Be good and kind and be mindful of all of your colours and shapes and be in control. This is the message of the Icelandic artist Daníel Hjálmtýsson, which he tries to pass on through his music. Daníel has always sung, since childhood. He started with a toy saxophone that blew soap bubbles, continued with the clarinet around 6 years old, and then fell in love with the guitar. He has been part of choirs, performed in amateur bands in his teenage years, and had solo projects. However, he does not like to sing at parties when asked. For him, music is something serious and very personal.
Its something to be respected. I think Ive always felt that way. Even at 12 in the garage I was getting upset when people weren’t serious enough about what we were doing. Its supposed to be fun and experimental but its serious you know, says Daníel Hjálmtýsson.
Daníel Hjálmtýsson will perform in Bucharest (June 14), Brasov (June 15), and Cluj (June 16), as part of Alternative Culture. We talk to him about how he managed to get through the darkness and how music helped him redefine his perspective on the world.
The chapters of your development
My childhood is by far the era of my life that affects me mostly in my every day life I guess. It was a tough time for me both in and out of the house. My parents got divorced when I was very young and the split was ugly. Prior to that there had been frequent domestic disturbances in the house. Around that time I started to get bullied a lot in school and my confidence and courage just shattered. I was 5 when I first got up on stage in front of an audience and sang a song. I was a part of a pre-school program for an Icelandic version of the Mickey Mouse Club, wearing a leather jacket, filled with confidence, dancing with my girlfriend and hearing people cheering. Felt like I was the king of the world. Then it just started going away, leaving a feeling of emptiness, loneliness and this weird co-dependent feeling of being broken and out of place because there was so much broken around me that I really hadn´t noticed before. I had people around me that loved me, luckily, but I just felt alone and still deal with that feeling every day. A fear of being left alone or not being welcome. So at a very early age I started gravitating to songs, harmony, instruments and music in general as a means of comfort, warmth and to daydream. It was an escape from the every day, a drug and I fell in love. I also found it sexy and exciting and it stirred things up in me that I hadn´t really noticed before.
During my teens I played in a few garage bands and did some vocals for a few things, having learnt clarinet, guitar and singing along the way but as I kept dealing with self-esteem issues and a shattered ego I always fell out of place kind of and lost faith. When I was 19 I fell out of a joy ride in Spain and died for a bit of time so they had to do CPR. Instead of being grateful and happy to survive without paralysis or death I started to feel even sorrier for myself and started to abuse alcohol. I had started drinking at a very early age but now I was using it as medicine. I found a new escape, fake confidence booster and a painkiller all in one. I had and still deal with chronic back pain after the accident and when I was loaded I didn´t feel anything. Nothing, so I started writing a lot. Short stories, dark poetry, getting into the 60´s Leonard Cohen, Dylan etc. and finding myself comforted confronting my dark sides but letting them drown me and cloud my judgment and soon they started to eat me alive and causing more damage than comfort. So I started to drink more, hanging out in bars and clubs more than anything else. I managed to get a degree in the university but my biggest love was booze even though I was teaching during that time. A positive thing was that I met a lot of people and many of whom I cherish as some of my best friends today but none saw the way this was wrecking me and keeping me away from doing what I loved; which was music. So in a weird way, booze was keeping me away from my best work instead of helping me write so contrary to the sex, drugs and rock ´n roll cliché. After a few years of drowning I woke up one morning and decided rock bottom and decided to get sober. I just woke up and quit cigarettes and booze cold turkey. That was it. Now what?
I started writing sober and looking at circumstances, events, feelings, break ups, let downs, the good stuff all in a new way. An honest way. Both to myself and others around. I never did meetings or sought rehab so my rehab and meetings were writing music and words in the living room, crying and burning, laughing and learning a new way of living, re-working many things I had done while loaded in the past. Now I felt fearless, energetic, like nothing could hold me back. Like I had been let out of a cage and was finally “free”. At least to experience emotions and my life in a real and honest way, not clouded by booze, hangovers, regret or what have you. I stopped being a victim of circumstance and decided to use the bad for good.
Today my art form is an exercise. Just like the gym, yoga or a sauna, I just need to sit down and write, make melodies and confront my emotions in that way. I feel bad if I don´t. I walk the dog and write and record on my phone, I watch my son draw and create words, I look at my girlfriend and my family, my friends, my life and take everything into what I write. My dreams, my fears, my loneliness, everything. I work on my issues every day but I found a new way of facing reality, which is what I am doing now. So how many stages would you say those are?
