TREMORS// Laufey is revitalising jazz for the 21st century

Every month //TREMORS// spotlights a new artist sending waves through the music scene. This month, we talk to singer-songwriter Laufey, whose warm, nostalgic blend of jazz, pop and classical has already caught Billie Eilish's eye.

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“Ella Fitzgerald sings like a cello – it’s incredible. As a cellist, that felt like home to me.” 

When Laufey first heard Ella Fitzgerald, she couldn’t help falling in love. Here was a singer with the grand, soaring string arrangements she recognised from classical orchestral pieces and here was a voice she could finally sing along with. It was home. 

“When I was starting, I had quite a low voice and couldn’t resonate with the pop singers at the time because they all had higher, lighter voices. But I could really resonate with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday; these women with deep, full tones. For me growing up pretty much only listening to and playing classical music, it felt familiar, but also like something new.”

Familiar yet something new is precisely the sensibility of Icelandic-Chinese singer-songwriter Laufey Lin. Her first forays into jazz, cheek-to-cheek with Ella and Billie, eventually lead her to the illustrious Berklee College of Music, the finals of Iceland’s Got Talent, and then to her debut, ‘Typical of Me’, earning shout-outs from both Billie Eilish and Willow Smith in the process. The EP is an inviting cross between old fashioned jazz, R&B and pop from a tender artist who took a classic, romantic sound “to tell [her] story of life in 2021 as a young 22-year-old woman of colour.”

Credit: Caity Krone

Music was an inevitability. Having a classical violinist for a mother and professors in music for grandparents, it became second nature: “Music was such a part of my life that it was almost like school for me. When I was an older teenager, I started to grow into it more and appreciate it on my own.” 

Despite a love of classical music, the traditional route of a conservatoire and auditioning for orchestra wasn’t quite the path Laufey had in mind: “I just don’t think I had the motivation to practice! I’ve been around the most driven kids who practice for hours a day, whereas I would rather spend my time singing.” 

If her musical career could have been derailed by anything, it wouldn’t have been thanks to teenage rebellion but rather through pragmatism. Berklee was the only music college Laufey applied to and in an alternative timeline, she may well have accepted an offer from St. Andrews to study economics instead: “I guess I’m a little bit of a realist in that way, because I was so unsure that anything would happen.”

Her identical twin sister and “best, best friend” did go on to study international relations in the UK – “​​I always say, ‘I’ll live in your attic or basement.’ I’ll be the entertainment” – but with the hindsight of Berklee and all those subsequent lightning bolt moments, Laufey can’t imagine it turning out differently: “I spent so many years convincing myself that I have to be realistic and have some backup plan. And now I’m like…there’s absolutely nothing I could do other than this.”

“My goal is to make these genres less scary and take the seriousness out of them because in the end, these are timeless forms of music.

Laufey

As a new graduate living in L.A. amongst a community of fellow musicians, a true sense of belonging wasn’t easily won. Laufey grew up caught between cities, Reykjavik and Washington D.C. – “I’m very, very close with my family because of moving around so much but it was definitely very hard. I was just in a constant state of culture shock. I really didn’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere until a month or two ago. I’ve always kind of felt like there’s somewhere else I need to go, a next step that I needed to take. And right now, for the first time, I feel like I’m at my destination. Until I go on tour in the fall!”

Before she had the steadiness of a home in L.A. to ground her, Laufey poured all her energy into music. “This is a really cheesy answer, but music definitely was the anchor. Wherever I went, there was a symphony, there were musical performances or musical friends. It truly is a universal language.”

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But for a universal language, jazz and classical music have always suffered from an accessibility problem and it’s a problem she is acutely endeavouring to fix. “I think a lot of it is a bit gatekept and when you think of the average kind of jazz consumer right now, there’s this idea that it’s, you know, affluent white people or something,” says Laufey. “If anything, classical music is even deeper in this hole. It’s something that’s scary to approach for young people and people of colour. So my goal is just to make these genres of music less scary and take the seriousness out of them because, in the end, these are timeless forms of music that will exist for a long time.”

