Iceland Airwaves: A Journey Unlike Any Other

Written by guest contributor Melissa Faulkner

If you’re here for photos and Spark Notes, here they are:

Girl in Red

Between Mountains

Velvet Negroni

Brett Newski

Whitney

Hatari

If you’re here for the editorial content, photojournalism, and because you care just a wee bit more about the courage and vulnerability it takes to create, express, and share…here’s the rest! 

Take whatever you think you know about music festivals and throw it out the window. 

Now we can talk about Iceland Airwaves

I knew approximately 3 of the 135 artists that would perform across 32 venues in Reykjavik over four days. I stepped off the plane in Keflavik Airport at 7 AM, going up on Tuesday. I couldn’t check into my hotel until 3 PM and had planned to spend the morning at the Blue Lagoon. Labeled by some pretentious friends as a “basic” but labeled by me as an absolutely ideal way to rinse off plane swass, work off the jet lag with a complimentary Prosecco, store my luggage, and get direct transportation from the airport to the Lagoon and to my hotel – thanks to Iceland’s superior and relatively young tourism industry. They’ve thought of everything.

The Blue Lagoon of Iceland

Day 1

After picking up my press bracelet at City Hall, I booked it to KEX Hostel to see Madame Gandhi perform her opening show for a crowd of no more than 75 people, which I would come to find out is one of the true hallmarks of Iceland Airwaves. If desired, you can be no more than 20 feet from an artist at all times. Most of the venues are small and intimate, and if your favorite artist was performing on a larger stage, chances are they also had an additional set at a smaller venue another time during the week, so you could get up close and personal. 

Madame Gandhi at KEX Hostel at Iceland Airwaves

Madame Gandhi is an Ivy-league educated Indian hip-hop artist that draws on global beats and her own history to produce feminist and culturally relevant tracks that celebrate womanhood.

It was a quick 30 minute set (as most shows were, to allow for maximum consumption), so we walked back through the narrow European-style cobblestone streets, stopped for a delicious burger at a small food hall (fun fact: there are no McDonald’s in Iceland because McDonald’s sucks and Iceland already had a fantastic burger scene), and then got distracted by some intense bass beating down the walls of a Chuck Norris bar. Right as I ascended the steps, the lead singer announced, “This next song is called Garbage” and then proceeded to shred face. And it was then that I began to understand that this festival would be unlike anything I’d ever attended. A variety of venues, sounds, cultures, backgrounds, fashion, styles – all with a stage at Iceland Airwaves. 

One of the biggest names to make a stir during the week was Orville Peck, who performed later that evening at the Art Museum in a red sequined jacket, cowboy boots, and a white fringe luchador mask. The country genre was probably more of a surprise departure than the previous metal encounter, but the crowd ate up every moment – especially in a day and age when raw musical talent and shocking performance spectacles are both essential to make an audience pay attention for more than the length of an Instagram video. 

Orville Peck at The Reykjavik Art Museum for Iceland Airwaves

The night ended at Hard Rock Cafe, a place I swore I’d never enter on U.S. or international soil, but I was dying to see the local Iceland hip-hop group Úlfur Úlfur (Wolf Wolf) after a bartender had tipped me off to their set. They are self-credited with “the greatest rap verse ever written in Icelandic hip-hop history.” but I’m gonna have to take your word for it Úlfur Úlfur, I don’t speak Icelandic.

The Hard Rock Cafe of Reykjavik, Iceland

Day 2

One of the best parts of the festival was the ability to travel during the day since most sets began after 5 PM (17:00 for those that want the real IA experience). We rented a car and copied the infamous Golden Circle tour, but did it on American time because I have no patience. It was so nice to be in a Nordic country that had nothing but patience, tolerance, acceptance, and an all-around appreciation for the intricacies of human life. Every single person I met in Iceland, from our bus drivers to our street food waiters to our Iceland Airwaves contacts were informed, polite, joyous – and most importantly – they seemed at peace.

Gullfoss, Iceland

What is in the water in Iceland?

Oh right, geothermal activity. 

After seeing the Gulfoss Waterfall and the OG Strokkur Geysir, we stopped at Fontana thermal baths for a dip in a naturally heated stone hot tub. Similar to Blue Lagoon, but without the silica salt mix. This thermal spa also came with a buffet lunch and the most delicious Rye bread I have ever tasted (said no one ever). 

We were back in Reykjavik by 19:00 to see Between Mountains perform at Fríkirkjan, a white and green church one door down from our hotel. The airy, angelic voice coming from Katla Vigdís Vernharðsdóttir seems to be the envy of all right now, after artists like Ellie Goulding and Chelsea Cutler have paved the way for a softer kind of female vocalist, making Between Mountains right on trend and absolutely glorious in the church’s acoustic setting. The average age in the church was easily above 40, and I was again reminded of what a unique festival this was. Hardly the festival you attend to ‘be seen” – but more about participation for the love of music, culture, and observation. You go to Iceland Airwaves to discover. Discover new music, new people, new fashion trends, new ways of living and being. 

