Icelandic Tour: Why Iceland is much more than volcanoes and Björk…

A lot has been written about Iceland in recent years; the economic crash of 2008, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupting flights across Northern Europe and of course, possibly Iceland’s most well-known export, Björk.

To get a REAL sense of what is going down in a country you must tour it. Getting to speak to people on the ground about what affects and inspires their day-to-day lives, is definitely one of the highlights of being a touring musician. I call this a tour, but it really is a tour-ette, only two dates. In normal circumstances I would not grant this little expedition as a ‘tour’ but as I am performing in the only two places of significant size, for this instance, it is a tour.

reykjavik-whale

One thing that strikes you first about the city of Reykjavík is how American it feels as you approach on the airport bus. The large vehicles, American fast food chains that you don’t get in the UK and the fire hydrants on the corners. In the city centre though, it is its own. There is no McD*nalds here and the chain last operated in 2009, though a number of Subways litter the city. Independent shops line the main streets but one thing that is surprising is the amount of record stores there are. Over ten I would say, all selling their own coffee and all claiming to be the best at it. There is even a vegan record store so you can chow down on a tofu meal whilst listening to your own hand-picked vinyl in comfort. My show is to be at a record store.

reykjavik-record-store

Things happen at a very slow pace here. I entered the venue the day before to confirm extra details for the show. Ingvar who was the owner of the store had booked the date in and tells me to get there the next day around 3pm. Record store shows are quite weird I find… usually performing to people browsing records and glancing up at you intermittently and politely applauding. To my surprise, a small handful of people were lounged on the sofa waiting for me to perform. An American girl, an Israeli guy, and a number of Icelanders. Due to the nature of the informality of the show I decided to sit down instead of standing and began to perform for the next hour. A pleasant reception ensued as I performed and I was very pleased with the show. My first show in Iceland was a hit!

My next show I felt was the biggie, Reykjavík was just a warm-up for Akureyri. Situated 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, 236 miles from Reykjavík and with a population of 17,000, this felt pretty remote. The news of Leonard Cohen comes through and things feel pretty bleak. My hostel is playing Leonard’s songs for a number of hours as I have breakfast. My host Áki is using car pooling groups to get me over as the only other ways to get there is to fly or get a bus. He assures me I will get there and get back. I put my 100% trust in him as he knows how things work. Luckily his Auntie was driving to Akureyri on the day I need a lift. It takes just under five hours to get there and she was more than happy to share folk tales and stories of the country through the ride. We passed many ‘towns’ as she called them, went in a tunnel that went under a fjord for 6 minutes and passed some of the most astounding scenery I have ever seen. And countless Icelandic horses. She tells me the road was closed today due to high winds, at this moment I am worried I would get back the next day but assures me ‘something will happen’. Hmm…

akureyri-ridd

Passing through a certain ‘town’, she tells me a tale of a maniac child from the Icelandic Saga stories, who killed his babysitters. I asked if it was a true story. After I asked it, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. Icelanders are very proud of their tales and if they don’t believe them, they certainly don’t question them. She said she didn’t believe in Elves and would be one of the 48% of the country who don’t. Driving along a road close to Akureyri she informs me many people have seen ghostly figures on this dark and haunting pass. There have been many accidents as people have felt a presence in their car after driving down the road. Today thankfully, wasn’t one of those days.

Upon arrival I met with Áki and he offered me a beer and said we can go to his Grandma’s for tea. Treated to a feast of home-grown potatoes, spicy curry and lamb, it was most definitely the culinary highlight of the tour after eating bread, hummus, apples and yogurt for the previous days to keep costs down. Tight Northerner? You bet. The show was in an art studio with many rooms which was decorated with zines, radical books and peculiar art, this felt like the cultural left-wing hub of the town. A nice sized crowd appeared. Áki’s dad and his friend Andre perform as the impromptu support act performing a jazz-y array of drinking songs which felt rather fitting. I take my seat and perform to the full room who listened intently and laughed and engaged at the right moments. I kept the thought of Leonard’s music in my mind, and I would say, this was one of the top five shows of the year. After the show I chatted to people about Icelandic politics. Much has been written in Western media about the ‘revolution’ in Iceland. The jailed bankers and politicians have been let out, often seen on the street and the main culprit for the crash now owns the daily right-wing rag for Iceland. Sauntering off to bed at 2.30am, the ‘best DJ in the fjord’ is banging out tunes and I am ready for off. My work is done. I am waiting on a response for the morning for carpooling otherwise it is a bus. The only one for the day.

Waking up early to check the carpooling option wasn’t possible, the only bus out-of-town leaves at 4.20pm. It is 9245 ISK for the ride (about £80) and I set off back to Reykjavík on the 7 hour ride which revealed the spiky unforgiving terrain that Iceland is renound for. Through snowstorm, icing roads and high winds, this coach braved the elements and rode into Reykjavík with ease close to midnight. I used the WIFI to book shows for next year in the warm and lifeless bus station and took the 3am coach to the airport where I repeated the booking process over a costly Skyr apricot yogurt. I didn’t sleep for 26 hours until returning home. skyr

The solo tour was a success. This wasn’t a financial tour, but more of a tour of scoping out the land, having a small holiday and using the guitar and voice to communicate and reach out to new people. In the spirit of Leonard Cohen. Áki told me that this was the first time these people have seen anything like myself perform, political and humorous folk music. Perhaps it was true, I can imagine it due to the remoteness of the show or he was just contributing to the bit of humour Icelanders like to play on, that they’re quite cut off from the ‘rest of us’, still Viking savages, eating peculiar things and have never seen a Northern English Folk-Punk musician. I’m not here to tell you which is true, but I think it was the latter…

Johnny x

 

 

 

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