August 9, 2022

The Icelandic Blues: Discovering the album Stafnbúi by Steindór Andersen & Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson

In 2019, I traveled to Iceland to learn more about the revival of the pre-Christian Nordic religion there, and sought out those who have been a part of the organization driving its growth, the Ásatrúarfélagið (Icelandic: Ásatrú Fellowship). Of course the first name on my list of people to try to interview was Hilmar ÖrnHilmarsson who has served the organization as allsherjargoði, otherwise referred to as the High Priest or All-peoples’ Chieftain, since 2003. To my disappointment, I learned that the Ásatrúarfélagið leadership had recently adopted a policy to avoid interviews with foreign journalists not long before I arrived in the country. The policy had been adopted, not because the organization was secretive or evasive in any way. On the contrary, for decades the Icelandic Ásatrúar had been more than hospitable and welcoming to journalists – a generosity that was too often rewarded by intellectually dishonest journalists who took the Icelandic pagans’ words out of context to present a skewed, sensationalized and, in some instances, blatantly false image of Ásatrú. (Some even went so far as to attempt to connect non-existent links between the Ásatrúarfélagið with white nationalists and other racist organizations in spite of the organizations repeated denunciation of racialism and Neo-Nazism.) 

Realizing that conventional routes to accessing Iceland’s heathen leadership had essentially been cut-off, I was at a loss. I had traveled around the globe in hopes of gaining a better understanding of Norse paganism, or ‘heathenry,’ in Iceland. I wanted to know the reasons for its appeal – especially among young people – only to find myself wandering around Reykjavik without any leads. There was only one thing left to do: find a bar, order a beer, and just start talking to people.

It was late in the afternoon as I meandered down Reykjavik’s bustling central thoroughfare and chose the first place that caught my eye: a small pub painted fire-engine red called Prikið (pronounced Prik-ith). I went inside, took a seat at the bar and, as one might expect, ordered a Víking Rökkr. I learned a long time ago that people from my part of the United States don’t travel abroad very often, so my accent tends to stand out making striking up a conversation relatively easy. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it isn’t. Fortunately, this time it worked in my favor. Just by simply ordering a drink both patrons and bar staff began asking me questions about where I am from in the States, if this was my first time in Iceland and what had brought me to Reykjavik in particular. I answered the latter question unabashedly: “I’m here in search of pagans.” To my surprise, my answer didn’t seem to impress the locals at all. In fact, the bartender pulled a silver hammer-shaped pendant from inside his shirt and told me he was a member of the Ásatrúarfélagið himself. Another young woman who sat a few seats away listening also confirmed that she too was of the Ásatrúar. Paganism was all very new and fascinating to me, but it seemed to be old news to the Icelanders. They wanted to talk about America, and soon the conversation turned to pop-culture and music.

As is my custom whenever I visit a new city, I make sure to visit any local independent bookstores and record shops and my new drinking buddies were happy to direct me to several of each. After a second beer I set off for 12 Tónar, a legendary Reykjavik record store just a few blocks away which also operates an independent recording label.

I could never have guessed that my random visit to 12 Tónar would provide me the first clues in my mission to unravel the mysteries of Iceland’s heathen revival. Only ten paces or so from the store’s entrance stood an immaculate display with several copies of an intriguing looking album called Stafnbúi by Steindór Andersen, a renowned traditional singer best known for his work with the band Sigur Rós, and none other than Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson – the very man I had traveled thousands of miles to meet. I picked up the elegantly packaged album and read the track listing, which is of course in the Icelandic language and presented I could read the titles.

From across the room, the man who had been sitting behind the sales counter casually approached. Unlike the clichéd archetype of the trendy music store clerks who like to present themselves as too cool for their customers, the man at 12 Tónar greeted me immediately – not with one of those superficial forced greetings I was used to in American stores. This guy seemed genuine. He offered to open one of the copies of Stafnbúi and set me up in a quiet cove not far from the counter where I could listen to the album in peace before I decided to buy. Maybe it was because I was the only customer at the time, or maybe the customer service at 12 Tónar is just that good. Either way, I accepted the invitation and was ushered into a blue room adorned with portraits of Icelandic politicians all along the walls. He then invited me to sit as he prepared a personal stereo, plugged in a pair of quality headphones, and offered to make me an espresso…for free. If they had known I was coming, I would have thought it some sort of set-up but no: I had to chalk it up to Icelanders living up to their ancient Viking mandate to show sincere hospitality to travelers.

