Catching Up with Nanna from Of Monsters and Men

Music Features Nanna
Catching Up with Nanna from Of Monsters and Men

“Happiness is a warm puppy,” the late Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz once posited. And no one, not even John Wick, could agree more heartily with this sentimental adage than Icelandic folk-rocker Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, who acquired exactly that three years ago at the beginning of lockdown: A warm, but underweight Labrador puppy that, as the runt of her litter, nobody seemed to want. “I was obviously home as everyone else was in 2020, and I heard from a friend of a friend that there were these puppies that had been born, and I just went to visit because I was feeling curious,” recalls the Of Monsters and Men anchor, who—under the simpler sobriquet of just Nanna—bows in tomorrow, May 5, with her first solo set How To Start a Garden. She hadn’t planned on getting a pet, she says. But when she laid eyes on “the smallest one that was the only one left, I was like, ‘Okay—there’s no turning back now.’” She christened the dog Vofa—Icelandic for ‘Ghost’—and, as the pandemic bore down and thoughtful new songs bubbled up, happiness did, indeed, ensue.

And a warm, growing puppy can certainly come in handy on long winter nights in Iceland. Nanna maintains two residences— a basic apartment in Reykjavik and a conversely rustic cabin in the wilderness—and Vofa accompanies her everywhere, safely leashed in the city but happily off leash in the scenic countryside. And, just like similarly-isolated folks all over the Covid-constricted world, she bonded—seriously bonded—with her new pandemic pooch. For a decade, Nanna had gorgeously harmonized with Of Monsters and Men—a safety net, of sorts, stylistically. But for Garden, she had to muster the courage to step out on her own, which she did quite ably, aided by The National’s keen-eared Aaron Dessner in some songwriting and production on certain tracks, and producer Josh Kaufman on others. Courageous Vofa, she thinks, helped her find her confident new voice, as well. And the resulting 11 cuts flow seamlessly together, aligned by Nanna’s gentle but earthy warble, which can simultaneously fire up a dark bluesy rocker like “Crybaby,” drape itself in velvet luxury over willowy acoustic ballads (“Godzilla,” the bare-bones “Disaster Master,” and a shimmering “Sputnik”) or touch base with classic pop phraseology (“Igloo,” and the plush title track, buttressed by raindrop and bird-twittering sound effects). The Dessner-assisted closer “Seabed,” in fact, even manages to cloud her in aqueous mix that underscores her stark lyrical declaration of, “I was never lonely/ Now I’m feeling like an only child.” Hey—we all were roughly three years ago. And not everyone was lucky enough to have a companion like Vofa.

But this week Nanna is learning that canine separation anxiety can cut both ways. She’s in New York for her album’s release, with her beloved pet minding the fort(s) back in Iceland. It’s also her 34th birthday this weekend, May 6, she adds, “So I’m not gonna be with her, which is sad. But I have some friends who are coming in, and we’ll be sharing some good food and drinking a lot of wine. But sadly, Vofa won’t be here to lick all the dinner plates like she usually does…”

Paste: So getting a warm puppy just as lockdown was starting–how opportune was that?

Nanna: It was really great. And it was terrifying, too, to be honest. I guess just because you’re now responsible for something else, you know? You’re no longer just responsible for yourself. And there’s like structure to having a dog. And around that time, just coming home from tour and being in this whirlwind in the middle of a crazy thing? I was traveling, and then you come and you’re just like, really still. And then you have this tiny puppy, and then it’s pooping everywhere, and, you know, you have to be a caretaker. And being a caretaker was kind of terrifying to me. But then I really needed it, I think.

Paste: What lessons did Vofa teach you as she grew? She sounds crucial to your pandemic story.

Nanna: Yeah! I think she’s like—for this record that I’m about to release, it’s so much about trying to, I guess, find your roots. And trying to learn how to stay still or something like that? Like needing it, and the process of learning it. And when I got her, she was just a part of that whole process for me. And she comes into the songs. There’s one song, “Disaster Master,” where in the end I’m talking about “to start a garden, the ghost and me,” which is just me and her, really, starting something new. Because I was in kind of a strange time in my life when I was writing this record, and there so many things that were changing and ending, I guess, and I was trying to figure out how to start all over again. And she was just a part of that with me.

Paste: Call me curious. What was ending for you? A romantic relationship, I would imagine?

Nanna: Yeah, yeah—a relationship, and, you know, everything that kind of goes with that, I guess. And dogs are so much a part of your life. I mean, I had a dog with my partner, so that was also a house-breaking thing, where the dog would go. So it was a cathartic thing, making this record, just to build something new.

Paste: What wild adventures did you end up going on with Vofa as she grew?

