Homeward bound: the night Laufey became an Icelandic national treasure

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. As she returns to Reykjavík, the Icelandic-Chinese star reflects on her breakout year, which has seen her bring jazz to a new generation.

The glare of the stage lights close in on Laufey as she stands before a 55-piece orchestra, who are producing a swelling crescendo of sound that engulfs the stage. As the 23-year-old takes to the piano to perform a sprightly jazz standard, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist – born Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir – immediately shakes her head and stops playing. A pair of cymbals quietly tremble in protest.

After a few seconds of tense silence, Laufey makes a joke in her native tongue of Icelandic. 1,600 audience members laugh along with her, and the music resumes. There is a collective sigh of relief as Laufey, now beaming, looks over at the conductor and offers a conspiratorial nod. “I just love playing the piano, isn’t it lovely?”, she exclaims, giddy at her moment of recklessness.

It is, perhaps, precisely this attention to detail that has drawn fans of multiple generations to see Laufey perform at Harpa, a world-class concert hall in Reykjavík that has previously hosted Björk, and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Tonight, ‘Everything I Know About Love’ – Laufey’s accomplished debut album – is reworked into classical arrangements, showcasing her ability to flit between the guitar, piano, cello and violin like it’s child’s play. She brings a playfulness to this grand venue, giggling after wrapping up the choral melodies of ‘Falling Behind’, and dancing in time to the rhythmic breakdown of ‘Beautiful Stranger’. Her final bow is met with a three-minute long applause, and these deep feelings are seemingly mutual, as Laufey visibly begins to tear up in response.

Laufey performs at Harpa. Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

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NME meets Laufey the following morning in Reykjavík’s buzzy Kaffihús Vesturbæjar, a café that has long held a firm no-reservations policy due to its popularity amongst locals. When a national superstar walks through the door, however, that rule is forgotten entirely: Laufey’s cheeks flush with mild embarrassment as we settle next to a chalkboard sign with her name on it. “Every single person in this room will probably know who Laufey is,” laughs her identical twin sister, Junia, who follows us to the table.

Returning to a country with only 300,000 inhabitants – roughly the same population as Leicester – has meant that Laufey has struggled to keep a low profile as she’s grown into international stardom. Released in August, ‘Everything I Know About Love’ dug into both the beautiful and ugly parts of being young, sensitive, and lovesick: “I tell him that he’s pretty too / Can I say that? Don’t have a clue,” she sang on breakthrough hit ‘Valentine’, a jazz-pop crossover ditty that has racked up millions of streams, and received a co-sign from BTS member V. Laufey has continued to reach a global audience via both a sizeable TikTok following – which includes a fan in Billie Eilish, who shared one of Laufey’s acoustic videos – and a summer of touring, which saw her sell out rooms across the UK, Europe and US.

But the Harpa show marked the biggest moment of her career to date, she says, having After a childhood spent training in youth orchestras at Harpa, Laufey participated in the 2014 season of Ísland Got Talent and ended as a finalist. The following year, she also appeared as a contestant on The Voice Iceland and reached the semi-finals, becoming the youngest competitor in the show’s history.

The emotional aftermath of being involved in these reality shows meant she “struggled endlessly” with her musical identity at a young age, and contemplated giving it all up to study economics in the UK instead. But discovering jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker as a teenager would soon reignite her passion: “I think music was always written in the stars for me. I feel like I really had no choice,” she says. “If I dared to walk down another path, the universe would push me back towards music.”

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Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

Other young, emerging acts such as L’Rain and DOMi & JD Beck are hyper-focused on exploring jazz fusion – a combination of improvisation with elements of funk, experimental rock and R&B – Laufey is intent on sticking to a more traditionalist jazz sound. “I’ve spent the past few years trying to bring jazz to a new generation,” she explains. “My goal is to younger audiences into the symphony and showing them that these performances can be enjoyable, and that they’re not accessible to only a certain subset of society – and to see their faces in the crowd last night proved that I’m getting there.”

Laufey grew up internationally, moving between Iceland and the US every few years, as her parents’ careers demanded. She is now settled in LA, while her sister lives in London. Her rootlessness, and the solitude it eventually engendered, is what allowed her to focus on music, at the expense of nearly everything else.

Yet her dogged commitment to music endured. She remained straight-edge until the age of 20, avoiding alcohol, partying, and even pursuing relationships in fear that they would interfere with her route into higher education. “I had my eye on the prize, which was going to university – that’s all that mattered to me,” she affirms. “I definitely wish that I would have allowed myself to enjoy being a teenager a little more: I feel younger now than I did in high school.”

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Laufey at Harpa. Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

Receiving a Presidential Scholarship to study at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music would prove formative for Laufey, however: “I finally started dating, and going to ‘jazz kid’ parties!”. The Boston University’s alumni includes recent Grammy winners Arooj Aftab and Charlie Puth, and for Laufey, creating new social circles of “music theory obsessives”also afforded her the freedom to experiment with her deep, expansive vocal without the fear of being judged by others. “The loud and low voice that sounded like a circus act to me at 12 now sounds perfectly fine at the age of 23,” she adds.

Living and studying in Boston changed her worldview entirely. “I could have never imagined getting to the place where I am today coming from a place like Reykjavík. I hate to say it, but it’s very sheltered here,” she says. To feel this way about your hometown is not unusual, particularly if you’re now attuned to the energy of a large city, NME offers. “Definitely,” she replies. “But there’s a very small-town mindset around here.”

