A little more than one month ago, while searching for ukulele videos from around the world, I stumbled upon a video of Svavar Knútur, an Icelandic folk singer and songwriter who also happens to play the ukulele.
I couldn’t resist the combination of Icelandic language, folk music, ukulele, warm voice and bitter-sweet melancholy songs nurturing my emotions. I bought Svavar Knútur‘s latest album Kvöldvaka and enjoyed it so much that I decided to contact him and request an interview. Svavar very kindly accepted despite being busy touring Australia.
U&L : Where did you discover the ukulele? What appealed to you about it?
Svavar Knútur : I discovered the Ukulele for my own uses in december 2007 in a music store in Denmark Street, London. I wanted to buy a simple but elegant instrument to bring home to Iceland, one that would not require excess baggage, so I decided to try out an ukulele.
Soon after I came home, I had started using the Ukulele a lot at concerts and actually did a very stripped down cover of a beautiful song by one of Iceland’s most famous female songwriters at a memorial concert. The simplicity and elegance of the Ukulele really captivated me and also the beauty of its soft soundscape.
Here is the song Frá Liðnu vori that Svavar Knútur sang as a memorial to Icelandic singer songwriter Bergþóra Árnadóttir.
U&L : The cover of your latest album Kvöldvaka features a drawing of you holding a ukulele with a guitar next to you but there are very few songs featuring the ukulele in the album. What part does the ukulele play in your songwriting ?
Svavar Knútur : That is true, the Ukulele is actually only present in a couple of songs on Kvöldvaka, as the guitar is my main instrument in concert. However the Ukulele is very important to me when writing songs, as it has a simple structure that forces me to write in a more disciplined form. It is also very portable and I love taking it on trips, for example on trains or road trips and just playing it softly, as it is a lot less intrusive than a guitar. I have also written a lot of my more recent songs on or for the Ukulele.
Listen to Svavar Knútur’s album Kvöldvaka :
U&L : Your lyrics are rather emotionally intense, a bit like the dramatic sceneries of your country. How difficult is it to let the world know how you feel through your songs?
Svavar Knútur : It is always a big challenge to get the words out. I’m not a prolific poet, blessed with verbal diarrhea, so my words are born with great labor pains. I’m also a bit of an eccentric when it comes to my words. They have to sound exactly right to me and not just the meaning, but also the place of the words in the melody. I hate the idea some songwriters have, that lyrics are not important and are just a delivery device for a melody. The lyrics are at least as important as the melody, as the words have the power to shape our thoughts and understanding of the world. It is a great responsibility to write lyrics in any serious manner.
It is always difficult to share my feelings like this and I often feel naked, but I also feel that doing this is very cathartic and if it helps me, it must also in some way help others. Music is a healing power.
U&L : You are currently touring Australia, is that a solo project or are you touring with other members of your band Hraun? Can you tell us a little bit about your band?
Svavar Knútur : My Australian tour is a solo project that I undertook, half in half in order to go along with my girlfriend on her travels, but also because I have a lot of friends and fans in Australia. I like travelling alone or in a small group and it’s always cheaper than bringing a whole band with you.
My band, Hraun is a collection of misfits and strange fellows that seem to work well together. I love those guys and we love making music together. I also love the way my songs change color when we play them together. Hraun also gives me the opportunity to play a lot more rock and roll than when I’m alone. It’s a bit more energetic and crazy and I certainly appreciate my friends. But it’s always a bit easier to do things on your own.
Svavar Knútur and his band Hraun playing Ástarsaga Úr Fjöllunum (no uke)
The song translates as ‘Love story from the mountains’ and sends you dreaming of Icelandic myths and legends with a story of a troll who had been waiting for his love so long that the sun came up and turned him to stone. The troll has become lava rocks covered with moss but his heart still beats strongly under the rocks…
U&L : Do you have any anecdotes to tell from your Australia tour, things that have amused you due to cultural differences, or words that may sound like Icelandic words but mean something totally different in Icelandic?
Svavar Knútur : Australians are certainly a lot different from Icelanders. Icelanders communicate a lot of the time through the unsaid. That is to say, we place a big portion of our meaning in the things we don’t say, and most Icelanders are able to read between the lines.
However Australians are a lot more blunt and straightforward and don’t always get it when you’re trying to get the point across “gently”. The next thing you know, you’ve got a crazy musical saw playing girl doing improvised saw along to your songs. Not that it’s bad, it’s just very special. There’s a lot of times you just bump into those little misunderstandings.
U&L : When can we expect to hear a new album from you?
Svavar Knútur : I’m working on writing material for my next album, which I’m going to try to get out before the spring of 2011, but I can’t make any promises. I’m really hopeful though…
On a little bit of a more ukulele related note. I’ve been working on reducing the stigma of the Ukulele as a clown guitar or a kiddie toy and introducing it more to people as a little harp, a gentle string instrument of simple beauty. I guess I’m rubbing it in one crowd at a time. I’d also like to throw out all the recorders (flutes) in children’s music classes and replace them with well tuned Ukuleles.
Watch Svavar Knútur performing the song Clementine from his latest abum Kvöldvaka on the ukulele. The song is followed by a few interview questions answered for Norðrið.
Download Svavar Knútur‘s latest album Kvöldvaka on Bandcamp
Subscribe to Svavar Knútur’s YouTube channel
Befriend Svavar Knútur on MySpace
Svavar Knútur will be playing in London and Paris between the 8th and the 15th of May 2010.