by Enkhtamir Erdenebulgan
It is a soft, spring day in London when I sit down to interview Laufey in a rooftop restaurant at Soho House. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter is effortlessly yet impeccably dressed in a navy cardigan, bold patterned skirt and a pair of black patent mary-janes. Her personal style is also a nod to her music; classical and jazz instrumentation which blends with playful pop – it is a sound that has breathtakingly captured the attention of music fans across the world. Laufey’s immersive and honest storytelling has also created a new kind of fusion jazz that defies traditional expectations of genre.
Discussing her second album, Bewitched, which has recently received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and holds the record for biggest jazz album debut on Spotify, Laufey tells the Oxford Review of Books about her inspirations, her musical ambitions, and how romance is not only the stuff of fairy-tales or first-loves.
Art by Florence Sykes
So, what was the last thing that you read?
The last thing I read was Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen for my book club actually. I just started a new book yesterday, but I think I’m gonna finish it pretty quickly, it’s called The Cellist by Jennifer Atkins. I literally picked it up because I’m a cellist, and I thought it was interesting (laughs). Well I read about how it got like kinda nerdy about cello and I was like ‘Ok, sounds like a me read!’ I’m enjoying it so far, it’s good.
With the massive reception to From the Start, did you expect that at all?
No, not at all! I’m so, so, so pleasantly surprised. I put it out as a song to bridge together the two eras, it was just a fun song that I wrote in my bedroom one day and I wanted it to be recorded in old bossa nova style – almost sounding like it was recorded in the 60s. I’m so surprised that a young audience like mine should take to something like that.
With this second album, what were the main inspirations and the stories you wanted to tell?
Well first of all, I wanted this album to be kind of like a wicked love album. The album’s called Bewitched, so it’s a love album, but kind of like the good and the bad about love. I write a lot about my personal experiences, that’s where I draw most of my lyrical inspiration. In terms of musical inspiration, I listen to a lot of jazz and classical music, that’s kind of where I draw my inspiration.
With the title of the album being Bewitched is that introducing to a new tone for your music?
Well I think I want this to be a new, more mature kind of album – show a more mature side of myself. The first album, Everything I Know About Love, is like ‘Never been in love before, a little bit confused, like dancing around, first time moving outside of the home’ very, you know, lost in that way. I think this one’s a little more sexy, a little more mature, and grown up.
I wanted this album to be kind of like a wicked love album.
What do you hope that your listeners, both new and those who have been following your music for a while, will discover in this album?
I hope they’ll see my growth in it but also I think for this album I leaned more confidently into my jazz and classical roots. I think before I was scared of being only defined as a jazz or classical musician. I found that over that last two years that what my fans like the most is also what I seem to like making the most, which is something that either sounds like it’s an old jazz standard or has been recorded with a symphony orchestra – so I’m leaning more into that.
There’s also an interlude that I composed that is just a piano piece which takes melodies from other songs on the album to tie them all together, and it’s also like a musical break which is something new for me and definitely something new for the audience as well.
Is there a song in particular that you are excited about on this album, and if so, what does it mean for you?
The song Bewitched is one I’m excited for: it’s the title track of the album and it’s a song that started as a simple love song that became very big because we recorded it with an orchestra – I just think it’s perfect.
How was the production for the album, you’ve mentioned that you wanted to get more involved with that side of your music?
I mean I’m a co-producer on all the tracks and I’m very involved in the production and arrangement of every single song. I have a very difficult time letting go of a song once I’ve written it and receiving it back fully produced, like I need to see it through every single decision that’s made.
So for this album I wrote all the songs in December and January and I brought them to my producer, Spencer Stewart, and he’s like my musical soulmate, we just understand each other so well. I gave him explanations for what I wanted to do and we just started and I was in the studio for every second of it, and just noodled around from cello, to guitar, to bass, and drums, and we were just like in a jam-session type of thing. We did it in two months or something, it was crazy, but we were just so locked in that it worked somehow.
Do you have any special memories from that time in particular?
Oh, I had my mother and my sister come into the studio to play violin which was quite special. I also tried playing the drums for the first time which was fun, you know, it went better than I thought. I’ve always been more on the melodic musical side rather than the rhythmic so I thought it would be a complete trash-fire – but it was ok! (Laughs) It was kinda fun. I felt badass, like Danielle Haim. So now I wanna drum and get a drum kit. That’s my new musical goal.
Would you say your mother has played an important role in this album too?
