“I’m expressing a lot on this album: pleasure, frustration, regret, obsession, responsibility, loneliness, excitement, uncertainty, a bit of zen…” says singer and songwriter Sunna Margrét. Hailing from Iceland, a place as fascinating as it is mysterious, the artist has released her debut album, Finger on Tongue (via No Salad Records), that sounds exactly like that. It’s eerie and captivating, bright and dark, exciting and gloomy. “Day and night, A and B,” she concludes.
After releasing mixtapes, EPs, and a record made of demos she had around but wanted to get out into the world, Sunna is finally presenting a full-length album. She’s been working on it for some years now, and because of life’s unexpected twists and turns, she had to put it a bit on hold to release first the previous EP. “Five Songs for Swimming came to me quite unexpectedly when my grandmother passed away and I wrote it in her memory,” she tells us in this candid interview. Today, we speak with Sunna about not being a routine person, islanders mentality, and of course, music.
Hi Sunna, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. Tell me, what is a day in your life like? Are you a routine person, or do you like to improvise and see where the day takes you?
Hi Arnau, likewise! I’ve never been a routine person even though I admire people who are – I don’t think I belong in routine. I did adopt some structure when I became a parent, but then kids are constantly growing and changing, so there is always something new happening. I’m lucky to be able to live my life very spontaneously, I don’t improvise every day but I never know what I’m doing six months later for example.
You’ve been in the music industry for over fifteen years now. First, with band Bloodgroup, and in recent years, as a solo artist. But what got you first involved in it?
That’s one example of how I never plan ahead and life just happens. Hallur from Bloodgroup called me one night after getting my number from a mutual friend and asked if I’d be up for joining him and the band at their rehearsal space. It was 1 am in the morning or something like that but I was up, so I went to see them. They were looking for a new singer and I’d never even heard their music before. I was studying jazz singing at the time. I took home their newly released CD and learned the songs, came back the next day and that’s when I joined Bloodgroup.
After several EPs, you released your debut album in March, Finger on Tongue. In what ways have these previous records helped you produce your first full-length album? In what ways has the process been similar and different?
All very different works. I don’t consider Amma an EP although it’s often listed as one, but it’s a single I released with four remixes. Art of History is a selection of songs from many demos I had been working on during my art studies. It was more about getting some of my music out that I’d been writing and it was the first release on my label, No Salad Records, and I really wanted to release on vinyl. I wrote everything on my computer except the last song as I wanted to have some fresh ideas, which is why I teamed up with two musicians in Geneva, Robin Girod and Gaspard Sommer, and that was a very good decision.
My original plan was always to release an LP after that, but Five Songs for Swimming came to me quite unexpectedly when my grandmother passed away and I wrote it in her memory. I knew it had to be made differently than what I was used to, so I asked my friend Maxime Graf to write all the music with me during the recording process. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked like that and the outcome is different from what I mostly write and put out. At the time I already had Finger on Tongue almost ready for release but I put it on hold. When I came back to it, I needed to make some changes and so I asked Maxime to write another song with me and we wrote Chocolate, which then became the first single and the opening song on the album.
“I think people who grow up on islands have unconscious tendencies to crave for waves, just looking at or listening to them. I feel uneasy when I haven’t seen the ocean for a while.”
The sound of the album is very eerie, it holds a mystery to it. It’s almost haunted, especially in songs like Figure, Those Who Wonder or I’ve Been Drinking. At least that’s what it conveyed to me when I first listened to it. Could you give us an insight into your creative process, and what emotions did you want to evoke through Finger on Tongue?
I’m expressing a lot on this album: pleasure, frustration, regret, obsession, responsibility, loneliness, excitement, uncertainty, a bit of zen… It’s maybe a glimpse into my brain that never gives me a break. I personally feel the first half of the album is brighter and more excited, whereas the second half is gloomier and darker. Day and night, A and B.