Between Mountains at Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík for Iceland Airwaves

We closed the night with arguably one of the biggest headliners of the week, Mac DeMarco.There was a glitch in the PA for a moment, so Mac started playing “All The Small Things” while the crowd sang along, and I was filled with basement house party vibes. No one seemed upset in the slightest. But then again, where else do you have to be in a town of 122,000 when it’s 19 degrees outside? Nowhere. So chill out and enjoy.

And then Mac did a handstand. A mother fucking handstand y’all.

Mac DeMarco at Reykjavik Art Museum for Iceland Airwaves

Day 3

Another thing that sets IA apart was the press convention that took place during the day on Thursday and Friday. Seminars you actually look forward to attending because the people in the room are the movers, shakers, and future of the music industry. We listened to a panel of global journalists and PR professionals discuss the changing landscape of the music scene, and what makes Iceland such a transformative platform. What struck about the people we met at Iceland Airwaves (not just the locals, but all attendees) is how much they truly care. To genuinely care may have been a luxury and fruitless ideal in past generations, but it’s a necessity and lifeblood of the IA organization. And frankly, the future of music. 

The artists that perform at IA are at various levels of fame, status, album/EP releases, and from so many vast walks of life. But they all seem to deeply care about the craft of music as expression. And Iceland is a country that rewards them for expression. Rewards them for the immense courage it takes to express and create. Creation, purely for creation’s sake, is of the highest noble cause, and that can be felt across the lyrics and the rhythms of every artist that performed regardless of age, genre, and style. 

After leaving the seminar, we popped into one of the IA “Off Venues,” a new feature of the festival that incentivized more local venues to participate, and encouraged more cold festival attendees to pop in off the street and spend some money. A win-win for everyone. We were fortunate to drop in on GKR, another Icelandic rapper in torn-up Vans that likes to rap about eating breakfast. 

Next up was a solo Brett Newski, a Milwaukee boy who I happen to have some mutual Facebook friends with. His performance was incredibly crowd-interactive, and he did an amazing job filling up the stage without his usual backup band behind him. Brett told stories about each song, like the time he had his van stolen in Detroit, and then he ironically sang “I Might Die Today” from the rafters of the old barn-like beams in the bar. Literally U.S. bars would never let you do this…

Brett Newski at Dillon Whiskey Bar for Iceland Airwaves

Brett’s boyish punk charm and multi-instrumental talents (harmonica and kazoo) had the crowd lining up after his set to buy him a beer. Who wouldn’t wanna hang with a guitar-playing good old 90’s Wisconsin boy? Everyone from Icelanders to Chinese tourists were captivated. 

Then it was back to the Art Museum to see Anna of the North, the performance I was most excited about. She came out wearing baggy red cords and what looked like a Hanes white T-shirt, tied at the hip. I don’t think she had any professional hair or makeup done. It felt like Anna wanted to throw herself a giant dance party, and you were invited to watch whether you wanted to or not. It was intoxicating to witness. 

Her jovial expressions, free-spirit dance moves, and wide-mouth grin were enough to catapult to the top of my favorite performances of the week. You could tell she loved just being there. She cares about her creation, and she loves to create. 

Anna of the North at Reykjavik Art Museum for Iceland Airwaves

I was one of the last people to enter the church for John Grant, sitting in the last row of the upper deck. I never saw him, but oh damn… did I feel him. John Grant was an artist I hadn’t really listened to prior to his live acoustic performance, and I must admit, I prefer his church renditions over his album recordings a million times over. As one of the Pitch Perfect PR panelists suggested, I closed my eyes and let the music speak for itself. In music, it can be hard to distinguish between an act with a gimmick, and an act with distinction. It all boils down to the way it hits you in the heart. And John Grant’s rich vocals, intense lyrics, and dramatic piano chords left my soul heavy. To be human is to suffer, and I think the humbled crowd in the church that night was reminded of the suffering that makes us more alike than different. Due to the intimate nature of almost all the venues, Iceland Airwaves is a festival that can’t tolerate gimmicks. But instead relies on artist authenticity. A much harder (and more vulnerable) recipe for notoriety. 

John Grant at Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík for Iceland Airwaves

It doesn’t get much more authentic than Girl In Red, the final set we saw that night. I’m far from a trend-predictor, but I think everyone at IA can collectively agree that if you remember one name from the festival, it should be Girl In Red. Moody Punk-Pop, wicked and filterless commentary, and completely independently produced because Marie doesn’t take shit from anyone. So naturally, I am drawn to her like a moth to flame. The more she doesn’t want us, the more we want her. My jaw was on the floor the entire performance, giddy with excitement about the powerhouse I was watching. Performances like this are why I will forever cherish Iceland Airwaves.