Your relationship with music
a. I started making sounds, singing and dancing around when I was still a baby. I had toy instruments to play with and formed bands with visiting kids and family for various parties. I often played on tennis rackets while I sang and jumped around. I had a toy saxophone that blew soap bubbles as you played it, so you got soap in your mouth (pretty bad…hah) but I fell in love with the idea of playing saxophone. I ended up playing the clarinet for a while from age 6 to 9 or so, before falling in love with the guitar during that time. I always sang and was a part of choirs etc. It evolved to garage bands and minor acts in my teens before I decided to go it alone. Ive always been a loner in a sense and back then I didn’t really get along and was too fragile and insecure to be able to bare myself to others and sort of lost touch with music for a short while. I just didn’t believe I could do anything. But when something has grown into being a part of you, it never leaves or stops. It always comes back.
b. (c) It was fun and it was an escape. I rarely connect with campfire songs and singing with a group of people just for the fun of it. Its strange for me. I often get asked to play parties and do party songs but I just haven’t enjoyed those things. Music is more personal and serious for me some how. Its something to be respected. I think Ive always felt that way. Even at 12 in the garage I was getting upset when people weren’t serious enough about what we were doing. Its supposed to be fun and experimental but its serious you know… this way of thinking has often gotten me into trouble as I can be overly serious about things or controlling. So I have a love/hate relationship with myself as an artist. Making music should be fun first and foremost but there is just something in me that has a problem with it not being serious, you know? It has become a thing I need to do to be able to breath. Kind of like a good sauna. I need to get something out of me. Its therapeutic and giving, nurturing, painful, fun, everything. Its grown from being a fascinating way of escape into being a beautiful beast I keep as a pet and need toexercise, play with and feed. I am also learning how it can just be fun plain and simple and I love it.
What inspires you
I am very intrigued with human behavior. Why and how we become who we are and why we believe in certain things. I am very fascinated with conflict, religion and also the psychology of technology and the future. We have somehow become victims to vanity. It´s scary. Nature is also something I work with every day in my office and our relationship with nature is very interesting. I fear that people´s sense of true beauty is fading and our “wow-factors” are being blurred with superficial content creating and fluff to create a few bucks for billionaires. I do feel I am a hamster on a wheel sometimes and I think of that every day. Like; “What the #$%& am I doing?”. Something very bad is happening in our world where we seem to be putting the wealthy on a pedestal, being co-dependent with our governments that seem to work to make our lives worse not better. Like we are all the children of massive alcoholics and we need to apologize for bothering them with our needs.
We are becoming ignorant to manipulation and sterile towards revolting and equal rights. Even though major things are happening in some countries to increase human rights, hatred seems to be growing also. Social media is a platform that has possibly harmed our way of being in such a way that we are beyond repair. It´s insane. I try teaching my children that the sunshine is a miracle, the air is a gift, animals are incredible, nature is life and that they are beautiful creative beings. If they want to be politicians or work in tech later on at least they can work from a good heart.
But then you have what I said before, why do we pursue certain things and how do we become bad even though we´ve only received love and kindness. I often wonder about myself so I try to keep my beasts locked in the cages of my creativity and art and tame them to give me strength and not eat me alive.
No message. No hidden agenda. Just expression and writing about how I feel, how I don’t want to feel or how I want to feel. Possibly blending in my views on certain things as mentioned before. I truly feel that people can live in more harmony than time has shown us and I also feel there is something incredibly disturbing happening in our world and that ignorance and hatred is growing in dark corners.
If any message should be conveyed with my/our music it is the fact that darkness should not destroy you and your beast should not eat you up but rather you should face them, tame them to your advantage and become one with them with all the good. Be good and kind and be mindful of all of your colours and shapes and be in control. If people dig the music and connect with it, that is a huge bonus.
The creative process
I write every day. Short poems or a lyric, harmony or a line, maybe just an idea for a song. I record most of it on my phone and then sit down with an instrument and write chords to what I was singing. Trying to connect the melody with words. That´s usually how it starts. Then I create a structure of a verse, chorus, bridge etc. and try to demo. Then I bring the demo to my band, Hálfdán and Skúli and we sit with it for a while before we start tracking and layering synths, guitars, bass, drums, percussion, vocals etc. and create the finalized song together. Demoing again before we record. Skúli records most of our tracks in his living room and then we have friends that have studios if we need to do something different.
