Icelandic singer-songwriter, Önnu Jónu Son, weaves personal experiences into ethereal soundscapes with new single ‘Big Boy Boots’
The Icelandic music scene is a gem, where haunting melodies intertwine with ethereal landscapes, forging a sonic journey that transcends conventional soundscapes. Önnu Jónu Son, the stage name of Haraldur Thorleifsson, is an artist who beautifully weaves his personal experiences into an otherworldly tapestry of music, leaving an indelible imprint on the sonic frontier.
His latest single, “Big Boy Boots,” is a poignant introspective track that explores themes of parental loss and the impact it has on a child’s life. Drawing from his own experience of losing his mother at a young age, Haraldur creates a deeply moving narrative that resonates with listeners.
Beyond his music, Haraldur has an impressive career as a designer and entrepreneur. Having founded creative agency Ueno and successfully sold it to Twitter, he has also established initiatives like Ramp up Iceland, building wheelchair ramps for accessibility, and Hafnarhaus, providing affordable creative spaces for artists and entrepreneurs.
In this interview, Haraldur shares insights into his music, creative process, and the significance of his stage name, Önnu Jónu Son, in honoring his late mother’s memory. He also discusses his latest album, “The Radio Won’t Let Me Sleep,” and how his personal journey, including struggles with alcoholism, has influenced his artistic expression.
With a heart for creating meaningful experiences, Haraldur’s ventures, including his restaurant, bar, and cinema called Anna Jóna, aim to evoke the emotions of safety, belonging, care, and warmth in its guests, much like the precious memories he holds of his mother.
Happy: What are you up to today?
Haraldur: Coincidentally this week has been filled with medical appointments and today was more of the same. I went for a general checkup with my GP and then for skin check. Happy to report both turned out well, no bad news!
To celebrate, I went to eat at my restaurant with the family.
All in all, a pretty great day.
Happy: Tell us about where you are from? What’s the music scene like in your neck of the woods?
Haraldur: Iceland has the world record in owning world records per capita.
One of them is in the amount of successful musicians and bands from one country. With a population just under 400k we have so many amazing people.
Björk and Sigurrós have been around for a while but recently many more have gotten international success. Personal favorite for me is Ólafur Arnalds.
Happy: Describe your average day.
Haraldur: As we’ll get to later, I juggle a lot of balls so I don’t know if there is an average day for me. The one constant is that I love to sleep late! I also tend to watch a fair amount of movies and I spend way too much time on Twitter.
Happy: What about your ultimate day?
Haraldur: My wife and I have two kids. And as much as we love them they can be annoying little bastards.
So right now the perfect day would be if someone took care of them while we would get to sleep late, eat in bed, snuggle, take a nap, go for a walk in the sun, catch a movie, eat at a restaurant and early to bed. I think that means I’m old.
Haraldur: Tell us about your creative community. Who are some artists or bands that have inspired you, and how have they influenced your music?
Sinead O’Connor, Bonnie Prince Billy, Small Faces, Public Enemy, Joy Division.
It’s a bit chaotic. When I want to listen to music and not do anything else I usually listen to something that makes me feel something. And that’s the kind of music that I want to make. Something with a strong point of view.
But then there are times I just want something around me that isn’t too demanding and then I’ll usually listen to something that can fade into the background, usually classical music or something low key.
Happy: What did you read or watch last that opened your eyes and mind to a new perspective?
I just finished watching the Last of Us. A bit late to the game.
Haraldur: I think we’d like to think that if we were faced with a mutual external threat people would band together. But unfortunately we tend to get even more aggressive and violent when we are scared so in times of crisis we kind of fall apart.
So while the sick fungus infected zombies were dangerous in that show, it really focused on how people were the real danger. Which seems accurate. Unfortunately.
Happy: Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind your upcoming album, “The Radio Won’t Let Me Sleep,” and how it relates to your personal experiences?
Haraldur: I started writing songs when I was about 17 years old. I wrote a lot but then around 24 I stopped writing and playing.
I’m 46 now and very recently I decided to pick this up again. I remembered some of the old songs and then wrote a few more until we got to 11. Which seemed like enough for an album.
Each of the songs means something to me. They relate to an experience or time in my life. There’s a lot of love songs, one of them called Margrét about my wife. There’s a lullaby that I sing for my kids, a song about my body and how muscle dystrophy keeps tearing it down.
