Hollywood screenwriters couldn't have scripted the musical ascent of Icelandic phenom Ásgeir any better. Dýrð í dauðaþögn, an album the 21-year-old recorded just for fun, became an overnight sensation in his home country. Buoyed by haunting, shimmering folktronica textures—and driven by lyrics penned by his dad, a retired school principal—the record became the best-selling debut record ever in Iceland, beating out even superstars such as Björk and Sigur Rós.
“I thought the album was just going to sell 300 copies or something to people from my hometown, and my family and friends,” Ásgeir says. “I had no expectations whatsoever about anything. But it was really strange. My whole life was turned around in just a few weeks.”
Still, the fairy tale didn't end there. The ubiquity of Dýrð í dauðaþögn caught the attention of musician John Grant, and the one-time Midlake collaborator immediately recognized Ásgeir's musical talent. “He has a knack for melody and gorgeous harmonies, coupled with an amazing sense of rhythm and virtuosity on acoustic guitar,” Grant says. However, he also saw plenty of beauty in the album's lyrics—a poetic collection touching on things such as nature, fantastical creatures, weather and old short stories—and ended up translating them into English for the international version of the album, titled In The Silence.
“When playing live it can be tricky to get a good acoustic sound. I've used many different pick-ups through the years but the LR BAGGS M80 just fits my guitar and my finger-picking style perfectly.”
Produced by Gudmundur Kristinn Jonsson, In The Silence certainly loses nothing in translation emotionally. The hope-filled album bursts with warm acoustic guitars, jubilant horns and majestic piano, recalling Bon Iver, Mew, Kings Of Convenience and James Blake. Ásgeir's angelic falsetto and soul-rich voice lends optimism and wise-beyond-his-years insights to the electric guitar-laden surge “Torrent” and twinkling title track. Meanwhile, pulsating electronic beats drive the more subdued “Going Home” and the light discopop touches of “King and Cross.”
Still, Ásgeir's personal backstory is just as remarkable as his music. Growing up in the tiny countryside village of Laugarbakki, he was a serious athlete who trained in track and field. From ages 13 to 18—when injuries forced him to step away from sports—he competed in javelin throwing and, by all accounts, was a serious prospect. (In fact, he still holds some of the Icelandic records in his age group.) “I always imagined that's what I would do in the future—compete in the Olympics and be a professional athlete,” he says. “But at the same time, I was always writing songs. Music to me was as important as javelin throwing.”
In a fortuitous twist of fate, his javelin coach was also musically inclined; in fact, he was Ásgeir's guitar teacher. When the young athlete received his first acoustic guitar as a teenager, he gravitated toward legends such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, as well as modern troubadours Damien Rice, Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith. At the same time, he continued to appreciate heavier grunge artists; in fact, the first album he bought was Nirvana's Nevermind. (He remains a fan, and even recently covered “Heart-Shaped Box.”)
All of these artists and genres certainly influenceIn The Silence. But the record is resonating with fans on a deep emotional level that's quite unique. Humble and unassuming, Ásgeir is still trying to get used to affecting people in such a deep way with his art, as well as adjusting to his newfound fame and musical stardom. “I didn’t really know if I was ready for this change at the time,” he says. “I really had to think about whether I wanted to release an album worldwide, because I knew that I would have to be touring a lot if I was going to do it. But in the end, I thought, 'If I don’t do it now, I’ll probably never, ever get a chance like this again.’”