Home » music

Primordial Sounds of Lost Islands

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

Not Quite Ultima Thule; Close, But No Cigar

Around 500 AD, in his quest for the lost kingdom of Ultima Thule (possibly Iceland, but no one is quite sure), St. Brendan of Clonfert, Irish monk and explorer, is said to have crossed the North Atlantic in a tiny Irish curragh rowing boat with his hearty band of priests; and, while passing the Faeroe Islands, christened two of them: one, Sheep Island and the other, the ethereal-sounding Island Paradise of Birds. The Vikings and their Gaelic consorts did not arrive here until two hundred years later, possibly from the northern Scottish isles, so how precisely the sheep got here before them remains a mystery. Wind-dried mutton, fish, whale blubber and seafowl, in particular puffins, remain a staple of the Faeroe diet despite the fact that Danish chicken are now available in all ten major supermarkets.

It hard to imagine how anyone could have ended up here on purpose. 540 square miles house 48,000 fishermen, subsistence farmers, and more recently, singer-songwriters. An autonomous (yet heavily financed) province of Denmark since 1948, the Faeroe Islands are still little known in the outside world, and may well have remained so but for the raw talent of their fine young musicians.

I had the incredible Viking-style fortune to sail here all the way from northern Iceland – not quite in an Irish curragh, but in a sailing boat across icy, killer-whale-infested ocean nonetheless. Near four days cross the water desert of the North Atlantic with not even a smidgen of land in sight, propelled mostly by the power of 30 knot winds, staring speechless at forty-five degree five-metre swells, at times I would have kissed any land beneath my feet; perhaps the Faeroes will always hold a special place in my heart for just that reason. But there are other reasons too.

The volcanic Faeroe Islands, 18 of them in all, appear on the North Atlantic horizon where one expects to see nothing at all. Located smack dab in the middle of the Gulf Stream, these islands are arguably the very last bastion of Europe. Dig below the surface of pristine basalt crags and spires, the verdant incline of the jutting cliffs or guano-rich sea caverns, and you will find a country steeped in the creative process—possibly an escape into a land of imagination once charted by the early Viking and Gaelic settlers of the place.

photo by Runar Karlsson

Hey Mr. Faeroe Trashman Sing a Song for Me

It’s around 2.00 am the morning after the G! Festival, Faeroe Island’s mini-equivalent to Britain’s Glastonbury Music Festival. Here in a converted private home which acts as the festival’s backstage lounge, among record peddlers, producers, weathered studio musicians, avant-garde composers, singer-songwriters, Faeroe politicians (mostly those who think they’re in the know), we chew the proverbial whale blubber and do our utmost to clear what’s left in the bar. I’ve spent three days in the tiny 500-strong fishing village of Gøta listening to the crème de la crème of Faeroe’s new music scene, the highlight of which is possibly my interview with the singer-songwriter Teitur Lassen, the only Faeroese act ever to have been signed to a major label, and certainly the only ever to have walked away from one (in this case, Universal Records, citing irreconcilable creative differences).

By now, I’ve completed most of my interviews, and I’m just hanging loose in the backstage lounge seeing who or what else I may come across—the unexpected pot-pan clatter that makes for the spice of life; and right now, I’m chit-chatting with Christian Ulf-Hansen, Teitur’s manager and owner of London’s Plan C Management. Christian was the one who negotiated Teitur’s contract with Universal Records and, I gather, the one who broke it. When I ask him about the affair, he goes all quiet and changes the subject to Gordon Brown and the British economy—something most Brits could waffle on about for hours. I head indoors—we’ve been standing outside smoking cigarettes—for a refill on my glass of wine, only when I get to the bar, it appears that New Yorker Nico Muhly, Teitur’s most recent collaborator and an accomplished Julliard-trained composer, has already finished the last bottle of Chianti. Nico is the creator of the sublime score of the recent Academy Award winning movie, The Reader, starring Kate Winslet (who scooped up Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards for Best Actress). Nico is rattling away with some Vogue model about the advantages of a certain brand of eyeliner. He claps me on the shoulder as I pass by and tells me that he’s just zizzed an iPhone message to my Icelandic editor, admonishing him for sending me on a life-threatening trip across the North Atlantic in a tiny sailboat. Nico, it appears, knows absolutely everybody in the media, music and film biz (at least in Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and most of Brooklyn), but it also appears that he may not have heard that iPhones might be just as life-threatening as sailing.

