Jon Kjell Seljeseth

Born: October 19th, 1954, Trondheim (Norway)
Nationality: Norwegian

Eurovision record
Jon Kjell Seljeseth, a Norwegian who moved to Iceland in 1980, conducted two Icelandic Eurovision entries: Stjórnin’s ‘Eit lag enn’, which finished fourth in 1990 – the best result of a song from the Nordic island until the language rule was abolished in ’99 – and his own composition ‘Þá veistu svarið’, performed by Inga, which managed to obtain a thirteenth spot in the contest held in Millstreet (1993). Moreover, Seljeseth co-arranged three other Icelandic festival efforts: ‘Gleðibankinn’ (1986), ‘Hægt og hljótt’ (1987), and ‘Nei eða já’ (1992).

A very young Jon Kjell playing the flute, early 1960s

Jon Kjell Seljeseth was born as the second of three children in a teachers’ family in Trondheim, Norway; whilst his mother taught pupils in primary school, his father worked as a civil engineer at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, Trondheim. Though Jon Kjell was by nature a withdrawn boy, music played an important role in his childhood. Seljeseth: “From scratch, it was clear that I did not fit in with the rest of the kids. My parents had also noticed that I was very sensitive to music. They later told me I had my tears when I listened to music on the radio. They found a special musical kindergarten, where children learn to read notes and have a good time together having a go at tambourines and xylophones. Much to my luck, I believe this was a key factor in overcoming my shyness. In primary school, I learnt playing several instruments, including the clarinet and saxophone. I also joined the school’s brass band, the Singsaker Skolekorps, in which I played between my sixth and nineteenth year. Moreover, my parents owned a piano. In time, I began finding out chords, scales and melodies… I discovered the circle of fifths on my own. In fact, when I did, I thought I had brought a very important discovery to the world of music, disappointed of course when I learned afterwards that it had long been known – in fact, it is one of the basics in music theory. When, at thirteen years, I was confirmed into the Lutheran church, my parents gave me an electric organ as a present. Not much later, I found myself playing the organ in a band with my classmates, which our form teacher coined The Brains.”

Conducting the school’s marching band, early 1970s

“There was a point during my adolescence”, Seljeseth continues, “when I believed music was not my cup of tea. It was not until I discovered synthesized music on Norwegian radio, that I was pulled back into it. The sound of synthesizers intrigued me at once, and I started seaching for artists who made their music with synthesizers. That’s how I learned about the Berlin School with artists such as Klaus Schulze and the Tangerine Dream as well as about the likes of Isao Tomita and Jean Michel Jarre. “So music is my cup of tea after all!”, was what I thought when listening to their work. As for the marching band, in my last years in high school, I was picked to do a basic training in conducting that type of music. The original idea was that I would conduct one or two pieces in a concert to practice what I had learned, but it escalated into substituting our regular conductor when he was unable to attend. All through, however, I never considered becoming a professional musician.”

After performing his obligatory year of military service in Bergen and Trondheim (1973-’74), Jon Kjell became a student of electronics at the technical university in his birth place, switching to architecture in 1976 and successfully finishing his studies in that subject in 1980. As a student, he played the keyboards, saxophone, and flute in the band Over Ævne. “We were into jazz fusion”, Seljeseth comments. “We were no professionals – just a bunch of students playing gigs in jazz cafés and student clubs in Trondheim. Our band name means ‘beyond capability’ and that sums up best what we were doing… playing beyond our actual skills. Just for the fun of it, I also played the synthesizer in some students’ musical comedies. No, I never took any lessons in piano or synthesizer… I followed some weekend courses in big band arranging, though. As all the other members of the musicians’ club of the Students’ Union, I was offered the opportunity to participate in this course. I thought it could be interesting... and it was! It also involved some conducting lessons. Combined with the marching band conducting course in high school, it is the only training in leading an orchestra I ever received.”

The Over Ævne band, with Jon Kjell Seljeseth (far right) on soprano saxophone

During his student days, Jon Kjell met Ebba, an Icelandic student of occupational therapy – later to become his wife and mother of his children. Ebba managed to convince him to move with her to Reykjavík upon their graduation in 1980. Whilst the initial idea was to stay in Iceland for a couple of years only, Seljeseth has lived on the island ever since. After a couple of months in Reykjavík, Ebba succeeded in finding him a job at a local architects’ office, where he worked for five years. Gradually, however, Seljeseth’s focus shifted from his work as a designer to the music industry. Jon Kjell comments: “Soon upon my arrival in Iceland, I wanted to get in touch with musicians, simply to enjoy this wonderful hobby again. I joined a program in a music school run by the Icelandic musicians’ association, FÍH. The newly hired principal at this school was Vilhjálmur Guðjónsson, a guitar player who had just finished his education in the US. He was great at teaching, and in his class I met Eyþór Gunnarsson, Friðrik Karlsson, and all the other guys from the Mezzoforte band. Among many other students that were to become well-known music professionals, there were two members of the Gunnar Þórðarson’s combo, which played at the Broadway nightclub in Reykjavík. They told me Gunnar was looking for a new keyboard player and were kind enough to introduce me to him. He simply asked me: “When can you start?”, and that was that. This must have been in 1983.”

