June 05

FOLK ALLIANCE INTERNATIONAL’S 2021 FOLK UNLOCKED VIRTUAL CONFERENCE: PART 2 OF 8 – BREK

This article is the second of an eight-part series covering Folk Alliance International’s 2021 Folk Unlocked Virtual Conference, dedicated to Brek and their festival performance.

Brek is a two-year-old four-piece based in Reykjavík, Iceland, consisting of pianist-vocalist Harpa Thorvaldsdottir, guitarist Jóhann Ingi Benediktsson, Mandolinist Guðmundur Atli Pétursson, and double bassist Sigmar Matthiasson. On the evening of Monday, February 22nd (CST), the smartly dressed members of Brek streamed their five-song, 20-minute, fully-acoustic set, which had been recorded specifically for the Folk Unlocked festival one week prior at a Reykjavík studio operated by Iceland’s national public-service broadcasting organization, Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV).

Overall, Brek’s playing was both delightful and moving. The sounds of the four instruments, and the tetrad of male and female human voices speaking Icelandic—and occasionally, English—were woven into one another to create light, soft, sweet textures that evoked sentiments ranging from joy to somberness. The vocal harmonies in particular were immensely powerful despite their elegant, almost understated tones.

In terms of the individual members’ contributions to the band’s overall sound, Thorvaldsdottir’s quasi-operatic vocals, and her driving Steinway playing gave the songs a lot of emotional direction. Pétursson provided many delicate-timbred melodic ideas on his Mowry F5 Mandolin, custom-built for him by master builder Andrew Mowry. Matthiasson tactically punctuated the musical phrases of the piano and mandolin on his 90-year-old Juzek Double Bass. And Benediktsson—who had been enriching the harmonies by strumming on his dreadnought Martin D-28 throughout the first four songs—kicked off the final song, Fjaran, by suddenly switching to a commanding fingerpicking style. Collectively, these were some of the fundamental components that gave each Brek song a signature stylistic stamp.

Although Brek usually performs in Reykjavík, they plan to play around Iceland this summer to promote their debut LP, which is slated to be released soon. After that, they hope to tour abroad.

I reached out to Brek via email with some questions, which they graciously provided written responses to. Read on to see what they had to say!

Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image courtesy of Brek.is

Ben: Could you please provide some information about the significance of the band’s name?

Brek: The name Brek came after having brainstormed with various Icelandic words and terms. We were looking for something that would work both in Icelandic and English.

In Icelandic, the word “bernskubrek” means childish things a kid would do (“bernska” means childhood), but we are all adults, so we kept the “brek” part of that word, which we thought that was kind of funny and clever at the same time.

Ben: How did the band form, and how do you all know each other?

Harpa and Jóhann both grew up in the same town in northern Iceland called Hvammstangi. Since they both studied music and worked as music teachers, they thought it would be nice to do a project together. In the fall of 2018, Harpa happened to have just started dating Guðmundur when she and Jóhann met up for their first rehearsal. Guðmundur actually joined them with his mandolin after he had come to pick up Harpa from that first rehearsal. After Sigmar joined in January 2020, the band was complete.

Since then, Brek has only grown and grown. We all come from different musical backgrounds but work very well together, and we feel that is definitely a strength. Harpa studied opera singing in Salzburg Austria, Guðmundur comes from a bluegrass background, Jóhann is a singer-songwriter who also studied classical music, and Sigmar studied jazz in New York City. 

The band’s only rule for working together is that there are no rules regarding stylistic approach, and we feel that our different sources of inspiration blend into something that is our sound.

Ben: Each Brek song blends various genres together, including traditional Icelandic folk music. Could you please tell me a little bit about which elements of Icelandic folk music you think can be heard in your music?

Brek: Most of our songs have Icelandic lyrics, although we have songs in English as well. The Icelandic language has a very varied and colorful blend of sounds and words that we feel gives the music a different sound, and we definitely use that as an element of color in our music.

Traditional Icelandic music often uses distinctive rhythms and makes use of certain intervals in melodies and harmonies, like the perfect fifth for example. We try to blend some of these elements into our music without making it too obvious. Most of the time we think of it more like one of our natural sources of inspiration than something we do deliberately.

Ben: You have one EP out and your debut LP is scheduled for release soon. What’s the process of creating your first full-length album teaching you, from an artistic perspective?

Brek: The making of the album has been a learning process for us and also a good way of getting a feel for how we work best together as a group. In the process, we have gotten to know each other’s strengths well, and how we can best contribute. We all have other jobs, so we have to be very focused during our work sessions. The sessions have been very good and we seem to work best and have the most fun when we are working on arrangements and bringing the songs to life. Regarding the musical direction, we feel that we have found a certain sound that we can call our own, which we can keep building on.

Ben: Lastly, is there anything else in particular that you’d like our readers to know about Brek?

Brek: We think we have stumbled onto a sound that is our own, based on our different backgrounds and influences as individuals. We are excited to work on developing that in the future. 

Brek’s debut album is almost finished and will be released on vinyl and CD in the coming months. Hopefully that will be the first of many.

People can find more about us on our webpage, www.brek.is

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Next, I will cover the performance of Irish singer-songwriter Oscar Blue, as part of the Culture Ireland Stage showcase. Make sure to visit Big City Folks to check it out!