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.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir. Photo by Ugla Hauks.

Echo: Strange times. It feels weird to be talking about a

TV show.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir:

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?

Pretty late,

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.

It’s really

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?

Both. (Laughs).

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

the show?

Yes, absolutely.

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,

but …

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).

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