Name: Sóley Stefánsdóttir
Occupation: Composer, singer, songwriter, producer
Current release: Sóley's new album Mother Melancholia is out via Lovitt.
If you enjoyed this interview with Sóley and would like to find out more about her work, visit her personal homepage. She is also on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
For an interview with her long-time mixing engineer, read our Birgir Jón Birgisson interview.
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?
My main inspirational source is experimental music or visuals, like films. With music, I need to find something really difficult to listen to, something I can feel like processing into my art pop or whatever it is that I do.
I have a wide range of influences, people like Alice Coltrane, Pauline Oliveros, Grouper, Kali Malone and Morton Feldman. I don’t really tend to listen to pop music while I’m searching for inspiration.
[Read our Pauline Oliveros interview]
I often imagine I’m making music for a film when I’m composing. I use stories when I make instrumental music and I research on the topic I’m working on. It really helps me to see the bigger picture and to capture the emotion of what I’m doing.
For example, I was writing a piece for a quintet (clarinet, flute, cello, piano and viola) last year and the most obvious inspiration for that piece was The Lighthouse by Robert Eggers. This film made me start thinking about isolation and mercury poisoning. In my composition, the main character (the piano) gets so crazy because of mercury poisoning he thinks a four headed woman is about to attack him and eat him (the other instruments) but he wakes up, with the taste of blood in his mouth, realising he just ate himself. So my instrumental piece was a little horror movie, without lyrics and visuals. But it was such a fun writing process because I got this whole movie going on in my head whilst writing it, and it was fun to give each instrument a character etc.
But dreams, oh yeah they do inspire me too.
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'?
Before I start a project I get really hungry for new music. The thing I do is go deep into digital streaming services and hunt for music. Bandcamp is a really cool place to find inspiration, as is Soundcloud for more obscure stuff.
I also love doing research, it helps me understand the process and it helps me keep the project together. Some years ago I would write just to write and it just wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t understand why I was doing this or that song. I didn’t really connect with the process until I really started digging into each project’s concept. That’s just how I work, I guess.
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 breathe coffee … you know.
I also have a really nice working space / studio. One wall is yellow (like earthy yellow) and I recently painted another wall in a red-ish colour but with chalk paint and it feels so good. I really love working in my space, the colours and my instruments give me security and creativity! Then hand me a good cup of strong black coffee and the world is mine!
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I try to work the bigger idea before I even start writing one word or one note. If I have spent enough time preparing and researching, the first note or lyric usually comes pretty easily.
I studied composition and I’ve been in music school my whole life, I think that is why I think preparation is important, it’s partly academic, without forgetting the creativity of course.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I’ve always been very interested in surrealism in writings such as Danííl Kharms but writing lyrics can be the most tricky part of the song. There are a few things I have learned over the years.
First of all, I need to have a bigger idea of what the song is supposed to be about. I even try to find the title and work from there. Or know how it ends before I begin. That gives me the structured concept. I try to write a lot in free writing first and then work out how it fits into the melody afterwards. I love writing poems in Icelandic, I feel so free with my mother tongue and the written form. No melodies to try to fit into, only the rhythm of the words.
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?
I would say that during the composition process I am a control freak. Meaning everything I write on an instrument is all thought through. But once it enters the computer and the production starts, which I do also by myself, that’s where the weird magic starts.
I think because I’ve been in music school my whole life, I stay focused on new ideas and chord structures for everything that I do on the piano. Learning how to record and produce on my own gives my songs new life. I’m more willing to mistakes and have them lead me in more surprising directions. I think this combination of a hard core musical upbringing and DIY lo-fi production is the key to my sound.
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?
It’s definitely a healing process for me. It’s the best meditation, but also when in this meditative state, I’m also most focused and hard working somehow. Ying and Yang!
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?
Deadlines are an artist’s best friend.
I’ve also learned that after making an album or a commissioned piece and listening to it few years later I have to tell myself it was like diary writing, this was me then, what I did and how I sounded at that time. I might do it differently now, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was what I wanted to say at that exact moment. No mistakes are made, only lessons you learn from and develop. So give yourself some time, finish the work, do it well and move on to next thing.
Art is made to be developed and if we are going to lie on the same piece for the rest of our lives, then we never grow.
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?
If you have the time, i think it’s important to let it lie for a bit. I’ve done both and I would say that the work I let lie for a while (not too long though, it’s a fine line) I’m definitely more satisfied with. I think also playing it live before recording it helps me a lot with the understanding of the music and the sound.
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?
It can be called emptiness or it can be called relief. I would never go writing a new sóley “pop” album right away, that’s why I think is so great to have opportunities and interest in writing instrumental music or commissioned classical pieces or work with theatre music, film, installations etc. Then the urge for a new sóley album comes slowly.
But I never find emptiness in making music as long as there are variations in the projects I’m into.