By and By – Lay Low // Buy
Johnny Cash could be heard crooning in the background as Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir and I sat huddled in a dark corner at Webster Hall. The coincidence was striking. Lovísa is increasingly well known as Lay Low (@lovisalaylow), and though she may be a shy, soft-spoken Icelander, the influence of classic American blues and folk music rings loud and clear in her songs.
“I had this phase where I just collected so many great old country records, like the ones that everyone knows like Patsy Cline, like Johnny Cash,” she says, acknowledging the song playing overhead, “They’re all very known in Iceland. And I just really liked the sound, the soundscape, the way, I don’t know, how it could sound so big and also so…quiet.”
With three albums out and another cooking, ‘quiet’ and ‘big’ apply to everything about her (and her musical career). As a teenager growing up in Reykjavík, she was listening to PJ Harvey, practicing the bass and dreaming of being in a rock band. “But I never intended to sing,” she explains, “I never intended to write music, because for many years, I hated my voice. I thought I sounded awful. But then something happened, I don’t know, there was a big change in my life.”
At age 23, after being very ill for two years, she went through surgery for a brain tumor. “So after that…I felt like I got a new chance at life. I started writing, just for myself, started singing, and I think that also helped me a little bit to push me out of just being in a comfort zone.”
A year later, with one song under her belt, she was contacted by local Icelandic record label Cod Music. They encouraged her to write more songs, and after six months, her first album was released. “I was just writing songs…very quickly and I didn’t know how to perform live. I was so nervous always,” she confesses, “But I played a lot in Iceland…everyone knew who I was because I was everywhere. I think that also helped with how well it went [there].”
Indeed, within a couple of months, the album went platinum in Iceland. She was working in Reykjavík’s biggest cd store at the time and customers would come in asking about this new “Lay Low” artist (Her response? “It’s a girl with a guitar”). Word spread like wildfire. “It started turning into people coming to the store and asking if I was there to sign the cd. It was just such a funny thing to see how quickly it went,” she remembers. She was invited on to an international TV show, and, following the half hour interview, she was the biggest new thing in Iceland. “It helps being in a small country,” she says, “Because if you go for an interview or anything, like if you’re selling carpet and you go on TV, people will recognize you the day after.”
And yet, not surprisingly perhaps, fame in Iceland is not like fame elsewhere, “You don’t get the feeling of ‘Oh, I’m famous, I have to hide’,” she went on, “I just feel like a lot of people have bought my album and I really appreciate it.”
Like many Icelandic songwriters, Lovísa writes lyrics primarily in English. “I think you just have to do what feels right to you,” she explains, “At first I felt a little bit of pressure because I got these questions a lot in Iceland, like ‘Why are you singing in English? You live in Iceland.’ But English just felt more comfortable. It’s a weird thing. My father is English so I grew up with English all my life, and also by listening to so much English music and getting inspiration from [that]…when I would think of anything, I just started singing and it came out in English.”
The exception is her most recent album, Brostinn Strengur, (‘Broken Strings’). “I’d been wanting to do an Icelandic album for a very long time but I just hadn’t managed to get a grip on doing good lyrics. So for this album, I just picked out poems by other women, old poems, and wrote songs to them. I learned a lot from that, and now I’m starting to write more in Icelandic,” she says, observing that many other bands are putting out more music in Icelandic now as well.
Continuing to learn and evolve is her measure of success. “Growing from hating performing live on my own to enjoying it, I think that’s really something great. Also, just seeing my albums grow, but always being really happy about the last album I did. The fact that if I listen to my old albums, I feel good. I still want to sell them. I still want to perform songs from them. I like building a bunch of music that I can keep with me for a long time,” she says, “I have to admit sometimes I feel weird when I hear [my first album] because I’ve grown. I like having an album like that, that you can always go back to and see ‘Yeah, there I started, and now I’m somewhere else.’”
Where she goes from here is anyone’s guess.