This week I attended my first Iceland Airwaves music festival in Reykjavik and I’d definitely do it again. I first heard of Airwaves 5-6 years ago through the KEXP podcast. Since then I’ve been tuned in a bit more to Icelandic musicians beyond the big names (Björk and Sigur Rós) and I’m happier for the expanded repertoire.
I had planned to take a month off my time at Deer Park and it just so happened that Iceland Airwaves was taking place during the month. I’ve had Iceland on a short bucketlist for a while and so when the opportunity arose, the timing was perfect. I bought my tickets on October 19th, flew on October 31st, and arrived at 6am (local time) on November 1st. My plan is to stay for two weeks.
Flying and Lodging
The flights over were easy and painless. Arriving into Reykjavik Airport at 6am was a little rough since I didn’t have lodging until after 3pm. This did allow a leisurely bus ride into the city center and then dragging my suitcase around I visited a few coffee shops and stores until 3pm rolled around. This was definitely the most difficult part of the trip. But we don’t always have a choice with our arrival times for international flights.
I used AirBnb to find lodging in the main part of old downtown so that I could be near all the music venues. Little did I know, but the location has been ideal. I’m two blocks off the main tourist district (Laugavegur) on Vatnsstígur. It’s a 1-bed apartment with a small kitchen. Comfortable and easy access. Pricing was reasonable but still expensive for a two week stay ($150/night). Of course, having a kitchen allows me to prepare most meals on my own so save money on eating out. A grocery store is 4-blocks away.
One last note of flights. The Airwaves team partnered with IcelandAir for flight/ticket pricing. Not a bad path to take, especially if you plan early.
Iceland Airwaves is a music festival held annually in early November. The festival prominently features Icelandic artists. It first started in 1999 and has featured many well-known Icelandic names over the years, including the two luminaries mentioned above. Musical sounds range from folk, electronic, rock, classical, and experimental. All events are all indoors across 15 venues within walking distance of each other. Most sets are 40-minutes with a 20-minute break for set changes. Or walking to another venue.
Venue size ranges from less than 100 to a couple thousand. All standing, so wear comfortable shoes. This year we had 105 musical acts to choose from and I was able to see about 30 of them. It would have been more, but on the third night I was pretty tired and skipped the late night performers.
The ticket price this year was $150 for the base festival ticket. And it seems if I buy a ticket now for next year, it’s only $100 for super early bird.
So let’s get to the critical aspect. The Music! Of the 150 performers, I had heard of only six! This left a wide-open canvas for me to explore the music. Exploring the performers, I picked those that sounded most interesting. For me, the musical sounds leaned soft and gentle (electronics, strings, singer/songwriter) but I also definitely enjoyed some punk, pop, industrial, and experimental.
Rather than try to write up something about every act, you can watch the three videos below. Although it’s not every performer I saw, it is most of them. You can get a snippet of the experience.
Who were the highlights?
- Hugar – Icelandic natives HUGAR – comprised of multitalented instrumentalists and musicians Bergur Þórisson and Pétur Jónsson – have forged a musical lane all their own with a genre-defying sound. Combining a shared passion for music and an impressive resume working alongside fellow Icelandic luminaries Björk, Sigur Rós, Ólafur Arnalds and Johann Johannson, the longtime friends and natives of Seltjarnarnes began writing music together in 2013. Through a series of impromptu sessions, Bergur and Pétur recorded and released their independent self-titled debut Hugar the following year, making it available for free on their website. The sweepingly multi-layered and ethereally ambient album quickly amassed an organic following of listeners and has since racked up over 50 million streams worldwide on Spotify alone.
- JFDR – Following stints as a member in Pascal Pinon and Samaris, JFDR has collaborated with renowned artists including Ólafur Arnalds, Damien Rice, and Penelope Trappes, scored the award-winning Icelandic film Backyard Village, and garnered fans across the world – including Björk, who has cited JFDR as an inspiration. Museum represents an essential step in her ever-growing catalog, and a new beginning for an artist who has already had multiple careers as a musician, but who still feels like she’s just getting started.
- Hatari – intense, theatrical, political, angry, beautiful, and industrial.
- Arny Marget – Arny Margret is a 21 year old singer-songwriter from the Westfjords of Iceland. Through her music one can almost experience how it is to live in an isolated place, surrounded by tall mountains that block the sun for a few months every year. Her music can best be described as indie folk and although Arny Margret clearly has a sound of her own.
- Groa – GRÓA in an energetic art-punk band! Their live-shows are often performance related but their unique, aggressive-melodic, new wave, sounds constantly shine throughout their set, and creates a new world combined with the audience. Gróa’s music makes your ass shake, hips wiggle, toes tingle, breasts bounce, whole body grow an ounce.
Artist bios are from the Airwaves website.
Would I attend again? Most definitely. The intimacy and the quality of the music are both high. A great way to discover new music.
Since there are so many, and mostly unknown to me, review all the musicians before you come. Mark everyone that looks remotely interesting. And when Airwaves makes the schedule available, you can add them all and see where each might fit into the three days. Many artists perform several times, so you may have a conflict for a primetime event but they may play the day before in an art gallery. One of the acts I did know, and a favorite, played three times. I saw her twice and missed her third. But the two I did see were completely different – one with guitar and electronics and the other guitar and string quartet. In a clothing store!!
Staying nearby the venues allows for any necessary rests. If you plan a trip for Airwaves in the future, then plan to arrive two days before the official start as the day before has quite a bit of music to choose from at smaller venues such as record stores (of which there are many). The day after also has some music happening. So instead of 3-days it’s more like 5-days.
I wasn’t shut out of any event, but for a couple I was out on the street. I could still see and hear but I was on the sidewalk. Fortunately, the weather was great (no rain) and standing outside wasn’t a big deal. Some events were definitely packed, so if it’s someone you really like then I recommend getting there early.