With my listening station and caffeine fix all set, I pressed play and was immediately gripped by the strong solitary voice of Steindór Andersen performing a ríma, a centuries-old form of Icelandic rhyming verse that had long since been out of fashion until it was revived by Andersen. Before going further, I might also mention that, as an American, it’s often easy to forget you’re in a foreign land when traveling in the Nordic countries because, on the surface, they don’t seem much different than Americans. (In fact, most of them speak better English than recent U.S. Presidential candidates.) For that reason, Stafnbúi was a bit of a shock to the system at first. It wasn’t the kind of music one might imagine finding on the central display at the hippest record store in one of the hippest cities in the world. Thirty seconds or so into “Hræsvelgur,” the opening track of the album, I began to feel grounded in the experience of being where I actually was – on a volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic surrounded by the descendants of actual Vikings.

I continued listening and, as is often the case with great music, I lost my sense of time and space. Before I knew it, the entire album was finished. I removed the headphones and had that feeling you get when you awaken from the deep sleep of an afternoon nap in the summer sunshine. What had I just listened to? The lyrics were all in Icelandic, which I don’t understand at all really, but in a way that made the experience all the more powerful. I wasn’t distracted by the literal meaning of the lyrics, but was moved by the universality of the poetic truths they conveyed. It began with Steindór’s stark solitary vocal performance that, for whatever reason, made me think of Santa Claus sitting alone at the North Pole the day after Christmas with nothing to do. Don’t ask me why. It was followed by “Bærinn Minn,” another ríma accompanied by lush and mournful strings arranged by Hilmar – a track that has since become one of my favorites on the album. The rest of the record feels like a day at the beach in Iceland: sometimes serene, sometimes nostalgic, other times dark and despairing colored by hues of Hilmar’s signature compositional irony. Of course describing a truly great works of music is a lot like trying to describe any other deeply personal or ecstatic experience and Stafnbúi is, in my opinion, an example of just that sort of art. One track in particular awakened a hazy memory I have of being held by my father when I was a baby: others like “Haustið Na´lgast” remind me of the first time I realized that life is finite while others made that notion strangely comforting. It was a lot to process.

After my listening session came to an end, the clerk offered me a second espresso, which I declined, but I did buy three copies of the album. As I fumbled around trying to figure out how many tens of thousands of Króna I would need for my purchase, I struck up casual check-out counter conversation with the man at the counter, and told him I had been hoping to meet Hilmar for an interview. I also mentioned how strange it was that a random person at a random bar would send me to a random record store where I would discover Stafnbúi – a find that made me feel one step closer to my goal of meeting Hilmar in person. The man behind the counter grinned and said to me matter-of-factly, “Maybe it wasn’t strange. Maybe it has been here waiting for you.” If I had been anywhere but Iceland I would have dismissed his comment as polite but idle banter. But there was something in what he said that grounded the otherwise ordinary everyday conversation in an ancient context. He then began writing down the name and e-mail address of the record company’s owner, Lárus Johannesson, and told me to contact him and let him know what I was doing in Iceland.

When I got back to my hotel I e-mailed Lárus who responded promptly and agreed to meet with me later that week. By then I had my cameraman with me, and Lárus was generous enough to sit for a short interview where we talked about politics, chess, the Icelandic music scene and of course Hilmar. Lárus provided fascinating insights into Iceland’s culture and history, as well as Hilmar’s early forays into punk and his pioneering work in electronic music. He also told me about Hilmar’s collaborations with Muddy Waters’ pianist Pinetop Perkins and his friendship with legendary Led Zepplin guitarist, Jimmy Page. The topic then moved on to Hilmar’s current job as High Priest of the Ásatrúarfélagið at which point Lárus said to me, “Hilmar is a very powerful sorcerer.”  expression was serious and there was nothing ironic in his tone.  Being involved in the music business myself for a very long time, I can say that I’ve never heard a record company executive speak about one of the artists on their label the way Lárus spoke of Hilmar. This only made me more determined to meet the man himself.

At the end of the interview, I left 12 Tónar with the feeling that Lárus was an old friend. He provided me an incredible crash-course in contemporary Icelandic politics and culture, and we both lamented the dreadful state of world affairs. That’s when he introduced me to the Icelandic phrase Þettareddast (which loosely translated means “it will all work out okay”) – the embodiment of the Icelander’s resilience and demeanor. I wasn’t sure if he meant it in reference to my quest to meet Hilmar, or if he meant it in reference to the subtle sense of impending doom underlying our previous political conversation. I didn’t ask.