Day 4

On the last day of Iceland Airwaves, my Minneapolis hometown radio station The Current gave to me…an incredible acoustic performance with Girl In Red. Unfortunately, yours truly was finally feeling the effects of jet lag and the consecutive late nights and walked into the party just as it was wrapping. Thankfully, The Current puts on an incredible live stream of all their Iceland Airwaves shows – and this is one you don’t want to miss. The essence is completely different than the full production performance from the night prior, but the raw talent, authenticity, and witty, shameless humor is ever-present. Confirming that Girl in Red is the girl to watch out for in the coming years. 

After a liquid brunch of beer and coffee, I made my way to Alda Hotel, another Off Venue, to watch Cell7 perform her power moves as a Phillapino Icelandic rapper with a Missy Elliot-Esque tempo. Then back at KEX Hostel, it was a hard departure into moody beach music with The Garrys, an all-female Canadian trio whose opening lyrics of “Extra Cheese, Pickles Please, Sesame” really stirred something in me (probably cuz Best Coast is still one of my favorite artists to this day). 

Cell7 at Alda Hotel for Iceland Airwaves

We then had a tough decision to make: stay for Minnesota native Velvet Negroni, or return to the Art Museum to catch a shuttle to the Reykjavik stadium Valshöllin for Of Monsters And Men

I know that I *should* have gone to the local poster children of success Of Monsters And Men, but that’s the thing at IA. There aren’t any rules and “success” is subjective. The festival is what you make it. And I was there to embrace the discovery of new sound. By choosing Velvet Negroni aka Jeremy Nutzman, I discovered some much-needed additions to my sex playlist now that The Weeknd has stopped making spooky strip club music. 

Velvet Negroni at KEX Hostel for Iceland Airwaves

Velvet Negroni was one of the artists I genuinely wanted to buy a CD or Vinyl from – but I had absolutely no ability to play it, so I passed and will just continue to stream. #typicalmillenial

After catching the end of Auður (a Post Malone tour opener) at the Art Museum, it was clear the bulk of the festival had chosen to go to Of Monsters And Men – which means they missed out on the collaborative song between Auður and GKR, whose presence could not have been more different than the previous night when he played in the tiny cafe, footsteps from a barista making matcha smoothies. With the full bass behind him, GKR sounded like a hip-hop force to be taken seriously, even if his lyrics are about breakfast food. 

Auður at Reykjavik Art Museum for Iceland Airwaves

Seabear performed for the first time in 9 years on the Art Museum stage, and then Whitney serenaded us with their catchy riffs and sing-along heartfelt jams. Whitney was the second artist I was most excited to see during the week since the drummer is also the lead singer – a remarkable multitasking effort few of us could ever pull off. 

Seabear at Reykjavik Art Museum for Iceland Airwaves
Whitney at Reykjavik Art Museum for Iceland Airwaves

I had every intention of closing out the festival with DJ Nina Las Vegas, but after making friends with a solo festival attendee from Switzerland, I learned about the infamous Icelandic duo Hatari

The line to the Gaukurinn bar spanned two city blocks, and a paramedic stood close by – the only time I saw medical personnel of any kind of all week. So it seemed I was in for quite the show. 

Hatari can be summed up as Industrial Techno with a side of BDSM. Well, a full platter of BDSM to go with their pop-punk. Hatari was the group that Icelanders nominated for Eurovision and proudly watched them perform and represent their country in a global television broadcast. Because again, Icelanders don’t seem to care what you think about them. They are in it for the creation and the expression. The joy paired with a little bit of horror and confusion. It was certainly memorable and entertaining, and I can’t quite picture ending my Iceland Airwaves experience any other way.

Hatari at Gaukurinn for Iceland Airwaves

Overall Vibes

It’s safe to say I’m hooked. I’m hooked on Icelandic people, the culture, the food, the vast and varying terrains, and the diverse and unapologetic music scene. But I also fear that I am late to the party, and there were whispers amongst some festival-goers that as IA grows in popularity, it will lose it’s intimate charm and purity – no doubt because of people just like me. Must all good things eventually end? I hope for my sake they don’t because I want to make Iceland Airwaves a staple in my festival circuit. It impacted me musically and emotionally but also gave me a new lens to view my life’s work. 

To be motivated by money and fame is not a sustainable foundation – but to create and express simply because it is a human need like air – should be a right, not just a privilege reserved to the few. Iceland Airwaves provides a stage, literally and metaphorically, for creative expression, and it’s supported by Iceland’s cultural blueprint that rewards those that have the courage to dream beyond the 40,000 square foot island. Iceland is a country that knows it can only survive by working together. The rugged individual is not the hero archetype, and it is this kind of takeaway that makes this festival unlike any other. It’s a place to discover new emerging talent, but it’s a place to discover a new, and dare I say, happier way of existing. And it begins with having the courage to express, and trusting that there will always be someone on the other side to hear you, see you, support you, and appreciate you. You just might have to travel to a frozen volcanic island to find them. 

Skogafoss, Iceland

Pro Tip: Iceland Airwaves 2020 Tickets are already on sale.

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