She adds: “You know, my success came from social media, so I started to become popular abroad before I did here. I’ve almost had to prove myself to Icelandic people. Living in such an isolated space, it gives you this innate sense of wanderlust, and dreaming for something much bigger.”

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Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

As she picks at a croissant with cheese and jam, she describes the restlessness she felt in her early years as she tried to conform to what she describes as the “gentle, small and quiet” Icelandic youth stereotype. “In many ways, I felt isolated from the rest of the country; being a classical musician here while growing up made me feel very nerdy,” she says. “Because I lived in the States, I had an American accent when I spoke in English, which felt very foreign to a lot of people. It was tough to get people to accept me.”

She pauses to look knowingly at her sister across the table, so that their eyes begin to whisper. “Don’t you agree?”, Laufey says. “Yeah,” Junia responds, as her voice begins to stiffen slightly. “Obviously, being a twin with Laufey, you both feel like you’re taking up so much space in any room that you share. In high school, we were in the same class and just became a unit, in a way. We protected each other.”

Laufey continues to explain this inner conflict: “I felt like my hobbies were so different from my peers, that I came off as an extremely loud person. But then by being shy, I just felt like I hindered myself from becoming the individual that I wanted to be.” She pauses. “It’s been a real journey to get to this point, but I made it.”

As we leave the café and drive towards Harpa, Laufey looks out the window at the places she’s known forever – the “gingerbread-ass” nursery she and her sister attended as toddlers, a high school gym, the swimming pools they spent childhood summers in. What’s striking, however, is even if she has recently started making a new home over 4000 miles away, Laufey remembers this route around the outskirts of Reykjavík through bone-deep memory.

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Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

The car pulls up outside the venue, next to a wall that’s plastered with posters of Laufey from a recent fashion campaign. Inside the building, NME is greeted by Sigurgeir Agnarsson, her childhood music teacher. Last night, he sat in the front row while Laufey played one of his old cellos before him. “I was so proud, I couldn’t stop smiling,” he tells us. “I sat there thinking, ‘That’s my girl.’”

Minutes later, Laufey leans in towards us, and drops to a whisper: “Wow, I’ve never heard him say that before,” she says, as she prepares to take some portraits with our photographer. Meanwhile, Harpa appears to still be glowing after Laufey’s performance: a piano riff tumbles gently across the hall from a few rooms away, beneath a familiar Icelandic timbre. After the shoot wraps up, Laufey turns to head towards the speaker in the distance, following the sound of her own voice.

Visiting Laufey’s home a mile from the centre of Reykjavík, there’s plenty to catch the eye. A spiral staircase winds up towards the rafters, dresses from the night before lay in a heap across the floor, while the shelves are embellished with glass ceramics from Hong Kong. Laufey’s dressing room door flag from this year’s Newport Jazz Festival hangs proudly over a music stand. The family heirloom – a pristine grand piano that’s spent the past few decades following them on their global travels – commands centre stage in the middle of the dozens of trinkets and books that surround it.

Large skylights flood the white-walled space in natural light, while an open doorway affords a tantalising view into the living room, where Laufey first learned how to play music. The appeal of the space is obvious: it feels like an oasis for performers, filled with at least 30 filing cabinets of sheet music, and rows of records ranging from musical and film soundtracks (‘Hello Dolly’, ‘When Harry Met Sally’) to Beethoven compilations. Only a few tower blocks are visible from the windows, silhouetted against October’s cold, ashy grey afternoon sky. The city feels far away.

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Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

During a few rare periods of time off this year, Laufey has returned to this house to “recharge”, she says. “I want to take meaningful breaks, so I can spend more time here.” She points to the framed family photos around the house, which are reminders of her family’s rich and extensive musical history: Laufey’s mother, Lin Wei, has been a violin teacher at the Reykjavík College of Music, the Purcell School of Music in London, and the Yip Academy in Hong Kong. “I know just how much music education has given me – I am so passionate about making it accessible, because it’s taught me so much about life,” Laufey adds, with a firm nod.

As the evening draws closer, a buzz of excitement begins to hum around the house: a weather app on Laufey’s phone tells us that the northern lights will soon be perfectly visible. We immediately head out in order to see the light display that’s slowly unravelling across the night sky. As pockets of flickering stars glimmer into view, Laufey drives along the coast, belting out Ariana Grande’s ‘Honeymoon Avenue’. The technical perfectionist inside her will even show for a fleeting moment: she points out a single out-of-tune violin note in the pre-chorus, before turning up the speakers to a formidable volume. “It will always be natural instinct to point out these things!,” she exclaims through laughter.

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Credit: Erlendur Sveinsson for NME

Dozens of locals have huddled together at the harbourside, but in a large, hooded winter coat, Laufey looks near-anonymous as she exits her car – this evening offers a rare hour where she goes unnoticed. It’s intriguing to watch one of this country’s newest and biggest stars move through hordes of people with such ease, as if she’s blissfully unaware of how well-known she is.

The privacy makes things feel tranquil and safe. As we gaze skyward, neon green streaks of light begin to stretch out as far as the eye can see. A collective gasp of genuine awe ripples across the shoreline – before this unexpected sighting stirs something in Laufey. “This is spectacular,” she says, catching her breath against a wind of salty sea air. “The beauty of this place will never be lost on me.”

Laufey’s debut album ‘Everything I Know About Love’ is out now

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