A few days later, I received an e-mail from Hilmar ÖrnHilmarsson himself. He agreed to meet with me informally, off-the-record at the office of the Ásatrúarfélagið on what also happened to be Iceland’s Independence Day. 

I walked across the city to the offices of the Ásatrúarfélagið not quite sure what to expect. I waited for a short time before Hilmar arrived in a modest little European car, which seemed strange to me. I don’t know why: I suppose I expected the High-Priest of the Viking religion to drive something else. We greeted each other, and I was somewhat surprised by Himar’s unassuming way. He smoked a cigarette-sized Cuban cigar with a calm self-assuredness about him that was not the least bit ostentatious – not what one might expect from the man that Lárus had described as “the pagan pope,” (a term which Hilmar himself does not embrace). After Hilmar finished his cigar, he unlocked the door, welcomed me inside and offered me a beer. We then sat down at a long table and talked about a variety of topics, but mostly we talked about music. I also happened to have brought with me the copies of Stafnbúi I had purchased a few days earlier and he was gracious enough to autograph them for me. I could sense he thought that was a bit silly, but he indulged my request anyway.

During our first meeting, Hilmar slowly opened up. Maybe it was because of our mutual love of music: I can’t be sure, but before we parted ways, he agreed to not only allow me to film an interview with him, he also invited me to join the Ásatrúarfélagið for one of their important summer rituals at the Þingvellir. I enthusiastically accepted of course.

Although I had travel to Iceland to learn more about the pagan revival there, once Hilmar and I finally sat down for our first formal interview, I disregarded most of my prepared questions to try to get a better understanding of Hilmar the musician hoping to find a nexus point in his personality where art and spirituality intersect. We talked about the sanctity of music, his career and evolution as an artist and composer.

“I think there’s a common thread to everything I’ve done since I was eight years-old,” he said laughing. “A lot of the things that I thought I’d left behind, like my violin studies – which I hated playing the violin while I did it but it became one my strengths that I had studied the violin and the piano before I left that behind and started to play drums and percussion. That was also a very valuable thing, so those things that I thought I’d left behind came up again as different types of strength and insights. I think also because I had a very strict classical background – I didn’t listen to pop music of any sort until I was in my early teens and I over compensated for that in that period – but all these things that I saw as conflicts, they later became something that was welded together as points of strength that helped my abilities in so many ways.”

At that point, I also couldn’t resist asking him to share more about his collaborations with Muddy Waters’ legendary piano-player Pinetop Perkins, and how the blues factored into his musical repertoire. That led us full circle back to Stafnbúi, Steindór Andersen and the rímur tradition.

“A lot the rímur are lamentations where you’re talking about how miserable your life is. We have this special form called mansǫngr [Maiden’s Song] in Icelandic poetry which starts out saying basically your wife has left you, your dog has died, and it’s very bluesy, and you’re trying to come up with all the horrible things that have been happening to you recently and how hopeless you feel and how shitty life really is,” he said. “But then you sort of work your way from that angle into something more hopeful. You have to become courageous and face adversity and find a solution. You have that in the Old Icelandic poetry, and I’ve always thought about the rímur as Icelandic blues. It’s an instant kinship.”

An instant kinship, indeed. 

I could have never guessed that my journey to understand the spirit of Icelandic paganism would lead me back to my first true love: American blues, only to be bolstered by my brief experience with an ancient form of Icelandic poetry beautifully reimagined and articulated through the album Stafnbúi. Maybe it’s all as Hilmar says – that our lives don’t unfold along a linear progression; perhaps instead we are all part of an elegant and mysterious cycle that leads us back to where we started, different than we were, and better equipped to see the interconnections we might have missed the first time around.

Over the following weeks, I traveled around Iceland listening to Stafnbúi again and again, and with every new vista, the album took on new dimensions. For the Icelanders, rímur might be as commonplace as the West Fjords, volcanoes and black sand beaches. For me, the combination of the people, the landscape and especially the music transported me somewhere well beyond time and place – someplace where Muddy Waters and Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson can be heard from the same jukebox, and all the people that ever existed can laugh and cry and drink together like old friends with nothing to lose and nothing to prove.

J.D. Tomasson

J.D. Tomasson is a musician, illustrator and occasional writer. Originally from the Southern United States, he has spent much of his life traveling Europe researching ancient and medieval history while making documentary films.

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