At the Broadway nightclub, Seljeseth played with Þórðarson’s band in different programmes, mostly theme shows of evergreen pop tunes and musical shows. From the beginning, Þórðarson and Seljeseth got on well. Seljeseth: “Some musicians warned me about Gunnar’s strictness, but I never found out why. Our working relationship was easy. He really was my mentor in those early years. Quite soon, Gunnar – or Gunni, as we mostly called him – asked me to work with him in studio sessions as well. In those days, Gunnar was Iceland’s number one producer in the pop music business… a giant in the industry. My first assignment was to copy the piano part for the score to a TV commercial. It was not long before I did almost all keyboard parts for Gunnar… and in the 1980s, very often, seventy or eighty per cent of all recorded tracks involved keyboards – even an oboe line was usually done with keys. In other words: heaps of studio work came my way. Gunnar was a good arranger, but he only wrote down scores which involved classical musicians, such as string players. He expected us, rhythm musicians, to play what he wanted after he had given a verbal explanation of what he had in mind.”

Playing the Minimoog and Rhodes piano as a member of Over Ævne, late 1970s

In 1985, Seljeseth finally decided to make the leap into becoming a fulltime musician. “I hated making the choice between architecture and music”, Jon Kjell admits, “but, at a certain point, there was no other option. My schedule of a daytime job as an architect, with studio work in the evenings and playing in Broadway during the weekends, often did not allow me more than four hours of sleep a night. It was too much. Though I liked my work at the office, music was even more fun. As time progressed, on top of recording with Gunni, I started doing recording sessions independently as well. People in the business knew me as Gunni’s right hand and began contacting me directly to arrange and produce their work. There was an awful lot of recording going on in the 1980s and Gunni had enough to do anyway, so he did not mind, and moreover I kept on working for him as well as other producers all the time.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Jon Kjell worked as a keyboardist, programmer, arranger, and producer with an impressive string of Icelandic pop artists, such as Björgvin Haldórsson, Jóhann Helgason, Stefán Hilmarsson, Anna Mjöll, and groups such as Strax, Mezzoforte, and Stjórnin. Apart from working on some two hundred albums between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s, Seljeseth was involved in arranging and producing a long list of chart successes in Iceland, including Stjórnin’s ‘Eit lag enn’ (1990) and Bjarni Arason’s ‘Karen’ (1992) – both of which were catapulted to nationwide fame thanks to participating in the Icelandic Eurovision preliminaries. In 1995, he arranged and produced ‘Bræðralag’, the official song of the World Handball Championships, which were organised in Iceland that year. “It was so easy being a big fish in a small pond”, Seljeseth modestly comments. “I am not sure I could have had such a blooming career in a bigger music industry such as in Norway. Young and aspiring artists sent me demos, whilst also established acts wanted to work with me to produce their albums. A lot of work came my way thanks to composers who turned to me over and over again to produce songs they had written. As I lacked a formal music education, learning how to write a proper song arrangement was a case of trial and error. I wrote my arrangements mostly by playing sampled instruments on the keyboard.”

Press photo taken in 1986

Beside his work in the studio and with Þórðarson’s combo, Seljeseth was involved in ‘Á liðandi stundu’, Iceland’s first live topical talk show on nationwide television, as a keyboardist taking care of the music between the different features (1985-’87). Though he never aspired at a career in songwriting, he occasionally submitted compositions for festivals. In 1992, his song ‘Ég man hverja stund’, interpreted by Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir and Pálmi Gunnarsson, was chosen as the winner in the Landslagið Song Festival, in those days the second-most important music competition in Iceland after the Eurovision pre-selection. In the 1990s, Seljeseth developed a working relationship with fellow-Norwegian Rolf Løvland. Jon Kjell explains: “I met Rolf at the Eurovision Song Contests of 1990 and 1993 and we bonded well. Rolf liked the arrangement I had written to a song of his which was included on Sigríður Beinteinsdóttir’s 1993 Christmas album. In 1994, the first time he came to Iceland, he wanted to record a Christmas song himself. We arranged and produced it together, with Sigga again taking care of the vocals. The year after, he returned to start working on the first Secret Garden album with violinist Fionnuala Sherry, who he had met in the Eurovision Song Contest in Millstreet in ’93. We spent a lot of time in the studio together getting the flow of the different tracks right.” Seljeseth collaborated as a keyboard player and programmer on Secret Garden’s albums ‘Song from a secret garden’ (1995) and ‘Dreamcatcher’ (2000). The former CD includes the winning song of the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Nocturne’. In a style which some would describe as instrumental new age, Secret Garden managed to be hugely successful across the globe.

