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Travel

Damon Albarn's Iceland: A pocket travel guide

@SamWKemp

Damon Albarn’s love affair with Iceland has lasted for over 30 years. The country has, for him, been a source of immersible creative inspiration and comfort in times of need. In the 1990s, with ‘Battle of Britpop’ raging, Albarn took himself off to Iceland in an attempt to satisfy something that had been gnawing away at him for some time: that, despite being a poster child for the Cool Britannia movement, he’d never felt particularly British.

Iceland is a strange and wonderful place. While its jagged landscapes imbue sit with a sense of the immortal and the ancient, it is actually a relatively new country. Indeed, It wasn’t until 874 AD that anyone decided that it might be a good place to live. The story goes that Ingolfur, Iceland’s Nordic founder, threw two carved pillars over the edge of his ship, pledging that, wherever they landed, he would settle.

They ended up – much to his bewilderment – in what is modern Reykjavik. His family were the first settlers of this unforgiving land, as, unlike many other Nordic countries, there are no indigenous people of Iceland. Perhaps it was its migratory origins that convinced Albarn that the nation was where he truly belonged. In 2021, he officially became an Icelandic citizen. Here, we will be exploring Iceland in the footsteps of the Blur frontman and musical polymath; exploring 5 places that have made an impact on his life and music over the years.

Damon Albarn’s Iceland:

Reynisfjara

Damon’s Albarn’s introduction to Iceland was a subconscious one. As a child, he had a recurring dream in which he found himself flying over black sand. The images of waves crashing on the alien landscape below him were unconnected to anywhere he’d been before. These weren’t memories, after all – rather, they were manifestations of what in Portuguese is called Saudade: a longing for a place you have never been.

As he told The Reykjavík Grapevine in 2021: “I kept having that dream for a long time. Then I became a young adult and forgot about the dream for a bit. Much later I was lying in a hotel room somewhere, on tour, and watched a National Geographic programme that happened to be about Iceland. Suddenly, I realised that Iceland was full of black sand beaches.” Perhaps the most famous of these black beaches is Reynisfjara in South Iceland.

(Credit: Chris Henry)

Kaffibarinn, Reykjavík

This motivated Albarn’s first visit to Iceland. Equipped with a guitar and a typewriter, he sought out the only Icelander to whom he was aquatinted, the Sugercubes’ vocalist Einar Örn Benediktsson. According to Albarn, Einer was “my guide, really, into the world of Reykjavík”.

During this time, Albarn began visiting some of the bars in downtown Reykjavík, one of which, Kaffibarinn, he eventually became part-owner of. For a brief time, this bar became a safe haven for Albarn, somewhere he was able to escape the Britpop buzz. Unfortunately, his seclusion didn’t last long. “I started waxing lyrical in every interview about how I’d found this place and how wonderful it was,” he said. People quickly cottoned on and flocked to Kaffibarinn, ensuring that it was one of the places they visited on arrival to Iceland. “That was a bit depressing, really, as I no longer had anything to do with that. I was only very briefly a co-owner of that place.”

(Credit: Evelyn Paris)

Studio Grettisgat, Reykjavik

After falling in love with Iceland’s unique landscape, Albarn had something of a creative epiphany. What followed was one of the most creative periods of his professional career, and he persuaded his Blur bandmates to record some of their 1997 self-titled album in Studio Grettisgat in Reykjavik.

Having recorded the backing tracks for the bulk of the album, Blur used their time in Studio Grettisgat to record vocals for ‘Strange News from Another Star’, ‘Essex Dogs’, ‘On Your Own’ and‘Beetlebum’. At the time of the album’s release, Albarn spoke of Iceland with incredible fondness: “I have a house there and it’s the perfect place to write because of the light [The sun doesn’t rise until midday]. Not good during the summer because it’s sunshine all the time, 24 hours a day.”

(Credit: Press)

Esja

Today, Albarn owns on the outskirts of Reykjavik, from where he wrote the majority of his 2021 solo album: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. The room in which he writes contains a standup piano stripped of its front panel, exposing the intricate regiments of strings and hammers housed within its wooden bulk. The instrument is positioned in front of a gigantic glass window, which takes in views of Reyjavik harbour, the glacier-capped volcano Snæfellsjökull, and, looming out of the mist, the Esja mountain range.

The sight of Esja, which translates as ‘carving stone’, became a source of comfort for Albarn during the writing of The Nearer the Fountain, Purer the Stream Flows. As he recalled in 2021: “A lot of the melodic ideas I came up with I played around with in this room. The lyrical ideas, for example in a song like ‘Royal Morning Blue’, are literally playing and then rain turning into snow, it’s as simple as that. Esja is very much my confidante. I imagine a giantess laying on its side. So ‘the road was its snow’, I mean, once you abstract that, it can mean anything, which is what songwriting’s all about, really.”

(Credit: Pedro Netto)

Faxaflói bay

Albarn’s home, like the whole of Reykjavik harbour, looks out onto Faxaflói bay, an inlet that has been providing Icelanders with fish for thousands of years. Nestled between Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes, the slate grey sea would once have been speckled with wooden boats, from which fisherman gathered herring using thick black nets entangled with seaweed. Today, those boats are much larger. Thankfully, Albarn’s home overlooks a relatively untouched strand of the harbour, where wading birds with long curved bills prowl the black beaches, hunting for molluscs.

The bay also inspired a number of songs on The Nearer the Fountain, Purer the Stream Flows: “…the song ‘Daft Wader’,” Albarn once explained “was from me and my friends one summer night, at low tide like this. It looked possible to get [to the small island offshore], we were drinking, and then Einar [Snorri], who’s a break dancer of some repute, he decided he wanted to do some naked break dancing. So he started off, and I joined him, and some other people got involved, and we had this big Viking break dancing. Then we decided to go down to the island. That was the start of ‘Daft Wader’, but it ended up in Iran. It’s a nice process. Most importantly, it all started in here. Everything on the record started here.”

(Credit: Grace Note)