All photos by Juliette Rowland.
“I’m not sure he’s welcome here,” laughs Sigtryggur ‘Siggi’ Baldursson, the man behind Iceland Music’s Record In Iceland campaign, minutes after PSNEurope’s arrival in Reykjavik. “I think a protest is being held later today.” Fortunately, his words are not directed at me, but Donald Trump’s right-hand man Mike Pence, whose arrival in the capital just so happens to coincide with ours. A major protest in the city has indeed been coordinated, with extreme security measures meaning that several roads have been closed; the flurry of rainbow flags lining the streets crystalising much of the city’s rejection of the US vice president’s far-right values.
We’re here for a tour of the country’s leading recording studios, and our extended journey time, as we drive from the city’s central bus station to downtown Reykjavik, gives us a chance to discuss the work being done to raise awareness of Iceland’s unique recording pedigree. Though its entire population totals a mere 340,000 (according to Eurostat figures), the variety of top class recording facilities in Iceland’s possession could rival that of cities and countries 10 times as densely populated – a message the nation’s Ministry of Industry and Innovation is keen to spread. In order to achieve this, it has released funding for export office Iceland Music and its Record In Iceland initiative, which offers artists a 25 per cent discount on the cost of recording at any of its participating studios, many of which we’ll be visiting over the coming days.
For the past decade or so, Iceland’s studio sector has been in good health – a number of new facilities have opened up, while pre-existing studios have seen demand for their services rise. Yet there is a sense that it remains something of a hidden gem as a recording destination – a reputation that the Ministry is seeking to change. Not to dilute any of its mystical allure, but to raise its profile as a hub of musical excellence that extends beyond the likes of Björk and Sigur Rós.
Central to this mission, aside from promoting its fabulous recording services, is reframing the commonly held perception of Iceland as being too expensive a place to make music. To dig into the finer details of the initiative, the Ministry’s Erna Jónsdóttir agreed to meet us for coffee at Reykjavik’s iconic Harpa concert hall.
“The thought process behind Record In Iceland came out of lobbying from people from the music industry, especially because we have a similar system for the movie business,” she explains. “They had argued for years that something similar should be done for music.”
Essentially, the 25 per cent reimbursement is open to both domestic and international artists and can be applied to the combined costs of both studio fees and travel. According to Jónsdóttir, it’s a straightforward enough process, and while the benefits for artists are substantial, the initiative also presents a lucrative prospect for the studios in question. “The application is quite simple and people need to understand that it isn’t too much work to apply, considering the money you can save,” she adds. “And it’s a business opportunity for the studios. They have advantages over a lot of other studios in the world [with the natural beauty and proximity to the city and the country]. Plus, the studio rates in Iceland are relatively low. It’s all about getting the word out.”
Jónsdóttir’s point about the scheme serving as a business opportunity for studios is a pertinent one. As we discover first-hand through our conversations with some of the most influential producers and studio managers in the country, there is something of a reticence to describe their operations as businesses. For many, the mention of profits and new business generation is almost taboo. The focus is squarely on passion projects and providing everyone involved with an unforgettable and unique experience. Without exception, the studios and studio owners we visit on our trip offer incredibly high spec services, many replete with luxurious accommodation for client residencies and breathtaking natural beauty unlike anything else on earth. Perhaps the Ministry would welcome a little more in the way of proactive marketing on their behalf, but to tamper with the humble, organic approach to growth that underpins so many of these spaces would be to tear the fabric that makes them so special.
The first stop on our studio tour is the Greenhouse, a beautiful residential studio located a 10 minute car ride outside of downtown Reykjavik run by composer and producer Valgeir Sigurdsson. Founded in 1997, the Greenhouse is also home to Sigurdsson’s own record label Bedroom Community, which launched in 2007. The studio’s largest room, Studio A, is centred on an SSL AWS900 console, with the intimate Studio B featuring a Neve Kelso desk. The 60m2 live room doubles as its Studio C, a customisable production room built around a core system ‘with the ability to tailor the setup according to each project’s needs’.
“I founded the studio mainly as a creative space for my own projects,” the softly spoken Sigurdsson says as we settle down in Studio A. “I started looking for a more permanent place – it was just in an industrial space before – and I discovered that this area had a row of houses built as artist workshops with family living spaces. I was interested in combining the living/work spaces and to have a space that was not just one or the other. It’s constantly been changing over the last 20 years to the needs of how we work.”
According to Sigurdsson, the flexibility and open-mindedness of Iceland’s musical community makes it a perfect location for overseas artists.
“In the early days of the label there was a cross-pollination happening between genres – classical people were getting involved with indie projects and the walls were coming down in terms of styles and who you work with,” he elaborates. “I’ve always found that people in Iceland are open to anything – they might be in three or four different bands all playing different kinds of music. That’s to do with the size of the place – if you’re narrow-minded you’re going to be stuck in a corner.
