Able to reach wuthering heights with his majestic leggiero tenor, Jon Thor Birgisson, better known as Jonsi from established Icelandic band, Sigur Ros, is capable of leaving captivated admirers in a ravished hallucinatory state. Applying crooning whispers, frantic shrieks, siren shrills, and arpeggiated trembles to predominantly symphonic material, his stentorian voice soars beyond the galaxy.
Left to his own devices, the eloquent tenor’s temporarily moved away from the safe confines of his long-time Sigur Ros colleagues to hook up with intimate co-producing companion, Alex Somers, distinguished neo-Classical pianist-arranger, Nico Muhly, and perspicuously precocious percussionist, Samuli Kosminen. With stunning entrée, Go, these impulsive collaborators elevate Jonsi’s sterling reputation for revealing radiant tranquility apropos to the alien snowbound vistas encompassing his native northerly European country island.
In the beginning, Sigur Ros’ formative ’97 debut, Von, showed promise. But international success came awhile later with ‘01s superb Ageulis, where Jonsi’s angelic choirboy brooding and feverish mantra-like mysticism fronted gauzy interstellar dreamscapes of uncommon Epicurean splendor. Moving from mysterious slow-burn séances and ominously starker weepers to meditatively uplifting ethereality, its gloriously anesthetized serenity gave birth to some of the most impassioned post-millennium labyrinths.
Jonsi’s quavering sentimentality only got better with ‘02s caliginous follow-up, ( ), rendering strung-out lonesomeness above prettier melodies, deliberately slower-paced ballads, and expanded spectral illuminations. Increasing the alluringly theatrical ambient melancholia while descending into a nebulously glacial pace, ‘05s poignantly detailed concerto, Takk, found Sigur Ros delivering their most plaintively fragile elegies yet.
By Sigur Ros’ fifth studio album, ‘08s broader Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, Jonsi’s rapturous baroque jubilance overrides the cavernous funereal melodramatics in more conventional bass-pulsing beat-driven settings. Its whimsical opener, “Gobbledigook,” is an acoustic guitar-spangled quick one that slips out of archetypal straight-faced string-laced classical piano mode. Staying carefree, fanciful childlike xylophone lullaby, “Inni Mer Syngur Vit Laysi Ngur,” exceedingly verifies the joyful pomp. After crossing into heavenly transcendental psychedelia on elliptical requiem, “Godan Dag Inn,” triumphant brass-armored goosestep, “Vid Spilum Endalaust,” reconfirms the fervid foursome’s previously unearthed fulsome frolic.
Before taking a break so Jonsi’s partners could start families, Sigus Ros had received commercial, movie, and TV show endorsements, an unanticipated event considering the bands’ non-conformist operatic approach and remote homeland. But Jonsi stayed busy. His low-key instrumental project with Somers (‘09s Riceboy Sleeps) and a couple of Jonsi-Somers photograph books surfaced. Eventually convinced to sing in English instead of Icelandic (or his own made-up gibberish, Hopelandic), Jonsi’s compellingly emotional alto tenor blossomed further via 2010’s crystalline pop abstraction, Go.
On Go’s somniferous tom-stomped penny-whistled overture, “Go Do,” a full-on rhythm appropriates the yin and yang soft-loud profundity that saddles the less elegantly effervescent Sigur Ros-induced anecdotal strains befitting lilting orchestral retrenchment, “Tornado.” Lithesome new waved rave, “Animal Arithmetic,” and gleaming bushy-tailed enticement, “Boy Lilikoi,” counter-actively magnify the calming resonance and perfect stillness of falsetto-bound shudder, “Sinking Friendships,” buzz-swirled noir veer “Kolnidur,” stirring climactic peak, “Grow Till Tall,” and flickering closer, “Hengilas.”
An impressive step forward, Jonsi’s ventured into the future without forgetting his past. While Somers and Nico Muhly (a Philip Glass protégé) bring celeste and glockenspiel to the table, Samuli Kosminen’s kalimba adds a newfound exotic eccentricity to the Reykjavik native’s solipsistic solitaire sprees and wondrous wailing wanderings. Yet the clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and trombone that backup Jonsi’s side troupe would easily fit inside Sigur Ros’ oeuvre.
Anyway, it’s all part of Jonsi’s revelatory ‘acousmatic’ music.
Who were some early influences? Did your parents enjoy music?
JONSI: My first musical memory was playing the Beatles “Twist & Shout” on the fast speed of my parents’ stereo. Of course, I grew up with heavy metal like AC/DC and Metallica. When I got older, through my parents record club, I started listening to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Uriah Heep.
(laughter) Yeah. I think you grab stuff from music you like. From metal, you draw on energy and power. But also, you want to draw from beautiful melodies too.
I write a lot of music by myself. So I wanted to do this now while Sigur Ros had a break since all the members had babies. I decided the timing was perfect. The main difference is working with different artists and musicians – something I’d never done before. Nico Muhly, and American composer, arranged the brass and strings and played piano. That was exciting for me. We worked fast and spontaneously. I like to work fast. Also, the drummer, Samuli Kosminen, didn’t have much time. But he went to the studio and hadn’t heard the songs before and just started improvising until you come into some cool stuff. It kept things exciting.
He’s a great engineer, talented at documenting sounds put in front of him. It sounds good and I’m happy how he recorded it. He brought real good ideas to the table. He knew how to produce songs. It was fun to work with him.
Probably. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I live in the big city, Reykjavik, which has only 180,000 people. It’s tiny compares to, say, New York. I think you have a lot of space to work in and nothing to block your view. It was great to grow up there. But I think it’d be really fun to live in New York City and make music there.
Definitely. That’s a fair description. During the ‘brackets’ LP, we were living through this phase in our lives. We had to record these songs we’d been playing for many years and we were kind of tired of them in a way. It was hard to record that album. Also, we had done some talking to record labels. That wears you down. We weren’t in the best headspace. This album is completely different. It’s colorful, playful, and energetic in a different way. The main thing was working outside the band. I had worked with the same group for sixteen years. So it was liberating. It was a healthy experience. I had never written English lyrics before so that was a challenge. My English vocabulary isn’t that big.
Kolnidur means pitch black in Icelandic. It is dark lyrically. Wolves are howling and something’s lurking around in the background. It’s mainly about the fears you have in the pit of your stomach.
I have no clue who the first two are. But Erasure was an amazing band. “Go Do” is a four-on-the-floor beat-driven pop song. Our drummer, Samuli, is so talented. He turned up in the studio with a suitcase full of shit, like tin cans and trashy drums. He even played on his suitcase.
Lilikoi means passion fruit. I got inspired by a trip Alex and I made to Hawaii to work on instrumental project, Riceboy Sleeps. It was the nature and the trees. In Iceland, nothing grows. You have to control the forest and the plants.
I haven’t listened to Yes. I’ve heard of King Crimson, but not Yes. They sound interesting.
In Sigur Ros, we thought a lot about the flow. But it’s usually not that thematic. But the more you think about it, the closer we came to having a small theme from the group of songs we used.
No. I kind of hate opera. In my mind, Classical opera seems a little silly, formal, and stiff. But a few years back when I was touring I used to collect these recordings of opera and really liked these old recordings probably because of the recording quality. One of my favorites is a singer, Alesandro Morrisette. He’s a castrato. You know, a guy who sounds like his balls were cut off. I was really into him. It’s an amazing 1904 recording.