On her soon-to-be-released album Ask the Deep, the Icelandic singer Sóley Stefánsdóttir, who records as Sóley, uses organs, synths, and crooning melodies to forge a sound that’s as whimsical as it is nightmarish. It’s easy to imagine her music playing in the background at a candlelit bedroom séance, and the title of the song, “Halloween,” is an accurate description of its vibes:
I skyped with Sóley as she was returning to Reykjavík from a trip to Iceland’s countryside (also please, take a second to Google “iceland countryside”). We talked about dreams, seasonal depression, and classical piano as friend and foe.
ALEXA CARRASCO: In “Halloween,” the lyrics talk about nightmares. After I listened to the song a bunch, I started feeling like it was a spooky, recurring dream. Have you ever had a recurring dream?
SÓLEY: Whenever I go on tour, I always have the same dream that I’m on stage, and I’m trying to plug everything in, and I’m so slow, and the audience is there, and my band is waiting. I’m just trying to finish plugging in my loop station and my keyboard, and it feels like hours in the dream.
Do you get nervous performing?
Yes, I do a little. My stomach hurts, my feet start shaking. But I’ve been playing so much, I’ve learned how to kind of control it.
You studied classical piano as a child. Do you think that’s influenced your song writing?
For the last album, We Sink, I used the piano as my main instrument. I’ve always done that, until now. On this album, I use more organs and synths and stuff like that. I really love classical piano music, and I listen to it a lot. I think, for me, the easiest way to compose is on piano because I know it well. I know all the chord progressions and stuff, but sometimes [it makes me] feel like I’m stuck in a box. I also play a little bit of guitar–I don’t play really well–but with that I feel freer. I’m really happy that I studied piano, but when you study classical piano as a child you don’t really meet other kids. You’re just alone in your room, rehearsing and practicing Bach and Beethoven.
Do you feel like this album is your rebellion against classical piano, in some way?
Well, yeah! You could look at it like that. I was playing live with my keyboard [instead of a piano]. I’ve always thought keyboards are just too fake-sounding [compared to live piano], and sometimes I was really ashamed of the sound. I started using more organs and synths because it was really hard for me to be happy with a digital piano sound. Because I’ve played classical piano my whole life, it just doesn’t make any sense to try to fake it.
I’ve read that you find writing inspiration from poetry. Do you keep a journal?
I wish I could write every day. Usually, for me, making lyrics is the hardest part of making an album, but I really like it. I have a lot of books in my studio with poems that I’ve collected over the years, for when I get stuck. Sometimes I just open a book and read a poem and find a word that I like to help open up again. English is not my first language, and I’m not good with really cool English words. Sometimes I think my lyrics are like how a child would talk. But that, again, is also really interesting because [many] nationalities can understand what I’m writing, so that’s cool. I don’t know what English-speaking people say about my lyrics, and I just don’t care!
There’s this one poet [I like] called Davíð Stefánsson–in English I would say [in an American accent] David Stephenson—and his poems are very dark, and a little Icelandic because everything is so horrible here and dark. In the old days, when people lived in mud houses and stuff it must’ve been like, crazy, to live here.
What is Iceland like?
It’s cool in the summertime! It’s bright all day. In June, there’s the longest day, when the sun is up all day. It’s as good as the winter is horrible. I’ve found that over the years the winter is affects my soul more and more. When I was a child, I didn’t really think about it. As you grow up, you’re like, Wow, why do I feel so weird today? The mood and everything changes.
Seasonal depression is a very real thing.
It’s just not good for your health. I hate the weather in Iceland, but something I think about when I’m really pissed off about the weather is that at least there’s no war here. I mean, there are a few positive things about Iceland, like there’s peace! I don’t want to get into politics, but there are good things and bad things here—not just not horrible things.
I’ve heard that you have a one-year-old daughter. Do you secretly hope she’ll also be musical?
We listen a lot to weird music, so she’ll either become a famous composer or she’ll hate music and start playing handball or something. I sing to her a lot, and she really likes that. I was making the album before, during, and after I was pregnant, so when she hears the songs she always goes silent and listens. It’s really weird how she reacts to it. I think she doesn’t know why she feels that way, but she was hearing it before she was born. ♦
Alexa Carrasco is a writer based out of Los Angeles.