beginning I was terrified but now it’s ‘I don’t care I can understand how this can be’.”
Why did Ákadóttir name the album Brazil? “It was just an image for me of a faraway place, a place so distant from Iceland,” she explains. “The whole album is about this searching for something and you don’t really know what it is, for Utopia, and Brazil felt perfect because it is a place that sounds so warm and foreign.
"The thing about the album is that it is a circle that comes back to the beginning because you never find what you are looking for and I felt Brazil was the perfect title because I’ve never been there and have no plans for going there, it was just I had an idea, a feeling. At the same time the landscapes of Iceland account for the atmosphere and minimalism of the album so it fuses an imaginary Brazil with Iceland.”
Ákadóttir’s mentor, collaborator, and co-producer on Brazil is Shahzad Ismaily who has worked with Tom Waits and Lou Reed. “He was the one who said I should do it,” she tells me. “It probably would have taken me 10 more years to figure it out but Shahzad came to me and shook me and said I should do this. I felt so surprised and confused and said ‘That’s ridiculous I could never do that’, but he just showed me how to do it and I felt so empowered. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.”
I tell her I read that he taught her how to love mistakes and sometimes see them as a moments of inspiration that do not need to be corrected. “Yes!” she enthuses. “That’s so beautiful you mention that because that’s something I sometimes forget. Shahzad is such a genius at chasing magic and feelings within music instead of something that is perfect or precise. He is the one that taught me to love the ‘realness’ within your intentions and your art.”
Finally, I ask about her plans for the future. “I feel there is a path and parts of it I have control over and parts of it I don’t,” she opines. “I also don’t know where this all ends or it could take a change but for the time being I want to just continue with this and see how far it takes me and pushes me. You never really know what’s going to happen and that’s a beautiful part of it. I have a few things I want to do, finish my second album and release a bunch of those extra recordings that are floating around, and tidy up things that have been waiting for a while and just continue to share my music one way or the other and we’ll see what comes of it.”