It’s mostly written, produced and recorded in my home studio or on the road. But some things are co-produced in studio sessions where a lot of material is recorded and then I will return to my computer to tweak, cut, paste and edit until I’m satisfied. Figure went through many tweak sessions for example, whereas Those Who Wonder felt like it just wrote itself almost but needed a lot of mixing because the sounds were all attacking each other. I’ve Been Drinking should definitely feel eerie since it’s inspired by self-sabotaging behaviour.
Chocolate is the first single you released as a preview, and it’s also the opening of the album. Why is this track so important to you? How do you feel it encapsulates the album’s message/vibe overall?
I would say Chocolate stands out a bit from the rest of the album. It’s the only song that was written in one sitting, a very simple idea in fact, not too many elements. It’s about everything I hold dearest and the fear of losing it. It’s also about realising that if I hadn’t experienced the bad things in my life and if I hadn’t made the mistakes I made, I wouldn’t be here today. So I don’t regret and I wouldn’t change a thing. And I think people like this song because of the vulnerability and honesty of it as well as the fun we had writing it.
Your previous work, the EP Five Songs for Swimming, arguably had a dreamier vibe to it. It was a bit more acoustic, less electronic or experimental. How do you see your evolution from that work to your most recent album? Would you say you’re in a very different place, both personally and artistically?
I was working on both Five Songs for Swimming and Finger on Tongue simultaneously and yet they are two very different works. One being sort of a concept EP where I set myself a structure with rules so that it would have a different sound than my ‘usual’ work, giving it space and its own story, whereas the LP is more of a natural continuation and maturation of what I’ve been doing for the past few years. And maybe the dreamy vibe on Five Songs for Swimming comes from the notion of saying farewell for the very last time to someone I love dearly.
Nature plays a very important role in your music: from the animals in the music video for Figure to the landscapes in Chocolate, or even the references to water in your previous EP. I understand that growing up in a country like Iceland had very much to do with that. What’s your relationship with nature like?
I think people who grow up on islands have unconscious tendencies to crave for waves, just looking at or listening to them. I feel uneasy when I haven’t seen the ocean for a while. Iceland of course has this island mentality, everything outside of its borders is very, very far away, and that makes the nature you are surrounded by very significant in how you see the world. I didn’t appreciate Iceland when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I started travelling and living abroad that I had a fresh perspective and a different point of view. Often you need distance to understand.
It’s funny you mention the animals in those videos. I think that’s even more linked to my time in Switzerland and maybe my absence from Iceland, but it’s also very in the spirit of the women who directed these two music videos, Miriam Laura Leonardi and Virginie Sistek.
On your Instagram, you posted: “My debut album has been out for 5 days now and I feel so lucky to be doing what I do! Writing my own music and releasing it on my own label @nosaladreccords has been hard at times but so worth it.” It surely is a feat to be doing all that! Looking back at when you first started in your career (both as a musician and record label founder), how do you reflect on the journey so far?
This is such a great question. It’s so easy to get lost in the process, especially when you are working for yourself; you never feel like you’re doing enough. Someone told me it’s a good rule to look back one year and see how much you’ve accomplished. That puts things back in perspective and encourages you to continue. I think I’m very fortunate on my journey and it really also is just the beginning, Finger on Tongue is my debut album. That’s the best part also, to just continue doing what you’re doing because you love it and not having an end goal. This is why I’m so lucky.
You’ll be playing live at The Great Escape festival in June. That’s brilliant! How do you prepare for a live concert? What can the audience expect?
Yes, I’m playing on May 18th to be exact, and I’m very excited about it! I’ve prepared a thirty-minute set with songs mostly from the new album. I take my bass with me and my computer and people can expect some ‘oddball Icelandic pop’. I just came back from a short trip to Napoli where I cleared my mind a bit, so I’ll be very in tune for the concert.
To finish, now that the album is out and people are finally buying/streaming it, what are you doing to relax and enjoy yourself?
Actually, a lot of work comes after the release. I’m hoping also to be able to play it live as much as I can. I think I will have to book another trip to Napoli for the relaxing, wouldn’t mind that!