I am fortunate to live outside of the city in the lava fields of Reykjanes so I am surrounded by nature, birds and beauty all day long and I get inspired many times a day. Then I try to draw and listen to various music to spark something also and the city is not too far away to walk around and get a whiff of what is going on there. My dreams have also been an endless resource for creativity since I was very small. So a lot of what I write is also from my dreams and nightmares. I used to have a notebook beside my bed and that´s where a lot of ideas came from. I need to do that again.
How do you connect with the public
Like I said, we are a serious band and we like to focus on the artistic/musical side of things but I absolutely love to meet and greet my audience after our performances. To hear and see how the music affects them and awakens something within them similar to what I am trying to stir up with myself is incredible. When someone comes up to you and thanks you for making their day better with your music and they relate, it´s just…wow.
I think it was Layne Staley that said that even though you are writing very dark music with dark lyrics on depression, anxiety, loss and vulnerability etc. you are not doing so to tear your audience down or make them feel worse, rather you are expressing how you feel, opening up about those feelings and shouting it to the world that it´s okay and everything´s gonna be fine. It´s okay to feel.
How has the atmosphere at concerts changed
It´s rebooting. I think after the pandemic people were kind of afraid to let loose and were too wary about themselves and others. In Iceland when people party, they let loose and go off the hook a bit so making out and hooking up is very common in the clubs but understandably you are perhaps a bit more cautious after a pandemic y´know. I think it´s coming back and also now it´s possibly safer than before. So people can enjoy themselves better and healthier. The positive side is that you can sort of re-invent the scene and grow it differently but the negatives are of course that now you have every band in the world touring so everyone is fighting for tours, nightliners, audiences etc. and that can be worrisome. Also the crowds that used to go to shows for recreation are possibly golfing now or skiing y´know, they found something else to spend money on and their time.
Let´s just hope that we can have a good time, start making out and letting loose again without worry and I think surely things will get back to what they were. Just not forget to care for the person next to you and look out for one another – in an audience or just in general.
The look & the artist
We make music, first and foremost. But we do understand that an image is also a part of it. Of course. Just as a movie has a poster, right? We are on all the socials and trying to keep up with everything, but we are also learning, haha. It changes so rapidly. We are still getting used to selfies in public, man. It´s awkward, haha.
If I were to describe our image it´s drenched in black and white yet we do have colors, earthy (like our LP for instance). Natural. Like with me I usually dress in black and have an interest in fashion and style and have done for many years, whether it´s on stage or Sunday with my family. I just like the look of black clothes and shoes. Some day we might play all in white, who knows? We like to take the natural beauty of our home, Iceland into it also. I´m a huge fan of black and white filmography and photography so I just really like that style of art and I think it also fits our dark rock elements beautifully.
As for social media we just try to keep it informative and fun. Mixing in information on releases, what we are up to and some fun. Maybe some Icelandic scenes also. Our group consists of three individuals that each brings something to the table. I would say our bassist Hálfdán is the bringer of laughter and is the one serving humor and making us laugh hysterically on tour, backstage or in the studio. It´s important to laugh and have fun, making dark, serious music does not mean you don´t have a sense of humor or a need to have fun. That mentality is what drives us. We are all family men, we hug, we take care of one another, we cry together and have fun. Hálfdán and Skúli are truly my brothers and we can truly open up artistically and personally to be able to create and craft something beautiful while still being able to laugh.
The biggest challenges in 2023, from a creator’s perspective
Well, I think there is always turmoil if you look close enough but I think artists have the perfect platform to do good. A lot of young people that are growing up tend to look up to artists and listen to what they have to say, but in recent years “influencers” have taken over that part in many ways and the messages are getting very mixed and confusing. Sponsored content has possibly sabotaged wholesome views and perspectives. At least it´s undermined honesty and facts. I´d love to get a campaign going that´s like; “This is your brain… This is your brain on social media” (haha).
The current turmoil of course has an affect on artists and I think people need to be vocal about doing good and being kind more so than before. Like I said before I have a problem understanding the need for conflict, war and inequality. It just doesn´t make sense to me. I truly hope one day we can all live in harmony and peace. Looking around, it´s just very hard to believe that, sadly.
Your art’s superpower
I think it´s a superpower when your art reaches someone else´s soul and shakes something up in them. The power of music in general is incredible when it comes to social issues and social consciousness, bringing people together. We can come together through music and art, surely. I believe everyone has the superpower to be good, no matter their past experiences or beliefs. In the words of Depeche Mode; “I can´t understand, what makes a man, hate another man, help me understand. People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully”.