Jón ÓlafssonBorn: February 25th, 1963, Reykjavík (Iceland)
Though introduced to music at a fairly early age, Jón never took it too seriously: “As a little boy, I am told, I was always trying to entertain the adults around me by singing songs. My mother, who had taken music lessons as a girl, owned a piano, which I started checking out when I was five or six. After a year or so, mum thought it was a good idea to send me to a piano teacher, Þorstein Hauksson – a former rock organ player, nowadays a renowned classical composer. I took his classes for about a year, but I got bored and stopped… to take them up again with Asgeir Beinteinsson when I was ten. Subsequently, I was also taught the piano by Selma Guðmundsdóttir and Kristinn Gestsson. All of them were classical teachers, but while I was waiting for them in the classroom I was always playing some pop melodies I had heard on the radio… Beatles and ABBA, for example. As an adolescent, I also became interested in ELO, Mike Oldfield, Emerson Lake & Palmer and sophisticated punk acts such as The Stranglers. Some of my teachers were unhappy about my interest in the light genre; in those days, there was a genuine watershed between classical music and pop. At school parties, I was always playing the piano and, at the Commercial College, some friends and I decided to form a band: Fjórir piltar af Grundarstíg, ‘Four guys from Grundarstíg’ – Grundarstígur being the street where the college was. It was a pun on ‘Four Lads from Liverpool’, but, however pretentious that may sound, we were just playing for the fun and only for friends.”
“In 1980”, Jón continues, “I was offered the job of keyboard player in the dance band of Birgir Gunnlaugsson at Hotel Saga, when they accompanied an Icelandic version of the musical ‘Evita’. At that time, I was more or less qualified for the job, as, in the two years before, I had been studying the piano, harmony and arrangements at the Tónlistarskóli FÍH, the music school of the Icelandic musicians’ trade union – all valuable lessons, as it would turn out later. My mother was not too excited about the idea of me getting into the music business, knowing the entertainment industry could be an unsafe place to be. She succumbed, when she found out that this band consisted of older guys, who wore suits, were paid weekly, and never drank one drop of alcohol…”
In spite of his piano and theory studies, Jón did not seriously consider a career in music. Therefore, he started studying Icelandic at the University of Iceland in 1982, but he quit after one year. “By then”, Jón explains, “I had been working for some years as a journalist. I worked for some newspapers, mainly writing articles about pop music and sports. Being able to earn a living that way, I thought of music only as a hobby. Still, not being able to say goodbye to it, I kept on working as the conductor of the Choir of the Commercial College, a job which had been offered to me upon my graduation from school. Though I had never taken any conducting lessons, my background in musical theory was firm enough to lead a group of amateur singers.”
In 1983, Ólafsson made a striking career switch: “In December of that year, I got the opportunity to start working as a disk jockey at Channel 2, a new RÚV radio station dedicated to pop music. I wrote an application letter and, to my surprise, I was picked. I did the morning show with three other people. There were no playlists yet and we could be pretty wild when we wanted to… I once played the same song five times in a row and one other time I played all jingles and trailers we had – most of them composed by Gunnar Þórðarson – one after the other. Some people must have hated me for doing this sort of things, but our station became wildly popular. Later, I did several other programmes for Channel 2, including a sports show. In the winter of ’85, I hosted Poppkorn, the Icelandic version of Top of the Pops, on RÚV television. Meanwhile, I had formed two different bands: the first one was Possibillies, a hobby project of me and a friend; we recorded an LP in ’85, but it was nothing serious. The other was Bítlavinafélagið, a Beatles tribute band, consisting of musicians I had originally brought together to accompany the college choir. In the summer of ’86, we released an album; to my astonishment, one of the songs on it, ‘Þrisvar í viku’, co-written by me, went straight to number one in the charts.”
