Photography By Jeaneen Lund
Apparently, there are advantages to living in a country where winter is relentlessly long and forbiddingly dark. Just ask Jónsi, guitarist and lead singer for Sigur Rós — Iceland’s greatest musical export besides Björk — and a frequent collaborator with his boyfriend, Alex Somers, under their moniker Jónsi and Alex. Without those famously brutal winters, Jónsi might not be Jónsi. Those endless nights present Icelanders with a simple imperative: Be resourceful and inventive, or wither. Most of them, it seems, choose the former.
“You have to do something to avoid getting depressed,” says Jónsi (full name: Jón Þór Birgisson). “When you grew up without Internet, with no TV on Thursdays, you started a band with your friends, and you never thought about being famous or the possibility of playing outside Iceland.”
Björk, of course, changed all that, helping turn Iceland into a byword for cool. “Iceland has got a little hyped,” Jónsi concedes. “This year there are supposed to be a million tourists, and there are only about 300,000 people living on the island.” (To put that into perspective, imagine 1 billion tourists descending on the U.S. — if the U.S. only had one city.)
We are sitting in Jónsi’s lovely two-story house in Reykjavík, a kind of play den–recording suite, complete with moss-lined soundproof walls, a large stuffed raven, and wine crate shelves on the walls. Jazz tinkles from a stereo downstairs — the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Al Hirt, Bobby Darin, and a dash of Ella Fitzgerald.
There is also a table cluttered with various oils to sustain his passion for making fragrances. We work through a swath of phials, sniffing delicately to find the right variation of pine, before settling on Douglas fir. What, I wonder, would a Jónsi fragrance smell like?
“It has to be smoke,” he replies. “I’m obsessed with smoke at the moment — and leather. I guess it’s masculine, but I don’t perceive it as masculine so much as something that connects to my roots.” He laughs. “I don’t know anybody as obsessed with smell as me.”
Our meeting flows along as we geek out over fragrances, mystery novels (Jónsi eagerly takes down a list of suggestions), ceramics, and whittling. It’s a bit like a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
I produce some photos of pots I’ve thrown on the wheel; Jónsi tips a pile of expertly carved wooden spoons into my lap. For an hour we are a mutual appreciation society. Of course, all of this energy committed to making things — music, scents, spoons — is only partly a consequence of Iceland’s winters. Although he says he doesn’t connect to the “classic stereotypical gay things,” a good deal of his creative energy comes from being, in his words, “the only gay in the village.”
For Jónsi, growing up gay was not easy. “I didn’t know anyone who was gay, and I found out I was in love with my best friends,” he says. “That’s very confusing. It gets really awkward. But it’s a really good life lesson. You have to rethink reality — rethink the norm — [and] looking back, I think it was really good for my music because I didn’t want to deal with it, so I focused on creating things. That’s how I handled being gay.”
Although Jónsi’s music summons the starkly beautiful landscape of Iceland, he confesses to a weakness for pop: Sia’s “Chandelier,” anything by Robyn, even Justin Bieber. Recently he watched the Bieber documentary Believe and was blown away.
“He’s such a talent, ” he says. “It really changed my perspective. I didn’t know anything about him, just that he was making pop music for teenage girls. But he’s a really good musician.” Jónsi thinks he’d like to try writing some power pop of his own, but not for himself. “I’m quite shy and not into being a pop star,” he says. “I don’t have the moves.” Then again, can Justin Bieber whittle a spoon?
Listen to Jónsi below: