Interview: Laufey and the beauty of making it up as you go
Jazz, to most of us, is enigmatic in nature. Unless you’re a music theory aficionado, jazz is either a complex being that sounds nice with too many layers to handle, or a good subject to make an Oscar-winning movie about every 2-3 years. However, one rising artist, Icelandic-Chinese singer-songwriter Laufey (Laufey Lin), is making moves to add a modern take to the slower, sweeter, and vintage sounds of the jazz world.
A student at Berklee College of Music, the young artist has received international acclaim for her easy-listening sound and elegant vocal stylings that are emblematic of mid-century lounge singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Blossom Dearie. Along with gaining a following on social media for her Instagram Live jams and plethora of 1-3 minute riffs on TikTok and YouTube, Laufey has been working hard on her debut EP, Typical of Me, which is set to release at the end of the month. The resulting 7-track project is a lovely, heartfelt package that showcases not only Laufey’s innate talent, but also personifies her years of vocal experience, her upbringing with jazz standards, and a love for feeling loved. We sat down with her to discuss the upcoming EP, her influences, and what she has planned next.
What are some of the inspirations behind your songs that people might not know about?
There’s one song I have that’s called “James,” and people always ask me, who is James? And honestly, James is just a name I made up. Like, there’s this thing I saw on TikTok and other memes, saying “never date a guy with a J name”—and so, it’s a made up guy made up of characteristics that I’ve encountered from the many different guys that I’ve been on dates with.
There’s another one that stood out to me, called “Magnolia,” that seems to also be about a certain person—is that also based on someone?
Well, Magnolia is my grandmother’s favorite flower; it’s also just a word that my father loves. My whole family seems to have this attachment to the name Magnolia. Every time we pass a street, like Magnolia St., my father would stop and say something like “that’s the most beautiful name ever.”
My whole reason for writing Magnolia was–I was thinking about how this other girl that I know was so beautiful, so perfect, and she doesn’t even know it. And she’s probably looking at some other girl or person too in the same way. I guess anyone can be a Magnolia, if you look at them that way. The person you’re looking at and thinking they’re perfect–they probably have someone who also thinks that way about someone else… and it’s just a chain of people thinking the next person’s perfect! So I just really wanted to write a kind of love song to all those perfect people in the world, just to remind them that they’re beautiful. And I thought Magnolia was just a beautiful flower and a beautiful name.
I definitely noticed love is a very prominent theme not only throughout your EP, but for many jazz vocal standards as well. And that makes sense, because it’s such a complex topic that anyone could dive into forever.
Absolutely. I’m very inspired by old jazz music; that was my first love. Well, technically classical music was my first love, but when I started singing, I always had a very low voice, and I was a little bit scared to approach pop music at the time. My mom, who is Chinese, is a classical violinist, so I grew up playing mostly classical music on cello and piano, but pop was this whole other entity. I was always a little bit scared of going all the way into pop, and I didn’t feel like my voice sounded like how other pop singers normally sang. But my father had a collection of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday records that he would play all the time, and for me, that was kind of the first time I heard myself in them a little bit, or heard someone with that lower kind of voice.
You know, when I first heard your music and heard your vocal scatting, my ears perked up, and I said to myself, that’s signature Ella right there.
(laughs) Yeah, I love scatting. It’s an art we can bring back, or something I’m willing to bring back. That’s how I got to know jazz music; it was kind of a middle ground for me. There were a lot of cool lush string arrangements that I resonated with, both as a cellist and as a classical musician. But it also felt like every song was like a movie, you know? I guess a lot of them are taken from musicals, but they’re all so beautiful. They’re uncomplicated, they just tell it how it is, and they so beautifully tell a story. That’s something that I really try to make through my music.
I noticed you’re a student at Berklee right now; do you think that’s influenced your songwriting in any way?
It definitely did. Berklee is a cool place! Unlike other music schools, you have all kinds of musicians in one place: you have jazz musicians, classical musicians, film composers, classical composers, and so on. It’s like you have everything there, and it’s a really great place to get inspired. I mean, when I first got to Berklee, there were all these amazing singer-songwriters around me, and I was so intimidated because I had always been just a singer or musician, but I had never really created my own music before. I mean, of course I really wanted to! I just wasn’t really sure how to approach it, or what kind of music I wanted to write, because I was singing jazz, and playing classical… and I really like listening to singer-songwriter-Sara-Bareilles kind of stuff. And I was thinking, how can I mix this all together and tell a modern story with that nostalgic sound?
Something like jazz, but with a more modern production.
Has anyone from Berklee helped you with this album specifically?
Yeah! My producer on most of these tracks, Davin Kingston, he’s my classmate from Berklee. So, you know, there’s so many people you can collaborate with there.
So this album wouldn’t be done without everything you’ve gone through there and everyone you’ve met, then?
I mean, this EP was basically created in a dorm. I heard my neighbor’s music from next door, and I said woah he sounds really cool, and he seems like he understands modern pop music really well, which I didn’t have much of an understanding of at the time. But he also really has an appreciation for jazz and these older harmonies too, so he was a really great first producer to work with. And it’s actually been a year since I released my first song! It was really cool.
And now a year later you have a whole EP!
