Advertisement

TikTok jazz sensation Laufey: ‘It’s no longer about genre, it’s about feeling and mood’

<span>‘There’s no better time to be a woman, or a musician’: Laufey, photographed at Earth, in London.<br>(Styling by Kate Sinclair. Hair and makeup by Elena Diaz. Top and skirt by Cecile Bahnsen. Earrings by Margaux)</span><span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
‘There’s no better time to be a woman, or a musician’: Laufey, photographed at Earth, in London.
(Styling by Kate Sinclair. Hair and makeup by Elena Diaz. Top and skirt by Cecile Bahnsen. Earrings by Margaux)
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

It’s six hours before showtime and a queue of teenagers already lines the street outside east London’s EartH arts venue. They are sitting patiently on the pavement and finishing their homework or playing Uno, hoping to get to the front of the stage for the first of three sold-out shows by 24-year-old singer-songwriter Laufey Jónsdóttir. Overhead, the grey February afternoon threatens to break into rain.

Inside, sitting next to the peeling walls of her dressing room in a pristine gingham dress, Jónsdóttir is unfazed by the levels of anticipation.

“Since we put on my first headline shows in 2021, they have always sold out,” she says. “I don’t get nervous before I perform, because as soon as I’m on stage it’s this immediate release to sing and connect with the audience. It’s the best part of being a musician.”

It is unsurprising that Jónsdóttir – known simply as Laufey, pronounced Lay-vay – has only played sold-out shows, since the statistics that have accompanied her in the four years since she released her 2020 debut single, Street By Street, are dazzling. She has more than 4 million followers on TikTok, where her songs have gone viral multiple times, more than 2 million on Instagram, and in 2023 beat Björk and Sigur Rós to become the most streamed artist from Iceland. That same year, she played sold-out shows to more than 60,000 people across the world and released collaborations with Norah Jones and Beabadoobee. Famous fans include Billie Eilish, who cheered her on in February when she became the youngest person to win the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album – an award previously won by the likes of Tony Bennett, Joni Mitchell and Michael Bublé. She is now embarking on a world tour that will see her play the Royal Albert Hall, cross Europe, head to the US and even perform with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra in the Philippines. Each show is, of course, sold out.

Even more astounding than her rapid ascent is the type of music that Laufey makes. Across her two albums, 2022’s Everything I Know About Love and 2023’s Bewitched, she has perfected a mix of 1950s-inspired classic jazz vocals with luscious symphony orchestrations and confessional Taylor Swift-esque songwriting, spawning a new form of pop. Playing like TikTok’s answer to Norah Jones, Laufey is making crooning jazz palatable to teen audiences for the first time in decades, her torch songs harking back to a sepia-tinted world they have never known.

“The music I make has older inspirations but the lyrics are very modern,” she says. “I don’t see myself as somebody who should have existed in a different decade. I’m very much a 21st-century girl and love living in this time, since there’s no better time to be a woman.”

I definitely felt like a foreigner, being one of the few Asians in Iceland

Indeed, Laufey’s songwriting takes in every aspect of modern romance, from tales of spying a crush on the tube (From the Start) to the emotional perils of situationships (Promise), all couched in the warmth of her low-register, Ella Fitzgerald-referencing vocals.

“I also think there’s no better time to be a musician, because audiences have never been as open as they are today,” she adds. “We have an abundance of ways to listen to all types of music, and it’s no longer about genre, it’s about feeling and mood. At the end of the day, young people want to listen to young people, they don’t want to listen to older people preach to them.”

Born in Reykjavik to an Icelandic father and Chinese mother, Laufey and her identical twin sister, Júnía, grew up steeped in music. Her mother is a violinist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, while her maternal grandparents were professors of violin and piano. Inspired by the jazz records in her dad’s collection, as well as her mother’s love of the classical repertoire, Laufey was given her first violin at the age of two, before taking piano lessons at four and cello lessons at eight. “Initially, I needed to be pushed to do music,” she says. “But I’m grateful that my mother made me practise every day for an hour, because when I reached 13, it suddenly clicked.”

