Meet Herdís Stefánsdóttir
By Tom Reardon, May 2020 issue.
Stefánsdóttir is a name you need to know even if it is a bit of a mouthful for
the average American. While the 32-year-old composer and musician currently
lives in Los Angeles, with her boyfriend, Dustin O’Halloran, who is also a
composer and their 15-month-old daughter, Ísold Aurelia, Stefánsdóttir is from Reykjavik,
Iceland and at the time of our discussion, was hoping to get back to her native
country as soon as possible.
It’s a hectic time for Stefánsdóttir in our
world of social distancing. She’s hard at work on the musical score for a new
HBO show, We’re Here, which is set to begin broadcasting on the cable
giant on April 23 of this year but would like to get home to Iceland if her
flights will just stop being canceled. She’s also got a toddler to think of,
but fortunately O’Halloran is able to take over much of the day-to-day
parenting duties while she creates music for her first TV show. To say it’s
been a whirlwind for the talented Icelandic talent is an understatement, but it
also seems that she is just getting started.
While Stefánsdóttir’s name is not quite
synonymous with epic movie and tv scores just yet, it probably will be soon. If
you saw 2019’s The Sun is Also a Star then you have heard her beautiful,
haunting work. In the past four years, she has worked on several short films,
two features, gotten her MFA from New York University and had a child. Prior to
taking the leap as a composer, she was also part of an acclaimed electronic
duo, East of My Youth, which released a number of music videos and an EP, West
of My Future ltd., in 2017.
The future is truly in the palm of
Stefánsdóttir’s capable hands. We sat down with the pianist for a long phone
chat just days after our world was, for lack of a better expression, told to
just stay home.
Echo: Strange times. It feels weird to be talking about a
It’s very existential.
That’s a great way of putting it. It seems like
everyone in Phoenix has become a hoarder. Is it the same in LA?
It seems like it. I
think so. At least it looks like it. It seems like shelves are empty everywhere
in the world.
At what age did you figure out music would be the
path for you?
honestly. You always hear about people doing music at the age of five or
something, but it wasn’t like that at all for me. I studied the piano from the
age of eight, but it was always just something I did on the side. Like a hobby,
even though I was always very musical and really loved music. I went to high
school and was always focused on very practical things like, maybe I will be a
doctor or a lawyer or, you know, something that will earn me money.
That was the focus I was taking. I actually
started studying law when I was 20 years old. It didn’t fit me at all. I was
very miserable. To a profound level, I was miserable. I really hated it. That
is when I started playing the piano a lot and started writing music. I was 21
years old and hadn’t really written any music before. That was a surprise. I
was like, “Whoa!” I didn’t know I could do that. I started teaching myself and
studying (music) theory and music history and doing it as a hobby. I wrote a
choir piece for my grandmother’s choir and started teaching myself how to
arrange music, like string quartets.
It wasn’t until my friend, who was studying
at the Art Academy in Iceland, told me that you could study music composition
and I was like, “What, you can? That’s cool!” I didn’t know you could do that,
but I decided to apply to art school, and I got in. So that’s how it started,
but I was always telling myself that you can’t make a living doing music and
this was just a hobby and I’ll just try this out and go back to law school or
whatever and then that never happened.
You’re very fortunate to have been able to take that
leap of faith and you were blessed with some talent, too.
strange. You can’t really escape it. In my case, I was always trying to,
because I didn’t really believe there was something I could do or spend my life
doing, I was constantly trying to have the backup plan of doing something more
practical, but (my music) kept growing and becoming a bigger part of my life and
I just kept doing it. I guess that is what ultimately led me to the path of
being a composer.
When you started to write your own songs, was it like
people always say about the proverbial floodgates opening?
Yes, it was. I
would go to classes in the morning and I would come home and just play the
piano and study music on my own. It was probably a year of studying music on my
own, reading books, and trying to figure things out. It was just pure passion
because I loved it and I got really into it.
You were part of a group at one point, correct? East
of My Youth?
Yes, we were a duo.
Is that still going on?