One of Seljeseth’s last studio assignments was working on the last studio album of Gunnar Þórðarson’s legendary pop group Hljómar, for which he did a considerable part of the programming and keyboard playing (2003). In 2006, he decided to withdraw from the music industry. Jon Kjell explains: “One of the reasons was that I wanted to spend more time on my own music. Due to my extensive activities on recording projects for others, I have seldom been able to find enough time to finish the ideas I have developed for melodies and songs over the years. Occasionally, I work on music projects that I find interesting; for example, in 2010 and 2012, at ‘Menningarnótt’, Reykjavík’s annual culture night, I accompanied violinist Rósa Jóhannesdóttir on synthesizers in a programme of traditional Norwegian folk songs. Moreover, I have been on the board of Nordmannslaget, the society of Norwegians living in Iceland for some years, becoming its chairman in 2012; occasionally, I am helping Icelandic musicians in plagiarism lawsuits.”

At home in Reykjavík, July 2012

Jon Kjell Seljeseth in the Eurovision Song Contest
Though Jon Kjell Seljeseth was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest as a conductor on ‘only’ two occasions – in 1990 with ‘Eit lag enn’ and in 1993 with ‘Þá veistu svarið’ – the festival was an important factor in his career throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1986 and 1996, he arranged countless entries in the Söngvakeppni Sjónvarpsins, the Icelandic Eurovision pre-selection show, while playing keyboards in the studio version of many other songs which were submitted for this competition. Moreover, he was one of the musicians in the orchestra which accompanied the national final in most editions between 1986 and 1992.

The year 1986 saw Iceland making its debut in the Eurovision Song Contest. The country pinned high hopes on the song which won the Söngvakeppni, ‘Gleðibankinn’, which, in the national final, was performed as a solo effort by Pálmi Gunnarsson and arranged and conducted by Þórir Baldursson. Icelandic TV (RÚV) commissioned Gunnar Þórðarson, the other conductor of the show, to re-arrange and produce the song. Þórðarson took the striking decision to get Helga Möller and Eirikur Hauksson on board to perform the song together with Pálmi Gunnarsson under the stage name Icy. Seljeseth: “Because RÚV had reserved a royal budget for the Eurovision project, Gunnar went to London to record a studio version of the song with the three singers. As Gunnar’s right hand in the recording business at that time, it was only logical that I came along as well. Gunni had already laid out the structure of the song, and the basic idea of how to orchestrate it. Besides, there were also elements from Baldursson’s original arrangement in it. On the plane to England, the two of us exchanged ideas for the brass part of the orchestration. Naturally, I took care of the keyboard parts. After the first day of recording, Gunni asked me if I had any suggestions for the strings, but I was exhausted having worked on these keyboard tracks. This left the task of completing that part of the job up to Gunni, who was up until three or four o’clock in the morning writing the strings! With the cream of British musicians in our sessions, the record version of the song was excellent. I urged Gunnar, who was going to conduct the song in the Eurovision Song Contest in Norway, to use part of the studio recording as a backing track, but he was determined to play all music entirely live with the orchestra. While many people in Iceland were convinced we would win the contest with this song, it finished in the last five. I can assure you it was talked about for a long time in Iceland in the weeks and months afterwards!”

Pálmi Gunnarsson winning the 1986 Icelandic Eurovision pre-selection with ‘Gleðibankinn’. Conducting the band, which includes Jon Kjell Seljeseth playing the keyboards (far left), is Þórir Baldursson

In 1987, the year after, the Icelandic preliminaries were won by a young opera singer, Halla Margrét Árnadóttir, who performed the hauntingly beautiful ballad ‘Hægt og hljótt’ (music and lyrics by Valgeir Guðjónsson). Jon Kjell Seljeseth wrote the arrangement which was used for the national final. Jon Kjell: “Perhaps slightly immodestly, I believed my arrangement with just the piano and some strings and flute lines, written in line with guidelines given to me by Valgeir himself, was one of the main factors why the song stood out in this selection programme, which was dominated by up-tempo songs and bombastic power ballads. With the experience of 1986 in the back of my mind, when Gunnar – who was by no means a trained conductor, but simply the arranger of the song – conducted the Icelandic entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, I more or less assumed that I was to be the conductor this time around! I was certainly looking forward to the occasion. All the more disappointed was I when I was told by Valgeir Guðjónsson that he had asked Hjálmar Ragnarsson to do the conducting job. True, Hjálmar was one of the few qualified conductors in Iceland and he did a good job in Brussels, but I could not help feeling frustrated and tricked out. I did not want to have to do anything with the project anymore. Therefore, the final studio version of the song was recorded with another keyboard player. Though, originally, Rikharður Pálsson, a eccentric character but a brilliant musician nonetheless, was hired to write the strings, Valgeir rejected his arrangement because he felt it was too bombastic. In the end, Hjálmar Ragnarsson wrote the orchestration himself. Valgeir, however, was courteous enough to have my name put next to Hjálmar’s as co-arranger of the song, because so many of the melody lines in the arrangement had been invented by me.”