the crowd
photos by the author
  I am forced to switch to G&Ts, only, there’s something wrong with the tonic: it has no bloody pizzazz—I guess a week in a container from Copenhagen does that. When I get outside again with my refill, plus another beer for Christian, I find him talking to a bear of a man with a shaved head who’s leaning over the edge of the wall rumbling in Faeroe-lilted English. I hand Christian his drink and attempt to join in the conversation, but suddenly Christian disappears inside. I guess he needs to take a pee or he’s spotted something more enlightening.

So who is this guy perched precariously on the wall like some kind of Viking Humpty Dumpty? To me it looks as if he’s just been bailing hay all day; or perhaps, in some strange corner of the Faeroe Islands, he produces state-of-the-art thrash metal. As it turns out, I was not so far off: he’s the local trash collector, and he’s just stopping by to see if he can have a chat with anybody interesting. His English is by no means perfect, but like most of his compatriots, bloody good; and he proceeds to crack jokes and tell me how he feels about this year’s G!Festival and music in general. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met such an eloquent trash collector.

‘You know all Faeroe people love music and dancing,’ he says. ‘We’re born with it in our blood; aside from the church, sex and rowing competitions, there wasn’t much entertainment in the old days. Besides, we’re all fishermen; once, I was one too; so, you see, we have these seaman’s legs: they’re inclined to dance when they’re on land. You know for three hundred years our ancestors were banned from speaking Faeroese, we had to speak the bloody King’s Danish—get it? Like the Queen’s English,’ he sniggers. Actually, as I find out, he’s bloody right. It wasn’t until the last thirty years or so that the Faeroese starting writing in their own language, until that time, all poems and stories were handed down orally, many in the form of folk songs. Their most recognised author and poet, William Heinesen, penned all his works in Danish. They were only translated into Faeroese after the fact—almost as an afterthought. His novel, The Good Hope, won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1964. Heinesen was pegged to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, but declined the nomination because he hadn’t written in his native tongue.

‘So what kind of music do you enjoy?’ I ask Mr. Trashman, thinking he’ll say something like country or traditional folk songs. He looks to be around his mid to late fifties, perhaps even sixty; but one thing’s for bloody sure, he definitely enjoys his food, and I guess he really doesn’t dance the traditional Faeroese chain dance too much.

‘Anything really,’ he says. ‘Folk, rock, pop, jazz, country, electronic, classical. Even like to have a sing myself sometimes.’ He croons a little Elvis-styled ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ with perfect inflection; not so sure about the knee-swagger-hip-grind, but thankfully he’s behind a wall.

‘Heavy Metal?’ I chuckle.

‘Sure, good stuff, like Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Deep Purple; but one thing I can’t stand is the stuff where the vocalist sounds like a smoke-stack locomotive on low coal chuffing up a mountain—like that death metal. I mean, I’d like to enjoy it, but somehow I just can’t understand what the hell they’re saying.’ I have to laugh. The crashing, thunderous discordant thumb and drone of double bass drums and ear shattering guitar doesn’t bother him at all. It’s the fact that he can’t understand the lyrics.

Teitur Lassen
  I recall a short spell at one of the G!Festival’s concert’s last night with Swedish headbangers The Haunted. I took photos for around one and a half songs trying my damndest not to go deaf in the left ear, while the index finger on my right hand was clicking away. What Mr. Trashman says applies completely; in this case, the singer sounded somewhat like a cross between a mating tortoise and a humpback whale blowing, not to mention the bellow of twisting guitar feedback writhing in the background. In between songs, the vocalist looked out across the crowd and, glaring at a sixteen-year-old buxom Faeroese blonde, roared, ‘Yeah Sugar. I’m gonna make you a demon baby. King Satan’s deep inside my balls!’ Somehow I can’t disagree with the last statement, I just wonder if the inventor of the steam train sold his soul to the devil too.

Christian reappears just as I am about to ask Mr. Trashman what he thinks about Teitur, who’s just performed a few hours ago at the festival, and who’s most recent album, The Singer, has been lauded by the critics; I go ahead anyway, Christian is talking to someone from the British media, a journalist from the NME, I think.