Exactly! It’s absolutely wild with what happens in a year, especially in these circumstances. It’s incredibly cool. Berklee has definitely inspired me to write more. It pushed me, challenged me, and gave me insight into all these different styles.
Out of all the tracks on your EP, which one would you say means the most to you?
I think “Street by Street.” It’s the first song that I wrote that truly felt like something that I wanted to do. I had been trying to write for a month, and that was the first song where something just clicked. I was like, okay I can make it jazzy, but not entirely jazz. And it was a big thing for me, because I was going through kind of a rough patch. I had gotten rejected for the first time, and it was just a lot of realizations for me with that song. Just musically and as a person, it did so much for me.
It’s those songs written out of catharsis are the ones that stick with you, because they stick with that memory, and that moment.
I noticed that one of the songs on your EP, “I Wish You Love,” is an extended version of a cover you previewed on YouTube a while back; I also noticed you’re posting a lot on Youtube, Tiktok, Twitter, and even on your Instagram lives. Can people expect to see more of your YouTube and TikTok and insta-jams to be turned into fully fledged songs?
Absolutely. That’s my favorite part about social media. The second I write a song, or think of an arrangement of a jazz standard, I’ll post it on TikTok or Instagram or Youtube, and the feedback that I get from it—it just tells me if i should take it further and do a studio recording of it and actually release it. And livestreams especially! If I’m gonna write a song, I turn on the livestream, and it’s like immediate feedback. It’s the most fun thing, because I feel so much more connected to my fans. Especially during a weird time like this where you can’t actually perform live in front of an audience.
I feel like it’s similar to a jazz club, with that kind of intimate setting where you’re up front with a performer, and you share one space where you can riff off of each other and respond to the audience.
That’s exactly what it is. I love doing livestreams; I do them at least once a week, and I have one every Sunday at 6pm. It’s called “Lullabies with Laufey,” and it’s just me singing jazz songs. It’s kind of like that jazz club vibe, and I think it works because jazz is improvisational like that; it is a bit spontaneous, and that translates so well on a livestream.
And I love that kind of improv aspect of it too, it’s what’s right up your alley.
Yeah, that riffing is what keeps it real as well. I just want to remind everyone that we’re all just stuck at home, trying to find stuff to do, and I’m just so honored to have people watching me practice every week.
Do you think there’s a certain magic that’s lost or gained between a fully produced song and those informal, shorter social media jams? Do you have one that you prefer making over the other?
I think they’re both magical in their own ways. I really love posting just Instagram clips of my songs, like minutes after I’ve written them, when I’m still in that high of “oh maybe this is a good song, let’s see what my fans think” and I just record it in my bedroom against the wall. There’s just a certain magic to that because it’s raw, it’s real, and I’m just sitting here writing in my bedroom like any other person out there. But I think getting to record it, add production, and different instruments, having my friends come in to play bass or piano or guitar or even trumpet–having my friends collaborate together, that brings another layer of magic. I think they’re kind of separate in that way, I think they’re both great, but I can’t choose one over the other.
Of course. There’s a reason that you’re doing both, right?
Of course, and I will definitely continue doing both. A lot of people ask me, when this pandemic is over, are you going to stop doing that? And I keep saying, no, it’s so much fun!
Do you have any plans for the future, in terms of after graduation, post-pandemic, or just later this year?
I think I’m just gonna be traveling around a bit this year, obviously when it’s safe. I’m doing the big LA move this summer! At least for a bit. So I’m excited to get to know some more musicians and people there. I’m excited to live a little life and get a little more inspiration for my songs. I wanna perform live as soon as that’s possible too.
And you’re graduating this year as well?
I am! A month after the EP comes out.
Okay, one more question. Between Iceland, China, and the United States, what are your favorite foods from each?
I mean, I have to start with China, because that would take the top for food, any day. (thinks) Honestly, I like everything. I really want some good Peking duck of course; I really want some good Szechuan food, like some really spicy dan-dan noodles, or something like that. Good dim sum too. My family’s from Guangzhou in the south, and I really miss the food there.
This one’s kind of random, but for Iceland, I would say the ice cream. It’s like this whole culture in Iceland that is absolutely not tied to any season. It’s not like, oh the sun is out, let’s go get ice cream. They make these kinds of soft serves, where you choose 3 different toppings, they blend it together, and it’s kind of like a Blizzard. There’s this whole culture, too; the ice cream stores are open til like 1am over there, so you can just drive out with your friends, go get a huge thing of ice cream, and just eat it while driving around in the midnight summer. The sun doesn’t set in Iceland, so it’ll still be bright out when it’s midnight. And even then you can go get this ice cream mix thing with your friends, go to a beach, and just watch the sun not being set.
As for the States… I honestly just love a good burger!
Is that why you’re moving to the West coast? For the In-N-Out, or the burger scene here?
I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, but I do love some Shake Shack.
This interview was conducted via phone call by Jacob Ugalde on April 6th, 2021. Press photos taken by Blythe Thomas.
Jacob Ugalde is a writer, musician, and pasta enthusiast based in Los Angeles, California. A jack-of-all-trades kind of type, Jacob works in many different fields, from computer programming, to visual design, to film production, to music making, to whatever else he can get his hands on. His favorite musicians are Phoebe Bridgers, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vulfpeck, Luna Li, and Louie Zong, and his favorite video game is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. He thanks you for reading this all the way to the end!