Happy: What motivated you to choose the theme of parental loss and its impact on a child’s life for your latest single?
Haraldur: I lost my mom in a car accident the summer I turned 11. Like a lot of moms she was the best mom in the world so losing her completely turned my life around. It was, and honestly still is, devastating.
It’s about my mom but I wrote it partly from her point of view. Afterwards it also started to take on new meaning as my wife thought it was about me and our kids.
Losing a parent is hard, thinking about possibly having to go away from your kids before they grow up is a heartbreaking thought.
Happy: Could you share some insights into the creative/recording process behind the single?
I had written a melody for an upbeat song and I was trying to figure out the lyrics.
Haraldur: We were in the studio and I had to finish it. And nothing was working. So I slowed it down and just started following what I was feeling and this song came out.
We recorded it fast, one or two takes I think, just me and my co-producer on piano. And then we went to Reykjavik Recording Orchestra.
They have a studio in a big musical hall and are able to pull together amazing players per session.
They scored it with us and then we recorded. It was quite magical to see it all come together in those sessions.
Happy: How has your personal journey, including your struggles with alcoholism and the loss of your mother, influenced your artistic expression and the way you approach your music?
Haraldur: I have depression and I think that shows in a fair amount of the songs. It’s not that I set out to write them that way, I’m usually trying to write what I feel is true to me or how I’m feeling.
But life isn’t all doom and gloom! There are a lot of happy moments too and I think there’s hope and love and optimism in many of the songs too. At least Scandinavian optimism.
Happy: With a successful career as a designer and entrepreneur, what led you to shift your focus back to music and pursue it more passionately?
Haraldur: It’s always weighed on me that I never recorded my songs before. It’s been a promise I make to myself each year and then I don’t do it.
I was afraid I’d look foolish. That it wouldn’t be any good. That people would laugh at me.
But as I get older I care less and less about looking foolish.
Happy: Can you tell us more about the significance of your stage name, Önnu Jónu Son, and how it honors the memory of your late mother?
Haraldur: My mom was always supportive of everything I did. I felt completely safe when I was with her.
So when I was thinking about names I could use to put out my music under I decided to call myself Önnu Jónu Son. It means son of Anna Jóna.
With her as my shield nothing can go wrong.
Haraldur: What led you to establish Ramp up Iceland and the Hafnarhaus co-working space? How do these ventures align with your creative vision and goals?
Haraldur: We’re building 1500 wheelchair ramps in Iceland to help people like me that use a wheelchair to get access to shops, restaurants, bars, theaters, ice cream parlors, hairdressers. Well, basically society.
Hafnarhaus is a non-profit we set up that rents out cheap studios and co-working spaces to about 200 artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, in downtown Reykjavik. They get access to spaces to create far below market rates and a community of like minded people.
I think both initiatives are there to help level the playing field.
Helping people participate in life, getting the most of it and enjoying their time here is a huge source of joy for me.
Happy: As a multi-talented individual with accomplishments in various fields, how do you balance your different roles as a musician, designer, and entrepreneur?
Haraldur: I think they are all kind of the same thing, I just need to use slightly different methods to achieve the results I want in each field.
I love creating and the format doesn’t really matter that much.
Happy: What can we expect from your restaurant, bar, and cinema venture, Anna Jóna? How does it tie into your overall artistic vision and creative endeavors?
Haraldur: I built the restaurant to honor the memory of my mom.
I wanted to create a space where each guest gets to experience a fraction of the emotions I felt as a kid when I was with her. Safety, belonging, care, warmth.
I’m a fairly awkward in person. I don’t really mingle well with people. I’m not a great guest at a party. But I think I’m a pretty great party planner.
I can create experiences and spaces where people feel good. I hope the same applies to my music. Although I might mix in a few other emotions there.
Happy: Do you have any gear that you can’t live without?
Haraldur: My earpods are pretty much always on. I’m always listening to something. I have an extra pair so I can always have charged pods ready.
Happy: What makes you happy?
Haraldur: Happiness is a tough word for me. I think I was happy when I was a kid but right now I’ll settle for moments of joy.
Building Lego with my younger son, lunch with my older son, a silly joke with my wife, a game with my friends, a good song, a cute cat.
Life has a lot of small moments to make it all worth it.
Listen to ‘Big Boy Boots’ Below: