Just over a month ago, we presented you with Hafdis Huld’s Queen Bee as our song of the day. Accompanying the post and the wonderful animated video for the song was a further video, in which she talked briefly about the making of her new album and offered a track by track run through. Significantly at the start of the video she talked about starting to make the record in London. Working with Ed Harcourt on material, the pair had managed to create a bright, sparkling pop song, which she describes as sounding like a party was starting up, before adding it just wasn’t a party that she wanted to be at.
It wasn’t all in vain, however, but with minimal time left to salvage the session, Hafdis and Ed sat down with just an acoustic guitar and wrote the basics of Sunrise the song that opens the album. In doing so Hafdis rediscovered her creative spark and between them they had set the template for what would become Home. The result of calming things down, is a beautifully serene set of songs, that benefit greatly from a stripped back and mostly acoustic production. Naturally enough, given the title, everything was recorded at home with her musical and life partner Alisdair Wright.
Given the circumstances of her life, the decision makes a lot of sense. The last couple of years have been comparatively quiet as Hafdis and Alisdair have a new family with the birth of a daughter. Discovering that she was pregnant while on tour, the uncomfortable mix of travelling and performing while expecting, quickly established the priorities. But while taking a break, Vogguvisur, an album of lullabies sung in Icelandic, served to satisfy her craving for time in the studio making music.
It’s probably fair to say that Hafdis hasn’t always been so home centric and she was just 15 when embarking on her first world tour fronting the Icelandic electro-pop outfit Gus Gus, who she remained with for four years. Even as a young child she was drawn towards theatre and performance, but perhaps it was the wider artistic ambitions of the Gus Gus collective that also led her into acting in a couple of films. After leaving Gus Gus, Hafdis based herself in the UK and studied at the London College Of Contemporary Music, graduating with distinction in 2006.
It was that year that her debut album was released, Dirty Paper Cup, which went on to win Best Pop Album at the 2007 Icelandic Music awards. Featuring songs co-written with Jim Abbiss of Arctic Monkeys, Pascal Gabriel, Boo and Chris Corner of Sneaker Pimps, it set up a succession of touring and Hafis also played many big festivals, including Glastonbury with a small band including Alisdair.
In 2008 she collaborated with Tricky on his Knowle West Boy album and recorded an a cappella version of the song Stop, which was used worldwide for a Mercedes advertising campaign. Hafdis’ second album Synchronised Swimmers was released in Iceland in 2009 and two highly successful singles propelled it to the top of top of the charts. Produced by Calum MacColl, it subsequently saw release across the rest of the world the following year, attracting considerable acclaim once more.
The lullabies album aside, Home is Hafdis Huld’s third solo album. Several familiar names re-occur, with Alisdair obviously taking a major credit as co-writer on several tracks, the main instrumentalist and also producer. Boo and Calum also add their names to the co-writes list as does Ed Harcourt as mentioned. Tim Gordine is also someone who Hafdis has written with before on her last album, but a slightly more surprising name perhaps is Nik Kershaw, who although his star may have waned considerably from his 80’s peak, has enjoyed a quiet renaissance as an acoustic artist and as a songwriter of some success.
Although Sunrise was the song that set the sound for the record, it was the song that appears as track two on the CD, Queen Bee, that nailed the albums theme. In the video Hafdis, disarmingly refers to the composition as a thank you note to her neighbour for a dog he had given her. The natural response to the gift for Hafdis was to bake a cake, but as the neighbour was out the cake was eaten and so a song was written to replace it.
As an opening salvo it’s a sublime pairing. The first is a beautiful recognition of love in the simple things and the latter is an affectionate and personal portrait of a man, quite possible out of step with many, who none the less lives a good life in all senses and clearly has the respect of the composers. The acoustic guitar, Hafdis’ preferred instrument to accompany her voice, dominates both, but there is subtle use of piano, which features more than before in both acoustic and electric variants. Hafdis’ voice is a gentle embrace somewhere between a whisper and a purr.
There’s also just a little hint of bass notes and beats occurring throughout, although subdued they provide a little extra, finely judged impetus. Hafdis was clear that she didn’t want too much noise on these tracks and gets her wish, although apparently somewhere in the mix of the album the sounds a snoring dog and a couple of horses are buried. The rooster who appears lyrically in the second song had to be edited out as Hafdis complained he was far louder than she was.
Although the instrumental palate remains largely the same, there are some neatly arranged, subtle changes and banjo and ukulele turn songs like Lucky into a gentle canter. Hafdis has described the uke in particular as bringing out the sunshine
It’s not all just good times, however, as the title track is actually about being away from Home and the need to be back in a more comfortable place. It has an overall more treated sound that has a slightly woozy and dislocated. The waltz of Wolf is slightly sinister, with its ominous thump of bass drum and dissonant bleeps and scrapes (listen below), as is Empty Eyes, with its odd timing and layered voices. Both, according to Hafdis, are based on real events that she doesn’t want to repeat.
Treasures too is a reminder of our mortality and that the end comes too soon for some. It’s lovely none the less and the finger style guitar is a treat. Never Needed You captures the point of realisation that there are some people and things that you are better off without, although form the positive perspective of also understanding you are quite strong enough to make do without them anyway.
Perhaps the most complex arrangement on the album is Little Light that mixes a lovely piano run or two in with guitars, ukulele, glockenspiel, one of the fuller drum tracks and more, it has a little star dust sprinkled through. By contrast Pop Song is a stripped back affair, which none the less satisfies its title. All of which just leaves I Miss The Rain, which Hafdis has explained as her take on irony after a miserable spell of weather blighting a summer. Hafdis takes it with just the ukulele, reasoning that it needs that sunshine she believes the instrument possesses.
As a final note, there’s the artwork from Alidair too with some excellent drawings that depict elements of the songs and of course Hafdis herself. It’s a little detail, but one that adds further pleasure and charm to the CD, adding an appropriate package for an album as utterly beguiling as it is. It also has genuine substance and not every song is there to give you the woolly socks and cup of tea cuddle, but the ones that don’t remind you of why you should value those moments that do. They say home is where the heart is and for these 40 minutes at least, I’ll very happily lodge mine with Hafdis.
Review by: Simon Holland
Home is released 5th May 2014 via Reveal Records