Pink Floyd at Pompeii. Jean-Michel Jarre at the Giza Plateau. Sigur Rós in an abandoned Icelandic herring factory. Prog has always enjoyed a flair for the dramatic, or at least the downright bizarre, when it comes to live shows. The latest artist to tackle an unexpected venue is singer-songwriter Eivør, who chose to play beneath a tall cliff in a sea-tossed corner of her native Faroe Islands in August 2020.
The site in question – Tinghella, a Viking gathering ground from the Middle Ages – is no easy reach. In fact, Eivør had to abseil to the makeshift stage. “I have a friend in the Faroe Islands who’s an adventurer,” she explains. “And she had this idea of me doing a concert at this place, down the cliff. Somehow she managed to talk me into it. I was terrified, but it was fun. We had to get all my gear – speakers, amps, everything – down with a rope. A hundred people came to watch the show and they all abseiled down too. I love crazy stuff like that.”
A taste for adventure has always been part of Eivør Pálsdóttir’s creative life. She was a Faroese TV star at 13, moved to Iceland to study classical singing while still in her teens and ultimately settled in Denmark. The music she made along the way – from traditional folk to trip hop, windswept prog to free jazz – served to echo the restlessness of her physical journey.
The same sense of motion propels Segl, her ninth and latest album. Taking its name from the Faroese for ‘sail’, it’s primarily about the search for direction and purpose, while acknowledging fate’s random habit of blowing the best-laid plans off course.
The crucial thing, Eivør’s songs suggest, is to summon the courage to head out in the first place. “Segl is such a fitting title,” she says. “This album is so much about a journey and trusting that you’ll get to a place where you’re supposed to be. The wind may change, but all you can do is control your sail. I thought that was a nice metaphor for the album.”
Segl is built from personal experience. Eivør started working on the album four years ago, but was forced to navigate various obstacles that threatened to halt her progress. “There were so many things that got in the way and I had to stop many times,” she recalls. “It’s been a chaotic period. I changed my management three times over the last four years and I’ve also been very busy writing music for TV shows and video games. I threw myself into doing a lot more collaborations with different people around the world as well. All of these things really affected the sound of the album and the topics of the songs, which became so much about change. It’s been a new chapter for me.”
This newfound freedom is reflected in Segl’s music. It’s a rich and thoughtful abstraction of billowy prog folk and moody electronica, mostly shaped by strings, piano and synths, kicked along by programmed beats and trip hop rhythms. Partly guided by her producer/composer husband Tróndur Bogason, Eivør has never sounded so expansive. “I wanted to do it differently this time,” she says. “I wanted to connect with my folky side, but also go all the way with the electronic side of things. Songs like Stirdur Saknur and Gullspunnin are pointing very much both ways.”
For Eivør, music and landscape are forever intertwined. She may be speaking to Prog from her current home in Copenhagen, but the Faroe Islands are never far from her thoughts. It’s somewhere she returns to on a regular basis, for a month at a time. The unique terrain and inconstant climate find expression in the sensory shifts and tones of her work. “I see it as the core of everything I do, in a way,” she offers. “I feel like I’m looking for something within me, a sound or a certain mood. And that’s very much in the landscape of the place I come from. It’s something that becomes part of your inner world. I’ve always been fascinated by strong contrasts, which is very much in the Faroese landscape, filled with light and dark. It does affect people. There’s a certain emotion that comes out. Visual artists from the Faroe Islands tend to be very abstract, creating these dark and melancholic paintings.”
Eivør grew up in Syðrugøta, a tiny village at the top of the island chain, facing the North Atlantic. With a population of around 400, community gatherings were a key part of her early life. People would often get together to share stories and play traditional folk music. Nothing was more inspiring, however, than her own family. Her mother sang, her dad wrote poetry.
“My mum would sing in choirs and around the house,” she explains. “She has a beautiful voice, but she never even thought of becoming a professional singer. That just wasn’t something you would consider. It was the same for my father. He worked in the oil business, but when he was at home he’d be painting and writing poems. He never saw himself as a true poet, but to me he was. There was always a lot of creativity going on at home.”
