Name: Ásgeir Trausti
Occupation: Songwriter, singer
Current release: Ásgeir's new EP, The Sky Is Painted Gray Today, is out 9/3 2021 via One Little Independent Records.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ásgeir and would like to find out more, visit his personal website. You can also find him on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, bandcamp, and Soundcloud.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Ever since I began playing guitar I’ve wanted to write my own music. I was never very interested in spending time learning something that someone else had written. Listening to other people’s music is obviously a big source of inspiration, the more you connect with it the more it will get stuck in your unconscious mind and influence your own music.
I’ve been inspired by personal relationships, family, films and the nature here in Iceland. I think those elements always find their way somehow into both the music and song lyrics. I’ve tried waiting around for inspiration to hit before writing anything, but that can lead to just sitting around for months doing nothing, so I’ve found it’s best to at least make something most days, as long as you’re not forcing things out.
I’ve dreamt of many great songs that I remember for like 5 seconds after I wake up and then I completely forget, which can be upsetting. But once or twice I have remembered some of them and they are usually not that great, it just feels like that in the dream.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I don’t usually have an idea of what I’m going to write beforehand, and if I do it usually ends up being something very different than what I was trying to do.
In my experience the best ideas come when you’re in the flow state and you’re not really thinking about what’s happening. Then later you can come back to it and surprise yourself. You can listen to it like it’s the first time you’re hearing it, and it can move you naturally, or not move you at all and then it’s probably just a bad idea.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I do record demos at home before going into the studio. Sometimes the demo already has all these arrangement ideas that we later re-record in the studio and sometimes it’s just a simple idea that I work on with my producer.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I don’t really have any certain rituals before I start creating, although I do like to have coffee, mellow lighting doesn’t make things worse.
I go for a run 3-5 times a week and I feel like that’s very good for my mental state but I wouldn’t say that I have any particular routine or ritual that I always follow.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I always write the music first, that process usually begins with me playing either the piano or the guitar and singing along trying to come up with something that sounds interesting. Sometimes a whole song comes out of nowhere in minutes and sometimes I just come up with little ideas that I then sit with for a while and try to make into a songs later.
I don’t find it difficult at all to make something up on the spot but it depends on how inspired or motivated I am if the song ideas sound good or not. Sometimes I just don’t find anything interesting and through experience I’ve learned not to try and spend hours forcing out ideas so I either go do something totally different in that situation or try another approach, like going through old demos to see if something excites me there and I would want to work on more.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I’ve been collaborating with a few people on lyrics since I started my career and that process has evolved through the years.
Sometimes I have sat down with whomever I’m working with and we’ve listened to the demo and discussed what the song could be about and what feelings come to mind. Sometimes I just send the song to my collaborators and they come up with whatever they feel like and then I see if it fits the song in my opinion.
"Youth" is a song on my latest record and the lyrics to that song began with me and my father (Einar), who is a poet, sitting down and listening to the song to come up with lyric ideas.
We felt that it should be about nostalgic memories from childhood and my dad wrote the words about his memories of me when I was about 10 years old.
"Eventide" is another song from the same album where I told my dad what I wanted the song to be about beforehand.
The "Lazy Giants" lyrics are written by my friend Júlíus Róbertsson and that’s all from what he felt would go well with the song, and I agreed when I started singing it.
The lyrics for "King and Cross" was originally written by my father, I told him I wanted obscure lyrics with one verse and one chorus.
When we were recording the vocals, me and Kiddi (the producer) felt like the song needed more lyrics for the second verse, so me, Julius Robertsson and his brother jumped into the studio kitchen and wrote something down in a hurry and that became the lyrics to the second verse.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I think it’s when it feels like it belongs with the song and gives it more meaning and depth.
We’ve had a lot of challenges with getting lyrics to fit well with my songs since we’ve made most of them in both Icelandic and English. One of the versions is always going to feel more authentic and that’s why I usually sing in both languages when I’m playing live.
My career started with me making an album in Icelandic and then it was translated into English. That’s something that we still do now with most of the songs, and it can be very tricky to get right.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
In my experience with both music and lyrics, I think it’s usually best when you’re following things where they lead you. When you’re in that flow state it’s a much better place to be in then trying to use your logic and reason for where you should go next.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Yes I’ve felt this, with lyric writing, writing songs and the recording process. The bad side of this is when you’re starting to compare yourself with others and that starts to make you doubt everything you do.
Also in that doubtful state you’re really fragile to criticism and it’s easy for someone to pull you in different directions. But if you’re confident in yourself and your instincts are pulling you in some direction that wasn’t planned then I think that’s just a part of the process and will probably lead you to a good place.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I believe that music has healing powers and I believe that creativity, music in my case, can flow through you and sometimes I don’t even know where a melody or a song came from.
I think when you’re playing music, you are very present and in the moment and that’s a good place to be in. So in that sense I think there is some element of spirituality to it.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
That’s a good question. I have sometimes found it really difficult to know when something is finished especially with all these endless possibilities. But you just have to go by what you’re feeling and try not to overthink it too much.
When you’ve been working on a song for a really long time it’s really possible that at some point you’re going to start doubting everything about it because your ears are tired of hearing it. There were some things I had to go through on my second album Afterglow that taught me a few things about what to watch out for.
It’s alright to go into details but when you're obsessed over details that no one is going to hear or care about then you’re not in a good place. I know now that the most important part is to never lose sight of the big picture.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I’m still learning the optimal way of doing these things. I try to hold back on listening to what I’m working too much to have a clearer mind when I come back to it, but sometimes I still get doubtful and want to change everything we’ve been working on for a long time. Then it’s good to have someone to talk to, someone you trust and can give you an honest feedback.
I’ve been working really closely my whole career with a producer, Kiddi and we usually figure these things out together.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I get really into it all, except for mastering maybe. We’ve usually send it to a mastering professional who takes care of it, but Kiddi is more into that and knows when it sounds great after mastering.
I’m into the whole recording process, I usually play most of the instruments on my songs and me and Kiddi mix as we’re recording them. It all sort of blends into one, recording, production and mixing. The importance of each part depends on what you’re trying to achieve I guess.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I guess I can relate to that although usually we start rehearsing the live show soon after the album is finished and that’s a different kind of fun creative outlet.
I think I feel more of an emptiness when I’ve been on tour for a long time and not been able to write anything and then coming back home and almost not knowing how to do it anymore. I think an advice I would give someone who’s starting out and going on the road for a long time is to make time for yourself to keep writing music and not let the touring life swallow you.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
It’s maybe not all that different, I could see making a great cup of coffee being a form of creative expression. But I think music can move you a bit more maybe than making a bed really well or something. Music gives you goosebumps, makes you cry, laugh and dance so I think it has a lot more to offer.