“Also, Iceland is very different to most places. It’s very isolated but still close to Europe and the US. We get people from all over because they are curious about the country. Every time you go to a special place you haven’t been to before you are able to absorb some of the culture. That automatically feeds into what you’re working on.”
As for the Record In Iceland campaign, Sigurdsson is very much behind it: “It’s a super positive thing to encourage people to come here, because people have the idea that Iceland is very expensive. So if you give them a 25 per cent discount it will make them think about it. If people come here for a day, what do they notice? They might notice the price of the beer and they go home with that story and it spreads the myth that everything is very expensive. The studios are reasonably priced compared to most places, because you have the advantage of a very small community of musicians – you’re easily connected to the musical world here. You have good access to everything.”
From the Greenhouse we head to Hljóðriti Studios, one of Iceland’s oldest recording studios. Located on an industrial estate just outside of Reykjavik, its exterior offers little indication as to the treasure trove of recording gear and instruments that lie within. Designed by John Storyk, the studio pioneer behind New York’s iconic Electric Lady Studios, Hljóðriti is the closest we see to a vintage rock’n’roll studio during our stay. While most of the facilities we visit are based around a clean, homely design suggestive of understated luxury, here we find exposed brickwork, battered wooden floors, rooms spilling over with ancient looking effects boxes and corridors lined with album covers from the likes of Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. There’s a hustle and bustle in every room – a session is taking place in the main control room and an engineer is busy at work with a soldering iron in the studio’s onsite repair shop.
“The studio still sounds like a ‘70s studio,” Guðmundur Kristinn Jónsson, the studio manager and guitarist/producer for Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir, tells us. “There’s a leak between everything that I really like. I call it the glue in the mix.”
Jónsson has played a pivotal role in reversing Hljóðriti’s fortunes in recent years. Though currently thriving, it was forced to close for business towards the end of the ‘90s, its ubiquity until that point rendering it somewhat passé amongst local artists. The building continued to operate as a rehearsal studio, but it took some time before finding its feet again as an in-demand recording destination.
“In the ‘70s, everybody recorded here,” Jónsson explains. “But then, because every band was recording in the same studio, Icelandic musicians got tired of the Hljóðriti sound; it was the same group of musicians playing on every album. Then it closed down for 10 years and I opened it again in 2007. In 2012, when Ásgeir sold 30,000 copies of his debut album – that’s 10 per cent of the population here – we were described by Billboard as the newest sound from Iceland. Then I got all this feedback from the old guys who used to work here saying they couldn’t believe the old Hljóðriti sound would be the hippest thing again!”
So how did he manage to turn things around? He picks up the story: “I’d been running a studio in Keflavik and decided to move to Reykjavik, and needed a place to work here. This was one of my favourite studios and I heard they were thinking of closing it down and turning it into something else, so they gave me a few months to see if I could bring it back to life. I started working here and managed to work on a lot of hit albums, including with Ásgeir. And CDs were still selling then, so there was money coming in.”
As was the case when he re-opened the studio 12 years ago, Jónsson is predominantly using the studio for his own projects and only renting out its services to others when he’s out on the road with one of his many bands. That said, he does believe that the appetite for recording studios across the country is on the up, and that Record In Iceland is an ideal way of encouraging people to make the most of its considerable assets.
“It’s really important to let people know about this because it’s so easy to record in Iceland,” he says. “I’ve recorded all over the world and the thing here is that if you need a string section or horns, everything is so close – you can get people in 10 minutes and they’ll be amazing. If I want to do a session with really good players I can do it tomorrow morning. Everyone knows everybody. And it’s the same with getting in producers and engineers.”
If the Icelandic institution of Hljóðriti represents the weathered and wizened face of nearly four decades of rock’n’roll excess, then the next stop on our tour could be described as its younger, fresh-faced counterpart. Launched a little over 18 months ago by Czech Oscar-winning composer, producer and actress Markéta Irglová (she won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for ‘Falling Slowly’ in the film Once) and her partner Mio (brother of Greenhouse founder Valgeir Siggurdson), Masterkey is one of Iceland’s newest studios. In many ways, it feels more like a comfortable home than one of the nation’s premier recording locations. As you enter the front door an immaculate lounge-like space opens up immediately to the left, boasting, in addition to a gleaming Steinway & Sons grand piano, a jaw-dropping view of the ocean and the mountains beyond. It’s a grey and misty morning when we arrive, but it’s still enough to lift the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s plenty more to see on site too, including a high-spec mixing room next door, a large kitchen and dining area, and downstairs a writing room, a meditation space and even a sauna – although Milo informs us that for now it’s just being used for recording booming percussive sounds, thumping the walls by way of demonstration.
