By: Dennis Cook
After 16 years as a central member of Iceland's Sigur Rós, Jón "Jónsi" Thor Birgisson is stepping out on his own to forge some equally lovely, English-language slanted new music that has a bubbling effervescence of its own. Last year's instrumental Riceboy Sleeps album found Jónsi playing acoustic instruments with boyfriend Alex Somers, but the newly released Jónsi solo debut proper, Go (release April 6 on XL Recordings) reveals a more fully fleshed lilt that's somewhat removed from the atmospheric, non-English soundscapes he's become known for with Sigur Rós. Parts of Go are almost poppy, and there's greater accessibility for non-Icelandic audiences in general. Jónsi began his fist U.S. solo tour this past week, but before debuting this new project he took time to talk with JamBase as he strolled to the supermarket.
JamBase: What was it about these songs that made you feel you needed to record them on your own rather than with Sigur Rós?
Jónsi: In Sigur Rós we work in a really democratic way and write all the songs together like some communal, hippie band. So, through the years I've been collecting music and songs I've written by myself, different kinds of songs. I decided last year, while every single member of Sigur Rós was having babies, that it was time to do my solo album while everyone else is taking a break.
JamBase: There's an energy to Go that skips along and is unlike what you've done before.
Jónsi: It was a little bit unconscious, in a way. I took all these songs written on acoustic guitar, piano and harmonium and I took them into the studio with a mind to be a little more experimental, open-minded and spontaneous and see what happens. It was really fun to work with different people, players and producers. There was no decision to make this different. I did want to get a little away from the Sigur Rós world, the dreamy landscape, but sometimes that's unconscious.
The music can be upbeat and almost happy in places on Go but the lyrics can be quite dark, full of claws and tornadoes.
It's always a big step for me to write lyrics, complicated and a big process, but also healthy and necessary. My boyfriend is American and we speak only English together. And it was definitely a healthy process for me to sing in English. I don't know why the subject [matter] is what is; it's just what I was thinking about at the time.
Do you enjoy the challenge of writing English lyrics versus the Icelandic lyrics you usually write?
It's definitely healthy. My vocabulary is SO much better in Icelandic, so it's so much easier to do it in Icelandic. It took some time to do it in English.
Do you ever worry that your meaning will be lost on listeners who don't understand Icelandic, i.e. the vast majority of Sigur Rós fans in the U.S. and U.K.?
It's not a worry. When I'm writing music, either in the band or me personally, it's a selfish thing. I kinda don't give a rat's ass if people understand or not [laughs]. Personally, I always listen to the music more than the words. And it's nice when people don't understand because they have to interpret and come up with their own meanings for the lyrics and what I was thinking about. This can put some interesting images into people's minds.
What are your plans for the solo tour for Go?
I just started a band about 10 days ago, in the typical Icelandic way – stressed out, last minute. We have to rehearse many songs in a little time. I'm excited to go out and play shows again. I'm going to work with a company called Fifty Nine Productions that mostly do productions for theater and opera. For a long time I've wanted to take the production away from the rock & roll show, the Las Vegas lights and the smoke machines. It will be really interesting to see what they do. I sent them my songs and lyrics told them that when I was writing these songs there were a lot of animals lurking around in the background, birds flapping wings and elephants. It's only going to be my [songs]. I won't be playing Sigur Rós stuff. But, I think it will be interesting.
Jónsi's tour plays tonight and tomorrow at Seattle's Showbox SoDo followed by stops in Portland, Berkeley, San Francisco a big show at Coachella and on across the country. Find full Jónsi tour dates here.
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