The British press have great things to say about Teitur’s new album. The Guardian called The Singer “A delicate chrysalis that contains dark matter.” The Independent was blowing even more hot air, gave the album five out of five, and said:

Teitur manages the remarkable feat of taking episodes from his own life and dramatising them in songs which manage to reflect the ambivalence, unexpectedness and sometimes downright contradictory nature of reality, in a mischievous character whose black humour can cause the laugh to choke in one’s throat, or transform tears of sadness to tears of joy, mid-song.

I’ll admit, having now listened to the album over ten times, it’s a sophisticated work, steeped in reflection, albeit perhaps a little too self-conscious at times. It’s not so much the slow, spare music (which certainly calls to mind some of the work of Iceland’s pop luminaries Sigur Rós, Jónsi and Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, Sin Fang Bous or múm); what makes The Singer a great work of art is the lyrics, so often insightful poetry. This lad can certainly turn a phrase or two, and in English, his third language, no less. But, ‘the nature of reality’?

Well, I not quite so convinced.

‘Teitur?’ says Mr. Trashman, smiling, as if reflecting upon something instrumental. ‘Well, he was always a good lad, but who I really like is that lass Eivør. She’s got it all: voice, presence, looks. Now all she just needs a damn good song.’ I wonder if this guy ever considered a career in management, but by the time I want to ask the question he’s already rounded the corner on his way home.

Eivør Pálsdóttir is something of an enigma. She is the Faeroe Islands’ cover girl for tourism: you can see her merchandise in virtually every store in the Faeroes, and her face graces the cover of many a brochure. Not surprising really: a country girl from the G!Festival host village of Gøta, she’s been singing since she was tall enough to reach the microphone. She has played with countless top acts both back home and abroad, yet somehow, unlike Teitur, she has not quite yet made the big league. For a twenty-five-year-old, this Faeroe equivalent to Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks has worked in jazz, folk, rock, classical, traditional, experimental, and although she is a hell of a live act (she can melt the most staunch audience with just her voice and her Gaelic drum), has recorded five solo albums and contributed to many more; it seems to me that she’s still trying to find her sound. I’m told by Jens Tomsen of the experimental Faeroe band, Orka, who’s producing her new album, that it’s going to be a cracker: folk rock at its best. Although Eivør has been in attendance for every G!Festival until now, this year she’s on tour in Canada. But the day after, I do meet up with her manager Sigvør Laska (who lives just down the road) for a real Faeroese brunch – including wind-dried mutton and whale blubber.

The Faeroes are incredibly proud of their musicians and what they have accomplished. When they talk of Teitur, Eivør, Lena Anderssen, or Orka, they literally shine from the inside out; but it’s not the fame that excites them, it’s the music itself; the fact that young people are doing something constructive, something truly inspirational, somehow on behalf of their tiny island nation on the edge of forever.

The Vogue Model with Bright Green Eyes

Meanwhile, back inside, Christian is rattling away to Kenneth Lewis, a Norwegian producer who’s been hanging out here for the last two nights. Crowded into the kitchen-come-lounge-bar I can make out Teitur, Nico Muhly, a couple of girls in hot pants, some Californian blues guitarist whom I saw playing last night, and a guy who looks a little like Dracula; I wheedle by and try for another G&T, only to learn that the tonic has run out too. I glance back at Nico Muhly’s right hand and, of course, he’s clutching the last one. Standing at the bar, this girl – with her heels, she’s a whole head above me – smiles; she has this long flowing red hair and bright green eyes like, well, emeralds embedded in gold. Suddenly all the words have left my mind. She orders a glass of white wine and hands it to me.

Finally I manage a stutter, ‘Th-thanks. So, are you are musician?’ Of course, I know that she’s not. She has long scarlet-painted fingernails for one and her makeup doesn’t look like it’s had to bear a minute of bright lights, at least not tonight.

‘Of sorts,’ she says in an almost-Brooklyn accent, then, ‘I’m nobody important. Say, you have a cigarette?’

Outside she tells me that she too, despite her accent, hails from the rainy Faeroe Islands, but left for the bright lights, big city when she was twelve, traveling alone to New York City to become an actress. It seems that everyone I meet here is worthy of at least one short story. And somehow, by now, I feel that Andy Warhol is going to walk into the door arm in arm with Lou Reed at any minute—we already have one Nico here. I could almost imagine him setting up The Factory in downtown Tórshavn.

