Icelandic electronica trio Samaris have come a long way since they first formed, five years ago, during the nadir of a dark, frozen Icelandic winter. After a conversation in the hall of Reykjavík’s music academy, producer Þórður “Doddi” Steinþórsson, clarinetist Áslaug Magnúsdóttir and singer and multi-instrumentalist Jófríður Ákadóttir came together in a musical experiment that would lead them to places they couldn’t have imagined.
“It was January, it was cold, it was boring, and we were sitting in a music theory class,” recalls Áslaug. “We wanted to try something new, something weird, and to try an electronic band. I had no idea if we were gonna sing, dance, or do a theatre piece… but Doddi and Jófríður had some kind of a spark. ‘Góða Tungl’ was one of the first songs we wrote. It just clicked.”
With Doddi’s minimal beats and dreamy synth washes, Áslaug’s sonorous, wandering clarinet lines, and Jófríður’s breathy, intimate vocals, they’d found a winning combination. The band developed a mesmerising live show, catching the attention of One Little Indian during a daytime café show at Iceland Airwaves festival. After a compilation of their early EPs, the debut album—‘Silkidrangar’—followed, and Samaris set about introducing themselves to audiences outside of their homeland’s black shore.
“The first two years of the band, we only played in Iceland,” says Jófríður. “But touring, you meet so many new people. Our community, and our sound, have widened so much since we started playing abroad.”
The continuous travel, and playing shows in different, unfamiliar places—from packed nightclubs in some of the world’s biggest cities, to large-scale open-air festivals in front of crowds of thousands—was eye-opening for the young Icelandic trio. It culminated in a deepened musical understanding, and a sibling-like personal connection. All of this experience is audible on their second studio album, “Black Lights.”
“‘Black Lights’ comes from a wider context than the first album,” says Jófríður, “which was very much an ode to Iceland. It’s the result of all the travelling and playing. It’s much more upbeat, full of life, driven. People couldn’t really dance to the older, slower songs… but sometimes they would anyway. We played a show in the north of Italy—it was like a discotheque in the 80s. People were going insane, like they’d never heard a band like us before. It was such a good experience. It was funny, and surreal, and beautiful, all at once.”
Much of the album’s development took place in the internet-age Macbook-production style. After some initial songwriting sessions, the three members found themselves dotted around Europe, emailing tracks back and forth, and adding their own touches.
“It took a year, from start to finish,” says Jófríður. “We went to Berlin to start writing—we had some high hopes to rent a studio, but we didn’t book it in advance and just kind of showed up there. So we borrowed some friends’ mics and were just like: “Let’s do this!’ We borrowed these huge monitors, and had to go and get them on the train, and we advertised for a MIDI keyboard. We just needed to start, and to be in the same space.”
“None of us really have stable lives,” says Áslaug. “We ended up in different countries, sending tracks back and forth. But it worked really well. There’s less clarinet in this album, so I helped more with the arrangements, the drums, the melody lines. We all did a bit of everything.”
“We also went to Ireland, because we had load of friends there,” says Jófríður. “We went to our friend’s house in the middle of nowhere. It’s so great to be able to work on music anywhere, with just some borrowed mics and a laptop. We could work on stuff backstage, or in rehearsal.”
At some point during their travels, the decision was made to switch to English language lyrics. Indeed, the album’s opening track, ‘Wanted 2 Say,’ is a “coming out” of sorts, in which Jófríður seems happy to be articulating herself to the band’s growing international audience.
“At first we thought about taking some English poetry as inspiration,” says Áslaug, “like we did in Icelandic. But that didn’t feel honest, because we’re not from there—it’s not what we understand. We all went through some emotional time in our lives during the making of this album—breakups, past lovers—and that definitely coloured it. We wanted to shake things up. We would surprise each other onstage with some new lines; we wanted to move past the dreamy, dark things and have more fun. This album is more upbeat. It’ll be interesting to see what people think.”
“We just thought: ‘Fuck it, let’s just write lyrics. We can do it,’” says Jófríður. ““Wanted 2 Say” actually started out as my thoughts about Iceland and the nature, how it’s our most precious thing—you know that cliché! But the theme of that song became more about us writing and expressing our thoughts in English. We wrote a lot of lyrics about love, and life, and how confusing and complicated it all is. So that’s a theme.”
The resulting album is an exciting, invigorated new Samaris who—perhaps ironically, given the shift away from their native tongue—are expressing themselves more fluently than ever before. And they’re no longer an unknown quantity: this time, the world is waiting.