Every inch of Masterkey has been designed to evoke a calm and focused state of mind. Each and every project the pair has taken on has been carefully selected, ruling out anything with which they feel unable to establish a deep emotional connection.
“We have a lot of projects that we’re working on between us; we like the idea of having it for that purpose, rather than running it as a commercial studio,” Markéta tells us as we sit at the foot of the kitchen’s long dining table. “The intention was always to run it this way. We would never accept projects we didn’t connect with or believe we can add something to. We really believe it should never be about the money. We felt like we both missed the times when you were involved in a project and got to experience it from beginning to end, where you nurture it to completion and by the end everyone involved is transformed. That’s my favourite part of the process, the feeling of your creative spirit entwining with the spirits of the people you’re working with.”
The spiritual aspect of their work is a deep and real one; when Markéta says it should never be about the money, she means it. Mio also reveals that they will not accept work they cannot bond with, even if that means turning down potentially lucrative sessions. However, while they will not open their doors for just anybody, they are both happy to be part of the Record In Iceland campaign.
“It is quite unique here,” Markéta continues. “People are a lot less career orientated and more interested in becoming really good at their craft. Iceland has so much to offer, both on a visual level and with the musical scope that exists here. The musicians are world class. All I needed to say is, I’d really like some strings here, and I’m one phone call away from getting amazing people into the studio. It’s a very culturally rich place, especially considering there are only 300,000 people here. For me that’s good; I’m not a big city person but I like having culture and music around, so Reykjavik is a great place for that.”
After Markéta departs to run an errand elsewhere, we pick up the subject of Masterkey’s passion over profit strategy with Mio.
“For me, working here feels like a more personal experience,” he tells us. “Studios in London and New York are run on a profit basis, you have a very set schedule. If you go over your time you have to pay extra. We’ve never done that. Maybe we’re not business orientated enough to be able to think of our studios as a place that can also make money! I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that we’re comfortable with having low rates and taking on projects we’re interested in doing. There are certain types of music I won’t work on because I can’t contribute to it. That helps a lot with being genuine towards people that are coming, because they know I’m not doing it for the money.”
A vital ingredient in the magic that makes Masterkey such a unique prospect is the relationship between Mio and Markéta. When Mio describes how the two met there is crackle in the air that one can almost reach out and touch.
“It’s amazing, I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world, getting to do what I’m doing with whom I’m doing it,” he beams. “Markéta is an incredible person in every sense. We met in the studio; she came to Iceland to work on her second solo album. I was the engineer and we really connected through music. I really wanted to create an environment where everyone felt good and could give their best performance. Once we’d finished tracking the band, they were due to leave the next day and I asked her if she wanted to stay to sing on a couple of songs I was doing with another artist. She said she’d love to have some more time here and during that time we just fell head over heels in love. It was so incredible.”
One of the most successful areas of the music industry in Iceland is orchestral music and film/TV scores, boosted in no small part by the boom in film and TV productions capitalising on its beautiful and sometimes brutal natural scenery. Based in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, SinfoniaNord has been building a reputation as one
of the nation’s leading facilities for scores of this kind. Launched in 2014 by revered producers and composers Þorvaldur Bjarni Þorvaldsson and Atli Örvarsson, it has worked with companies including Disney, Netflix, BBC and the History Channel.
“I tried different studios in Reykjavik, which were good but weren’t quite built for the sound you’re looking for for film scores and symphony orchestras,” says Þorvaldsson, explaining how he became involved with Sinfonia as we meet in the lobby of a Reykjavik hotel. “Then I went to Akureyri and it was incredible. Because of Atli’s connections we were able to start work right away, and our second project was a film called The Perfect Guy, which was a blockbuster in America in 2015. Because of that, other people trusted us and came to record with us, like Trevor Morris for the Vikings show and we did The Informer show, as well as some wildlife and children’s series.”
Our conversation follows a familiar path as we broach the subject of publicity and finding new business, although SinfoniaNord is starting to spread word of its services to the west coast of America. “For the first two years we didn’t advertise at all,” he states. “We serviced Atli’s projects and word of mouth started, so others came and it was only in the spring that we launched a web page. We had a PR guy in LA promote this to the industry over there. We also had a meeting in LA with the people from Record In Iceland. There were some producers and composers who came to meet us, so I could show them the new website and we had a lot of people asking for quotes. It’s like a snowball. But also, you can’t really predict anything in this business. Suddenly you have three films on the go and then you have two months of nothing.”
So while there are certainly big opportunities for studios like SinfoniaNord, what are the biggest challenges? “Getting the work and letting people know that this is here,” Þorvaldsson says. “If you’re a composer in the US and you’re thinking about where to go, you’ll think of London, perhaps. In Iceland we have high wages compared to the rest of the world, so the service is quite expensive. So we have to find a middle ground between the cheaper Eastern European studios and places like London and LA. We seem to have found that through initiatives like Record In Iceland, because once you take that 25 per cent off you can compete.”