Nanna: We had a good time. We spent a lot of time in the countryside. And it was like the most perfect place to be. Like, she’s learning how to be a city dog. Because I live in Reykjavik, and she doesn’t like walking on a leash, since she’s used to running free where she has the whole land for herself and jumping into the river and chasing the birds and stuff—it’s very free. But we’ve had some good times together, me and Vofa. And yeah, there are wild animals (in Iceland), but not very many. It’s kind of bizarre—we don’t really have a lot going on. We have that bird—what’s it called again? They change colors in the summer and winter…oh yeah! The ptarmigan! We have loads of ptarmigans, and she will chase them down, and they will almost like wait for her—it’s a weird relationship that they have going on. So she’s met them. And I think there are some foxes around, but I haven’t seen them. But when we’re up there, it’s so dark and there are these big windows, and she will sometimes just stare out into the darkness and growl. So maybe she’s hearing the foxes or something—who knows?

: And ‘countryside’ in Iceland could include anything, from glaciers to geysers to fjords and hot springs. Topographically, it’s a pretty varied landscape.

Nanna: Yeah, that’s true! The day that I got Vofa, that’s the crazy thing. There was a volcano that had just erupted, right outside the city. So I walked up to the volcano and watched it, and then I went to pick her up as a tiny puppy. So it’s very dramatic, in that way, in that sense.

Paste: But it probably bonded you and Vofa forever, all those circumstances.

Nanna: Yeah. I think so. It’s like when you have a path, or especially when you get a path, when you get a dog when you’re in a certain place in your life? She’s gonna be a part of that memory for me always—it’s part of helping you through something, I guess. And Vofa is still learning stuff—she loves attention, and she still has issues and is doing all kinds of crazy stuff. But she’s very independent, actually—it’s really bizarre. Because I’m always with her, but when I go and I leave her alone for an hour or two, she’s like “Mine. My house, my time. I get to do what I want,” She’s that kind of dog.

Paste: Given that, how was lockdown when you returned from touring? People forget just how dark those days were.

Nanna: Totally. I remember when it happened, and not at all realizing what it meant. I was touring with my band, Of Monsters and Men, and we were touring Asia, and I’d just come home from touring, and there was a part in me that was an optimist. But when things didn’t pick up again, it was terrifying. And like you were saying, people forget that it was a really weird, fucked up, dark time, and you didn’t really know what was happening or how long it would take. And then it just took forever—it just never stopped. And I’m in New York right now, and just before coming here, we had to take a Covid test, and I hadn’t done that in such a long time, and I’d kind of forgotten that it used to be a daily thing, constantly, because you were just terrified of having Covid, and what that would mean.

: You didn’t catch it, did you?

Nanna: I did. I caught it twice! And I got really sick, but not as sick as people who got terribly. But it wasn’t nice.

Paste: When did you find yourself feeling optimistic again? Because the last thing you’d probably want to do is write an incredibly dark album, and then have to go out and sing it—and relive it—afterwards.

Nanna: Yeah. The thing is, with his album? The whole thing does feel very hopeful to me. It was such an introspective time, I guess. And I think, in general, that I’m a very hopeful person. So during those years when I was writing this album, and I was having a lot of turbulence in my own life, but also with the world kind of being like, “What the hell is going on?” I just saw this collective anxiety in the world, you know? And you could feel it.

Paste: Like you say in “Godzilla,” you’re in the supermarket, and you didn’t really want pinto beans, but you’ll take them because that’s all they had.

Nanna: Yeah. “I’ll take the pinto beans!” But those things are like the small things, you know? It’s like you’re in that store with yourself, and you’re like, “This is what I’m capable of focusing on.” And there’s something so nice about that. Like, “I can’t make up my mind, and this is my problem.” But there were so many amazing moments while I was making this record, where there was obviously a lot of connection, but at the same time I also felt like I had hope, where I was feeling very connected to, like, two people. So the process of making this record was very interesting to me—there were a lot of different pockets for me with this album.

Paste: Plus, as you sing, always in the background, it’s “snowing all the time.”

Nanna: Oh yeah! In “Igloo”! That’s another micro-moment, because when I was making the record, I would make all of these demos, and then I would put them in my dropbox and just walk and listen to them and try to get ideas and stuff like that. So a lot of the album is—I feel like it’s such a conversation with myself, and for “Igloo” it was exactly that moment where you’re outside, and the lampposts, you can just kind of see them because it’s snowing, and you go inside your car, and it’s all frosted and you can see the crystals all around you, and it feels like an igloo. And I might as well just stay there—it’s like comforting, but it’s like sad?

Paste: But the in “Voyager,” it turns macro, because you’re obviously looking up, at pictures in space. And during the pandemic, people actually were looking up, and you could actually see the stars since there were no planes, and constellation guides started selling out. And it must have been beautiful just looking up at the night sky in Iceland.

