Interview with JFDR
JFDR’s ’New Dreams’ might make you never want to wake up.
The Icelandic singer, songwriter, and producer’s latest LP is carved delicately out of empty space, from the engulfing caverns of “Care For You” to the flickering of “Drifter”, reminiscent of scattered stars throughout a night sky. There’s perpetual motion, hushed contemplation, and everything in between.
Jófríður Ákadóttir’s solo project debuted with the dizzyingly elegant 2016 single “White Sun”, which led into full album ‘Brazil’ a year later. After the release, ‘New Dreams’ was already beginning to take shape. “The making of ‘New Dreams’ and the follow up of ‘Brazil’ were very merged into each other,” Jófríður recalls. “I spent the whole year, 2017, traveling and touring with ‘Brazil’, and in between I was constantly thinking about and focusing on making ‘New Dreams’. So it was quite scattered, but the energy levels were high. I was living in New York at the time, and that proved to be both rewarding but also difficult. I struggled with normality and balance, and while there were so many magical moments and adventures, there were also days that felt just impossible, and at the end of that era I knew I needed to restore balance and ended up moving back to Iceland to do so.”
She realized that the serenity of her home country has the power to shift her mental state. “The quiet is very inspiring,” she says. “The starkness of the land also is unique. The shitty weather has a very direct effect on your mind and spirit and makes you prefer indoor activities. There’s a culture for working and creating and using music as a way to connect and spend time with each other, and I think that growing up in such a non-competitive environment made a great impact on me as an artist.”
As it turns out, JFDR has been just one of many musical outlets for Jófríður. The first was Pascal Pinon, a group started with her twin sister at the mere age of 14, and then two different trios called Samaris and Gangly, among other collaborations. Compartmentalizing her art was not only a way to explore the possibilities of sound, but a strategic move. “It’s been a while now since my other bands have been active, but it used to be the only way to make things work for me back in the day,” she explains. “Partly financially, but also mentally and emotionally. It was an era of exploration and an attitude of not being limited by any one thing. A big part of my background is writing quiet bedroom pop songs, and for that I had the Pascal Pinon avenue. That project is about intimacy and being quite naked and vulnerable before your audience. So as a contrast, Samaris served the opposite purpose; it was all about creating an otherworldly and distant atmosphere, kind of like a dream. We wore costumes and wrote bass heavy tracks that were easy to perform loud. Having those two opposites to play with was very satisfying for me.”
With so many places to direct her expression, what characterizes JFDR as a project, then? “I guess it’s me taking a bit more charge,” she considers. “It’s incredibly rewarding to work with other people and challenging in a healthy way. But then it can grow a bit tiring, especially when you gain more confidence and want to explore your own path and face your own boundaries. So for me, JFDR is the next set of challenges, and this time it’s all got to do with confronting yourself and your ideas and your dreams as well as your limitations and finding those places you can get stuck.”
Despite the beautifully disorienting spell it casts on the listener, ‘New Dreams’ has an overarching feel of precision and clarity. “[This] album is more crafted,” she describes. “There are more details and they are more specific than in my previous solo work, where things have been more improvised or fluid. This time around I would start with the fluid space and throw a lot of sounds on top of the song, and then later come back to it, edit, mute, take things apart and put them back together again. The idea is to create space, allow every sound to breathe and have its moment and then to work together as a whole.” Throughout the 11 tracks, every intake of breath seems to have a purpose, and each vibration is sculpted into its own distinct, morphing area in the soundscape.
“I think they all have a playful nature when it comes to the production,” she muses, before highlighting a few experimental instances. “‘My Work’ has a very full on ending, hinting at getting stuck in the loop or freezing in a single moment. [And] ‘Think Too Fast’ only uses recycled sounds from the album, apart from the vocals. It was one of the last songs written for the album, and at that point I was very fluent at sampling and recycling material, so I took that process to the extreme.” No matter how far she pushed the boundaries, though, she feels that the songs maintain a core of straightforward pop.