The original version of ‘Hægt og hljótt’, arranged by Jon Kjell Seljeseth, and performed by Halla Margrét (with Valgeir Guðjónsson at the piano) in the 1987 Icelandic Eurovision pre-selection

Jon Kjell Seljeseth’s chance to conduct the Eurovision orchestra finally came in 1990. The Icelandic pre-selection was won by the group Stjórnin, with lead singers Sigriður Beinteinsdóttir and Grétar Örvarsson, and their upbeat song in typical Scandinavian dance band style: ‘Eit lag enn’, written by Hörður G. Ólafsson (composition) and Aðalsteinn Ásberg Sigurðsson (lyrics). Iceland landed a sensational fourth place with it in the Eurovision Song Contest in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. How did it all start? Jon Kjell: “One day in late ’87 or early ’88, I received a demo cassette from Hörður Ólafsson, a songwriter from Sauðárkrókur in Northern Iceland. There was no talk of submitting it for Eurovision yet. What I heard was a rhythmical song which sounded sort of ABBA-esque. Hörður sang on it, but he had not invested much time in the lyrics – part of it was simply ‘hey hey hey’. I made an arrangement which included all elements that were to be in the eventual recording as well, including the dominant brass parts and the piano play in Benny Andersson’s style. Later, I discovered a musical phrase of ‘Waterloo’ in Hörður’s demo. Of course, I asked him to replace it. I came up with the bridge in the song, making me the co-composer of the piece; Hörður agreed that I deserved a share in the royalties for the composition. I recorded a second demo version with a session singer from Reykjavík.”

Jon Kjell then sent this second version of ‘Hey hey hey’ back to Hörður Ólafsson in Sauðárkrókur. “… and Hörður took the decision to submit it to the Icelandic Eurovision committee for the pre-selection of 1988”, Seljeseth continues, “but the song was not chosen. However, he was convinced the song had Eurovision potential and he got Aðalsteinn Ásberg Sigurðsson to write proper lyrics to it instead of the nonsensical ‘hey hey’. In fact, Aðalsteinn did a very good job on those lyrics. Icelandic, with all its th and dh sounds, is a language which does not sound well to foreign ears. He consciously circumvented these consonants. He was aware that, for a Eurovision song, it is important that the sequence of words sounds nice. The meaning of the lyrics should be subordinated to that. In 1990, we did another demo and Hörður proposed the song to RÚV’s committee again – and this time it was chosen! It was only then that Grétar Örvarsson and his band Stjórnin became part of the story… Hörður asked them if they were interested to perform what, with the new lyrics, had been turned into ‘Eit lag enn’ in the Icelandic final. It turned out Grétar liked the idea – and he did not come to regret it! When ‘Eit lag enn’ won the pre-selection, we re-recorded it with better session musicians and altogether more professionally. Grétar and I decided to have some parts which were originally intended to be played by the band members, recorded by other musicians, simply because there was so much at stake. Gunnlaugur Briem of Mezzoforte played the drums, and I took care of all the keyboard tracks in that final recording. I decided not to use any strings doubling some of the brass lines, because I felt it would reduce the big band flavour of the song.”

The Stjórnin band, from left to right: Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, Sigríður ‘Sigga’ Beinteinsdóttir, Eiður Arnarsson, Grétar Örvarsson, Jón Elvar Hafsteinsson, and Einar Bragi Bragason

It goes without saying that Seljeseth fully expected to conduct the song in the international Eurovision final this time around, but it turned out he had to put up a real fight for it. Jon Kjell explains: “A new chapter of the conductor drama emerged in 1990. Time and again, it was a struggle, because Iceland did not have a professional conductor like Ireland or Finland who did the job year in, year out. In the national final, the accompanying band in which I played the keyboards had been conducted by Vilhjálmur Guðjónsson, a great jazz musician with whom I had followed some courses when I had just moved to Iceland in the early 1980s. It turned out Vilhjálmur had already been promised by RÚV that he would conduct the winner of that year’s Söngvakeppni in the Eurovision Song Contest final in Zagreb. We arranged a meeting at my place to discuss the matter, but we were both unwilling to give in… RÚV exerted considerable pressure on me to make way for Vilhjálmur, but, this time around, I was so determined to not let the opportunity pass me by! My answer was that they could have Vilhjálmur if they liked, but that, in that case, I would discontinue my work on the production and arranging of Stjórnin’s album. At that point, Grétar stepped in, because he did not want to lose me as his producer. He told the people responsible at RÚV that he would withdraw Stjórnin from Eurovision participation if they were not allowed to take me with them as their conductor. RÚV gave in and that was the end of the story. Vilhjálmur and I were not on speaking terms for a year, but in fact he is a very easy-going guy and the year after, when he was to conduct the Icelandic final again, he asked me to forget about everything that had happened… and if I wanted to join his band as a keyboard player again. From that moment onwards, there was no issue between us anymore.”