No, it’s not going
on. I’ve been focusing the last year on my first solo record.
Do you like collaborating with others or do you
prefer to work alone?
It’s a tough question.
It is a
tough question, but I felt like it was important for me to start doing things
on my own. I wanted the challenge. As a composer, it’s kind of funny to now be
in a quarantine, because it is the same. You’re always alone. Sometimes it can
be so refreshing and inspiring to work with other friends and collaborate and
you learn a lot from it, so I definitely prefer to mix both approaches.
What was your first opportunity to work on a film
When I was doing my
undergraduate degree in Iceland, I did some short films and I worked in
theater, too, and I worked with dancers.
This was a kind of thing I was experimenting with and then I did my
masters at New York University and that was emphasized in film scoring. There I
worked with a lot of directors and did some short films, as well.
Growing up, did you pay attention to the music in
film before you decided to go down that path?
Oh, yes, yes, yes.
Absolutely. I love film. I love cinema. (Music) is such a big part of cinema.
What do you think makes a good film score?
It needs to tell a
story. It’s so different for every film because they all have completely
different aesthetics and there are so many different approaches to making a
film. You might make a film where you want to make the score in front and the
score has a voice and it stands out and then another filmmaker might want the
score to be almost invisible and weave in with the story. I think it is hard to
say that there is one way of having a great score.
What is your process like as you work on (new HBO
real life series) We’re Here?
I watched the first
episode and started thinking about what I can add to it and how I can make
music that adds an extra dimension and maybe makes it special. I try to think
outside of the box and think about how this is an unscripted reality series and
what can we do to bring out the emotion and heart without being cheesy or going
into a cliché.
There is constantly new ideas and new
characters that are coming so I think it is a bit different than writing music
for a fictional series where you’re developing scenes that already have a
storyline or a plot. Each episode (of We’re Here) is independent and
every episode has different stories. This is the first time I am working on a tv show, so I am just learning
something new every day.
Were your familiar drag culture prior to working on
I’m a big fan of drag. I’m very into RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Is that part of what drew you to being interested in
working on the show?
I had no idea what
it was really about until I watched it, so I think what really drew me into
being excited to work on it is that I think it is very important and I think it
is a beautiful show and it’s funny and I think it touches on a subject within drag
that maybe hasn’t been shown. RuPaul’s (show) has all the drama and
entertainment but this is the real story behind the people that have maybe been
alienated in society and each one has gone through their own struggles to come
to the ultimate path of having the confidence to go into drag. I think it’s
interesting and a new perspective.
The show starts soon, correct?
Yes, this is
happening in real time. I’m going to be writing music while the first episodes
are still airing.
Wow. Do you enjoy working that way?
(Pauses) I can’t
say that it’s pure enjoyment to be under the gun and creating music, but you
definitely get into good shape. You get into good musical shape.
I bet. I assume you’ve worked with deadlines before,
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
This is just a different type of deadline because every time you’re finishing
something there is a new episode coming in and new things are happening in the
stories. This is a new experience for me. I’m just taking it day by day.
As you get to know the stories and the people in
them, do you get a feel or a theme for each person?
Yes. It is starting
to happen like that. This is how the sound is evolving, I feel. Maybe there is
a new story or a new character that comes in and I’m like, “Hmmn. Wait. This
guy or this girl, they need this …” and there are definitely new sounds
emerging through the episodes. A lot of the themes I’m writing can be reused
because they can also fit to something else, too.
It’s funny because I’ve never written
guitar music and it’s not an instrument I’ve used a lot, but maybe I’m working
on the show and I think, “Well, this dude, he needs some electric guitar.
That’s just what he needs, and I need to do that.” So, it’s also kind of
interesting for me to explore with instruments and things that I would not
normally use in my own music.
What would you like to do next?
I would like to do a dark project. My own music is pretty dark. It’s a different type of expression to work like that. I would be interested in doing something completely different that would take me down a different road. I’m putting that out in the universe. Not that the world needs more darkness, I mean, God, not now, but maybe next year when we are all feeling better again, we can produce more dark shit (laughs).