Nanna: Yeah. Completely. When it’s dark and you can just see everything, and you have perspective. I mean, so much of this record is—you know how sometimes when you write something in a song, and you have like this manifesto or something? Like, you know what you’re gonna write about, and then it all comes together, and you see a theme, and you didn’t even know that you were thinking about these things. I feel like there’s a lot of exploration going on, there’s a lot of outer space and then deep sea stuff, which is also just completely unknown. And it’s so big and so vast, and also—even that’s so terrifying—it’s so positive, because it’s so beautiful and full of possibilities. But space is, like, terrifying, because it’s so big, and you’re like, “Oh. Are we alone here?” Or, it’s like, “Oh, wow! Maybe it’s like there are all these planets with all of these things going on in concert!” And it’s very exciting. So I guess that’s why I’m drawn to both of these things. It was a time in my life where I was just searching for something, where it was either up or down or wherever, wherever I could find what I was searching for.

Paste: One of the things that got me through the pandemic—and I think I watched it 14 or 15 times—was the Netflix film Eurovision Song Contest — The Story of Fire Saga, with Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as this earnest Icelandic pop duo.

Paste: I’ve seen it, and I’m gonna agree with you. I actually loved that movie. I loved it. And I know exactly what you mean—there was something just so good about it. And in Iceland, we’re so obsessed with Eurovision, too. But I saw some criticism about it, saying, “Oh, this is just silly.” And I’m like, “Yeah—that’s the point! Eurovision is like the silliest thing!” “The elves have gone too far!”

Paste: But it’s great when it transcends pop culture and one of its songs, “Husavik,” actually got nominated for an Oscar.

Nanna: “Husavik”! Yeah! It’s a very good song. That was very cool. I’ve never been involved (in Eurovision) myself, but I love this competition. I don’t know if my music would make sense in there, but I just love it so much because there’s so much celebration and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the thing is, once people do take it too seriously, then it falls apart, then it becomes—it’s just wrong. But not a lot of people from America even know what Eurovision is, but with this Will Ferrell movie, that kind of changed things.

Paste: But you just admitted that you know what your own sound is now, right?

Nanna: Yeah. I think I’ve definitely always gravitated towards a certain kind of sound. And I really like the moments where things just take a bit of time, and the quieter moments. And I’m also just so driven by stories in the lyrics, so I kind of think it just all came together. And it’s funny, too, because before I was with of Monsters and Men—and I’d been doing it for 10 years or more—I was playing by myself, and I had like this solo thing. So I really do consider this now to be a continuation of that. I didn’t release records then, but I was just kind of in the bars and doing that. And when I hear those songs, which I started recording when I was only 19 or something, this record makes so much sense in connection with that. It really does feel like I just paused for a minute, and I’m continuing that just later in life.

Paste: But—lest anyone ever underestimate you—there’s “Crybaby,” this surly blues number on the album. You can get nasty and mean, and that is one sinister song.

Nanna: Ha! It is! But it’s sinister in a way that’s hard towards yourself, like mean in a way towards me. So in “Crybaby, “ I’m just basically being mean to myself, right?

Paste: But in “Disaster Master,” it sounds like you’ve identified your faults or weaknesses, one by one, and addressed them. And a lot of folks used therapy to do that during lockdown.

Nanna: Yeah. I mean, I have done some therapy, but I dunno—I kind of go all around with that. Sometimes I feel like you can kind of overthink things, too. And everyone’s anxious, everyone’s depressed, and everyone’s all over the place, I guess. And for that song, you know I definitely have tendencies where I just shut down because I’m overthinking or something. And writing these songs? It is such a good thing for me, because you can step outside of yourself and see yourself as a Disaster Master, where you’re honing the art of being anxious, which is just funny. I dunno. I kind of wanted to approach these things too with a bit of humor, and trying to take it all less seriously.

Paste: Which is also ironic, since now that mankind—in mistakenly thinking it’s the end product of evolution—has basically doomed itself to extinction, and we’re inches away. So disaster is a very real thing now.

Nanna: Yeah. Completely. One of my very best friends, she’s a disaster analyst, And it’s very interesting because she does have hope. She studies volcanoes a lot, and what we do, or how humanity behaves in a disaster, which is very interesting. And also, what infrastructure we have when things happen, because things are going to happen. And what happened in Covid was, we knew that something like this was going to happen eventually. And that’s why things did actually happen quickly. Like getting the vaccinations and things like that, it didn’t take a very long time, considering, you know? So there are all of these plans, so I think she’s hopeful. And I’m hopeful, because what does happen is, people do come together and they kind of do things on their own—they’re very hands-on, and I think they stop relying on the government. They just go into Fix Mode and they get things done and they help each other out. I think that, at least. So I’m hopeful.

Paste: So for you, the bottom line would be, whenever things get too stressful and the bad news gets too overwhelming, all you have to do is look down and go, “Vofa—let’s get the hell out of here!”

Nanna: Yeah! It’s another one of those magical moments, like, “We’re going into nature, just you and me, Vofa!” Yeah—completely. Yes, it’s a micro-moment, a little story that just me and her have. And I think it’s really nice, actually. Just another adventure!

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin