Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir was part of the popular Icelandic dream pop group múm, which she fronted with her twin sister Gyða. Before leaving the band in 2006, Valtýsdóttir, also known by her stage name Kría Brekkan, performed on the 2005 Animal Collective album Feels.
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Brekkan performed mostly piano on that Animal Collective album but she soon began writing music outside the context of any band, using her beautiful voice and unique use of instrumentation to create arresting atmospheres and finely textured rhythms unlike any of the other music for which she is most well-known.
Brekkan is making a rare appearance this weekend outside of her current home of New York City for a special edition of the Titwrench sponsored Surfacing event featuring notable female artists. Brekkan does few interviews but we recently had a chance to speak with her about her life, her most recent musical projects and her life as an artist.
Westword (Tom Murphy): You're a multi-instrumentalist. What instruments have you learned to play, and what is it about each that you find unique and interesting?
Kría Brekkan: My father owned an accordion. As a teenager I'd just sometimes play around with it, read his notes and learn the system of the bass-buttons. Soon we were borrowing his giant accordion on múm tours. Later, I educated myself on the accordion in order to be able to play Bulgarian folk music on it. I get a kick out of complicated things, but I love the accordion also for its deep bass.
Ww: Did you grow up in Iceland? What music were you exposed to growing up and as a teenager?
KB: My parents didn´t listen to so much music when I was growing up, but my father played the guitar, and my mother would sing a lot with us. So, yeah, [I listened to] a lot of Icelandic songs, psalms.
[There were] a few [other] cassettes that me and Gyða would listen to until they tore. Around twelve years old, I really got into Nirvana, and soon, I started playing Prokofiev on the piano and found it mind blowing and mysterious.
Ww: How did you end up joining múm, and were you involved in any other musical groups before then?
KB: Me and Gyða had just started college, and these two boys came there to make music for an experimental theater play. They asked if anyone knew how to play accordion, and me and Gyða said we did.
There were a few other kids involved with performing the music in the play, but me and Gyða never left the practice room. We stayed all night until we had to be at school the next morning. It just grew from there.
I never consciously intended to be a musician, to be in a band, to tour or anything like that. I had been studying physics in school. All of a sudden I just found myself in this position of performing music for people all over the world.
Ww: I've read that you are a bit of a fan of Béla Bartók. When did you first hear his music, and what is it about his music that you find most interesting or resonant?
KB: I first heard his music by reading it from sheet music and playing it myself. Actually, my two favorite composers at the time, I was still practicing piano, were Prokofiev and Béla Bartók. I never listened to other people play them, because I didn´t like to listen to recordings of them. And I didn´t like to be told how to interpret their music.
Perhaps that's a bit arrogant, but I just really liked the world I'd find myself in playing this music. I had my own romance with it and remember always being turned off hearing someone else practicing the same piece as I.
And Béla Bartók, he traveled a lot through Eastern Europe, gathering the music of the gypsies. They created emotional songs with complicated rhythms and he'd use the music as an inspiration for his own compositions. He'd add a particular abstraction to that what was folky, emotional and mystical. This man decided to construct something in such odd way it touched and intrigued me.
Ww: What lead to your contributing to the Animal Collective album Feels, and what do you think you brought to that particular project that it might not have had without your input?
KB: Dave Portner asked me to. He really like my piano playing, but it was also his decision to spend time with me, because I said I would go where music needed me to be. He had this vision of Feels sounding like a crystal palace. I spent a month with them recording my piano parts, which I did myself in the evenings.
However, I wasn´t there in the mixing. And when you got a bunch of young, stoned musicians, each one has enough trouble with keeping the vision of their own parts. I don't think what I contributed actually survived so well in the mixing process, although the piano is there.
But I fully understand, I´ve gone through the same experience of learning about focus and mixing. And I enjoyed the time we spent making it and the music so much I never cared about the result; though now, I feel like if I ever put that much work into something again, I'd follow it through until the end. As for Animal Collective, I think that after that record they started to work totally sober when in the studio.
I'm a obsessive "mender," and I still think about re-mixing Feels to sound like the crystal palace! However I honor the process and the experience I went through. The Feels album is a product, and although it is what people refer to when mentioning these songs. What they are, to me, is a period of wild dancing, magic, insane colors, new emotions and watching exceptional musicians realize their vision.
I think what I brought to it perhaps got channeled through Dave's creativity and so on. We had been intense pan-pals for nearly a year, at the time when it was recorded, and when my friends saw the album cover, they thought it was my art, and they laughed about the title because it came from my use of English. I used the word "feels" for feelings.
Ww: You have a few releases as a solo artist. Your latest is called Uterus Water. What is the significance of the title, and what can you tell us about the music on that album?
KB: On one level, it is about things that don't get to be, things that get conceived, but cannot be, things aborted or abandoned. Uterus Water itself was written on instruments I found in Dave's place once when I stayed there while extremely sick and alone. I had taken on an assignment to write a song for a compilation for children to go to sleep to.
One of Iceland's most famous lullabies is from an old play. The mother sings to her newborn child about the deathly, deep crevices that lurk in the dark. She´s carrying her child out, a common thing in Iceland in the old days, when an unfortunate childbirth had taken place.
And then on the opposite side, it is music to be played for a child in the womb. The time spent there is very formative and I thought it interesting to make music for humans in that state of becoming. My mom had this one womb-record, but it just contained some hum, heart beat and environmental sounds. Really just calm environmental recordings, nothing that wasn't in the environment already.
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SHOW ME HOW
Ww: Considering all of the things you've done as a musician, in terms of making music, travelling and having interesting experiences, what's one thing, more than anything, that you'd like to do as a musician and artist that you have not yet done?
KB: As a child, I had a great obsession with gypsies and refugees, street children and orphanages. I imagined myself working with them. Every game I played as a child involved this theme. Right now, through my music, I've had the opportunity to actually do this kind of work.
It is all still in the planning stages, so I won't say much about it, but it is definitely something I haven't yet done before. And when I recently got asked to participate in NGO work with the Roma in Romania and Hungary, it struck a chord within me that I feel excited and obliged to follow.