I mean definitely. There’s so much classical influence and I’ve recorded two songs with the philharmonic orchestra that’s based here for the album and my mother was there for the recordings, which was so stressful. Ultimately, the only reason it was stressful was that at the end of the day my mother’s musical opinion is the highest – she’s a violinist and was my first teacher and will always be a teacher to me in that way. The classical music that she raised me on has directly influenced my music for sure.
In previous interviews, you’ve said that the way you write is just like the way you talk. Would you say this is true for Bewitched as well?
Definitely, and I think the songs have grown up because I’ve grown up, you know. I’ve lived away from home for a while now, I’ve experienced more when it comes to love and just with the way that my career has been going, I’ve been forced to grow up a little bit faster which I don’t think is a bad thing. I’ve also grown a lot more confident in the past two years, which has resulted in me putting more of this confidence into my music.
Do you ever feel nervous about sharing your intimate thoughts and experiences in the songs that are released?
I think because from when the songs are written to when they are released it’s such a long period of time, that I don’t think about it too much. Strangely it doesn’t faze me too much because once I put my thoughts into a song and release it, it becomes its own magical thing that isn’t entirely real life. Like yes, you could be speaking some truth in it, but who really knows? Unless you tell someone that this song is 100% about them, there is an air of ambiguity so I like that about the music, that it has a life of its own. Letter To My 13 Year Old Self is an example of a very, very honest song. I mean when I finished the last verse, I just started crying, it was so emotional, like if she could see me now, you know?
I would say the songs are getting more honest, which is like, I’m not going to lie, there is a part of me that is a little bit worried (laughs) and is like, ‘Oh no!’ but I’ve always been a very open book so I think that helps. What ends up happening is that people come up to me and be like ‘Oh I felt the same way and this has helped me’ and that’s the most validating thing in the world because then I feel like I’m not alone either.
How did you first start songwriting? What made you want to express these moments and feelings?
I started writing when I was 19 or 20 and had just gone to university for the first time and in high school, all I cared about was music and grades. That was genuinely my only focus and when I got there, real life hit me and I was like how do I go from nothing to experiencing everything immediately? So the first time I had a crush on someone felt so heavy, and my EP Typical of Me touches on that a lot. It sounds like I’m singing about this really intense love, yet really it was just a small crush – at that moment in time it felt like the love of my life.
The scenes and vivid details in my songs are very jazzy and musical-like (laughs). You only have a few seconds to build a world, so I always try to do that.
Could you describe your daily soundscape?
I start and end my day with classical music for sure. It kind of depends on the season also, during the Winter I listen to a lot more jazz, because I feel like during the Summer I’m like in my pop era, like I’ve been listening to Taylor Swift exclusively. Then for some reason, I’m also dipping into the Hannah Montana movie recently, I don’t know why, but I’m doing it and it’s very summery and very fun! I’m trying to study pop music a little bit better right now.
You mentioned wanting to take those walls down between genres, do you think there is still a place for defining albums and songs in a specific way?
I mean definitely, I think for me personally I want to take the walls down because for me, growing up, I thought of everything so boxed-up and so linear. Like, everything classical had to stay in a classical zone, everything jazz had to stay in a jazz zone, and pop, in a pop zone – you couldn’t mix those things. I don’t know why I thought it didn’t make sense to mix. But now I’m also mixing, and now I’m thinking that there’s no reason to have the walls between them! I mean old classical recordings will always be old classical recordings, old Ella Fitzgerald recordings will always be those classic, old jazz recordings, you know? The music made nowadays doesn’t have to fall into those brackets, especially with musical tastes being able to handle so much more now.
The same thing is happening in hip-hop and pop, hip-hop musicians are sampling jazz and jazz is becoming very mixed with different genres as well – everything is mixing a lot, it’s a good time to be a musician I think. I don’t know if I could be doing this in any other decade.
Your Spotify wrapped must be really interesting!
My Spotify wrapped is a mess (laughs), it is an absolute mess but I love it. I feel like it’s not only me listening to a really odd mix, because back in the day you would kind of have to pick your favourite genre and stick with that. You would have to go to the back of a record store and go to your favourite section and shop through that music, you didn’t have that opportunity to take a chance on something. Now it’s free for us to check out something new, so everyone’s listening to everything.
Music on TikTok that does well, for example, is music that is generally doing well. It’s like any kind of genre, I don’t feel like people think that I’m like a jazz museum per se, I think they just think I’m like a pop musician because I’m 24 and play the pop game you know – which is the best thing ever.
