Iceland has a rich tradition of supernatural-themed lore, dating back to a mythology that still reverberates. Such as when road construction will be diverted around, say, a giant boulder that's reputedly home to elves.
"It's all around us, and it's almost impossible for us not to get inspired by all these stories that we hear," says Reykjavik native Nanna Hilmarsdóttir, who crafts her own surreal lyrical yarns with her much-touted art-rock outfit Of Monsters and Men. She and her co-vocalist Raggi are "often very intrigued by stories, either that we read about or that we just tell each other, letting our imaginations run wild."
Which, of course, makes the sextet's new My Head Is an Animal debut a work of rather exotic — and decidedly eccentric — beauty. Across Arcade-Fire-quirky musical backdrops, the duo harmonizes over inexplicably eerie yarns worthy of Poe or Saki.
Take, as an example, the breathy album opener "Dirty Paws," which coalesced during one of their regular yarn-spinning sessions. The song, explains Hilmarsdóttir, concerns a giant female beast named Dirty Paws. "She lives in a forest and there's this big, epic war going on between the birds and the bees, and everything's kind of spooky and weird. And then Dirty Paws comes and saves the day! Woo-hoo!"
"Six Weeks," meanwhile, is based on a real-life American frontiersman who survived a grizzly mauling, while the gently stomping "King and Lionheart" is an ode to the vocalist's kid brother: "He lives in Canada, and one night I was missing him so much, I wrote a song where he's the King and I'm the Lionheart. Since we don't see each other very much, I wanted to create this world that we could hang around in."
Back before she was strumming solo on the Icelandic folk scene under the name Songbird — or recruiting the musicians who would eventually become Of Monsters and Men — Hilmarsdóttir found steady work as a kindergarten teacher. "It probably had a real impact on me, just being around kids, and kind of learning from them, as well," she says. "They take everything in, and it's a really cool thing to watch — they're still really excited about learning new stuff, and everything's interesting and intriguing. And they get so eager when you're telling them stories!"
It was only two years ago that she first added guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, just to enter a hometown battle of the bands called Músiktilraunir. The duo won, earning not only a spot on the Iceland Airwaves Festival bill, but recording sessions, too. The resulting debut single, "Little Talks," involves a ghostly conversation between the living and the dead inspired by the atmosphere of Hilmarsdóttir's current residence.
"See, there was an old couple who used to live at my house, and they lived there for 30 years or something," says Hilmarsdóttir, never at a loss for words. "The wife had passed away, the old man had moved into a retirement home, and everything was left exactly like they had it."
Other song inspirations are more fanciful, like the whimsical "From Finner," about a family that zips from shore to shore via whale. "Our band travels all the time on a whale ourselves," says the inveterate storyteller. "We don't use planes! It's easy!"