Joining a youth orchestra as she entered her teens, music soon became a social endeavour as much as an escape from the sense of difference Laufey otherwise experienced as one of the only people of colour in her community.

“I definitely felt like a foreigner, being one of the few Asians in Iceland, and having lived partially in the States from six to nine years old,” she says. “On top of that, I was a nerdy orchestra kid. I didn’t go home to play with friends, I went home to practise. Music became this project that I hoped would be my ticket to the big world of the States or the UK.”

By 15, she had performed as a cello soloist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and entered Icelandic reality contest Ìsland Got Talent, reaching the televised final. “I was very strict with discipline in high school, I didn’t drink and I didn’t party,” she says. “I was fixed on achieving my goal of going to a university abroad and getting a full scholarship.”

The hard work paid off and in 2018, aged 19, she left home to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a prestigious Presidential scholarship. There followed two years full of firsts: her first experience of living apart from Júnía, her first time studying jazz rather than classical music, and her first romances. “I gained independence for the first time, I was no longer part of a twin unit and I was just living as a woman,” she says with a smile. “I was like, let’s grow up and live a little, and all of a sudden I had all these experiences to write about.”

Filling up her songbook with new encounters in romance, rejection and longing, Laufey was ready to test her material with the public when Covid-19 hit. “We had nowhere to go and nowhere to play as musicians, so the internet was really the only place to present any kind of art,” she says. “I used lockdown to post videos of myself online singing new songs and I was shocked that it took off. We ended up growing a real audience of young people.”

In April 2020, she independently released Street By Street, a plaintive, folk-influenced ballad about reclaiming a city from its memories of an ex. But it wasn’t until Laufey made a TikTok video singing her song Valentine the following year that she fully went viral. “It’s just a jazz song that I wrote on Valentine’s Day, kind of as a joke, but once I posted it, my phone started blowing up,” she says. “Now it’s become like a new standard. It’s fun that a song I wrote as a homage to the past can be understood as new music.”

Ultimately, this is the essence of Laufey’s musical appeal – repurposing old sounds to create a wistful nostalgia for an era that her teen fanbase have never known. While her debut album, Everything I Know About Love, was formed largely of those Berklee dorm room songs, her latest release, Bewitched, sees Laufey in more advanced musical territory, co-producing and even composing classical music for the first time – all the while remaining an independent artist without a major label contract.

“It’s more mature because I’ve grown as a person,” she says. “Not a single note is played on the songs without me being in the room, and it’s all musicians playing real instruments. We’re all just trying to bring classical and jazz music to new audiences.”

A highlight on the album is the moving jazz ballad Letter To My 13 Year Old Self, where Laufey sings softly about her teenage feelings of inadequacy. “When I was younger, I felt so odd. I felt like a circus freak, because I had this low voice and there were so few Asian singer-songwriters to look up to,” she says, her head bowed. “I wrote Letter To My 13 Year Old Self because I was reflecting on how I had these big dreams but I didn’t think they were possible. I didn’t feel cool enough or beautiful enough. I have a lot of younger fans now who have similar dreams and I want to encourage them too.”

Back at EartH in Hackney, more than 1,200 of those fans let out a deafening roar while Laufey plays everything from 40s jazz standard I Wish You Love to her own 21st-century standard Valentine at EartH. As she draws to a close, she sings Letter To My 13 Year Old Self and addresses the crowd. “I feel like I became the artist that I was missing when I was younger and it makes me really, really happy,” she says, her voice quavering. “Every night I look out into my crowd it feels like the community I always wanted but never had.” Her audience cheers and some wipe away tears from their cheeks, nodding to each other. It seems this show was worth the wait.

• Laufey plays the Roundhouse, London 13 March, and the Royal Albert Hall on 16 May. Bewitched is out now on AWAL Recordings