wears the trousers magazine


kría brekkan: “I don’t think I’m a very easily definable person!”

A slightly abridged version of this article appeared in Wears The Trousers issue seven. Order a print copy here.

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words in edgeways with kría brekkan

According to one episode of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’, the concepts of time and space can be folded with the aid of the right technology, theoretically allowing us to travel vast distances and cover huge periods of time in the blink of the eye. I doubt that Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir has managed to invent or discover this kind of technology just yet, but she does seem to have a knack for travelling far and letting time fly right past her.

It’s taken the best part of two months and two international time zones to finally track her down for an interview. Firstly she was in New York – her current base – where for a month either I was late calling her or she was impossible to contact. Then she was in Iceland where either I was too early to catch her or she simply wasn’t around. When I finally get hold of her at her mother’s place, her apology is huge but is swiftly followed by yet another blow: “I’m actually at a dinner right now and we are about to eat. Can we rearrange to talk again for Friday perhaps?” 

As I start scribbling things out of my diary, I tell her that that would be fine and leave her to go and eat with her parents. Two minutes later she calls me back. The food isn’t ready yet, she explains, and finally the quantum physics defying adventurer Kristín Anna has come to a halt. If she’s shy and quiet at first, she says, her head is “boiling” from the number of phone calls she’s been getting from people trying to commission her to make music for commercials, something she is extremely against. Otherwise, she’s fine. Charming, sweet and feeling quite chatty in fact.

Kristín Anna is perhaps best known for her time spent fronting Icelandic folktronica pioneers Múm with her twin sister Gyða, but her musical output since leaving the band in 2006 and adopting the stage name of Kría Brekkan is well worth charting. Let’s start with Stórsveit Nix Noltes, a fascinating excursion into Balkan folk music in which Kristín Anna (under her real name) is joined by various members of the Múm touring band, including Ólöf Arnalds on violin, Hildur Guðnadóttir on cello, and Eiríkur Orri Olafsson on trumpet, and up to seven other musicians. Royal Family–Divorce, their second album, has just been released in the UK through FatCat Records and the band itself dates back to 2004, when many of its members were studying music composition at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts.

Explaining how she got involved with the ensemble, Kristín Anna says that they had already started playing together before they reached out to her. “I was invited to come and play with them one day and was told just to bring whatever instrument I liked,” she says. The instrument in question turned out to be the accordion, the distinctive sound of which can be heard on the album wheezing along at lightning pace. Royal Family–Divorce is essentially Bulgarian folk-rave; a blindingly fast romp of a party record – “the last party on Earth” states their Myspace – that, despite its ancient roots and raw acoustic edge, is wildly successful in moving the feet.

“We started exploring [Bulgarian music] more and arranging it in our own way,” she continues, explaining how they would book a small rehearsal place in Reykjavík every weekend. “We’d just play these very long sets which people seemed to like to dance to,” she laughs. Those shows led to a couple of support tours for the likes of Benni Hemm Hemm, Emilíana Torrini and Animal Collective, which led to further offers. It has been difficult, she says, to organise any semblance of a proper touring schedule. “Many of us are still in school, or in further education away from Iceland, or are teachers, or have families, and most of us are involved with a lot of other bands and projects.”

The members of Stórsveit Nix Noltes are justly proud of what they have created, but you have to wonder whether they see it simply as a diversion, especially those who are not otherwise involved in music. Kristín Anna’s response is delivered thoughtfully. “It’s different for everybody I think. We’re all bringing very different things to it. It’s very ego-less music as well. It isn’t anybody’s, it’s folk music.” I comment on how nice it is to actually hear modern folk music you can dance to, which seems to throw her for a second. Then she giggles. “Yeah…but you’re going to have to be quite inventive in the way you actually dance to it.”

While Stórsveit plot their most all-inclusive reunion yet to start gigging in support of the album, Kristín Anna is one of the few members whose schedule isn’t too difficult to juggle. Her work as Kría Brekkan has been executed all at her own pace, without the pressure of a record label nudging her forward, and she freely admits it’s been a fairly easy ride since leaving Múm. “I don’t have a whole lot of commitments with my own music to any external forces or record labels, so I’m pretty flexible,” she says, understandably pleased about it. “I’ve been delivering a lot since I was 18, so I think I needed something of a hibernation. I needed to be in a more intimate relationship with just music, and not the music industry.”

She compares the industry to being “in a big operating battery” and speaks of wanting to take a vacation away from it all, “to spend time thinking about how I wanted to see things done.” Her time with Múm, she says, was very much a family affair, working alongside her best friends and the people she loved. “It was very educating and beautiful, it always felt very true, but it’s hard as you always have to make a lot of compromises. That is life I guess. It’s complicated.”

She recalls Múm’s first ever full tour in 2002 in support of their second album Finally, We Are No One, relating particularly unhappy memories of playing identical one identical venue after another, each with their own muddy sound and leery crowd, and telling herself it would most likely be her first and last tour of that nature. The trip was also a major catalyst for Gyða, who quit the band shortly after, leaving Kristín Anna as their sole frontwoman. “She was used to playing her cello for many hours a day; we were sitting in a car all day and then only got one hour to play, and that was repeated the next day. So she didn’t really get her usual nourishment. It just seemed like it didn’t suit her well. She prefers her life much simpler now. She practices, studies many different things and teaches now.”

Múm’s next album, 2004’s Summer Make Good, was a much bleaker affair. Submerged in murkier waters, the album moved away from their usual impish folktronica in favour of eerie and unsettling lullabies. Kristín Anna’s childlike ethereal voice was alone and despondent among them, a mindset mostly inspired by the state of the world she saw from car windows during that first tour. “I had some experiences that had made me look at the world not so childishly. Driving around there were many beautiful places but also many things I was taken aback by, and realised that we, as humans, had created. I had no idea and I was shocked!”