You only have a few seconds to build a world, so I always try to do that.
Is there an artist you would like to collaborate with, who perhaps has a different sound to you?
I really want to collaborate with Lana del Rey sometime, that’s been a new goal of mine. I mean Norah Jones has always been one of my goal collaborators, but Lana del Rey would be fun for sure, and Taylor Swift. Honestly (laughing), I selfishly want to see her sing something jazzy. I just think she’s such a genius songwriter, I’m so inspired by her.
My collaboration with d4vd on the track This Is How It Feels is an example of just like how it’s completely ok to mix with whatever kind of music these days. I think he found my music somewhere and had been listening to it, while I obviously heard his music on TikTok and thought ‘This kid is so talented.’ So, I went to follow him on Instagram and saw he already followed (laughs) so I went ‘I’m gonna send him a little message’, and he had messaged me like months ago, like the sweetest things. So he came to LA and we hung out, and he was working with my producer as well, so I was like ‘Let’s write a song.’
What do you think about social media, especially TikTok, in regards to bringing old and new music to a wider audience?
I think TikTok gets a bad rep often, but when I started making music, nobody was making jazz and classical sounding music for a younger audience. I was kind of at risk of ending up pigeonholed within a world of older musicians, which is totally fine and I love and respect that music, but my goal was always to cater to a younger audience – like a high school, university audience. TikTok is a way to reach that audience, and there’s no question about that, I know few people that don’t devour content there. That’s where I find all my music and I mostly listen to mostly classical and jazz music, and I’m still finding new music in those genres on TikTok.
What would you say to those who want to pick up instruments or are interested by the world of classical music?
I would say just do it. There’s so much classical music and playing that can be done without making it into some sort of professional pursuit. I think that’s one thing that classical music gets a bad rep with, because pop music and rock can be picked up at an amateur level, but the barrier for entry for classical music is so incredibly high. It’s like if you didn’t start playing from four to six years old, or your parents didn’t push you all throughout those younger years, you miss the train.
I think that’s something that needs to be reworked because it would be perfect if we could land in a world where at the age of 26 you just decide to learn some classical piano – that’s the most therapeutic thing to me, when I just sit down and play without any rules, or try to follow fingerings, or anything, if I play a note wrong that’s fine – when you just do it for yourself and for the sake of listening and understanding. I think that’s really important so just basically go for it, that is what I want to say.
What kind of experience is it when you listen to your own songs?
The songs definitely show all sides of me and the emotions I go through; I like to think that I’m a pretty positive person. I definitely don’t take myself too seriously, I’m very self-aware and make fun of myself a lot, and that definitely shows in the music, but then at night (playfully), I can be kind of dramatic and sad over a very small thing, which also comes through in the music. I think all humans have that range, it’s very unnatural to be happy or sad all of the time.
Your twin sister, Junia, is also your creative director – how has that been so far?
Oh, it’s perfect. It’s the best – it’s like I have two brains. I don’t know what I’d do without my sister, I trust her so much to deal with visual elements, helping me with styling, building up this entire visual world – no one understands me better. She also has impeccable style and taste, so I trust her. We share clothes and it’s a double closet for me, it makes travelling really easy, because when I’m here I don’t pack anything. We call it ‘The Grand Communal Closet’ (smiling).
I see it so much as a two-person job, I genuinely feel like one of the reasons I’ve been able to get to where I am today is because I have so many brains on the job. I mean not only myself, but also my team, they work so hard and everything has been put in place so that I can focus on the music and the music alone. I think that’s the only reason I manage to walk around with my head screwed on (laughs).
Are you excited about your Bewitched tour?
Yes, so excited! I love touring, and I think growing up as a classical musician means that everything leads towards the performance, so I’ve been looking forward to it so much. I love seeing the faces of fans, it’s so beyond me that real humans listen to my music, that there are people behind the streams. It’s cool and very validating.
Is there something your listeners would find surprising to know about you?
I’m very flexible, I grew up doing ballet and figure-skating. I feel like that’s a bad fun-fact. I mean it used to be, back when it was more hidden, that I was a big Swiftie.
(Laufey takes a pause)
You know what? I know: I love pop music. I think people think that I only listen to very serious and old genres of music, but come summer – I’m just listening to Doja Cat! (bright laughter)
LAUFEY is an Icelandic singer-songwriter. She is currently on her European Bewitched tour and has recently released collaborations with Norah Jones and beabadoobee.