I saw Ásgeir Trausti four times at Airwaves this year. Add the Reykjavík Calling show in Seattle, and I’ve seen him play five times. With the possible exception of my boyfriend’s band in college, I think that’s the most times I’ve seen any musician. Obviously, I really liked Ásgeir Trausti’s debut album Dýrð Í Dauðaþögn (Glory in Dead Silence). But it’s not like I set out to see as many Ásgeir Trausti sets as possible. It’s not like I was stalking Ásgeir Trausti.
I only saw, like, half of his Airwaves sets. At any given time during the festival, there was an Ásgeir Trausti set scheduled. By comparison, many bands only played one set. Percentage-wise, I saw more of Sólstafir’s and Agent Fresco’s sets – two each, and had to sacrifice other bands to do so. Ásgeir Trausti’s shows were convenient – after breakfast at my hostel on Sunday morning, last on the lightly programmed Wednesday night.
One benefit of seeing the same artist so many times in close succession was the opportunity to get deeper into the music, and because Ásgeir Trausti is so young and green, to actually watch him develop as a performer. For example, I’ve seen Korn probably four times. But those shows were separated by months or even years, and were in support of multiple albums. So it was hard to compare anything more detailed than the overall atmosphere (yep, still a giant love-in).
When shows are only separated by 12 hours, differences are more obvious – and in this case, intentional. In our interview, Ásgeir said he liked to make every show a little different. He proved it at Airwaves. Although Ásgeir Trausti is young enough to wear his influences sincerely on his sleeve (Bon Iver songwriting + Tallest Man on Earth guitar + James Blake electronics) the album Dýrð Í Dauðaþögn presents a solid songwriting resume. Each show at Airwaves was designed to highlight a different aspect of the music.
Wednesday night at Deutsche Bar was an indie show, complete with band and drunken audience. Thursday afternoon at Nordic House was an acoustic duo with Julius, bathed in red lamps and natural sunlight. I wrote in my notes, “This is baby-making music.” Saturday night at Harpa highlighted the electronic elements. “Leyndarmál,” which seemed out of place on the album, made sense amidst the smoke and lights at this big pop show. Sunday morning at KEX featured the band again, but the focus was once again on the classical guitar and the folk influences.
Ásgeir Trausti has been in bands before, but not (I think) fronting his own project, and certainly not with so many people watching. He seems less than comfortable with all the attention, which is endearing, but makes for a show that’s not very interactive. Aside from announcing the occasional song title and a “Takk,” at the end of the songs, he rarely addresses the audience. At Reykjavík Calling, Julius actually talked to the audience more than Ásgeir, but in Iceland he stayed in the background.
At the big Harpa show, the audience started to clap along, and a smile flashed across Ásgeir’s face – the only time I ever saw him smile outright. You could almost see the light bulb go on in his head, “I’m the guy on the stage; I can direct the audience.” He paused and raised his arms to clap above his head for just a second before appearing self-conscious again.
Vocally, Ásgeir Trausti spends a lot of time at the top of his range. He’s got a very nice voice, but he hasn’t really grown into it yet, and there are scattered places where it sounds like his voice is about to crack or give out as he just barely hits the note he’s written for himself. When I played the album for my mom, she said that was part of the appeal; it gave the songs just enough rough edge to keep the human texture and avoid the too-slick polish of manufactured pop star. But at the Harpa show (I think it was during “Nyfallid regn,” but the details are already beginning to fade) the song built to one of those points and this time Ásgeir just sang it. His voice didn’t strain or thin; he just hit the notes with strength and resonance and it sounded really good. I was close enough to the stage to see Julius and the bass player exchange a smiling glance that said, “Look what little brother just did.”
I remember from my martial arts days the kind of improvement you can make during intensive training. The Harpa show was something like Ásgeir Trausti’s sixth performance in three days, and that moment was like suddenly finding the pressure point or landing your first high fall. Regardless of the art form, it is always a source of joy to witness someone taking such a leap in skill. It was one of the high points of my festival.
In Iceland there are mutterings about Ásgeir Trausti’s overnight success and his connections. He does draw heavily from acknowledged sources in his songwriting; talented lyricists (his father and Julius) write his poetry; his backup band is borrowed from his brother, whose project Hjálmar introduced reggae to Iceland. In contrast to the DIY approach taken by the majority of Icelandic acts, Ásgeir Trausti walked into success.
But the truly self-made star is a myth, and Ásgeir Trausti is no Justin Beiber. Dýrð Í Dauðaþögn is a collection of great songs that don’t sound like a first attempt. Although based on Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth, and James Blake, I would rather listen to these songs than any by those three artists.
Ásgeir Trausti’s talent is undeniable, he has good people behind him, he’s willing to work hard, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s cute. If I may be so bold as to make a prediction, I can see Ásgeir Trausti developing into one of those artists that everyone respects, even if they don’t like the style of music he works in. In a couple of decades, if he doesn’t get tired of being managed too soon or get on drugs; if he gets more comfortable speaking English; if he keeps trusting the right people, Ásgeir Trausti could be the Peter Gabriel of – oh god, what comes after Generation Y? Generation Zed?