wears the trousers magazine

best of 2009: wears the trousers meets hildur guðnadóttir

If you’ve seen Spike Jonze’s eyebrow-raising video for ‘Triumph Of A Heart’ or watched the infamous YouTube clip of Björk drunkenly belting out karaoke 2 Unlimited, you’ll know that plying Ms Gudmundsdóttir with alcohol can have unpredictable consequences. As it turns out, parting Björk from alcohol can also bring about cataclysmic changes in the forces of music. As Wears The Trousers hears it, one evening back in Iceland, roughly 12 or 13 years ago, Björk walked out of a bar leaving an untouched beer on the table (perhaps she didn’t feel like dancing with a giant cat that night, or scraping her face on the pavement), and as she did, the two teenagers – one boy, one girl – who had been sitting either side of her on the couch both jumped at the glass at the same time. The boy was Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason; the girl, Hildur Guðnadóttir; and together they would go on to share many more beers as they embarked upon a convoluted and ceaseless musical journey.

Hildur first joined Örvar and his friend Gunni Örn Tynes playing together in a band called Andhéri (who tragically lost all of their recordings in an unspecified incident), whom she first encountered at “a sort of Icelandic version of Battle of the Bands” where she was singing with another band. “I was fascinated with what they were doing, and apparently they liked what I was doing too, so before we even talked to each other I think we knew that our paths would cross,” Hildur explains. Once the inadvertent hand of Björk had intervened to engineer that icebreaker, the three became very close friends. When Örvar and Gunni went on to form the much more familiar band múm with twin sisters Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir, Hildur would often play alongside them. A classically trained cellist, she contributed strings to their debut album Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is OK in 2000, and, following the staggered departure of both twins, adopted a more prominent role in the band, sharing vocal duties on both 2007’s Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy and 2009’s Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know.

“I love them very much as people,” she says. “So the most fun thing about being in múm is that we get to spend so much time together. I live in Berlin and most of the other people live in Iceland, although one is in Holland and one in Finland, so we would see much less of each other if it wasn’t for múm.” With such a scattered personnel, múm tend to record their albums piecemeal and sporadically; sometimes Hildur will lay down tracks on her own in Berlin, other times she travels to Iceland. “It’s a big part of why they are such geniuses,” she explains. “They can blend the most obscure things together in a way that all of a sudden starts to make total sense.” As an example she cites a track from the newest album, the bizarrely titled ‘The Smell Of Today Is Sweet Like Breastmilk In The Wind’. “When I recorded the vocals I thought, ‘Aha, this is quite strange,’ and then when we recorded the string quartet I thought, ‘What kind of weird song is this? It’s never gonna work!’ Then when I heard the first mix I couldn’t believe how they blended all the elements together, and that it worked so well!”

Like seemingly every other Icelander, Hildur was raised in a very musical family. As a young child she would sing in choirs, which gave way to performing in pop bands as a teenager in Reykjavík. Along the way, she would pick up whatever instrument she found lying around in the homes of friends and family and try to play it. She calls this her “sound curiosity”, and it was this restless exploration of different modes of making music and noise that led her to discard her original tutoring in cello at the Reykjavík Music Academy, yielding to an urge for experimentation with computerised sound and programming. Eventually, through various coincidences, Hildur returned to the cello after a long absence and suddenly felt herself connecting with the instrument in ways she hadn’t experienced before. The revelation was deeply personal; Hildur found that she was finally able to express her innermost personality through its strings, and a love affair was born.

Trying to unravel the precise sequence of Hildur’s multifarious collaborations is all but impossible, so complex is her musical resumé, if you can call it anything nearly as formal. Both on her own initiative, and as an active member of famed Icelandic arts collective Kitchen Motors (alongside other members of múm, co-founder Jóhann Jóhansson and countless others), Hildur has seemingly worked with everyone making music in Iceland during the last decade, and several abroad too. Among her most celebrated collaborations are her ongoing musical endeavours with Finnish experimental electronica duo Pan Sonic (side project Angel, established in 2004, features Pan Sonic’s Ilpo Väisänen, German indie-rock icon Dirk Dresselhaus and Hildur) and soundtrack work with industrial music veterans Throbbing Gristle, with whom she composed a live score to be performed alongside Derek Jarman’s 1980 film ‘In The Shadow Of The Sun’.