At the rehearsals in Zagreb, the young and inexperienced conductor of the Icelandic delegation encountered some serious problems. Seljeseth: “The first issue was the wind arrangement. The arrangement to ‘Eit lag enn’ was written in big band style, but the brass players in the Yugoslavian orchestra were classically trained musicians. They had a hard time hitting the high notes… in fact, they were all over the place. That was bad, but at least we had the drums and keyboards on a backing tape. Remember, when Gunnar Þorðarson conducted ‘Gleðibankinn’ in 1986, I suggested to him using some of our rhythm section recordings from London as backing tracks. However, then, he was determined to do it all live. In my opinion, that was a mistake, and I believe Gunnar was not very happy learning that the Eurovision orchestra was unable to play the rhythm track satisfactorily. This time around, I was determined not to make the same 'mistake', as, now, the rhythm section was even more critical, 'Eitt lag enn' being even more up-tempo than ‘Gleðibankinn’ and having a shuffle beat. Somewhere between rehearsals in Zagreb, I was approached by some representatives of Sweden’s branch of Warner, a record company. They liked the sound of the song. “Will you be able to recreate that great brass sound on the actual night?”, they asked me. My answer was: “Well, almost!” The first rehearsals had already taught me that the sound would not even closely be as good as on the record version.”

As Eurovision rules stipulated in those days, all instruments on the backing track had to be present on stage. Therefore, the four members of Stjórnin behind Grétar and Sigriður mimed all rhythm instruments… except for the piano! Seljeseth: “The piano part was supposed to be played by the pianist in the orchestra, but, at the first rehearsal, after I had counted in the band, I thought: “This is not supposed to sound like this… something is missing!” Looking to my right, I discovered there was no pianist! I stopped the orchestra and called for the host conductor (Stanko Selak, BT), asking him where the piano player was. He told me they had rehearsed the song without the piano. Somehow, the piano parts of the score had never reached Yugoslavia. The orchestra’s pianist was alerted and he joined the rest of the orchestra for the Icelandic rehearsal. I handed him the piano score, but, when I had counted in the orchestra once again, he started playing something which can best be described as freestyle jazz, whilst looking very relaxed… obviously, this was not working! The piano part of our song was very rhythmic and straight; it was the glue which kept the arrangement together. Without it, we were doomed! Immediately after the rehearsal, I had a conversation about this with our Head of Delegation, Egill Eðvarðsson, explaining him that the only option was to ask permission to send this pianist on holiday and include the piano part on the playback track as well. He managed to get the needed permission from the organisation and from that moment onwards, it was easy. Oh yes, I was well prepared: I had taken twelve different mixes of the playback track with me to Zagreb – just in case. It turned out this had been a wise decision!”

The Icelandic delegation in Zagreb bonded with the participants from Jon Kjell’s homeland Norway. Seljeseth: “The Norwegians stayed in the same hotel as we did. I immediately got on well with their conductor Pete Knutsen as well as with Rolf Løvland, who had arranged their entry and had come along to Yugoslavia to enjoy the extravaganza. Our saxophonist Einar Bragi Bragason struck up a friendship with the Norwegian lead singer Ketil Stokkan which lasted for many years. Pete Knutsen was the one who first alerted me about something else… during the dress rehearsals, it was noticed that there was no introduction for the conductors. Up to then, it had been a Eurovision tradition that each country’s conductor was allowed to take a bow before counting in the orchestra. The decision to get rid of this had been taken to save time. Of course, given my personal history where I had had to battle so fiercely to be allowed to be the conductor for Iceland, I felt downhearted. Why did this have to happen to me? As a newbie, I presumed there was nothing that could be done about it. The day after, however, I was approached by Noel Kelehan, the conductor for Ireland. The veteran knew exactly what it was about: “This is an insult to our profession”, he said. He suggested to go on strike and wondered if I was willing to sign a petition with the other countries’ conductors to the effect that we thought the way we were treated was unacceptable. After having asked Egill Eðvarðsson for permission, I was happy to put my signature under it. It was a great idea and mainly thanks to our ring leader Noel, a satisfactory compromise was agreed upon. All of us would be shown counting in the orchestra, however without the customary bow. It was less than we had anticipated, but at least we had our couple of seconds of glamour thanks to the efforts of Noel, without whom there would probably not have been a compromise at all.”

