Dubbed as the next big Icelandic musical export – and not without talent to prove it – ASGEIR Trausti made waves with his 2012 debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn, which was later translated and released as In The Silence for english-speaking fans.
Despite providing an English version of his debut release, ASGEIR had already captivated listeners worldwide with his sincere, heartfelt melodies and a wistfulness that often comes synonymous with Icelandic artists. With singles such as ‘Higher’ and ‘King And Cross’ already hitting our airwaves, the folk-tronic musician spoke to us amidst his first trip to Australia for a handful of sideshows and Splendour In The Grass.
PS: Well firstly, what an incredible performance in Melbourne the other night. At the start of your show, there was an Icelandic choral chant that played before you guys walked on stage. Is there a symbolic meaning to that track?
ASGEIR: It’s something that we always sing when we go on stage – my brother always sings the main, lead vocals and it’s like an old rhyme that one of our uncles wrote back in the 1800s or something, so it’s really beautiful. We always sing it before we go on stage.
So it’s actually sung live?
Yeah, we have a microphone just before we walk on stage. Most of the time we do that but sometimes we use a recording of it if it’s not possible to sing it for real.
Beautiful! Well your album, In The Silence was originally released in Icelandic and then it was later translated into English, with the help of John Grant. What was that whole process like?
That was great – I met with John in the fall of 2012 and just a few months before that we worked on the Icelandic version and just released that – The process of recording the album, the Icelandic album, was maybe about three months in the summer of 2012. It was my first time in a real studio, it was my first time recording my songs and proper equipment and with a producer and stuff, so it was a big thing for me when we were starting out. Then in November, no, October we contacted John Grant about doing a translation of the album. It’s just something we really felt was needed because we wanted to do a translation, we wanted to get this album out of Iceland and try to connect with more people and I felt that it needed to be in a language that people would understand and people connect with more. These lyrics in Icelandic are really poetic and fragile, and I think it’s not easy for everyone just to translate them into a different language without fucking it up – John Grant, he’s from America and has been writing lyrics for 30 years or something and as a musician as well we could connect on different levels, so I thought he could really add that poetic feel and the same feel to the translation as it was in Icelandic. That’s kind of the main reason why we brought him in to it.
It’s interesting though how you mention how the whole Icelandic language is poetic in itself, which is why I’m interested in asking why you chose to sing ‘In The Silence’ and ‘In Harmony’ in Icelandic during your live set.
…‘In Harmony’ is a song that we usually sing in Icelandic. Mainly it’s a song that we haven’t been playing a lot live for a long, long while and we kind of just a few weeks ago we started picking it up again and we started playing it again. I’ve just always liked the Icelandic version of that song and it’s like – it just seems more magical and sounds better I guess. Also I’m not too used to sing the English version of it so I guess we cut it out when we were starting up playing live shows in 2012 – It’s also just nice to have some songs we always have in Icelandic so we are not mixing it up every night, it gets pretty confusing! So we kind of just decided on a few songs that would be in Icelandic and the rest in English.
You explain in previous interviews that your father’s poetry is a big influence on your work and that he’s even written some of the lyrics for your album. Will this be something you’ll continue with in your future work?
I don’t really know. We’ve been travelling with this album for two years – we haven’t had much time to write new songs and talk new material and what’s going to happen next, but I really want to try and you know, be a bigger part of it and write the lyrics for it as well and do it that way. But I’ve really enjoyed working with my dad and after many years we’re used to working together and it always kind of works well. So I think he will be some kind of part of it on the next record, definitely yeah.
Now I believe you actually come from a very artistic family in general, but is it also true that you have five other siblings?
Yeah, yeah I have five other siblings [laughs] and one of them was playing with me, playing in my band. So I’m the youngest one, I grew up with one sister; she’s two years older than me. We kind of got into music at the same time, started playing instruments at the same time and all the older siblings, like my brother in the band, he’s 14 years older so I didn’t grow up with him, but he’s definitely like a main influence or inspiration for doing what I do now. Because when I was growing up and I was starting out writing music and playing songs, he was always the guy I looked up to and he used to come over a few times you know when I was growing up and we used to play guitar together and he used to teach me things and I used to listen to his songs and he gave me music. So he’s a big part of the direction I went, definitely. The older siblings that I have are in their 50s and they have families.