Hildur is also a longtime member of Stórsveit Nix Noltes, Iceland’s premier (possibly only) purveyors of Balkan folk songs, who also count among their rotating cast various members of múm both past and present (including Kristín Anna, aka Kría Brekkan, on accordion). Formed primarily out of friendships forged while studying composition and the Icelandic Academy of Arts, the band have released two albums since 2005 and completed two US tours with Animal Collective to rave reviews. “That’s a very fun band to play in,” says Hildur. “The Balkan folk songs are so amazing, full of emotions. It’s very energetic music, and our arrangements are sometimes loud and banging, but there are also many incredibly beautiful slow songs.”

That her own music more often than not sounds desperately sad is not intentional, she says. Hildur is not known for being unhappy; for a recent photoshoot with múm, in which the band mocked up some holiday snaps, Hildur was one of the ones who had to hold a cloud above her head and pretend to be sad – something of an inside joke, she says. “Nobody believed that I could keep a sad face throughout the whole photoshoot, so there was a little bet going on about it,” she laughs. “I admit it was a little hard to be sad for all that time, but they seem to have gotten at least a few pictures of me frowning, so I guess I won the bet!”

Clouds have had a special significance for Hildur over the past couple of years, though she laughs when I point out the connection (“I hadn’t thought of that at all!”), as her most recent solo album, Without Sinking, was inspired by the way in which they form and disperse. She wanted to try to mimic these mechanisms among tiny droplets of water by “creating a feeling of breath with a bow on a string”, something she approached with a great deal of care. “The composition and recording process is very important to me,” she explains. “It is important that the music is recorded at its natural pace and you don’t force anything to happen. This is of course a very Utopian way of thinking and is not always possible. But looking back at making Without Sinking, the whole journey felt good to me. I felt at ease while I was recording and mixing. It was like everything happened when it was supposed to. It was quite a slow and hermetic journey, a bit like breathing. You know, when your breath is shallow that something is wrong with your body system; when you can feel your belly moving up and down when you breathe, then you know your body is at ease.”

Unlike her feet-finding solo debut, 2006’s Mount A, which she recorded in strict privacy and issued under the now-abandoned name of Lost In Hildurness, Hildur felt comfortable enough to involve other people in the creative process for Without Sinking. Her father Guðni Franzson and old friends Skúli Sverrisson and Jóhann Jóhannsson helped out with instruments, while Valgeir Sigurðsson stepped in once again to take care of the mixing. The end product is profoundly moving, communicating directly with the listener’s viscera and imagination alike, though, modest as ever, she blushes at the very suggestion.

“My sole reason for wanting to release music and perform it is to try to give something to people. I try to do this as honestly I can. I want to give people experiences, feelings, images or ideas. Create a little internal stir. It is a strange thing to release albums. You never know how people will receive what it is you’re trying to give them. People have been very open to Without Sinking and received it with open arms. I was quite surprised by the reactions; I didn’t expect such a wide audience liking the album. But when people accept what it is I’m trying to give them, that is wonderful and it makes me incredibly happy. I think the biggest privilege of being a musician is the way you can communicate with people through music. It is a form of communication that is like nothing else I have experienced, where sounds are superior to words.”

Evidently, forming connections through music comes as naturally to Hildur as breathing, and she concedes that very few of her friends in Iceland are not somehow involved in music. “The friendship that comes out of the deep musical connections are incredible and very strong. It is a beautiful thing,” she says. “In a way, I guess the memories are like childhood memories. It’s like how you look back at growing up with your brothers and sisters. For all these years we have grown musically hand in hand, gone our own ways and joined hands again. This is how it has always been and hopefully how it will always be. Not a day goes by without me thinking how incredibly lucky I am to have so many good friends that I share this world with.”

Alan Pedder
Without Sinking is out now on Touch Records. Keep up with Hildur’s adventures over on Myspace. Top photo by Anika Mottershaw. Middle photo by Máni Tómasson.

FREE MP3: Hildur Guðnadóttir, ‘Erupting Light’


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