Credit: Caity Krone

Laufey’s revitalising approach draws on the culture shock she experienced growing up, bringing together worlds by performing covers of old jazz standards on TikTok and Instagram and curating playlists of vocal inspirations beyond Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. “I’m definitely very inspired by the Pied Pipers, Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots – these very old jazzy close harmony groups. I just love when harmonies are so close that you get to a point where you’re like, “is that even right?” And then one note moves and it all resolves and” – she briefly mimics the Hallelujah Chorus – “it’s like taking a sip of water when you’re so thirsty. It’s…satisfaction.”

When it comes to songwriting, her plan is to “invite this nostalgic, warm sound that a lot of people are familiar with but they just don’t really know how to put their finger on it.”

“I get this comment all the time, that it sounds like Christmas music or an old Disney film or something that I heard at my grandmother’s house. So I’m finding that so many young people have an appreciation for this kind of music and they don’t even know it. And that makes me very, very excited.”

“I’m not trying to be a pure jazz musician or a pure pop musician. i want to mix the world to make my own genre.”

Laufey
Credit: Caity Krone

With Laufey as the newly appointed guardian of the Great American Songbook, are we due a return to a time of music that openly swooned and of unabashedly earnest lyrics that weren’t at risk of being sniffed at? Well, even the greats need some edits. “I love those old songs and I will perform them till the day I die, but they’re all written by old men in the 30s, you know? I think if I’m able to tell those stories through my eyes and throw in stuff like Instagram, it’s really fun.”

“Those songs are all from musicals, really, so they’re explaining these very niche scenes and circumstances. But because of that, they paint really vivid pictures and that’s definitely what I try to do with my own music.”

Indeed, sticking on ‘Typical of Me’ is reminiscent to a record a grandparent might put on during a rainy Sunday or like taking a gentle stroll through the frames of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, with its autumnal turtlenecks and timeless soundtrack. “That is my favourite movie in the entire world,” Laufey jumps in, positively giddy. “There’s a song on the EP called ‘Like The Movies’ and it’s literally a big middle finger to Nora Ephron. If my life could be a movie, I’d want it to be a Nora Ephron movie; just the clothes and the way it’s filmed, the hue, the way that they act and talk. She uses the best music – that’s the thing. That’s why it works in my head.”

The dearth of romcoms in 2021 is something she grieves, another string to the bow of an old soul, and she’s eagerly anticipating Nora Ephron’s successor. “I’m waiting. I am waiting! And then once they do appear, I need them to immediately contact my manager about letting me score the entire film.”

Until the romcom renaissance arrives, Laufey is living out another dream: recording with a symphony orchestra. “It’s a very, very exciting project; the most exciting project that I will ever do in my life,” she says, visibly brightening to discuss her new single with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, ‘Let You Break My Heart Again’ that was inspired by “the kind of blind love you experience in your youth…by the sounds of old Hollywood films.” 

“Growing up with classical music, it was genuinely at the top of my bucket list to perform with a symphony. The orchestra recorded in London at the Southbank Centre and then I recorded my part here. It’s stylistically exactly where I wanted it. It’s a pop song essentially, but it obviously has this classical vibe and the style of the arrangement is very much like Ella Fitzgerald with the symphony. I’ve never been so excited for a song and I got to play cello on it. I could win a Grammy tomorrow and this will still be the peak of my life.”

But for her audience, with every new track, it becomes clear that Laufey’s peak is a long way off. In her immediate future, there’s a North American tour where she hopes to draw from her improvisational livestream background and even a spot at the London Jazz Festival, but Laufey’s main focus remains on perfecting her sound, that familiar yet something new: “I’m not trying to be like a pure jazz musician nor am I trying to be a pure pop musician. I want to mix the world to make my own genre.”

Laufey’s single ‘Let You Break My Heart Again’ with the London Philharmonia Orchestra is out now, alongside her first EP, ‘Typical of Me’

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