Music, regardless of genre, is made to evoke something in us. It might be a memory, or a feeling, or something new about ourselves we didn’t know about before. It might be a truth that we didn’t realise. For Icelandic progressive duo ISAFJØRD, the pursuit of truth was a paramount part of creating their first album Hjartastjaki. We caught up with one half of the band, Ragnar Zolberg about the fascinating turn of fate that brought them together, and the perfect storm that was the writing and recording process.
The first thing you notice when listening to Hjartastjaki is an air of serendipity in ISAFJØRD. Ragnar and Aðalbjörn Addi Tryggvason both moved in similar circles in the very close nit Reykjavík music scene, though never playing together; they also grew up close together, though not again as friends, in a town where the band gets its name. With both their lives playing parallel to each other, they finally realised their potential to create together when they uncovered a very specific shared passion.
“When we decided to do this project, we’d just discovered that we were both massive NEIL YOUNG fans,” says Ragnar warmly. “So that got us talking about bands that we like that maybe aren’t that obvious for metal dudes. That may have triggered something.”
Hjartastjaki as a record came about in Ragnar’s small studio space, that by it’s very nature felt intimate. The instrumentation itself being restricted, while partly an immovable limitation, also added the kind a truthfulness to the sound that the two were looking for. “My studio is equipped with limited instruments. It’s all very low key. The drums are recorded with two mics because I just didn’t have more at the time.”
There is an intimate sound to this record, an intertwining of ideas that only comes from two things; shared understanding of the current situation and the ability to let the emotions of the moment steer the sound. Both Ragnar and Addi have been writing music in various bands for decades, but this project sounds very different, cinematic and yet tinged with folk and pop; not least because of one specific instrument.
“One thing that set a distinct sound was that I had been meaning to buy an upright piano for many years,” Ragnar recounts. “I thought it was too much hassle, but when I finally decided to get one, it arrived the very same day Addi arrived, in the middle of winter. We dragged it in, and I couldn’t have done it without him because I’m out in the countryside. It was all covered in snow. When we got it in its right place, it was really out of tune. So, the out of tune keys really set the tone for everything else!” Another providential event in their lives, if Addi had been a day later, the piano would have been ruined by the weather, and couldn’t have lent its particular sound to the record.
The instruments themselves also lend a personal touch of both men into their shared creation. “I like an out of tune piano, I’ve used that tone before, so that’s maybe part of me in this. Addi paints with his guitar tone and effects. So that’s what he brings, it’s very beautiful.”
While there were similarities between the two musicians, there were some experimental challenges to their opposing writing styles. “What I found is that when you are writing and recording this fast, when you’re in the flow, you don’t stop to edit yourself,” Ragnar explains. “As oppose to overthinking things, we’d get through one song really quickly. Our thought was that there would be time later to change things, but then it turned out we didn’t actually want to change that much. It maintained that honestly.”
The pursuit of honesty, of truthfulness appears paramount to ISAFJØRD. Many songs are sung in Icelandic, in the pursuit of being authentic with their language and natural comfort in speaking it. “You can express yourself better in your first language, so it just felt right to sing in Icelandic, even though it might feel like a risk that none-speakers won’t understand what you’re saying.”
As noted, the pair have never made music together before, but managed to write can record in an dense amount of time. “When I said that we could be done writing and recording in this week, Addi said ‘nah, it normally takes me a couple of months to finish writing my lyrics’. I’ve never done that; I am very spontaneous with lyrics. But in doing so, you’re forced to write what you’re thinking about, subconsciously or consciously. A lot of time it ends up being subconsciously, it tells you how you’re really feeling. So, the feelings we were going through, dealing with at that time, went into the writing.”
The whole tone of Hjartastjaki is warm, like a friend inviting you to share an experience, while still keeping in mind the Baltic cold that bays at the door. “I don’t know how it is in the UK, but here from November to February, you don’t get sunlight, it’s just six hours of grey and then dark. Plus, with the cold, it breaks your spirit a little. So that got into the lyrics a bit, but there’s a blink of light and hope in there too.”
“I was pleasantly surprised that there was never any disappointment when we made this record,” he reiterates. “I remember thinking at the start that this was going to be a dark fucking album, but as we went on it got a little brighter.” With such a rich motivation to write and emotionally honest approach to capturing the moment in music, ISAFJØRD have proven that no matter how long it takes you to get there, to journey to creating something truthful is always worth it.
Hjartastjaki is out now via Svart Records.
Like ISAFJØRD on Facebook.