So surely there was never a quiet moment in your house if you’re all musicians!
No. I was always around [music] and it’s always been a big part of the family. You know I started playing guitar when I was six and my mum is classically educated, she works as a musician and my dad plays instruments as well. So yeah more like creativity was always around which was really nice to get at a young age.
What if one day you’d turned to your parents and said something like, ‘I want to be an accountant’. How do you think they would’ve felt?
[Laughs] I really think they wouldn’t mind it at all. They always supported me with kind of everything. But I guess you really just have to know me to know that I’ve never had any plans of what I really wanted to be or wanted to do – I always try to take the opportunity when it comes and I’ve tried to make the most of it and that’s definitely what’s happened to me with this album and what I’m doing now – It was a big part of me writing music and singing and recording and all that, but it was more kind of for myself – I wasn’t really showing people it and I was never playing any shows. I have been playing in some bands before on guitar and piano but I never imagined myself being like a solo artist or front man, I just never thought of it. It was just like a hobby, but yeah it was just this one day I met this producer that worked with me on the album and we kind of just really clicked and we tried one song out in the studio, he wanted me back and he wanted to record more songs – But I wasn’t thinking about releasing an album or anything, I released just one song to the radio station and kind of everything changed within just a few weeks.
It all just happened naturally.
Yeah and after that we kept on going, recording more songs and in the end we released an album a few weeks after that and it kind of just blew up in two months or something, two years ago, so I’ve been doing this ever since now. I wasn’t planning on it.
Your music takes basis in a lot of acoustic folk melodies, but you’ve also mentioned [in previous interviews] that you’re starting to mix that with a lot more electronic elements. Was this something that evolved with your song writing?
Well I think that the electronic parts and bits just really evolved when we started recording the album. I have never been working with any programming or synthesizers before but I just stepped in the studio and had all this equipment and all these instruments I have never tried before so I just wanted to try it out and try it with my songs that I have been recording and that I have been writing. The electronic bit was something that kind of mixed together just in the studio; it wasn’t really something I thought of in arrangements or anything, it was just something that kind of happened in the moment. But before I stepped into the studio I had started listening to minimalistic, electronic artists that I was really into. And that was the first time I got into electronic music and that’s probably why it sounds like how it sounds.
Which artists was it that you were listening to a lot?
Well I heard James Blake one day in 2011- it was something that changed the way about I feel or the way I think about writing songs. It really, really inspired me and influenced me and after hearing him I went on listening to different artists with similar sounds like Mount Kimbie, Baths, some artists from Icelandic; artists using this minimalistic, atmospheric sound to speak for itself. That was really inspiring. James Blake was definitely the one that got me into listening to that.
Even with your electronic influence, your song ‘Was There Nothing’ that’s pretty much one of the most sweet, minimalistic songs on the album. What made you stick to that kind of sparseness in that song?
When I was in my teenage years I was all for, just acoustic folk. I always wrote on my acoustic guitar and usually it was just vocals and acoustic guitar. I was really into Elliot Smith, Jeff Buckley. Then [I] really got into Bon Iver and Justin Vernon and all that – That’s probably more of where I come from than the electronic parts – Maybe what is changing with my music is now it’ll become maybe more electronic. But I’m more of a folk singer, I guess. So yeah it was just a natural thing to take that song not too far. You know there are certain songs, they just instantly tell you what they need in order to become what they’re supposed to be. ‘Was There Nothing?’ is just a song that immediately you know that doesn’t need anything else and it’s just supposed to be, as it is.
So someone like Justin Vernon, would you love to work with him?
Yeah! I would, yeah! That would be, probably be great. I would really love that.
Someone should make that happen.
I’ve been thinking of working with other artists, because I’ve never done that before except for with a few Icelandic artists actually when we were starting out, but I would really love to work with someone in the future maybe.
Words by Alean Penaflor