If you believe that some young puppet winning X-Factor and going on to have a career in the music industry is the stuff of fairy-tales, then you are completely and utterly wrong. The story of Iceland’s Sigrídur Níelsdóttir – now that’s a fairy-tale right there. She didn’t start making music until she was 70, released her first album at 71, then spent a seven year period creating hundreds and hundreds of songs using a Casio keyboard, a tape deck and any household object that made an unusual sound. Her story has been documented in the film Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir, which has been doing the rounds at the festivals, including SXSW. We caught up with one of its directors – Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, otherwise known as Kira Kira – to get the low down on Grandma Lo-Fi.
Bowlegs: How did the film first come about?
Kira: Sigrídur told me she was too shy to perform her music live and that she wished that other musicians would perform her music. So a bunch of us started The Sigrídur Níelsdóttir Experience to make that wish come true and, of course, also because we are totally fascinated with her tunes and had the time of our lives playing them. When she invited us over for a visit, we realised what an amazing character she is and that’s when the idea for the film came to us.
Bowlegs: What makes a 71-year-old decide to release a debut album?
Kira: Fortunately there was a very perceptive girl working in a record shop in downtown Reykjavík, who befriended Sigrídur, as she frequently came to the shop to stock up on cassette tapes. She started asking Sigrídur what she did with the tapes and when she found out she was using them to record her own tunes in the kitchen she offered to help transfer those delights to CDs, so that she could sell them in the little record shop. So that’s how she was encouraged to share her music outside a close circle of friends and family.
Bowlegs: Sigrídur has the kind of prolific career many musicians can only dream of – does the film manage to convey how quickly she turns things around?
Kira: We decided to focus on the most creative period in her life, the years following those fateful cassette purchases. We only tap a tiny bit into a few biographical points, but other than that we’re thrown right into the heart of this eruption of her imagination that generated 59 CDs and four exhibitions of colourful collages.
We didn’t know Sigrídur before she kicked into this gear, so we always saw her as this incredibly inventive force of nature who was constantly surprising the world with a new creation. We didn’t realise until after the film came out, and we started talking with members of her family who came to see the film, how much making music changed her life and how very different it was before the Casio and double tape deck stereos came into her possession at 70.
Bowlegs: How does she feel about the reaction to her music – not just from fans but Björk, múm and Sigur Rós?
Kira: She was very excited about the positive vibes her music generated, but always very humble about it.
Bowlegs: Do you think the film might inspire other people – not just 70-year-olds – that it’s never too late to start doing something like this?
Kira: I hope so. You hear enough 30-year-olds speak like their lives are over, because they don’t feel they have accomplished anything to speak of, or that their long list of dreams remains unfulfilled. So I’d love it if the film sparked a sense of go-for-it to people of all ages.
Bowlegs: Are you going to release the soundtrack? How quickly did Sigrídur put it together?
Kira: Yes. We are preparing a gourmet release that will come out on Morr Music in October – a selection of her greatest hits and quirkiest creations, including a book with a mixture of artwork by her and Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, one of three Grandma Lo-Fi directors who did most of the animation in the film.
We actually put the soundtrack together ourselves after having marinated in her 700 or so songs for the eight years we spent creating the film. It was a great challenge to do the selection, because she has so many gems that we absolutely wanted to share. Even to the last minute of the editing process, we were still discovering some new treasures that we hadn’t noticed before and totally blew our minds.
Bowlegs: What can audiences take away from the film?
Kira: Sigrídur has always been a great inspiration to me, in that she would do things her own way, with what she had and what she knew. It’s the sparkle within that counts – you already have all you need for your creations thumping under your ribs. So if you wish to transform a cream-whipper into a helicopter, that’s what you should do. And you don’t have to look far.
-Interview by David Standen-