Echoes of History and Nature: A Conversation with Jökull Júlíusson of Kaleo

JJ Julius Son, lead singer of Kaleo, speaks with PopMatters on his early influences and how he will never fall into the trap of a single genre.
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Jökull Júlíusson, or “JJ Julius Son” to the Americans unable to wrap their tongues around the unfamiliar Icelandic articulations, was born to be a musician. Hailing from the Land of Fire and Ice, Julius is the lead singer and guitarist for indie rock outfit Kaleo, who have a notable penchant for thundering blues-based stomp-rock.

For Júlíusson, the past is of the utmost importance. Besides proclaiming an interest in both history and philosophy, he recounts that mostly the music he listened to growing up was from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. After receiving music of these decades from his father, “I think I just carried on digging deeper, really getting into the blues later on and getting into the ’30s,” he remarks on the musical explorations of his younger days. This led him to obtain an intense admiration for the “originals: Son House and Robert Johnson” as well as the many other artists and bluesman he drew influences from. The echo in Kaleo’s music is certainly there. Resonator guitars, pentatonic riffs, and clapping rhythms are a few of the attributes that adorn many of the songs on the front side of the group’s American debut A/B.

When asked about what drew him to the blues, Julius takes a few moments to think, but he is unable to put his finger on the elusive quality and power that the blues had over him. He remembered simply that “the music moved me from the beginning”. For him, these “artists are very soulful, that’s the kind of thing I react to, spiritual blues, really old school, a lot about soul and feeling and expression”. We are getting into territory seldom discussed by many bluesmen, the essence of the music at its very soul. The factors that can’t be put into words, rather they’re simply remarked as being a part of some inner feeling, a movement that drives the singer to write. Julius can merely report that he is still searching and staying true to his music and himself.

Júlíusson recounts that he had no single experience that drove him to write music. He says that there really was no single impetus, rather the music flowed from him. He said that it “comes naturally for me, I started on on piano, learning melodies, I’ve always been a melody man. It seemed like a natural thing for me to start writing. Obviously, you get better with time and you’re influenced by different kinds of things.” He cites an original interest in classical music that still holds to this day, but what he really listens to is what moves him. This is especially true of the gospel and soul singers in mid-20th century America.

And despite this attraction to gospel music of the American South, Julius doesn’t intentionally place any religious themes in his music, nor was he raised in a religious home. In fact, he considers this a redeeming quality about his homeland of Iceland. He comments that it is a “good thing back home, no one’s pushing you to be something you’re not”. There is total freedom in all modes of expression, whether it’s music or literature or any other form, “people are fearless to try out new things, and that’s a great thing for a musician”. This allows him the freedom to explore new outlets; he’s limited by no real boundaries, unlike in “some places that may try and hold you back.”

That sparks the topic of Kaleo’s homeland and their intense pride for their place of origin. Featured prominently in the band’s music videos are gorgeous images of volcanoes, glaciers, and stunning landscapes that have certainly had an impact on the band’s music. In fact, Julius even says that “living in States, I try to go back home to write. I can’t put a finger on what that is but it’s easy to be inspired back home. The nature is amazing and you don’t realize it until you get away, it’s really a great place to be, creatively.” The variety in the landscape is echoed in the variety of the band’s music: soft acoustic strumming gives way to loud mountainous rocking guitar lines, the dynamics holding a mirror to nature.

He takes a moment to remark on the burgeoning music scene in Iceland. “Considering the country has only around 300,000 people, it’s a great scene right now, and I’m proud to be a part of that. There are a lot of interesting things happening, not many bands are doing the same things as us, but a lot of great things are happening there, more bands are breaking out right now.” The wealth of the scene is doubtless, and Kaleo follows a list of prominent artists such as Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters of Men that have come from the island. Obviously, they hope to resonate with the similar power of these big names while offering their own uniqueness to the résumé of Iceland’s musical output.

Speaking of this rapid ascent to fame begs the question of how the band has reacted to such a reception. The whirlwind began when the band received “a lot of success very quickly in Iceland, which was an adventure on its own, becoming that successful in our country like that. And kind of immediately we were signed by Atlantic [Records] in America. It’s been an intense, crazy ride in the last three years since we started, you don’t really realize it, you’re just living it. If I were to stop now and look back, I’d be fortunate to see how much success we’ve had … but that’s not what you’re thinking about while you’re going for it every day.”

These understated pressures would weigh on any young outfit. In combination with their early spotlight, Kaleo is received by a music scene that, as a whole, does not have its collective attention on “older” genres such as gospel, blues, and rock. When asked about the fate of the genre that looks back and whether he is trying to revivify it, naturally not one to praise himself or offer long explanations, Julius simply says “I try not to think about any of that. I try to write my music and my songs are very different and I had that concept for A/B because I write different songs and I think it’s really about staying true and trying to keep it organic throughout the songwriting process and then when I get into the studio.”

A dodgy answer? Perhaps, but Julius clarifies with an increasing sincerity, stating that what he certainly isn’t trying to do is “follow one genre, and that’s exactly what I’m going to keep doing. It’s more about the song and the music. If it becomes positive and people connect to it, then that’s an amazing thing. But I’m really just trying to make my music.” And even though he shrugs off this claim he knows the notion remains, but it doesn’t bother him. He handles it with the coolness and passivity that seems intrinsic to his nature.

While he may not have the answers for what will save the future of the blues or the secret impetus that wills him to write, that’s okay. He is young, hardworking, and talented. He’s a musician who is in the interesting position of leading a band driven by blues roots while also hovering around the top of American charts. He leaves fans with a promise, or more of an assurance that “when I’m writing my music and recording it, I always try to put my heart into it and put my soul into it, really connect to each song.” Maybe it’s this candor that makes us listen, just like the honesty and emotional transparency of the musicians who inspired Julius.

Whatever it is, it seems certain that a lot of us will keep listening.