By the age of 11 or 12, Eivør was writing songs and performing them at family gatherings and birthday parties. Her musical diet at that point mainly consisted of traditional Faroese folk tunes, often sung as duets with her great-grandfather: “In our family, singing was a very natural thing to do.”
Music from wider spheres also began to take hold, notably prog. “I absolutely love Pink Floyd,” she says. “I have two brothers who are much older than me. They had huge speakers and they’d crank this music up in their room. Their friends would be over and they’d all be smoking, and I’d be outside their door, listening to this incredible music. Sometimes when they weren’t home I’d go in there, crank it up and go crazy. I love progressive music.”
News of Eivør’s rare vocal talent soon got around. A few years after scooping top honours in a national singing contest, she was invited to join a rock band. She was still only 15. “I started as a singer in a band called Clickhaze, which was like a trip-hop-rock band,” she recalls. “That’s when it kind of took off for me. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I want to be a musician!’”
Clickhaze played gigs wherever they could – church halls, caves, rowing boats. Within a year she’d begun recording a debut LP, Eivør Pálsdóttir. Issued on Kristian Blak’s Tutl label in 2000, the album was firmly planted in Faroese culture, comprising old and new folk ballads, accompanied by a trio of jazz players that included Blak on double bass. Eivør is pictured on the sleeve in traditional dress. “It was important to me that I was wearing the national gown,” she says. “And I took the photos for the artwork in the oldest house in my hometown. I really wanted to go back to my roots and bring everything that I knew. Before I made the album I travelled across the Faroe Islands and recorded old people singing traditional folk songs. I was completely obsessed with all that at the time.
“The fact that the Faroe Islands have been so isolated from the rest of the world makes those old songs so unique,” Eivør continues. “Instruments weren’t available until much later, so the melodies of the folk songs are very free. And the same song would be different from village to village, because people would make up their own versions of it. I find that really interesting, because it reminds me of jazz. Everyone is just doing their own interpretation. Plus traditional Faroese music is a lot about stomping into the floor. It’s almost like doom metal, super-slow.”
The same innate curiosity has served as Eivør’s lodestar throughout her career. Alongside her spell in Clickhaze, she’s also been a part of Yggdrasil (Kristian Blak’s avant-jazz ensemble), has sung with the Faroese symphony orchestra and collaborated with classical musician Gavin Bryars on a chamber opera based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, for which she played the title role. “I really saw it as a schooling and wanted to try it all,” she reasons. “All these elements somehow became part of me and the way I create my own music.”
Like all the best prog artists, she’s an inveterate explorer. Eivør’s albums feature an array of mastered languages – Danish, Icelandic, English, Swedish, Norwegian. Her dedication and work ethic are just as remarkable. In 2017, for example, she recorded an entirely new configuration of Slør, originally released in Faroese, for the UK market.
She relocated to Reykjavík in Iceland after leaving school because, she wanted “to learn proper vocal technique, to be classically trained.” It was a five-year apprenticeship that continues to pay dividends in the form of her dynamic range and
heart-stoppingly gymnastic voice.
Potentially, Eivør is the Faroe Islands’ first international superstar. Her songs have been used on the trailer for Game Of Thrones, as well as Homeland, Sony Playstation flagship God Of War (for which she performed to a global audience of 50 million at its launch in LA) and, most recently, BBC/Netflix saga The Last Kingdom. “[Series composer] John Lunn contacted me a few years ago,” she says. “He’d been looking for a Nordic voice and heard one of my songs, Trøllabundin, on YouTube. He asked if I was up for singing on a track that he’d written, so I went to London and we worked together. It was the start of a beautiful collaboration. We’re working on season five now.”
Given the cinematic sweep of Eivør’s music, which reaches its apogee on Segl, it’s fitting that it takes cues from the medium of film. One of the reasons for the album’s long gestation was her involvement with The Last Kingdom. “Some of the new songs were inspired by things that I’ve done for the show,” she says. “I’d been writing melodies over droney soundscapes with a deep-sounding drum pulse underneath, which calls for a certain emotion and openness. That whole mood has made its way onto Segl. I think music and film make such a strong duo. It’s like two dimensions of the same fantasy. That’s really where I like to be.”
This article originally appeared in Prog 117.