It’s a crowded lower floor at Gamla Bíó, one of Reykjavík’s oldest and most distinguished venues. As the last few seats are filled, genial host Sóley Kristjánsdóttir steps onto the stage. We’re here tonight to listen to some of Iceland’s most notable queer women in music, but before introducing the first act, she asks how many people in the audience don’t speak Icelandic. Out of the dozens of people present, only five or six hands go up, but no matter; from that point on, with the exception of lyrics, barely a word of Icelandic is spoken on stage by a single performer. This flavor of perfect inclusivity will be a running theme throughout the night. The lights dim, the doors close, and we are underway.
There’s a moment near the end of Ondina’s four-song set where she is leaning over her synthesizer, reprogramming it for the next bit, and her elbow accidentally hits a few notes on the keyboard, sending a freaky squelch into the cavernous space. “That was the next piece,” she says, deadpan.
This charming and disarming sense of humor is front and center in everything Ondina (a Brooklyn native named Rebecca Hidalgo) does on stage. Her palette of sounds is diverse and her set showcases this in deliberate fashion. Intimate opening number “Foreverland” and second song “Wake Up” (an Arcade Fire cover) are delivered troubadour style; just her and her guitar, peppered with small-caliber shots of humor amidst her emotive vocals.
On the closing number, she takes off her shoes and her jacket and hauls that beautiful synth out on the stage. The song that follows, entitled “Grow,” merits very special mention. Right before it, she is joined by 13-year-old dancer Erlen Isabella, who is wearing a dark coat. The track kicks off with some fetchingly bizarre synth work that recalls early Art of Noise in its quasi-vocal weirdness, and the dancer begins weaving slow patterns in the air. As the song builds, the dancer begins removing the coat, revealing a bright tie-dyed rainbow jumpsuit. Then suddenly, as the coat drops, the song breaks wide open into a shimmering slice of theatrical synth pop while the dancer cuts loose in a frenzy of urban contemporary dance moves.
The entire set has been building towards this moment, and the effect is electrifying. Ondina gets the room singing along with her catchy chorus (“Don’t grow up / They will fuck you up”), then jumps off the stage and runs through the crowd while they clap in rhythm, exhorting people to stand up and sing and dance. Brimming with energy and creativity, her performance is a rousing start to the show.
Next on stage is the first of the Icelandic natives, Bláskjár, known off-stage as Arndís Hreiðarsdóttir. Utilizing nothing more than an acoustic piano, hers is a considerably more subdued and low-key affair than the preceding act, though the shift in tone is quickly accepted by the crowd as she launches into her first song, “Sjávarhljóð” (Sound of the Ocean), a lovely meditative piece that is quintessentially Icelandic in every aspect.
Comprising six songs, her set is a fair bit longer than her predecessor’s, but it only takes a short while for the audience to realize that they’re in the presence of a tender and talented musician. In the middle of her set, she stops and tells the crowd that she plays a lot of taprooms and social venues and doesn’t generally get people’s undivided attention, so she appreciates that people are sitting down and listening tonight.
Perhaps her greatest moment comes during the fifth song of the set, a tango-infused melodisation of a poem by Icelandic poet Davíð Stefánsson, entitled “Ég vildi að ég væri” (I Wish I Were). Having enlisted the crowd to hum the chorus melody with her, she goes back into a long verse. When the chorus comes back around the crowd spontaneously picks up the melody, and there is this magical moment where she looks up from the piano in surprise, almost as if shocked that the crowd is right there with her again. Considering the talent on display, that level of humility denotes a true creative.
Also of special note is her fourth piece, “Ég bíð” (I wait), which contains after its chorus an astounding piano sequence in a mournful key, a tinkling cascade of notes that would make Erik Satie proud.
For anyone who has followed the folk scene in Iceland even peripherally, not much needs to be said about Elín Ey (Elín Eyþórsdóttir). Though already a legend in her own right, she possesses an almost defiantly unassuming demeanor that contradicts that role at every turn, and this is a part of her unique charm. She’s not here to be famous. She’s not here to impress you. She is here for one reason: to play you music that will do something to you.
