After spending her first six years growing up in Iceland's capital city Reykjavík, Sólveig Matthildur and her family relocated to the more rural Seltjarnarnes, the smallest township in the country's capital region. It was a move that, she thinks, put her on her current path, as the singer and keyboardist of the gothy synth-punk trio Kælan Mikla. "It's by the seaside," Matthildur says of the town, "and there's a lighthouse, and there's this one hill with a lot of moss and stones. I spent most of my time playing [there]. In the hill, there were 'elves' in the stones, and I would play with them with my friends. By the sea, I was playing with 'mermaids.' Until I was 15, I was really adventurous. It really set what kind of person I am and what kind of music I make."
Listening to Kælan Mikla's new album, Nótt Eftir Nótt, it's not hard to see what she means. Descriptions of the band, which also features vocalist Laufey Soffia and bassist Margrét Rósa, cycle through a stream of adjectives — "haunting," "ethereal," "chilling," "witchy" — in an attempt to categorize the group's shadowy aesthetic. Theirs is a world where sweeping eerie soundscapes, irresistible post-punk hooks and dance beats couple with angelic voices and blood-curdling shrieks. The rising band's unique approach has quickly earned them a growing international fan base and coveted spots playing the Netherlands' Roadburn festival and opening for King Dude and Drab Majesty — not to mention an endorsement from bona fide goth legend Robert Smith
When the Cure frontman curated 2018's Meltdown Festival in London, he personally invited Kælan Mikla to perform. "He was telling us it was nice, thank you for coming," says Matthildur of meeting Smith face-to-face for the first time after their performance. "We were thanking him, and he says, 'I have to run, but I will see you again.' Then he winked at us and walked away. It felt like a wink anyway." She laughs. "I liked it. It was nice and promising."
Already, Kælan Mikla have achieved more than Matthildur ever would have imagined for the band, the vision for which she describes simply as "women coming together to do weird stuff." The "weird stuff" may have started for the musician in her childhood in Seltjarnarnes, but Kælan Mikla really took root when the members were teenagers, discovering their creative chemistry after they entered a high school poetry contest together. "In 2013, Maggy and I were walking in the halls of the school and saw this poster about a poetry slam," Matthildur recalls. "I told Maggy I had been writing poems while hanging at cafes and in the bus on my way to school, and we decided to team up with Laufey and compete." The grouping proved successful, and using their basic synths and tortured adolescent poetry, the girls "won the poetry slam with one song and people wanted to hear more, so we decided to make music."
As primitive as they are, the trio's early compositions shine with raw sensitivity and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. "The lyrics I wrote [in the beginning] were completely insane: burning the universe, bleeding, crying, screaming," Matthildur notes. "When we started the band, we were all emotionally unstable and had some psychological problems. We were partying a lot, drinking way too much alcohol and just being teenagers, doing stupid stuff. We started out using that as our inspiration, then later on we got more serious about what we were doing and got deeper into the feelings and situations we were in and why we were in them."
Just two years after their high school debut, new wave/synth label Fabrika Records caught wind of the group's demo "Kalt" and requested to include the song on a compilation. Simplistic but piercing, "Kalt" laid the groundwork for the evolving vision that Kælan Mikla have brought to maturity on its latest record. The group's new depth and seriousness is clear on Nótt Eftir Nótt (the title translates to "night after night"), which explores themes ranging from the personal to the mythical. In particular, the band members' experiences living in different parts of the world and the effect of that displacement on their psyches is a core theme of the LP. "We have all experienced insomnia and been homesick, as we've been traveling and living abroad," says Matthildur, who relocated to Berlin two years ago. "The album contains songs of regret, shadows, witches and all the things that lure in the darkest hour of night mixed with Icelandic folklore, and reminiscent of the winter darkness that simultaneously frightens us and makes us feel at home."
"There's so few people and the population is so dense," she continues of her home country. "There are a lot of small villages by the sea, or by the airport — nobody lives in the highlands in the middle. It's really soft, but it's really dangerous … People use elves as propaganda, like, 'Don't go into the wilderness of Iceland because elves will take you!' But it was just a metaphor for nature."
While the band members don't claim to practice any formal magick themselves, they did draw on Iceland's history of witchcraft and witch hunts for Nótt Eftir Nótt. Visits to Drekkingarhylur, or "the drowning pool," in Thingvellir National Park, where accused witches and other persecuted women were sentenced to death, had a profound impact. "We are very fond of stories of witches and how 'different' women were treated not so much time ago," Matthildur says. "It's crazy going [there] … We are influenced by these stories."
It makes sense that Kælan Mikla are drawn to these stories, as they're avowed feminists — though they do not want the label to define them. "We're all feminists, and we are really aware that we are all women in our band, but we don't want it to be 'The All-Female band Kælan Mikla,'" Matthildur says. "We never decided to be all female. We're just three artists who met up and wanted to make music. I think in a way without saying, 'Hello, we're a feminist band,' we're more feminist. We're just doing our thing, and nobody can stop us."