“At this point, however”, Jón continues, “nasty rumours about me began being spread. People claimed the song was so successful because of my role in Channel 2 Radio. There were letters in the newspapers and I felt really bad about it, although I had never played my own songs in the radio – I would never do that! I took a somewhat radical decision, buying a plane ticket to Holland to live there for a while. I rented a flat in Amsterdam and took some courses at the Conservatory of Music in Utrecht, studying a blend of different subjects, including counterpoint and music analysis, as well as being taught the piano by the blind jazz genius Bert van den Brink. Meanwhile, I wrote some songs, but the main problem was that, as Iceland was not a member of the European Community, I was not allowed to work in Holland. It was quite frustrating, because I was offered all kinds of jobs in different bands. Meanwhile, however, with this number one hit single under my belt, it dawned to me that perhaps I could become a professional musician after all. I returned to Iceland in late 1987, turning to classical pianist, Halldór Haraldsson to fill in the gaps in my music education. He was quite an inspiration.”
Ólafsson took Haraldsson’s courses for two years (1987-’89). Meanwhile, his mind was set on working and having fun with music. In 1987, he formed a new band called Sálin Hans Jóns Míns, usually known as just Sálin, which originally played all kinds of soul music. One year later, the Bítlavinafélagið project was re-started. Shortly afterwards, Ólafsson found that playing the keys in two successful formations was too much, choosing Bítlavinafélagið while allowing Sálin to keep the name – the band has existed until today. After Bítlavinafélagið had broken up, Ólafsson got together with his old friend from Possibilies to record a second album in 1990, on which he sang lead vocal. That same year, he became a member of Nýdönsk, a progressive rock band which includes Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson (who represented Iceland as a solo artist in the 1989 Eurovision Song Contest). Jón: “In ’88, they were looking for a producer and I filled the void. On their first album, “Ekki er á allt kosið” (1989), I played some keyboards as well as producing the album. Their next album, ‘Regnbogaland’ (1990) was produced by me as well, while I played all the keyboard parts this time. I have been a regular band member ever since that release, doing some twelve albums and countless performances across Iceland. Nýdönsk has been my main music constant; joining them was my point of no return: it was only then that I seriously thought of myself as a musician. I composed or co-composed some of our group’s hits, such as ‘Alelda’, ‘Horfðu til himins’ and ‘Flugvélar’. Nowadays, we are taking things more relaxed… we do not want to perform each and every weekend, but we are picking some gigs here and there and have played in Denmark and Norway as well. We still have a comprehensive fan base: two concerts celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary in Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall in September 2012 were sell-outs.
Having become Nýdönsk’s producer in ’89, Ólafsson quickly made a name for himself in the Icelandic recording business, becoming involved as a studio musician, arranger, producer, and occasionally songwriter in hundreds of studio projects. As a producer, he teamed up with some of the most popular Icelandic acts of the 1990s and 2000s from the entire spectrum of the light entertainment business, including Eyjólfur Kristjánsson, Megas, SSSól, Geirfuglarnir, Ólafur Haukur Símonarson, Stefán Hilmarsson, Helgi Pétursson, and Spoon. For Emiliana Torrini, he did not only produce her two first solo albums (1995-’96), but also wrote much of the song material for these records. Much of the material he produced was released on Jón’s own record label, Eyrad.
How did Ólafsson make the leap from musician to record producer? Jón explains: “With Nýdönsk, it felt like a completely natural thing. They were all much younger than me and they asked me for some help in the studio. To me, producing has always been about that… offering a helping hand by advising on which songs to pick and fixing some loose ends; a producer is not there to tell the artist what to do. Often, production work has involved writing arrangements and orchestrations, though I do not really think of myself as an arranger. Yes, I know all the techniques and tricks, but, admittedly, I usually prefer getting arrangements from others in a recording project of which I am the producer. When you are working on a certain album on your own – which is what often happens in Iceland with its small market, where budgets are limited – you run the risk of developing a tunnel vision. With someone else on board as the arranger, you allow yourself the privilege of an extra set of brains. It is nice to get another person’s view, someone who adds melody lines and other new, fresh elements.
From 1991 to this day, Jón Ólafsson has been the musical director of countless theatre productions, including ‘Blood Brothers’, ‘Grease’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at the Reykjavík Municipal Theatre, and ‘Hair’ and ‘Bugsy Malone’ at the Loftkastalinn Theatre. Moreover, he was charged with the musical supervision of several serious plays staged at the National Theatre of Iceland, including ‘Gauragangur’ and ‘RENT’. In 2012, he wrote and picked the music for the show ‘How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes’, performed for foreign tourists at the Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavík. Jón about his theatre work: “I was the MD of one musical after the other; at one point, I even had three musicals going on simultaneously in three different theatres. In the first couple of years, I was always there playing the piano and leading the band, but of course it was not possible to keep on being the control freak… I mean, I did not go on holiday abroad for several years, because I was constantly occupied by my theatre work. Nowadays, when I say ‘yes’ to a theatre project, I focus on the musical directing, arrangements, rehearsals and preparation, but have somebody else play the keyboards when the show starts running.”
