It’s tempting to picture Björk as the only singer-songwriter in Iceland, wandering alone over the frozen tundra with only her swan-shaped dress for company. Satisfying as that image may be, the streets and clubs of Reykjavik are apparently teeming with indie musicians. One of the hardest-working is 23-year-old Jófríður Ákadóttir, whose output of solo and collaborative tracks is truly impressive.
When Ákadóttir records on her own, she calls herself JFDR. (This tells me that I’m not the only one who struggles to pronounce and spell her name.) Her style is ephemeral, the lyrics only sometimes intelligible, yet she’ll mesmerize you if you let her. The song “Anew,” simply produced with voice and guitar, shows what’s at her core. The video of this young golden-haired woman in a sunlit, bright-white room is a metaphor for the experience of listening: there’s almost too much purity to bear:
The majority of JFDR’s output is electronica plus vocals. It’s an interesting combination of sounds. Tones and noises float and swirl like space dust, not quite within grasp, shapeless. But into that fantastical texture Ákadóttir drops vocals so authentically human that you can hear her breathe.
Here’s “Instant Patience,” with a chorus that makes about as much sense as any of her poetry: “Is it logical, incomprehensible? Admiration, consolation, instant patience.” This is the kind of verse that uses words more for their sounds than their meaning:
In “Destiny Is Upon Us,” the untethered vocals are almost grounded by the greater variety of textures in the accompaniment, including a sample that sounds like rummaging through a spoon drawer. The frenetic energy of the electronic score tricks the ear into thinking this is an up-tempo song, although Ákadóttir’s vocal line is actually quite slow:
Ákadóttir isn’t always JFDR. Despite the profound loneliness that Glenn Gould idealized in his radio sound-sculpture The Idea of North, Ákadóttir proves herself to be a highly social creature, at least musically. Often she collaborates with other performers, mostly fellow Icelanders.
She’s done a few tracks with recording engineer and composer Aaron Roche. “On with My Work” has mantra-like acoustic guitar patterns and harmonic minimalism that take you back to the New Age. And the video is fun because Roche looks like history’s most introspective Viking:
In 2011, Ákadóttir joined with Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir on clarinet and Þórður Kári Steinþórsson on electronics to form the band Samaris. They often sing in Icelandic. “Góða Tungl” (“Good Moon”) uses old Icelandic poetry. The melody has an ancient, folk-like quality, distinct from Ákadóttir’s amorphous solo work. This is an early track for the band, one that Ákadóttir helped write:
Recently she hasn’t been doing as much of Samaris’ writing, and has complained in interviews that she misses the “softer, more feminine” sounds the band used to have. “Wanted 2 Say” is one of these later songs, from the 2016 album Black Lights. The style veers toward conventionality in its phrasing and drum beat, sort of like an Icelandic Radiohead:
Playing music with others is nothing new for Ákadóttir; much of her experience along those lines has been a family affair. The fact that Jófríður Ákadóttir has a twin sister somehow seems appropriate for such an Elvin presence. Jófríður told the Reykjavik Grapevine that she and her sister Ásthildur had had “soundwaves going through us” since the womb. Their mother is a clarinetist, their father a trumpeter and composer. The twins were only 14 in 2009 when they started a band called Pascal Pinon, and it’s still going (although Ásthildur had to pull out of a recent tour because of health issues).
Nobody told the twins that young girls weren’t “supposed” to record and produce their own albums, so they went ahead and started doing it. Here’s Pascal Pinon’s “Bloom”:
While singing with her sister must feel personally primordial, Ákadóttir does not shy away from new projects. In 2014 she joined a band called Gangly. One critic recently described the trio’s music as “soundtracking perpetual darkness.” In this song, “Holy Grounds,” you can hear influence from the metal ballad tradition, such as Dream Theater or even Metallica, but with greater reliance on computer-generated sound:
Maybe her work with Gangly indicates a turn in Ákadóttir’s musical sensibilities, but I doubt it. It’s just one more color of igneous rock on the heaping pile of musical pebbles she’s collecting. Beneath it all, solo and simple-to-pronounce JFDR is still wandering the song-tundra of her mind.