Sóley – Icelandic Musician Interview: Ask The Deep

Adorning the cover of Sóley’s new record, Ask The Deep, is a portrait painted by Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, with Sóley’s face smeared about like the things of nightmares, like a horror film incarnate. Upon first glance, this visual seems inconsistent with one’s first impressions of Icelandic musician Sóley Stefánsdóttir — but the truth is that Sóley has always been rather drawn to the depths and horrors of emotion. Her first record, 2011’s visually-evocative We Sink, is — in title, mood, and narrative structure — quite similar to 2015’s Ask The Deep, even if musically less refined. But in the many years between Sóley’s debut and sophomore records, she experienced significant events that transformed her experience of being a musician, allowing her to create a much more personal record the second time around.

Soley -- Ask The Deep Interview

We Sink was just sort of connections of songs if I think about it now, because I made it in a year, and I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just did songs that just came up to my mind,” Sóley recalls. “But now, I guess I have a little more form to what my project is about — or what the Sóley thing is about — and what kind of music I want to make, and what kind of lyrics I want to make.”

Both albums share a sonic mood heavy with minor keys, but they deviate in notable ways. Ask The Deep relies more on percussion and keyboards than We Sink, which was heavy on piano. This transition stemmed from Sóley’s realization that performing live with a keyboard was never as satisfying as with a piano — so she adapted accordingly for her second record.

Sóley embarked on a number of international tours after the release of We Sink, but she became pregnant in 2012. Her pregnancy — and her subsequent experience of motherhood for the first time — were significant events that shape Ask The Deep and explain the long hiatus in-between releases.

“I just didn’t feel like any longing to create [once I became pregnant], which I find really interesting — like it was enough to be just creating a person or something,” explains Sóley. “So when my daughter was around three months old last year, I kind of did almost everything… But it was a long process. I knew what I wanted to write about.”

Rekyjavik, Sóley’s hometown and the capital of Iceland, is a city with a vast seaside, with the ocean bordering it on many sides. Ask The Deep emerged from Stefánsdóttir’s winter jogging routine, and the simple mind wanderings that became tethered to the exercise. And it all began with a musing about the color blue.

“It was in the night, and the sea was really dark, dark blue. It was really heavy and nice, and I wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to write a theme record about the sea’ — but then it just kind of developed to not really being about the sea, but just more about the deep, and my mind, and how deep you can go within your mind,” she explains.

Sóley has been fascinated by dream-think throughout her entire solo career. During the making of We Sink, she explained that her lyrics were “Dreamy, surrealistic and in their own world” — and this, coupled with her predilection towards storytelling, encourages listeners to question which of her material is personally-influenced and which of it emerges as narratives from her subconscious.

“What interests me about dreams is that when you dream, you are in one place, and you are just in a house, and you walk out, and you’re suddenly in Africa or something… and when you’re dreaming it, you’re not like, ‘Oh my god, I was walking out of the house, and now I’m in Africa,'” she says. “You don’t really think about it twice, and that’s what I kind of like doing with the lyrics.”

Soley -- Ask The Deep Interview
Photography by Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir

From record to record, Sóley’s music flows like lucid dream states, where fully-formed ideas bubble up and pop, seemingly appearing and disappearing from nowhere. Much of her music is cinematic not only because it is her own personal way to direct horror films, but because the entire process is extremely visual.

“[When] I write a song with lyrics… I always imagine the same thing,” she explains. “For example, with “Kill The Clown” [from We Sink], I always imagine the same clown. And the same with this album: I always kind of imagine the same emotions.”

One can glean certain details about Sóley’s state of mind during those three months of creating Ask The Deep, but as with any individual, the depths of one’s own self can never truly be understood. So when Sóley admits in interview that, “I think my mind can be a little bit devilish sometimes,” and then extends that expression into lyrics galore reflecting the acknowledgement her own demons, one begins to wonder what it is exactly that Sóley — who might otherwise so sweet and homegrown — might find so devilish about herself. What leads to an album cover that looks so grim, and is it fictional dramatization or real life when she states in “Devil”, “If my mind is the devil/ I will have to leave/ Otherwise we’ll grow together”?

Or what is it that compels her to acknowledge, “My devil, my master/ My mind and my soul,” on “DEVIL II”?

Themes of death, dreamers, and devils appear time and time again on Ask The Deep, like a tarot card deck come to life, full of fairy tales and difficult love songs. The use of the word “devil” has intense connotations in religious English-speaking countries such as the United States, and when used by Sóley, one wonders what it is about her Icelandic heritage that draws her to this word, and what it is that she finds so contrarian about herself indeed.

“I really frighten myself,” says Sóley, “so … because I don’t watch horror movies or anything like that because I’m just too afraid…[I] just kind [do] my thing to make my own horror movies… I just kind of write it down and sing it.”

Such a ambiguous description seems only to further blur the already mazy lines of Ask The Deep, and upon close inspection, it becomes obvious that there is indeed a theatrical layer to Sóley’s creations — an exaggerated artistic separation from reality even when the topics are rooted in personal affairs.

“[With] We Sink, my first LP, I think that was just more me trying out some songs — writing music for the first time, and writing lyrics… [With Ask The Deep], I thought it was really good after my daughter was born to go out to my studio and not be breastfeeding for a while and just write down stuff, because it’s not really the lyrics that I would think about when I see my baby or something, so it was just definitely two different things,” she notes.

“So I think it was really good just not to be a mom for an hour or something and just write down some horror songs.”


Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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Written by Vee Hua 華婷婷
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