Jon Kjell Seljeseth conducting ‘Eit lag enn’ in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest, Zagreb (Yugoslavia)

What does Jon Kjell remember of the TV concert, at the end of which Iceland were awarded with an unprecedented fourth place? “First and foremost, I was extremely nervous. A couple of seconds before I was supposed to count in the band, standing ready on the conductor’s platform, I saw the tip of my baton trembling. I thought: “If I can do this, I can do anything!” At the same time, though realizing that winning the contest was probably a bridge too far, I was confident we could do well. While the votes were coming in, we were all looking at each other, stammering: “This has never happened before!” And it was true; no Icelandic entry had scored better than a sixteenth place. The overriding memory of Zagreb, however, was the good spirit in our delegation. Songwriters, RÚV delegates, the band members… we were all there with the same purpose: giving the best we could for the optimum result. Thanks to their good Eurovision score, Stjórnin, who were relatively new as a band, became one of the most popular pop acts in Iceland overnight. Half of the songs on their first album were chart successes.”

In the Icelandic final until the early 1990s, Jon Kjell Seljeseth was usually one of the keyboard players in the orchestra which accompanied all songs. Moreover, he wrote many of the arrangements for this manifestation. Seljeseth: “Usually, I shared the arrangements with Magnús Kjartansson, each of us taking care of half of the entries. The orchestra in the national final was quite small, without strings – therefore, we used extensive playback tapes. It was simply impossible to play all parts live with such a small band.”

In the studio, Seljeseth was involved in playing the keyboard parts on several Icelandic Eurovision entries, including ‘Nina (Draumur um Nínu)’ in 1991 and ‘Sjúbídú’ in 1996. In 1992, he was credited as one of four (!) arrangers for ‘Nei eða já’, the song with which Heart 2 Heart – a group containing, amongst others, Grétar Örvarsson and Sigriður Beinteinsdóttir from Stjórnin – represented Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö and finished seventh. The other three responsible for writing the score to this effort were two group members, Friðrik Karlsson and Grétar Örvarsson, and Nigel Wright from England, who eventually got to conduct the song in Malmö. Seljeseth: “All four of us put in our bits. Grétar and Friðrik had already come up with some important melodic lines, when they asked me to help them recording a first version of the song. My main contributions were putting the modulation and the Motown flavour into it. After winning the Icelandic final, Friðrik turned to Nigel Wright, a friend of his from London, to produce the final record version. He modernized the song by using drum loops and other programming elements, as well as by speeding it up considerably. No, I cannot say I was disappointed that Nigel conducted this song in the contest instead of me… I was involved as a producer and arranger in many songs in that year’s Söngvakeppni and I had invested most time and energy in the song which finished second, ‘Karen’. It was performed by Bjarni Arason and composed by Jóhann Helgason, a good friend of mine. That was the kind of ballad which I believed could have won the European competition… and I felt major disappointment when it was beaten in the Icelandic final. ‘Karen’ was a big hit in Iceland and has meanwhile become an evergreen in this country.”

Bjarni Arason performing ‘Karen’ in the 1992 Icelandic Eurovision selection programme

In 1993, Jon Kjell Seljeseth for the first time submitted a composition of his own for the Söngvakeppni: ‘Þá veistu svarið’, interpreted by a young actress called Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir. It won the Icelandic selection, thus becoming Iceland’s entry in the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest in Millstreet, Ireland. “I first thought about participating as a composer in Eurovision”, Seljeseth explains, “when my song ‘Ég man hverja stund’ won the Landslagið Song Festival, a televised song contest in Iceland. As that song was interpreted by Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir and Pálmi Gunnarsson, I thought: why not submit a song for Guðrún for Eurovision as well? The outlines of what later became ‘Þá veistu svarið’ had been written some years before… it is fair to say that I did not really write it; it was rather a case of improvising – I was playing on my Rhodes piano at home and out came this melody with a style and chord voicings influenced by the jazz group of one of my favourite musicians, German saxophonist Klaus Doldinger. When I had decided to submit it for the Söngvakeppni competition, I got Friðrik Sturlúson, the bass player in Stefán Hilmarsson’s band, to write the lyrics to it. Guðrún sang the vocals on the demo and a couple of weeks later we received the news that the song had been accepted to the Icelandic national final!”