After his debut on RÚV Television as the host of Poppkorn (1985-’86), it took until the 1990s before Ólafsson returned doing some television work again; he was the resident piano player of the popular talk show Á elleftu stundu. In 2002, he was given his own interview programme on RÚV, Af fingrum fram, which ran for three seasons; in it, Jón interviewed important characters from the Icelandic music business, while playing some of his guests’ songs as intermezzos. In 2003, Ólafsson was awarded with the most important Icelandic TV Prize, the Edda, for this programme. From 2008 onwards, he has transferred the concept of Af fingrum fram to the theatre, doing ten to twelve shows annually with different guests in concert halls in Kópavogur and Akureyri. In the winter of ’06-’07, Ólafsson hosted his own Saturday night music talk show on RÚV television, simply called Jón Ólafs. For private channel Stöð 2, Ólafsson was the musical director of the Icelandic version of Pop Idol between 2004 and 2006, whilst he was one of the jury members on this same show in 2009. More recently, in 2011, he made his return to radio after many years, presenting a programme on classic pop albums for RÚV Radio 1.
In 2008, Jón Ólafsson published a book about the legendary Icelandic singer Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson (1945-1978), entitled ‘Söknuður’ – named after Vilhjálmsson’s most popular song. Where did the urge to write this book come from? Ólafsson: “Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson is a key figure in the story of Icelandic music history, who led a colourful life and died young. I had been fascinated by him and his work for a long time. I wondered why nobody had ever written a book about him and decided, thirty years after his passing away, that the time was right to give it a try. It turned out several others had attempted doing this before me, but his widow did not feel ready for it then. When I turned to her, she gave her consent. Writing a biography was something I had never done before, but I was quite happy with the result. The book sold over 7,000 copies, which is a good number for the small Icelandic market.”
As a composer and arranger, Jón Ólafsson is responsible for dozens of advertising jingles as well as the music to several TV programmes. In 1999, he arranged the music to the television film ‘Skaupið’, whilst he penned the soundtracks to several short movies and the motion pictures ‘Brúðguminn’ (2008) and ‘Gauragangur’ (2010). He re-arranged the most popular songs of the Beatles and ABBA for live performances, of which two with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra (1997 and 2002). Jón: “Those were concerts celebrating the thirty and thirty-fifth birthday of the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’. For it, I took care of the rhythm and vocal arrangements, but I asked Ólafur Gaukur to orchestrate and conduct the orchestra for it. A couple of years before, he had written some excellent arrangements for an Emiliana Torrini album which I produced”.
All the while, Jón Ólafsson, who twice received the award for best Icelandic keyboard player of the year (1993 and 1995), has continued working with several formations, including Stefán Hilmarsson’s live soul band Straumar og Stefán and Fjallkonan, which enjoyed considerable hit success in 1995 with ‘Bömpaðu baby, bömpaðu’, recorded in collaboration with Emiliana Torrini. Jón produced the debut album of 2005 Icelandic Pop Idol winner Hildur Vala Einarsdóttir, who later became his wife. In ’04, Ólafsson released his first solo album, containing some excellent singer-songwriter repertoire, including the hit ‘Sunnudagsmorgunn’. Three years later, a second album, ‘Hagamelur’, saw the daylight. From 2010 onwards, Ólafsson has been the managing director of the FTT, the Icelandic Society for Composers, Lyricists, and Music Publishers.
Jón Ólafsson in the Eurovision Song Contest
How did Ólafsson, who was only twenty-eight years old at that time, get involved in arranging ‘Nina’? Jón recalls: “I was good friends with both singers and, moreover, had been in the same band with both of them; Stefán was the lead singer of Sálin whilst Eyfi was in Bítlavinafélagið. When Eyjólfur told me he had written ‘Nina’ for the Icelandic Eurovision preliminaries, he asked me to arrange it… or in fact, we did it together. Though Eyjólfur does not know anything about music theory, he had some distinct ideas for the arrangement; building on his blueprint, I wrote the rhythm parts and added a string and brass score. The result was quite interesting: a piano-oriented ballad with lots of modulations. When ‘Nina’ won the Icelandic final, I needed to submit an orchestration with parts for every instrument, which was then sent to Italy by post to enable the local orchestra to rehearse it properly.”
