Scandinavia House, The Nordic Center in America, 2013
I’d like to introduce a dear friend of mine, Sjón.
I met him first when I was sixteen. With others he had started the first and only surrealist movement in Iceland, a group of six or so members called Medúsa. I was in a punk band at the time. Medúsa wrote poetry, did scandalous food performances around the city, ran a gallery (which was actually kind of a shed), had exhibitions of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and played music. They were all around twenty years old, which, at that age, was a lot older than me. I guess I became sort of the only female unofficial member.
Sjón was the leader. I remember liking him a lot. But also one of the first memories I have of him is debating with him in a bar about André Breton. Breton was his idol. I was probably about seventeen at the time. I felt André was all theory, style — cold — seeing things from the outside, not the inside. He was all about intellectual theory versus the things I preferred, like impulse, emotion, instinct. Then Sjón started introducing me to books: Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, Jo Imog’s Demon Flower, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and I guess he somehow showed me the more impulsive, raw, and feminine side of surrealism. As you can imagine, this planted strong stubborn plants in me, which I build my work on, all the way until today.
But he didn’t only guide me intellectually. We also started a rockabilly band called “Rocka Rocka Drum” where I played the drums and he sang. I guess without knowing it, this was the first seed for our future collaboration of writing pop lyrics together. I remember being incredibly impressed by how he managed to do short explosive pop lyrics without watering anything down. I also remember keenly when one of the surrealist members, Ólafur Engilbertsson, came home from Barcelona with a bottle of genuine absinthe, which helped the group march in line — on every single car roof, without ever touching the ground — the twenty-minute walk to “Safari,” the happening club at the time. By the time we got there we had momentum and didn’t use the door but walked straight through a large window directly to the dance floor. Bouncers came and Sjón resisted the arrest by biting into this huge man’s thigh. This brought the police and they handcuffed him, threw him on the floor in the police car, face down. I accompanied him there and held his glasses while he performed André Breton’s surrealist manifesto live in its full length.
I feel Sjón and I have many mutual roots. Even though our work is very different. We both had to develop some D.I.Y. punk spirit to survive, publishing poetry and music from the age of twenty.
Iceland of course formed us both: the isolation and having only 300 thousand people in an island a little smaller than New York State, a lot of space and a strong, strong silhouette! Reykjavik is small enough to be a village but is still a capital in Europe.
We also have in common a strong relationship with nature. Both Sjón and I know that you don’t have to choose between nature and civilization. These two can coexist. And in this way I feel we are better equipped than some of the urban areas in the world to imagine a hopeful twenty-first century. Both in reality and in fiction.
And perhaps our mutual teenage involvement in surrealism did put a mark on us. It may seem a little far-fetched that Sjón and his group Medúsa introduced ’20s French Surrealism to ’80s punk Iceland, but somehow it harmonized very well with Icelanders’ faith in magic and the supernatural. It created a potent cocktail and somehow gave us some ammunition to develop a modern narrative for a young Icelander. To shoot us beyond the old Europe (we are a nation that was a colony for 600 years). Sjón and I are from the second generation of independent Iceland. And we needed a new fresh starting point.
So when I started to make my own albums, it felt very natural to ask him to write lyrics with me. I’ve always written most of them myself but there would somehow always be at least one lyric per album where I could talk for hours about what the song was supposed to be about, but could not write it myself. My songs that have more intricate language like “Isobel” and “Bachelorette” were written by Sjón. And when Lars von Trier asked me to do a musical, I agreed, if we could do the lyrics with Sjón. He had the intelligence, elegance, and collaborative catalyst talent that were needed. When I was asked to write the theme song for the Olympics, you can guess whom I asked to write the lyrics.
But enough about my work.
Sjón’s books are unique. I feel he has managed to take the thread of classic literature and continue into the future. Connect with the roots of authentic old Iceland and then bring it in a streamlined way into the twenty-first century. Take on Iceland’s strong relationship with nature and make it shake hands with the modern times. But more importantly he has managed to unite intelligence and the heart.
Because, for me, Sjón has always been first and last about the heart.
Sjón has an incredible talent. I’m very proud to introduce him and wish him the best of luck in America. May you enjoy him.