Who's Laufey Now
Back in the spring of 2020, on the day before Berklee’s campus was shuttered because of the pandemic, Laufey (pronounced “Lay-vay”) recorded her first song. She was 19 and nursing a broken heart, and had been trying to write something that might free her of its hold on her psyche. After weeks of dead ends, something finally clicked and “Street by Street” came pouring out. It’s an intimate, confessional song about young love gone wrong and about taking back the reins of your life. Sung in a smoky vocal timbre and accompanied by minimalist jazz guitar, it dares you not to bob your head while listening to it.
In the lonely and frightening weeks that followed, she released the song, more or less on a lark. And then she watched, with quiet awe, as it rose like a Chinese lantern, buoyed by the resilient light inside it. Soon enough, “Street by Street” was at the top of the charts in her home country of Iceland and she was on her way to becoming an international star. In many ways, she’s been preparing for this heady trip her entire young life.
The daughter of a Chinese mother and Icelandic father, Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir B.M. ’21 grew up surrounded by music in Reykjavik and Washington, D.C., in an environment that sounds like a souped-up Baby Einstein program. Her mother is a world-class violinist and her grandfather taught the instrument back in China. Laufey was studying violin and piano at an age when most kids can’t pronounce those words and, by 15, was playing cello solos with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and appearing on Iceland Got Talent. (She finished in a humbling second place.)
Though trained as a classical musician, she’s always nourished a love of jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker and had a fondness for the Great American Songbook. When it came time for college, she received a prestigious Presidential Scholarship to attend Berklee, where she found a way to harness all of her influences and pursue all of her interests.
“My whole goal as a musician is to bring these older styles of music to a new audience and frame it as something that’s new and relevant and cool,” she said with a guileless charm.
Success on the order she’s achieved—she’s amassed over 1 billion streams across all platforms and been nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album—can be disorienting for an artist at any age and disastrous for one so young. But Laufey has managed it with all the aplomb you’d expect from an old soul. She seems to know that success’s truest blessing is more work. In September she released Bewitched, her second studio album in two years, and the biggest debut for a jazz album on Spotify. It features elaborate and playful arrangements that honor her classical background—a couple of tracks feature London’s Philharmonia Orchestra—and her voice sounds as mature and seasoned as ever. And while she’s still mining the vein of young love, her lyrics have a knowing, wry wisdom to them, as when she sings, “It hurts to be something / It’s worse to be nothing with you.” Bottom line is, everything Laufey touches bears the thumbprint of authenticity, which is exceedingly rare to find. A true gift.