While this revelation doesn’t exactly dispel the myth that Icelanders were once these fey little creatures living in their own poetic bubble, oblivious to the outside world, after a little time talking to Kristín Anna you believe that she is simply unaffected and single-minded enough to only wear the rose-tinted glasses when appropriate. She’s learned from experience. If a situation is becoming less than desirable, just walk away and do what make you happy. That said, her work since Múm has hardly been a coherent statement of euphoric independent bliss.

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Kristín Anna and husband Dave Portner

The first project the newly rechristened Kría Brekkan worked on was Pullhair Rubeye, which started out as a gorgeous collection of sweet and silly love letters between her and her new husband, Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) of Animal Collective. Its pillow-talk whispers and light bric-a-brac instrumentation was as strange as it was quiet, getting even stranger when the couple made a last-minute decision to reverse all the tracks and even double-speed a few. Released in this altered state, the album caused quite a stir. Eager fans waiting for Kristín Anna’s first post-Múm material were left scratching their heads, something she claims she was completely unaware of at the time.

“I live so much in my own world that I just didn’t know,” she laughs. “I just made a record with my husband and never once even thought when were making and releasing it that it would even be reviewed. I can very easily just disappear into my own surroundings and don’t really have much of a dialogue with what happens after. But I am opening up a little bit now and becoming more conscious of it all; trying to come out of my shell a bit.”

Shortly after both the official Pullhair Rubeye and its re-reversed twin found its way onto the internet, Portner felt moved to publish an open statement on the Animal Collective website in defence of the release. “Definitely a lot less people were into it,” says a pragmatic Kristin Anna, “but I don’t think we ever thought people would think it was cool or nice or whatever.” To anyone who asked her whether she was going solo, Kristín Anna would retort, “I’m not going anywhere!” She laughs. “You know, other than just to practise more things and educate myself.”

“I think Pullhair Rubeye kind of released me – if you really wanted to hear it you’d have to put some work into it, or invent a way of playing your records backwards. So I think now I only have the die-hard fans left, and not those who were expecting too much.” She giggles. It hardly needs saying that neither this nor anything else in her post-Múm career constitutes a masterplan.

After Pullhair Rubeye came an excruciatingly limited 7” Kría Brekkan EP, Wildering, seemingly out of nowhere, followed later in 2008 by an eight-track ‘album’ called Apotropaíosong Armor, which ran for all of about 17 minutes. Although anyone with a basic understanding of how Icelandic bands and music projects form and dissolve should know better than to expect anything particularly conventional from an artist who’s just gone ‘solo’, these releases were somewhat baffling and, at worst, frustrating. I confess that my reviews of them for Wears The Trousers weren’t exactly favourable; while I thought the atmosphere and tension they created with ease was beautifully and expertly executed, I simply could not grasp where the hell she was coming from. Had I been heard the re-reversed version of Pullhair Rubeye first, I might have been better prepared.

“It’s good that you don’t know where it’s coming from,” says Kristín Anna with a playful tone. “It’s not really from experimenting though, it’s from a very deep place within myself and has a deep and personal meaning. It’s not like I sat down at 10 o’clock every morning to construct these works. They are perhaps accidental, but it’s the way I work out things inside me. One day maybe I will make music that is more about…hmmm…” She tails off, the thought left unresolved. “I think [these pieces] are what they are. I don’t mind if people can’t define them because they are very personal.” She giggles. “I don’t think I’m a very easily definable person!”

Interestingly enough, she describes all of her output as “part of a journey”, of which we only get to hear small parts. “It starts with Wildering and the record I went to record with Múm, but didn’t actually end up participating in [2007’s Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy],” she says. “I went to live with them in an isolated place for a month but I had been through a sad experience and I just stayed in by myself, just playing the guitar and piano. What I was doing and what they were doing didn’t mingle so I went up to the attic and recorded the Wildering songs on a 4-track and put it on a cassette. And when I went home, I left the cassette there as a birthday present for Örvar [Þóreyjarson Smárason, one of Múm’s founder members].”

We shouldn’t have to wait too long to get our next pieces of the Kristín Anna puzzle. Giving absolutely nothing away, she tells me how she’s been working on some music since the release of Pullhair Rubeye that we have yet to hear. “It’s just work for myself,” she warns, knowingly. “It’s not a product or anything, but I would like to make it available soon.” It seems what we’re left with for now, still trying to unravel, are pure representations of little moments in time for Kristín Anna. She giggles at this observation. “Yeah…maybe I can explain it better another day but I have to go eat now, sorry.”

And with a very quick “thank you, speak soon,” she’s gone, the final impression being that Kristín Anna, as Kría Brekkan, is treading on completely new terrain. Unlike many musicians who’d go to hell and back for that elusive solo contract, Kristín Anna doesn’t even seem to see her time with Múm as her first taste of international success. She was just playing music with her friends, but something bigger than the band was getting in the way of that so she just stayed in to make her own music instead as a way of documenting her days. Simple as that. It’s the rest of us who feel the need to define that decision as some kind of career move on her part.

So while I’m left slightly more reassured that I can actually stand by my not so glowing reviews of her ‘solo’ work – almost with her blessing – she’s at least keeping things interesting. There’s nothing conventional about this new unlabelled direction she is heading in, just as there is nothing conventional about Icelanders playing frantic and deranged Balkan folk. Of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Léigh Bartlam 

 

Kría Brekkan, ‘Ravine’ [live]

Avey Tare & Kría Brekkan, ‘Foetus No-Man’ [live]

Múm, ‘Weeping Rock, Rock’

Stórsveit Nix Noltes, ‘Krivo Sadovsko Horo’ [live]

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