From an individual sonic standpoint, ‘Gravity’ is notably stunning. With metallic chords wavering in suspension, and vocals falling further and further into the unknown, the listener feels weightless. “The organ from [that song] is one of my favourites,” Jófríður says. “It was a vocal sample sung through a sampling tool [called a] granulator, and creates a very breathy and angsty sound that feels both ancient yet very digital and current. I also love the cloud in the instrumental section in ‘Shimmer’. That was created by my collaborator Josh Wilkinson. I described the sound I was imagining, then left the room for 15 minutes and when I came back he had created this to perfection.” The mass of atmosphere gives body to what would otherwise be a purely acoustic track, inching in subtly and leaving a lasting feeling at the end.
The album, seeming to exist as an effortless flux of sound, was actually a merging of two previously separate forces. “For a while I didn’t believe that I could do what I knew deep down inside I had to do,” she admits. “I was receiving a lot of signals from other people and from myself that I had to produce the album myself and that I needed to take more charge of the production. After being afraid and doubting myself for a while, I got started and got in the groove of things and they soon started flowing very naturally. I had been making a lot of electronic music on my laptop while on the road, and then I was writing these songs separately, on the guitar or piano. I never thought to mix the two worlds until it was obvious that that would yield the best results and be the most true projection of these songs. The person who mainly helped me realise that was Paul Corley, who mixed the album and co-produced a lot of the songs. He was listening to my demos early on and encouraged me to take this path and to believe in myself.”
There’s something about Jófríður’s creative instincts that can’t be taught. She seems to be on a higher plane, in tune with an otherworldly spectrum of music. “I think it stems from spirituality and how music is inherently very spiritual, both in modern times and throughout history,” she says. “Spirituality for me is studying and making some vague sense of the magical and mysterious elements that we encounter in life, and writing music about that or listening for the music that already exists in those spaces is essential. Connecting to the universe is a deeply spiritual thing. Music can enhance that or embody it even.”
Her words seem to embody this intangible quality as well, despite being more free-flowing than before. “I feel like the lyrics on this album are collectively more a stream-of-consciousness kind of writing than anything else I’ve done in the past,” she expresses. “Maybe that results in more abstract ideas floating around, but for me it’s very literal and direct and not veiled or edited as much as I would have otherwise. It felt like a very urgent album to make, and therefore I didn’t spend as much time on the words, just let them come by themselves.” Throughout the album, her use of illustrative language alongside conceptual phrases generates stirring snapshots of thoughts and images.
However, there’s one thread that ties everything together, summed up in the album’s title, ‘New Dreams’. “Describing a situation or a thing as ‘new’ was our way of making fun and light of something that had gone wrong or was perhaps a bit dark,” she explains. “It derived from ordering mac and cheese at the all-night diner late one night in New York, and when it arrived it was penne. Therefore it was forever named ‘new mac’. I was totally enwrapped in fantasies at the time I was making the album, and the idea of calling the dreams ‘new’ was for me a way of casting a good or new light on things. Seeing them with a beginner’s mind, as they do in eastern philosophy.”
The dreams she speaks of might be those you can picture with your eyes open. “The thing about dreams – sleepy ones – is that you always forget,” she says. “When you fantasise you never forget; you rather experience something that doesn’t exist. The process of creating is often pulling things from non-existence into existence and playing with the boundaries between those two opposing forces.” And the album is a vivid simulation of this idea. Listening is like stepping into an experience, a planetarium full of blurred outlines and hazy colors stretching to infinity. To Jófríður, it can be summed up in one hue. “It would be purple,” she says simply.
The question is, where are her dreams going to take her next? “I have no idea,” she answers. “Especially with the virus washing over the planet and stirring everything up, it feels impossible to predict anything. We’re just floating in the sky, free falling, for a really long and strange time. I’m interested in seeing how it pans out, how the world is going to be different when we can come out of our hides. I feel like we’re learning not to take certain things for granted, and that’s a very humbling experience. I’m sure the next months will continue to be surprising, full of tragedy as well as beauty.”
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