Jonsi goes for grandeur

The Sigur Rós frontman had simple ambitions for his solo debut, but Go took on a beautiful life of its own

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      On some level, Jónsi Birgisson can appreciate why January is famous as the most horrid month of the year. He understands it’s a time when the parties are over, the days are long and dark, and the weather typically miserable. But reached at home in Reykjavík, Iceland, the man known to his fans primarily as Jónsi notes that he’s never been one to sit around popping Paxil while contemplating the rusty razor blades in the medicine cabinet.

      From there, the songs are pretty much gorgeous beyond belief. “Animal Arithmetic” melds baroque-sounding harpsichord with a skittering techno beat; “Tornado” goes for something epic with Spiritualized brass and military-tattoo drums; and “Boy Lilikoi” sets course for heaven with what sounds like the entire string section of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.

      Jónsi is quick to credit two people—drummer Samuli Kosminen (of Iceland’s múm) and American composer Nico Muhly—for helping him compromise his original vision. After recording a batch of bare-bones guitar-and-vocals demos at home in January 2009, the singer sent them off to Muhly, asking him to add strings and brass.

      “I explained that I wanted playful, colourful, and kind of crazy—something maybe a little different from the Sigur Rós arrangements,” Jónsi notes. “I also talked with Samuli about making things different. And then all this shit happened when we got into a studio in Connecticut with Peter Katis—he’s a producer and engineer. We went there in April, and when we started to record all the strings and brass with all the piano and drums and percussion, I realized ”˜Shit—this is more than I thought it would be.’ And I really liked that—all the layers and stuff that’s happening in the songs.”

      Even if he hadn’t proven himself an overachiever on Go, there’s a case to be made that Jónsi believes the devil finds work for idle hands. In 2009 he released Riceboy Sleeps, an album of ambient soundscapes recorded with Somers under the band name of Jónsi & Alex. The two also produced an accompanying Riceboy Sleeps picture book.

      Even more than Jónsi & Alex, Go proves you can take the boy out of Sigur Rós, but you can’t take Sigur Rós out of the boy. That Jónsi hasn’t made some radical attempt to reinvent himself is maybe as good a commentary as any about the future of the group. Indeed, he’s been careful to note that there’s no great drama behind his solo project; it’s more that the songs he wrote for Go, as originally imagined at least, didn’t fit into the Sigur Rós canon. And with his regular bandmates all deciding to start families, the time seemed right to do something with the tunes he had stockpiled.

      What’s obvious, though, is that Jónsi isn’t taking the half-assed approach to going it alone. For a start, Go will be remembered as one of the best albums of the year. That becomes doubly impressive when you consider that most solo debuts exist only to remind established artists not to quit their day jobs. (Take a bow Courtney Love, Frank Black, Gordon Downie, and Gavin Rossdale.)

      Just as telling as the effort Jónsi put into Go is the meticulous attention to detail that’s going into the live shows for the record. Determined to give audiences something more than a guy standing there with his backing band, the singer decided to shoot for something epic. 59 Productions—a London-based design firm that normally works with dance, theatre, and opera productions—was enlisted to create a multimedia assault for Jónsi’s shows. “It was my manager’s idea to get these guys working for us,” Jónsi admits. “I think we were all tired of the idea of Las Vegas rock shows with all of the smoke machines and lights. We wanted to try and do something different and go somewhere else.”

      And where exactly would that be? Well, when you think about Go accompanied by film, photographs, and art installations, let’s just say a place that sounds almost as enchanting as January is totally depressing.

      Jónsi plays the Vogue Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday (April 6 and 7).