Now that ‘Nina’ had been selected to represent Iceland in Rome, Eyjólfur Kristjánsson needed a conductor… and co-arranger Jón Ólafsson was the obvious choice. Jón: “Yes, Eyjólfur wanted me to conduct the Eurovision orchestra! He wanted to go to Rome with a group of people he could have fun with. This was really his most important criterion whilst selecting singers for the backing group. Concerning me, it is quite justified to question Eyfi’s judgment, because I had never conducted an orchestra on stage before, let alone in such a huge televised manifestation as Eurovision. When he asked me, I must admit I had my doubts. Imagine, I had never taken one conducting class in my life… and now he wanted me to conduct a fifty-man-orchestra! This inexperience was part of the joke of conducting in Rome… but, I figured, with a drummer in the orchestra beating the measure, nothing could go wrong. Though it felt a bit like pretending to be a conductor, I looked forward to working to the best of my ability to get the best possible performance. After all, conducting a Eurovision orchestra is not necessarily about knowing the correct techniques, but much rather about getting the energy of the song across to the musicians.”
In Rome, the Icelandic delegation distinguished itself by not taking the competition too seriously. Ólafsson, laughingly: “We did not think about winning for one second, not at all! We were mainly there to have a good time – even after Ralph Siegel, who was a member of the German delegation, had made some very positive comments about our song. Carola from Sweden… yes, she was surrounded by photographers twenty-four hours a day! “And where have the Icelanders been in the meantime?” “Well, they were in the karaoke bar yesterday evening until three in the morning, so they are probably still asleep now!” That was the spirit we were in. Though we did not care for one second, it was abundantly clear that the Italians did not make too much of an effort in the organisation of the contest; they did not endeavour to create a pleasant atmosphere amongst the different competing nations. The delegations were in many different hotels; we only shared ours with the singers from Malta, so there was hardly any opportunity to mingle and pick up contacts. The studio and all hotels were on the fringes of Rome, which meant there was no opportunity to explore the city centre.”
In spite of the relaxed approach of the Icelandic participants, there was some serious business to be taken care of: the rehearsals. Contrary to his expectations, Jón had quite a hard time with the Italian orchestra: “At the first rehearsal, I immediately heard something was wrong in the way the arrangement was played, but what was it? I was puzzled. The Italian concertmaster joined me to lend a helping hand; he asked me which note it was, which key, and which instrument. We found out pretty soon that there was something wrong with the violas, but what exactly? All the while, the orchestra and the entire TV crew were waiting; this made me feel pretty bad, because I was not able to solve the problem in a split second. The language barrier was part of the problem, though; the Italians talk about notes in do-re-mi, while I was used to referring to them with the letters A to G. Finally, I said: “Let us take a look at it later, after the rehearsal!”… and indeed, afterwards, we managed to solve the problem soon enough.”
With this slight hiccup out of the way, Ólafsson was able to focus on his main task: getting the slightly below-par Italian rhythm section to play ‘Nina’ correctly. Jón, smiling: “Now, remember that one of the reasons why I accepted going to Rome to conduct was that there was a drummer in the orchestra anyway who would indicate the correct tempo to the rest of the musicians. Ironically, during rehearsals, it was the drummer I had to spend most energy on. He was a bit of an old man and he had the tendency to slow down the tempo, dragging the whole thing. To get him to play the tempo correctly, I had to count in the song faster than it was supposed to be. For that reason, the piano intro is faster in the live version in Rome than it is on the studio version. The guitarist also was a problem… his approach was incredibly old-fashioned; my arrangement contained some guitar fills which required a hint of rock ‘n’ roll, but he had problems delivering them properly and he turned them into something really corny. While I had expected a perfectly prepared orchestra which hardly needed any further instructions, I found myself trying to get the sound more tight for most of my rehearsal time. All the while, I put on a happy face, because I wanted these guys in the orchestra to be on my side… I mean, they were playing twenty-two songs and I was keen to get them to give their best for our entry. Having said all this, I would like to stress that the orchestra’s string section was first class.”