I ask the Vogue model what she thinks of Teitur and his music.

She says, ‘Ah Teitur, we all love him. It’s great what he has done for the Faeroe Islands. He put us on the map. I remember him when I was a kid in Tórshavn, he always had his guitar with him. He played with everyone. Then, suddenly he was touring the UK and the States.’

The truth is, Teitur spent the first half of his career touring for hundreds of days day on end, in dives, in small town bars, in concert halls, in civic centres all across the US and Europe; Christian is quite adamant that this spate of early touring is what built Teitur’s reputation.

Teitur’s first album, Poetry and Aeroplanes (the one released in 2003 by Universal), met with great critical acclaim. In 2006, his song, ‘One and Only’, appeared on the soundtracks of the movies Aquamarine and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. In the same year, the relationship with Teitur and the majors was over; he and his manager Christian formed the label Arlo and Betty Recordings, a name allegedly based on two Gibson guitars from Teitur’s personal collection. Stay Under the Stars, Teitur’s second album was released under Arlo and Betty and subsequently licensed to the Swedish label Playground Music. The album spent several months on the Danish Top 40. Teitur’s newest album, The Singer, was released worldwide in the spring of 2008. The same year, Teitur opened for Radiohead at the Denmark’s Roskilde Music Festival. In 2009, for the second time, Teitur was named Best Male Artist at the Danish MTV Awards.

Although he hasn’t quite yet achieved mainstream commercial success, it appears that the momentum is growing. Last year, he joined the officially-banned-from-China-club with his song, ‘All My Mistakes’ which appeared on the 2008 Songs for Tibet compilation along with tracks from Sting, Dave Mathews and Moby. Not that the club is so exclusive anymore; China cut off iTunes access around the time of the Beijing Olympics. Who wants mainstream commercial success anyway?

Noticing that I’m talking to possibly the most stunning female for miles, Norwegian producer, Kenneth M. Lewis saunters over to bum a cigarette. I’ve been talking to Kenneth on an off for the last couple of days. He’s extremely cryptic about what precisely he does. Yes, he’s a record producer based out of Oslo, but when you ask him who’s he’s working with at the moment, he says: ‘Oh, we’re working with a young girl who’s doing quite well.’ I’m not sure if this is modesty, false modesty or simple dodging. Modest Kenneth is the one who discovered the new Norwegian punk-pop sensation Ida Maria. At the moment, you can hear her song, ‘I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked’ just about everywhere; it reached a peak position of 13 on the UK pop charts. This is something he did not make clear to me during our talks; I only discovered it while rummaging on the Internet after the fact.

The Vogue model hands Kenneth her cigarette, just lit, and asks him, ‘So, what about you? What do you think of Teitur’s music?’

Kenneth looks around, I guess to see if Christian is listening in. He says, ‘Well, you know, I prefer something a little more straightforward, real rock-n-roll, you know? Pop music should be simple, it doesn’t need to be about high art. Teitur’s stuff is just a little too clever for my liking.’

‘You mean too self-consciously so?’ I ask.

‘If the shoe fits,’ he says. ‘Mostly, pop music is for kids. It’s supposed to be fun, a great beat, a hook. It doesn’t have to get all fancy and teach you something.’

The Vogue model has disappeared, but she returns five minutes later with Teitur in tow. She looks at me, ‘Can you give us another cigarette? We’re dying for one.’

‘Sure,’ I say, handing two over. Meanwhile, Kenneth has vanished. Watching a drunken Teitur struggling to light his cigarette has me thinking that perhaps there’s another song in here somewhere, and perhaps, Kenneth is right. It should be a simple song about three guys and a gal early in the morning under a midnight sun in the Faeroe Islands with flocks of seagulls rallying for scraps overhead. Then again, perhaps there’s one thing someone like Kenneth doesn’t understand: Faeroe singer-songwriters just don’t work like that.

Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong. Currently based out of Iceland, he writes a column for the Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s English-language newspaper. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in various journals and magazines including Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Prick of the Spindle and Shipwrights.

Join the Open Letters Facebook page

Return to the Main Page

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.