Jon Thor Birgisson: 'I like being a social outcast'

Gaunt, vegan and introverted, as the lead singer of Iceland's biggest export Sigur Ros, Jon Thor Birgisson made for an oblique rock star. Now, however, as he embarks on a solo career, he says he's happier than ever...

Deep within the base- ment of an East London working-men's club, two men who have never been inside such a place before sit beside one another having pink make-up applied to their faces, glitter to their cheekbones, and feather epaulettes to their shoulder pads. Frequently, they catch one another's eye and giggle in a manner that would doubtless prompt censorious disapproval here on an average night.

One of them is Jon Thor Birgisson, more conveniently known to the world as Jonsi, lead singer of Iceland's biggest musical export, Sigur Ros, and the other is Nico Muhly, a classically trained Philip Glass protégé from New York who has previously composed music for the likes of Björk and Antony and the Johnsons. Together, they have collaborated on Birgisson's debut solo album, Go, a bewitching record that captures the singer at his most uncharacteristically ebullient. For someone who has, in the past, sung mostly in a manner redolent of the world's loneliest polar bear, he now sounds positively happy. It suits him.

"Ha-ppeee?" he repeats, pronouncing the word with several "e"s in his crunchy, consonant-heavy English. "I suppose so, yes. I think what has happened is that my personality is finally coming out. I have allowed it to. I am committing myself to being more, you know... more playful."

The pair are here today to record four songs for a DVD that will, at some point, be repackaged onto a special edition of the album. With limited time in which to promote the record together (an in-demand classical composer, Muhly has, he says, "four billion projects on the go") this is perhaps their best opportunity, and they want to make the most of it. Hence the make-up, and the presence of a pair of peacocks.

Between songs, I ask Birgisson the significance of the birds. He shrugs. "I'm not really sure, actually. But a couple of nights ago, me and Nico got very drunk and we decided it would be good. It would make it more of a performance. At least, that was the idea." He appraises them now with a cool eye, one eyebrow arching. "I have to say, I had hoped they would have got their tail feathers out for us, perhaps during the choruses? But they are not doing much. They just stand there. Pity."

The show over, Birgisson now retreats to a corner table with a bottle of water he will neither drink from nor open, but will fiddle with continually nevertheless. Gaunt, rake-thin, and sporting a Tintin quiff, the 34-year-old is one of the more unlikely rock stars of his generation. Though he grew up with a profound love of (mostly obscure) music, and an ambition to make it himself, he never imagined anyone would care enough to listen. "When you live in Iceland, so very far away from everything else, you have no concept that anything you do will be heard outside of Reykjavik," he says. "I still don't know how we managed it."

Sigur Ros's music always was deliberately oblique – one album was called (), and each of its eight songs were nameless – but though resolutely inward-looking, it nevertheless went out and discovered the world on their behalf. Their 2006 single "Hoppipolla" became a ubiquitous presence on television as the soundtrack to any piece of film that contained in it wonder, whether a spectacular goal on Match of the Day or a piece of David Attenborough-narrated wildlife. The royalty cheques alone would change their lives. "All that was totally crazy," Birgisson says now. "We couldn't escape that song. Trust me, we tried. We went back home to Reykjavik. We hid."

But that, Birgisson insists, was then. He has loosened up considerably since. "I think I have learnt to let go of myself a little bit more now," he suggests. And it's true, he has certainly mastered the art of conversation where once he could only stutter, sigh and maintain an enigmatic (read: frustrating) silence. "I think we were guilty of taking ourselves too seriously back then. It was our defence. We were four very serious young men, full of principles on everything. But, you know, slowly you let go of all that. You grow up. I think I realised that we are all going to die one day whatever happens, and that you can have fun along the way. It is allowed."

After the band's last studio album, Meo suo i eyrum vio spilum endalaust ("With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly"), Birgisson decided to do something different. "I'd been in Sigur Ros for 16 years; I'd earnt it." Last year, as Jonsi & Alex, he and his American

artist-producer boyfriend, Alex Somers, released Riceboy Sleeps, a largely instrumental album of mood music. His solo album, Go, was initially to be an acoustic record of reflective songs but, after involving Muhly, of whom he was an ardent admirer and who promptly added his own "ecstatically joyful" bent, it became something far more sparkly.

The album also marked another significant departure for the singer in that he mostly sings in English. (Previous records have been sung either in Icelandic or his own made-up language, "Hopelandish".) That said, Birgisson still sings in a hard-to-decipher psychobabble that serves mostly to keep his mystery intact. Only the song titles reveal true glimpses of the man within, the most intriguing of which is "Sinking Friendships".

"It's a classic break-up song," he says, smiling awkwardly. "I suppose I have gone through many. Growing up gay in Iceland, I didn't know anybody else like me, so I really didn't know how to... what's the word? Proceed?" He says that he found it impossible to tell the difference between like and love, a condition that brought with it problems. "Basically, I fell in love all the time, with all of my friends. That made for lots of... drama, a lot of awkwardness, and so much misunderstanding. I had to apologise a lot."

For the past few years, Birgisson, a vegan, has been a disciple of raw food, and he speaks about it with a passion he can never quite match when discussing his own music. Having studied the subject and even written a book about it (unpublished, but dispensed freely among friends), he is quite the expert. The fact that so many of us remain ignorant of its benefits fills him with disdain. And if this makes things awkward for a man who likes to eat out a lot, then it's a kind of awkwardness Birgisson has always sought. It's another way for him to stand out from the crowd. "It makes you a social outcast, definitely, but I think I like that. I sometimes think I am drawn to obscure food the same way I am to obscure music. I like to be different. But I also very much like raw food itself. It's wonderful! Tasty! Who wants a horrible burger when they can make their own cheese instead? I make my own, from macadamia nuts. It tastes very..." Nutty? "No, cheesy. You should try some. You'll never look back."

Which reminds him. He checks his watch, and then his stomach, and realises that he has missed lunch. What he really wants to do now is head into Soho for food. I ask him whether it will be difficult to find a restaurant that caters specifically to his requirements?

He grins widely. "No, no. I've phoned ahead. They're expecting me."

Jónsi's EP 'Go Do' is out on 22 March. The album 'Go' is out on 5 April, both on EMI

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style