What are Ólafsson’s memories of the live broadcast? “It has to be the sax solo in the Greek song”, Jón exclaims. “I mean, what happened to the guy in the orchestra? Did he die in the middle of the solo? Listening to his last note, he gave me that impression. It is one of my favourite Eurovision moments of all time and, at parties with friends in Iceland, we repeated that part of the Eurovision video again and again. But regards to the guy, we can all have a bad night! As for our own performance, I was probably more nervous than Stefán and Eyjólfur. With their vocal abilities, they knew they had nothing to fear. Minutes before we were supposed to go on stage, Stefán had disappeared. Where was he? He came back from the bathroom just moments before he was introduced to the audience. And Eyjólfur… well, he surprised all of us by putting on this purple bandana. He certainly did not wear it during the rehearsals. Stefán exclaimed in disbelief: “Are you going to wear that?” He looked like Yasser Arafat! I suppose Eyjólfur thought it was stylish – or he just wanted to wear something striking, something because of which the viewers would remember him! He went on stage with it and the bandana has become part of Nína’s image. Again, this emphasizes how impromptu and relaxed we all were in Rome…”
“With a ballad in the Icelandic language”, Jón concludes, “we knew it would be tough to score a decent number of points, but, admittedly, we had expected more than twenty-six… The really miraculous thing happened afterwards, in Iceland; everybody was happy with the way the guys had performed and the song was a big hit. You cannot believe how popular it still is. Everyone can sing along to the lyrics and every band knows how to play it. I have played it on countless occasions on the piano in performances across Iceland. It is a guaranteed success with any audience. I am pretty sure that it is the best-loved Icelandic Eurovision entry ever.”
Jón Ólafsson never returned to the Eurovision stage as a conductor, but he was involved in the Icelandic preliminary contest in 1992, acting as the musical director of the accompanying band. “At my request”, Jón comments, “I was not visible. I stood behind the cameras and conducted from there. I insisted on this, because I knew that all songs would be repeated endlessly the following winter season and I did not want to be shaking my behind in front of the Icelandic nation every week! Moreover, I have always thought being the conductor of a very small band – it consisted of perhaps ten or twelve persons – does not have much kudos. Now, I could simply wear my jeans and get paid for work behind the cameras… I preferred it that way.” In the Eurovision Song Contest, the song which won the pre-selection, ‘Nei eða já’ by Heart 2 Heart, was conducted by its English arranger, Nigel Wright.
In 2000, two years after the orchestra had last been a part of the international Eurovision final, Jón signed for the arrangement of the Icelandic entry ‘Tell me! (Hvert sem er’), composed by Örlygur Smári and performed by Telma Agústsdóttir and Einar Ágúst Víðisson; that year, Iceland obtained a twelfth spot. Ólafsson: “Örlygur Smári asked me to arrange it, probably because of my experience as a producer of rock ‘n’ roll music. ‘Tell me!’ was very much guitar-oriented – pretty much the kind of music I like to listen to myself. Writing that arrangement was very easy… there were not supposed to be any strings or woodwind instruments included. It was pretty basic, but a good song nonetheless!”
Would Ólafsson ever consider submitting one of his own compositions to the Eurovision Song Contest? “Well, why not? In 1986, the first year when Iceland participated, I sent in one of my compositions, but it was not picked by the selection committee. It was a song I wrote during my stay in Amsterdam – actually quite a depressing one about a man committing suicide. Not your typical Eurovision theme! Generally speaking, I cannot say that I am fond of the music that tends to do well at Eurovision recently, but… if I have a good song, there is no way that thirty bad entries from other countries can harm you; after all, a good song will always stand out! As for the disappearance of the orchestra, I can understand why TV stations like the show as it is today, but it has lost lots of its charm – the charm of hearing all those different languages instead of every other nation singing in English and the charm of the orchestra… there was something very romantic about doing a performance which was live. However, Eurovision sums up how the majority of music is done today: with computers, metronomes, and pitch-correcting vocals. It is impossible to stop or reverse developments like that!”
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