“At that point”, Seljeseth continues, “Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir started having doubts… although she had interpreted the song well in this demo, she did not feel sure about the quality of the piece and withdrew from the project. This left me with the task of finding someone new. This proved to be a very difficult assignment indeed! We felt we needed a young fresh female vocalist for this particular song and I tried almost every singer in Reykjavík. One of the most serious candidates was Hera Björk, who later (Oslo 2010, BT) represented Iceland in Eurovision, but in the end I opted for Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir. The year before, she had made her debut as an actress (in the film ‘Veggfóður’, BT). My wife had seen this film and suggested Ingibjörg’s name to me. Though Hera was the better singer of the two, Ingibjörg had the charisma… she was the kind of girl who enters a crowded room and is immediately noticed by everybody. I admit it was a very male decision I took, but, in all fairness, Inga did a good job! The night my song won the Icelandic pre-selection, Guðrún, who was one of the backing vocalists in the show, told everyone: “I was going to sing that song!” It must have been somewhat awkward for her – even more so in Ireland, because I picked her as one of the backing vocalists for the contest as well.”

“She was the kind of girl who enters a crowded room and is immediately noticed by everybody”. Ingibjörg ‘Inga’ Stefánsdóttir at a meeting with international press backstage at the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest, Millstreet

It seems only logical that Jon Kjell himself was conducted his composition in the Eurovision Song Contest, but, strikingly – certainly given his eagerness to conduct the 1990 Icelandic entry – he actually intended to give the job to someone else. Seljeseth: “This time, I just wanted to come along as the songwriter, relaxing a bit without all the stress of rehearsals and giving the chance to a professional conductor. I had written the arrangement to the song, except for the strings – these had been done by Szymon Kuran. Szymon was a violinist in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and I always used him as a soloist in recording productions whenever I had the opportunity. He was such a likeable guy and, moreover, much better equipped than I to write for strings. He had some conducting experience as well, certainly more than me or guys like Gunnar Þórðarson and Jón Ólafsson. Before letting Szymon know, I happened to have a chat with RÚV’s chief Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, who I told about my intentions. The fact was that the budget for that year’s Eurovision project was one of the lowest in Iceland’s history as a participant in the contest. As a composer, I received part of that budget. I told Hrafn it was so small, that I would have to put some of my own money in to cover the expenses. Then, quite logically, he suggested that I should do the conducting myself, thereby avoiding having to pay for Szymon’s ticket to Millstreet and, on top of that, for his salary for the conducting job. I decided to take Hrafn’s advice, although I came to regret it, because it would have been so nice to go out there together with Szymon! I never told him about my initial plans, even after the contest”

‘Þá veistu svarið’ is a striking song, with complicated melodic lines and an arrangement containing a saxophone solo and even a part for the castanets. “While putting together the arrangement, I was determined to have the song sound good to my ears”, Seljeseth explains. “This time, the question if it was fit for Eurovision did not count for me. The castanets were part of the original percussion track I had in mind. I ended up with so much percussion in the recording process, that I threw most of it out again for the final recording, but the castanets were retained. The saxophone part was inspired by the style of Klaus Doldinger. I felt that such a sax solo fitted in well with the song. Einar Bragi Bragason played the solo in the studio and mimed it on stage in Millstreet. In the days of Stjórnin, I occasionally invented saxophone solos for Einar to play. Actually, Einar is mainly a tenor saxophonist, but the key in which ‘Þá veistu svarið’ fitted for Ingibjörg was written forced us to go for an alto sax instead. Although Einar was a good reader, I had not written down the solo for him. Me singing the lines, and him picking them up by ear was the way we used to work very often.”

Iceland’s participation in the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest: ‘Þá veistu svarið’, composed and conducted by Jon Kjell Seljeseth, and performed by Inga

In Millstreet, ‘Þá veistu svarið’ came thirteenth amongst entries from twenty-five competing countries, picking up 42 points in the process. “The atmosphere in Millstreet was good”, Seljeseth recalls. “We stayed in a hotel in Killarney and were taken on a half hour ride to the venue every day for the rehearsals. The Irish were such nice people... we were taken excellent care of all week. The rehearsals were much more relaxed than they had been in Zagreb. The strings and brass parts had been professionally prepared by Noel Kelehan’s orchestra and all percussion and keyboards were on a backing track. That is why the girls backing up Inga on stage can be seen playing the keys and Eyjólfur Kristjánsson (one of the duo Stefán & Eyfi who represented Iceland in the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest) mimed the drums. Prior to the Icelandic final, Eyjólfur, who was one of the backing singers then, told me he only wanted to come along to the international final if my song won the competition… and he kept his promise!”

In a funny coincidence, the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest saw the participation of no fewer than three conductors with the Norwegian nationality. Apart from Rolf Løvland for Norway itself and Seljeseth for Iceland, the musical director for the Danish delegation was George Keller. “Though the first time I met Keller consciously was in Millstreet”, Seljeseth comments, “our paths had already crossed in Trondheim, where we studied simultaneously at the same university. I was surprised to learn that he had moved to Denmark. Rolf and I had previously met at the contest in Zagreb and got on very well. At the venue in Millstreet, George, Rolf, and I had the odd chat in and out of the rehearsals. A Norwegian newspaper picked up the story of the three Norwegian conductors and published a photo of us together.”

