why iceland is so hot right now
Figuratively, not literally.
Photography Matt Martin
Iceland is cool -- ho ho, you might think -- it’s actually ruddy freezing, isn’t it, and dark half the year and they have Björk and like, Sigur Ros, but actually, there’s a whole lot more happening there right now.
The country -- population 300k, has in the past decade gone from financial crisis to financial boom, but it’s not been easy. Governments were toppled, revolutions were held, volcanoes erupted (Eyjafjallajökull) and flights around the world were grounded. But gradually, celebrities started visiting the little island that would slowly became a destination for the Instagrammati. The number of tourists visiting the country has gone from 200,000 to 2 million annually, and that figure is set to continue to rise. “Ten years ago there were two taxi drivers in Reykjavik,” says Jón, who drives tourists around the island on £500 a day tours (and once carted a certain singer’s luggage but he won’t say who), “and if you heard that the other guy had picked someone up from the airport, you’d be bummed out. Now there are so many tourists there’s a shuttle bus every half an hour into the city and even that is overbooked.”
Home to vast glacial plains, weird black sand beaches, more waterfalls than are quantifiable, geysers, hot springs and trolls, the island is visually stunning -- that’s why Kanye shot the video for Highlights there. Beyoncé has visited. Even Justin Bieber shot a video there -- and where A-listers go, others follow.
Although some Icelanders might think otherwise, the influx of tourism has benefited them in more ways than one. Music is one of the country’s chief exports -- and where once the music generated was seen as weird or twee or a funky take on folk, it’s now ruled by R&B and rap. Logi Pedro, one half of chill-rap duo Sturla Atlas agrees. “I think that the interest that Iceland got through the years was a lot dominated by really stiff indie music press, but now that has changed. Foreign press are probably going to have a weird time making sense of [the hip-hop scene].” Like many Scandinavian countries, Iceland has a government funded music initiative to help home-grown musicians make it elsewhere, the Icelandic Music Export. Pedro continues; “A lot of the music that the Icelandic Music Export curates is the same stuff that was being called shit ten years ago by Pitchfork. But no-one cares about Pitchfork anymore, everyone has realised that it’s only one voice that approaches everything ironically or with an air of pseudo-scholarliness. I’m curious to see if Iceland stays being a wonderland for musicians.”
In 1999 the Icelandic Music Export co-funded a festival, along with local airline Iceland Air. Held in an aircraft hanger in, what was at the time a US Naval Air Station (it was decommissioned in 2006), Iceland Airwaves was initially a one-off event to celebrate home-grown and international talent alike. In the intervening years, festivals that showcase new talent over a series of nights have become big-business for industry bods, music fans and just people who really like getting day-drunk and watching bands that might get famous sometime; think Austin’s SXSW, or Brighton’s The Great Escape or Hamburg’s Reeperbahn festival. It’s easy to see why -- bands play several different venues over the course of a few days, from main concert halls to intimate bars to record stores to off the beaten path parties (in 2014 Lady Gaga played a “Doritos party”). There’s a Fresher’s week fizz of excitement and newness, plus a few established bands who make the pilgrimage worthwhile.
Reykjavíkurdætur, which loosely translates as Reykjavik’s Daughters, is a sometime-16, sometime-14 piece, all-girl rap group. On stage they are a contained mania -- rapping in both Icelandic and English, which they do for the purpose of broadening their audience. It’s not easy to get bookings abroad when there are 14 of you. “The growing community of tourists that attend music festivals in Iceland, such as Sónar and Iceland Airwaves, means that we are more likely to plan our sets around an English-speaking crowd. Our energy on stage is something that translates very well and to be able to give people some glimpses of information with English lyrics really seems to put the things we are doing on stage in to place for people,” says Salka Valsdóttir, group spokeswomn.
“The creative scene in Iceland is manic and productive, full of fire and anxiety. The creative community here is mainly based in Reykjavík but during the summer it spreads a lot more via festivals across the country (LungA, Eistnaflug, Aldrei Fór Ég Suður etc.) it’s very big and diverse, which makes it so much fun and full of surprises.” The group, who identify as a collective, met at an open mic series for women interested in rap -- the two women who ran the events eventually joining forces with the regular attendees to create Reykjavíkurdætur.
There are several off-shoots, including punchy electronic rap duo Cyber. “We have a lot of personal freedom in our creativity which makes it a lot easier to work together in a big group. We all respect each others ideas, taste in music and boundaries and therefore we can work together yet apart,” says Valsdóttir. Many acts come with a sense of collaboration, and over the course of Icelandic Airwaves, it’s hard not to spot the same faces in a variety of bands. This is in part due to the island being small and isolated -- and islanders having a sense of ‘jack of all trades’ resourcefulness. I’d like to say that it stems from the first people who settled there 1200 years ago, turning a cold and barren land into a habitable place, and maybe it is; when resources are limited, whether that be food and shelter or keyboard players and drummers, you find a way.
For Sigurlaug Gísladóttir, a singer-songwriter who plays under the moniker Mr.Silla and was formerly a member of experimental glitch-electronica group Múm, the festival has played a key role in growing her fanbase. “Iceland Airwaves is a very well respected festival in the western world, and many up and coming artists have been included [on the line-up] in the past. As an Icelandic band it’s a great way to expose yourself to a bigger audience every year. My solo act Mr.Silla has had the opportunity to grow up with the festival, which is also an amazing platform to showcase new great acts like Jae Tyler who I also play with.”
Andrea Bjork, a photographer/director now living in Berlin, believes that being creative in Iceland is a given. “I think everyone experiences themselves as being creative in some way or other. Maybe we're a bit narcissistic -- it's easy to be a big fish in this small pond, but it also creates an atmosphere where anyone feels they can do it. It also helps to have a history of successful artists emerging from this tiny place, it makes the decision to work in a creative field more understandable -- like, your parents won't worry as much that you'll be living on the street I guess... and they respect your decision.” Are there any downsides to being a small community? “Everyone knows each other, there isn't a lot of space for criticism, I feel. If you write a blistering review of someone's thing, it's bound to be like, your first cousin's new girlfriend or something, and you're going to have a horribly awkward Christmas party later that year. Everyone is very friendly (but probably gossiping in closed circles).”
It’s not just music that is swinging through a boom time -- Icelandic brands such as 66°North are having a coup too. Founded in 1926, the company makes all of the protective apparel for the Air Sea Rescue, the lifeguards at the infamous Blue Lagoon and pretty much anyone you bump into in the street. But they have also turned their functional outerwear into the most hyped brand in Iceland, keeping everyone from Beyoncé to their own domestic talent like Yung Karen warm. The company’s CEO, Helgi Óskarsson, himself a music fan, has an answer for why Iceland is suddenly the focus of the world’s attention. “I remember going abroad as a kid and very few people I met knew where Iceland was on the map, if they knew it existed at all. It seemed very far away from everything else. Then things started to change and first we elected the first female president on the planet (in 1980), which got us a lot of attention, then Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavík, then came the Sugarcubes and Björk, who had a huge musical influence across the world. And then most importantly the Iceland national soccer team went from being #131 to #18 on the FIFA ranking list, and now the World Cup tournament in Russia is waiting for us. Today the world is right here in Iceland and we are all over the world. Even the World Cup!”
Iceland Airwaves 2018 will take place between 7-10 November. Tickets are on sale now.