As with SinfoniaNord, the distance of Studio Silo from Reykjavik renders a trip to the site impossible. An eight-hour drive from the capital, its location is as spectacular as it gets, situated amidst ocean and mountains and at least a one-hour car journey from the nearest traces of civilisation. It is also (we think) the newest studio to open in Iceland. To find out more about it, we’ve arranged a phone call with its Irish studio manager and house engineer Vinny Wood.
“Studio Silo is the result of my dream since I was a teenager to build and run a professional studio,” he explains. “After five years of building, myself and my wife opened it this June. I’m very focused on analogue recording, so the studio offers a completely analogue recording process if one wishes to use that, or a mixture of digital and analogue technology. We offer a professionally designed space, which is spread across five rooms. It’s in a beautiful location, so it offers lots of nice things for people to come and see.”
On the decision to relocate from his native Ireland, Wood continues: “In 2014, me and my wife were trying to decide where we could go to build a studio. Then the opportunity arose to come here and build a studio in a space without having to pay rent. It was a very low cost option but it involved massive amounts of work – we built it ourselves without taking a huge loan or anything like that.
“We opened in June this year and the response from the Icelandic music industry has been phenomenal. There has been a lot of anticipation. We’ve been in the national news and there are very few musicians I meet who aren’t aware of the studio. We’ve had a lot of interest and we have a number of bookings coming up.”
The decision to provide analogue recording services appears to have provided Studio Silo with something of a USP. “I think I’ve coincidentally managed to fill a gap in the recording sector here,” Wood adds. “Some of the studios do have analogue equipment but they aren’t focused on it and they certainly don’t encourage it. With our set up, we encourage it but we don’t push it. There are some projects where I’ve purposely not used analogue, things that require a lot of editing. But I do think it’s
a big selling point because we’re the only studio that specialises in it and I have the knowledge to keep it all running.”
As for Record In Iceland, Wood believes the campaign is vital in raising the country’s musical profile on the world stage.“It’s a great opportunity for artists and studios,” he comments. “I think within a few days of spreading the word I had a number of inquiries. I was spreading the word here but also in Ireland and I already have a booking pencilled in for March next year. It’s very important for us as we’re very remote. We’re in a very picturesque part of the country. It’s peaceful, the village only has 170 people. We can offer a very special experience.”
Among Iceland’s most versatile studios is Reykjavik’s Syrland Studio. Having hosted sessions from Icelandic giants Björk and Sigur Rós to Blur and Iceland’s Symphony Orchestra, it is able to cater for projects of all shapes and sizes. Indeed, it claims to house Iceland’s largest recording room, measuring up at L15xW12xH7 metres. In addition to music recording, it offers post production, local language dubbing, training, mobile recording and various other services.
However, Sveinn Kjartansson, owner and chief engineer at Syrland, concurs with many of his fellow studio owners that what sets Iceland’s studios apart from the rest of the world is not the equipment or the rooms, but something far less tangible.
“Iceland is very remote and peaceful and its nature is without comparison, filling artists with inspiration and allowing them to relax in a non-aggressive environment,” Kjartansson states. “Reykjavik is very much a modern city but with rustic benefits; it takes no more than 30 minutes to get from a world class restaurant in downtown Reykjavík to the peaceful nature surrounding the city. People in Iceland speak English fluently, which makes working here comfortable and easy.
“Also, Iceland has the largest number of musicians per capita in the world by far. Music is a very integral part of Icelandic society and the need to create music and get it out there is a catalyst for people opening up recording studios.”
For Kjartansson, the Record In Iceland project is not only an effective way of cutting the cost of recording for musicians, but also provides an opportunity to showcase the country’s considerable musical prowess outside of the usual names connected to its music scene. “It’s a very exciting idea to get people from all over the world to work on their music in Iceland,” he continues. “We are proud of what we do here and really love to work with people to help them realise their vision in any way we can. The project is a great stepping stone towards introducing Iceland as a great option for helping music come to life. Iceland is better known in music circles for its musical legacy with such musicians as Björk, Mezzoforte, Sigur Rós, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Jóhann Jóhannsson and more, rather than its recording studios. That makes this project even more exciting to take part in.”
On our final night in the city, Siggi treats PSNEurope to a night out at a local jazz festival. We meet several musicians and local music fans, all of whom appear to work in some form of creative capacity, whether or not it’s their main source of income. With every subsequent bar visit after the show, it feels like everyone we encounter is either a musician, a photographer, a writer or some other form of artist.
As we stumble home it’s impossible not to feel inspired, with the message from everyone we’ve met during our stay that music here is never for money and always for love ringing loud and clear. Iceland may never be able to attract the kind of numbers that pass through LA, London and New York, but that will always be its greatest strength.