Her first song, “Ef engill ég væri með vængi” (If I were an angel with wings), was written by her great-grandmother and made into music by her mother, she explains. As she begins singing and the lights dim, a deep hush overtakes the crowd. It’s as if everybody present — even people who don’t know her work at all — instinctively recognizes that there’s something going on here that requires absolute undivided attention. As the song goes on, a spell is woven. To everyone present, she is the only person in the room.
Introducing her second song, she says, “This song is called ‘Lonelier.’ And it’s about being lonely.” The laconic introduction matches her persona, but as the song gets going her vocal mastery cannot be hidden; I look to the next table at one point and I see a woman surreptitiously wiping tears off her face with her scarf. “Lonelier than you’ve ever been / Still surrounded by all your friends” goes the refrain, and there is probably not a person on this earth that can’t relate to that.
Her fourth song is an acoustic cover of “Ég er eins og ég er” (I am the way I am), made famous by superstar Páll Óskar, who is usually referred to as either a gay icon or the king of Icelandic pop (both are correct). Introducing it, she says, “I’ve been told I have a gift for turning every song into a sad song.” During this track, while she turns the classically happy anthem into a plaintive acoustic number, she brings the crowd into a sing-a-long, and as she does so she makes a small move that is both very clever and immensely telling; when the chorus is at its peak, she gradually moves her head away from the mic, her voice receding and blending smoothly into the crowd’s shouted melody. Hide as you might, Elín Ey. We all know you’re a star.
Hljómsveitin Eva (A Band Called Eva) virtually bounce onto the stage. There’s two of them, Sigga (Sigríður Eir Zophoníasardóttir) and Vala (Vala Höskuldsdóttir), each armed with a guitar. Their energy is palpable and their onstage presence is so effortless that they come across like two friends doing an impromptu skit in someone’s living room, with not a hint of nervousness to be seen. Their comic timing is honed to the millisecond. Their conversation is relentlessly entertaining.
“We’re not very good at the English speaking, uhh… thing,” says Sigga. The crowd bursts into laughter. “Exactly,” she concedes.
The set is flowing and spontaneous, with a great deal of banter between songs; sometimes the line between song and banter is blurred, as in the delightful “Kona” (Woman) — a song about being a woman and having to account for it at every turn — where they blurt out much of the lyrics in an apologetic rush of spoken syllables, neatly underscoring the song’s theme while, incredibly, delivering a laugh in almost every sentence.
This conversational element is their biggest calling card. At the beginning of the show, Vala states with great emphasis that they are not a duet. Though she doesn’t elaborate at that point, her meaning becomes evident as their set goes on: more than a band, Hljómsveitin Eva is an all-around entertainment outfit, and they have several points they would like to make. This is borne out by the band’s official description, where they state they are “not just a band, but a performance art troupe, a political movement, and a self-help group.”
Their songs are tongue-in-cheek and satirical, skewering a broad range of suburban plebeian tropes and beliefs. The rambling lyrics are marked by a constant interplay between the mundane and the profound, sometimes occurring from one sentence to the next.
Their coy irreverence is endearing and deeply funny. Indeed, the content of the performance is so engaging that it takes a while for me to realize – about halfway into their third song, “The Queer Song” — that they are accomplished musicians as well, with a particularly deft touch for vocal harmonies.
Before their last song, they politely suggest to the crowd that they should probably get an encore. As they exit the stage, the crowd obliges. For the encore — arguably the highlight of the entire show — they are joined on stage by Bláskjár and Elín Ey, and the four perform a captivating rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” with Sigga and Vala’s powerful vocals carrying the proceedings.
They receive another encore, un-asked for. Before starting, Vala says “This is an exit song. So just get up and dance your way on out.” Earlier in the show, she had told the crowd “It’s an honour to hang out with you.” No, no, A Band Called Eva. The honour was all ours.