The three Norwegian conductors in the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest, from left to right: George Keller, Rolf Løvland, and Jon Kjell Seljeseth

Was Seljeseth very disappointed about coming thirteenth? “Although, looking back, obtaining a place in the middle of the voting was respectable, I honestly expected better. Apart from the obvious fact that I liked my own composition, I thought Inga had the X factor and would win us a lot of votes. Rolf Løvland was very optimistic about the song scoring well, but after the voting he commented that it might have fallen between two stools. Perhaps he was right… perhaps it was too eerie and floating in space. While the rest of the Icelandic delegation was eager to go for some partying after the voting, Ingibjörg and I felt quite down-hearted. She must have had an international career in mind and, actually, came quite close as an actress. She did not fly back with us from Ireland to Reykjavík, instead travelling on to Cannes where she was a guest at the film festival.”

In 1994, amongst other arrangements he wrote for the Söngvakeppni, Seljeseth wrote the initial score to ‘Nætur’. After this song, composed by Friðrik Karlsson, had won the competition, it was completely revamped by Frank McNamara from Ireland, who also got to conduct it in the Eurovision Song Contest final. “Frank did a good job on that arrangement”, Seljeseth comments. “He added totally new elements to it and changed the tempo, making the song much more interesting to listen to. The year after, I actually submitted a composition of my own for the internal selection for Björgvin Haldórsson, who had been chosen by RÚV to represent Iceland in the contest. I was one of a group of songwriters, who had been invited to come up with a suitable entry. In the end, however, they did not choose any of the submitted songs, but went for ‘Núna’, co-composed by Björgvin himself”.

Seljeseth, whose memories of his Eurovision involvement over the years are mind-bogglingly sharp, says that he lost interest in the contest in the late 1990s. “It took a direction I did not like… it was simply not my bag anymore.” As his story proves, Jon Kjell was certainly not one of the many Eurovision conductors who felt that backing tracks as an addition to the live orchestra should have been banned from the competition: “No, I am from another corner of the spectrum… many of these other guys were band leaders from an earlier era, while my studio work in the 1980s and 1990s involved much technology. Though I liked classical instruments, it was often a matter of money. In Iceland, an album is given the status of golden record when it sells 10,000 copies… but even with such commercial success, hiring an orchestra for the studio recording would be too expensive. In the context of Eurovision, I agree that it would have been nice to play 100% live, but in those days the average Eurovision orchestra was not adaptable enough to different music styles. Most of the musicians in those orchestras were classically trained and they missed the finesse to play upbeat pop songs in the correct rhythm. Everything sounded so rigid with this unmistakable classical touch… always a little slow. Therefore, in 1990 and in 1993, I felt it was the safest option to pre-record the rhythm track. I must say I find the idea of bringing the orchestra back to the Eurovision Song Contest quite attractive. Sure, it would eliminate certain music styles, but I find that the new generation of classical musicians is usually much better equipped and prepared to play popular music genres. The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra is a perfect example of this – they have improved their skills considerably since the 1980s.”

Jon Kjell Seljeseth (far left) with the Icelandic delegation at the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest in Millstreet. He is flanked by Ingibjörg Stefánsdóttir, with the three female backing singers to her right: (from left to right) Guðrún Gunnarsdóttir, Erna Þórarinsdóttir, and Eva Ásrún Albertsdóttir. They are flanked by male backing vocalist (and drummer) Eyjólfur ‘Eyfi’ Kristjánsson (wearing pink) and saxophonist Einar Bragi Bragason (wearing the white skirt). Behind Eyfi, lyricist Friðrik Sturlúson (wearing sunglasses) and Head of Delegation Jón Egill Bergþórsson (wearing an orange outfit) are recognizable

Other artists on Jon Kjell Seljeseth
Gunnar Þórðarson, band leader and record producer with whom Seljeseth worked extensively in Iceland for twenty years: “When I had my band in Broadway, Jon Kjell was recommended to me. I had never heard of him, but it was not long before I realized that this chap was at the forefront of music technology. I liked working with him, because he is a no bullshit guy: he simply plays well and is very reliable. Technically speaking, he may not be the best pianist, but his way of approaching music is very much that of an architect… very structured!” (2012)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Jon Kjell Seljeseth in Reykjavík, July 2012.
  • Thanks to Gunnar Þórðarson for his additional comments about working with Jon Kjell Seljeseth.
  • A book about Iceland’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest: Gylfi Garðarsson, “Gleðibankabókin”, Reykjavík (ed. NótuÚtgáfan) 2011 (first edition) .
  • Photos courtesy of Jon Kjell Seljeseth and Ferry van der Zant.


Songs conducted
1990: Eitt lag enn
1993: Þá veistu svarið