Exploring the legend of Grandma Lo-fi.
Seventy is usually the age most retired people take up hidden passions: playing a spot of golf, massaging exotic oils into bonsai trees, writing sordid memoirs, or getting absolutely shit hot at bridge.
Up in Iceland they have different ideas. Sigridur Nielsdottir was born before World War II, but that didn’t hold her back when she decided to start recording music in 2001, reinventing herself as an adored cult figure, better known in Iceland as the eminent Grandma Lo-Fi.
Having dabbled in music all her life, she finally started putting her unique blend of twee keyboard, skittering beats, and sampled field recordings to tape when she was 70, fashioning herself more albums than Lil B or Prince (59 in total) in the six years she spent recording, earning her fans worldwide and the biggest co-sign you can get in Iceland: Björk. Grandma Lo-Fi eventually quit music because she believed the world was tired of her sounds; an honorable decision most musicians half her age should take heed from.
Sigridur sadly died in 2011, at the age of 81, but before her passing a documentary was made about her by superfan Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, who even created her own tribute band to fill the space left by Grandma Lo-Fi’s reluctance to play live. The resulting documentary (which you can buy on Vimeo) is like watching someone’s pleasant old family tapes, if your nan was a chirpy blend of Ethel Tenenbaum and Micachu.
I talked to the documentary’s director Kristín about the music of Grandma Lo Fi, audio tricks, and how her biggest fan came to be Björk.
Noisey: For those who don't know Grandma Lo-Fi, could you explain a bit about her and her life?
Kristín: She was a very charming, giddy and wise grandma, who started making music at 70-years-old. She recorded and released 59 CDs in six years. She was beaming with fresh enthusiasm for sound and explored her surroundings as potential source for songs completely untouched by any kind of music industry mechanism. She was a DIY artist through and through.
How would your describe her music?
Its playful, explorative, a unique elixir of catchy pop and out there quirkiness. She played a small Casio, investigating all its potential: the bossanova, the samba, the ballade. She sang childlike, sincere, broken voice odes to loved ones, mixing in her field recordings done exclusively in her house. Adding samples of her pets purring, cooing, and yelping in sync with her beats and rhythms. There's a lot of humor in the songs. Grandma Lo-Fi had fun in her creative process and it shines through all the way. She's a great storyteller too.
Why did she start playing music at seventy?
Her daughters gave her a keyboard and a double decked tape recorder for her birthday.
Fifty-nine albums is a crazy amount. How can one person produce so much music in that time?
Making music made her happier than she had been in a very long time, so you could say she was born again through her creativity. After living quite a solitary, simple life, it suddenly created a bridge between her and the world outside, bringing her new friends and strangers who brought colour to her day. People from all over the world would knock on her door and say hi.
How did you discover her music?
She became a cult figure in Reykjavik. This mystery lady who was this fountain of amazing music, all released with homemade album covers in her own colorful drawings. So it was impossible not to become curious to know the person, the maestra behind all this goodness.
What was your favourite audio trick of hers?
She was very excited about making aluminium paper sound like fire. That joy was very contagious!
So true. So she started recording music for her daughters, how did it turn into making music for other people?
Through a girl who worked at a record shop who asked her why she was always buying tapes. She offered to help her make CDs and sell them in the shop. To her surprise, they started selling like hotcakes.
What did she think of the success?
She was excited and flattered, but she also didn't want to be vain about it, because she was very modest.
Didn’t she have an Icelandic superfan?
Björk collected her CDs.I think she's one of few people out there who has all of them.
Did they ever meet?
No, I dont think so. Sigridur didn't listen to music, watch TV or read papers. She knew Björk existed, but that’s about it.
Did she ever play live?
She never played live! She was too shy. Hence the importance of the tribute experience.
Where did the idea for the documentary come from?
We invited her over one day for chocolate milk and cookies as we put together The Sigridur Nielsdottir Experience—a tribute band dedicated to playing her music live. We wanted to meet the master and find out how she made the magic happen. We ended up spending the next eight years making a film about her.
What was her reaction to your band and the idea of a documentary?
She said to me that if me and my friends wanted to play her music live nothing would make her happier. She had a lot of fun making the film.
What is your most enduring memory of her?
Maybe when we were in her kitchen sampling. I collected sounds for The Experience with her and it was fun to get led through her world of sounds.
What do you think of the new compilation of her work?
We let them use the master we created for The Greatest Hits of Grandma Lo-fi which comes out on CD with the DVD we released of the documentary. The three of us who made the film put a lot of love into selecting the songs because there was almost 700 to choose from. Makes a lot of sense to see her music come out on the tape format she recorded it on.
Thanks for your time, Kristin!
Follow Dan Wilkinson on Twitter.