Laufey’s bewitching sounds pique Gen Z’s interest in jazz
With a classical violinist for a mother, the Icelandic-Chinese music artist Laufey might as well have been raised at the backstage of a symphony orchestra. She has been listening to classical music for as long as she can remember. She once dug through her father’s record collection and discovered jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
But while her love for such musical genres was nurtured by the environment she grew up in, she knew that it wasn’t the case for most people—and certainly not for people her age.
“Classical music was very accessible and normal to me. It’s the same with jazz, which was something I have always listened to. And then I ended up attending a conservatory. It was second nature to me. However, my peers who don’t listen to jazz or classical music feel like it’s not for them,” Laufey told the Inquirer in a recent virtual interview for her upcoming sophomore album, “Bewitched.”
Preconceived notions about jazz and classical music continue to persist: They’re “old people” music; they’re highbrow or elitist; you have to be cultured to appreciate them. And there may be some truth to them.
That’s why Laufey has made it one of her goals to introduce classical and jazz music to Gen Z crowds. And she does this by infusing established music traditions with contemporary pop sensibilities, and showcasing them through readily available media. She wants to show that the kind of music she enjoys can also bring joy to everyone else.
“There are those preconceptions all over the world. That’s why I’m passionate about what I do. Others feel like you need to have a lot of money to go to the symphony, or that you have to be very refined and be at least 21 years old to go to a jazz club. The barriers to enjoying them are quite high. I’m passionate about bringing them to social media because the barrier is low.”
Laufey was raised between Reykjavik and Washington, DC, with annual visits to Beijing. She grew up playing the cello and piano with the guidance of her Chinese mother, whose parents were music professors at the Central Conservatory of Music in China.
In 2020, while attending Berklee College of Music, Laufey released her debut single, “Street by Street,” which topped the Icelandic radio charts. The following year, after releasing her first EP titled “Typical of Me,” Laufey won the best new artist in jazz and blues award at the Icelandic Music Awards.
Meanwhile, her full-length debut album, “Everything I Know About Love,” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative New Artist Album chart in 2022. The album features the hit single, “Valentine,” which topped the Spotify Jazz Chart.
Now, Laufey, whose full name is Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir, has notched more than 500 million streams across all platforms and is the world’s biggest streaming artist from Iceland.
The 24-year-old singer-songwriter and multiinstrumentalist has also amassed a significant following on Instagram and TikTok, where her material—described as “dreamy,” “transportative” and filled with “wonder” and “wanderlust”—attracted enthusiastic young fans.
She couldn’t be more surprised by the reception.
“I was surprised because I was ready to be fighting with people in the industry, like, ‘I want to keep my music exactly how I want it to be,’ or, ‘You can’t push me to pop. I’m going to do it the way I want to,’” Laufey said. “But I have never had to do that because everyone sees that the music most aligned with my vision is also the stuff that performed the best.
“I didn’t really know if it would work or not. But the fact that it did was just magic,” she added.
And with her upcoming album, “Bewitched” (AWAL Recordings), Laufey hopes to continue what she has started.
“It’s a dream world of music. I’m so proud of it. It’s nothing too different, or something that will shock people. I’m still invested in staying in this jazzy, pop, classical root, because I’m passionate about bringing those to my audience … And I don’t think my work is quite done yet,” she said.
Excerpts from our Q&A with Laufey:
Tell us more about “Bewitched.”
“Bewitched” is a love album. My first album, “Everything I Know About Love,” is about moving out of my childhood home and kind of experiencing love for the first time and being a bit confused about it.
On the song “Bewitched,” one of the lines goes: “I didn’t know much about love but I’m learning.” And that’s tying it back to my first album, where I talk about how I don’t know anything about love. It’s connecting the dots. I see it as a continuation.
This time, I’m definitely more mature as a songwriter, producer and as a woman. There will be love songs and hopeless romantic ones, because that’s my nature. And I like to poke fun at myself, too.
What about in terms of sound?
In my first album, I was trying to figure out how far I could go in introducing jazz and classical sounds to young pop audiences.
What I have realized from my first album is that my fans seem to like the jazziest, most classical stuff, songs that are basically old standards, songs that are recorded with an orchestra. Those were my best-performing songs.
So, for the new album, I really leaned into that. All of the instruments were recorded live—no synthesizers, drum machines or anything like that. It’s a little bit more organic that way. We recorded it with an orchestra. I played cello on almost every song, and there’s a mix of bossa nova and jazz and lots of harmonies.
What do you think is the key to getting more young listeners into jazz or classical music?
I think what’s important for Gen Z, aside from the music itself, is relatability—not just with the lyrics, but with the artist. By nature, we’re less inclined to listen to people who are older than us. We want someone our age whose lives we can take inspiration from; people who we want to emulate.
Growing up, I followed my faves closely, looked at what they were wearing or doing, where they were going. This kind of stuff doesn’t feel relatable when artists are singing for a different generation. And that’s the main thing for me. I sing for my generation.
Of course, everyone is welcome and I strive to make music everyone can enjoy.
You played a show in Manila last May. What was the experience like?
It was incredible. It was so cool to go to a new country I’ve never been to and I immediately felt connected to my fans there. I was so shocked to see so many people. You could tell there was true appreciation for music in the Philippines that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It made performing there extra special.
I have been getting comments and messages from Filipino fans. And seeing their country, eating their food was so cool for me. It was very informative for me as an artist as well.
Three of your Top 5 cities on Spotify are Southeast Asian, including Quezon City. Does it make you wonder why your music became popular in this region?
Lots of my favorite artists who are of similar genre have big numbers in Southeast Asia, I noticed. It may have something to do with me being half Asian myself. But it’s also because the kind of music I make has a lot of hopeless romanticism, or feelings people go through there. There’s some sort of connection.
How did your formal music training help you with your crossover to pop?
There are the obvious things like ear training, harmonies, theories. They’re not absolutely necessary, but they’re helpful, especially since I’m a coproducer on all the tracks. I’m very involved. I played the piano, guitar, cello and arranged the harmonies. Having that musical information in the background is helpful.
But more than anything, it’s the stamina. I have been playing music since I was 4, practicing every single day. Having the technique, it’s good to be able to go up onstage and not have to think too much about it or get overwhelmed by it. That’s what I realized from touring and recording. My technique doesn’t go downhill because I worked hard for it when I was young.
You’re not worried that your technique is going to betray you onstage, regardless of circumstance.
My mom was strict with practice. And I’m thankful because I see that the hard work I put in as a kid has a direct result. Now, I’m pretty relaxed going onstage. It doesn’t faze me much. If anything, I just really enjoy it.