The Spiritual Side of Sigur Rós' Jonsi
By Jessica Misener
March 30, 2010
Has anybody, on a basic level, ever understood a Sigur Rós song? Even if you hail from Iceland, where the post-rock quartet first fired up their glockenspiels in 1994, you might be up a linguistic glacier. The band records mostly in a made-up language called Hopelandic, a strange gibberish of vowels and moans that accentuates their ambient sound.
That’s why it’s especially surprising that lead singer Jónsi Birgisson is about to shatter the language barrier. “I’m singing for the first time in English,” he says of his new solo album, Go, a nine-song LP out next week.
Of course, there’s more to experiencing music than the lyrics themselves. For more than 10 years, Birgisson has been at the creative forefront of Sigur Rós and of the ambient/post-rock scene itself: transcending octaves with his airy falsetto, playing his guitar with a cello bow and penning instrumental melodies that soar to celestial heights. So now that we can comprehend Birgisson lyrically, what will he say?
According to him, it’s something just as evocative.
“Sigur Rós has been a safe cocoon for me,” he says. “I love writing with my band, because you get to share that creative spark, but I’m also enjoying learning about myself as a songwriter.”
For many Christians, the music of Sigur Rós has been a soundtrack for worship; that is, the band’s soaring melodies and non-linear vocals draw the listener up to focus on higher things. Perhaps it may best be thought of as “spiritual” music—not explicitly religious, but art that tries to transcend the ordinary of human experience and tap into something more than temporal reality. That might sound ridiculous and ostentatious, but it’s also the best way to talk about their music: it’s transporting.
Ken Heffner, director of Student Activities at Calvin College and curator of the bi-annual Festival of Faith & Music, is well-versed in finding the sacred amidst the secular. His tenure at Calvin has been noted for bringing acts ranging from Lupe Fiasco to, yes, Sigur Rós to perform at a Christian college. “[Sigur Rós] played here in 2006; that was a high point for me in my 22-year concert career,” Heffner says. “One of my favorite parts about having them was during the interview we did beforehand. Someone asked them, ‘Many critics talk about your music as the soundtrack of heaven or music from God—what do you guys think of that?’ They laughed and said they were aware of that reputation, but that’s not what they think they’re doing—they think it’s just about beauty.”
Birgisson is surprised, but not unreceptive, that many Christians and religious people consider the music of Sigur Rós worship music: “That’s kind of a scary responsibility, but also a cool thing. I think any way that my music can inspire people is an amazing opportunity.”
“[Sigur Rós] has found some way to tap into glory, to give glory a sound,” Heffner says. “Other artists have done this, but in this time, Sigur Rós, I think, does the best job of that. God is at work renewing all kinds of things and He can do it through a Sigur Rós concert. His presence can show up at a concert even though that was not the intent of the artist.”
Birgisson says his own spirituality is inextricably tied up in his music.
“I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual,” he says. “Music is what keeps me alive, and it keeps me fulfilled and happy. I let everything flow through me and out of me and into my songs.”
The LP was the culmination and selection of Birgisson’s entire, decade-spanning repertoire, he says.
“I started with 27 songs, and narrowed them down. Some of these songs I wrote 10 years ago, and I’ve just been waiting for the right time to debut them. All the other members of Sigur Rós are having babies,” Birgisson says with a laugh, “so now was a great time to go the solo route.”
Birgisson and his band have had an indelible impact on ambient music. With their symphonies swept up in falsetto and vivacity, they’ve influenced everyone from Radiohead to Coldplay, and won fans as diverse as David Bowie and Brad Pitt. But beyond Sigur Rós’ musicality, their unique brand of wordless orchestra reaches many fans on a profound, soulful level.
Musically, Go glides along the same glacial oeuvre as Sigur Rós: ethereal and haunting, cascading in and out of satin-like glissandos. But there’s a certain spunk, and a spark of optimism, to the album that has sometimes been absent from Sigur Rós’ more dark and arctic musical canon. Go is injected with life, and its theme, Birgisson says, is getting rid of fear.
“So many people are afraid to let go and experience the crazy roller coaster that is real life. I wanted this album to have an upbeat energy that would encourage people to go for it, to tackle their dreams, to do everything they dream of doing.”
The release of Go will galvanize a busy year for Birgisson. He embarks on a world tour this year, and the release of a new Sigur Rós album is also slated for 2010.
“Fame is a strange thing, but you have to enjoy it,” he says of the slow-burning spotlight on his band and himself. “I still live in Reykjavik, and that keeps me grounded. Above all, I’m grateful for the ability to compose my music. Life is a gift.”