Laufey on How She Makes Gen Z Audiences Scream for Her Updated Take on Traditional Jazz-Pop: ‘I Became the Singer That I Wanted to Look Up To’

Laufey on How She Makes Gen Z Audiences Scream for Her Updated Take on Traditional Jazz-Pop: ‘I Became the Singer That I Wanted to Look Up To’

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Laufey (pronounced Lay-vay) is captivating Gen Z by writing and singing music that almost sounds like it could be from Gen WWII. Go figure, and go marvel. But the 24-year-old has always instinctively known that a box is no place to be: She hails from Iceland, is of Asian heritage, and is in many ways a quintessentially all-American girl. If the original music she performs sounds like an update on the standards of the ‘40s or ‘50s, her lyrics place her squarely in the same present day as the young fans who scream her lyrics back at her at sold-out concerts, as if they were attending the Eras Tour.

Laufey’s sophomore release, “Bewitched,” came out in September with the biggest first-week numbers for what was classified as a jazz album since Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga released their final joint studio album two years prior. It has gone on to earn her a Grammy nomination for best traditional pop album. (It’s also included on Variety‘s soon-to-be-published list of the best albums of 2023.)

But to really understand the hysteria for Laufey among her growing fan base, you’ll have to attend one of her concerts and hear the Lay-vay! chants. Good luck with that, though. The tour she did this year was an instant sellout, and for the four shows she recently did in the L.A. area, resale tickets were nearly impossible to come by for under $500. This past week, she put on sale a 2024 tour that will take her to bigger venues, and those dates, too, immediately put up “sold out” notices. Only one show officially marked down for her ’24 itinerary hasn’t sold out yet, and that’s because it’s an L.A. show at a TBD venue on Aug. 7, not going on sale till early next year. Could it be the Hollywood Bowl? She’s already done one show with the LA Phil, and given her rabid fan base in Los Angeles, even that sizable a setting would likely be a quick sellout, if the prediction proves true.

Variety had an in-depth conversation with Laufey (full name: Laufey Lin Jónsdóttir) backstage at her penultimate U.S. concert of the year, at the Observatory in Santa Ana — maybe the last general-admission show she’ll ever do, unless she chooses to go back and do some underplays. (Certainly that’s probably the last time for a while that that rock ‘n’ roll club will host a classically trained Berklee grad who proficiently plays piano, electric guitar and cello as part of her show.) We discussed not just her unorthodox rise to fame but the spate of Christmas music she has put out in recent weeks, including a pair of seasonal collaborations with one of her heroines, Norah Jones.

Let’s talk about your demographics, which are so interesting. The first time I saw you, you were performing with the L.A. Philharmonic, and because of that, and because your music is so steeped in the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s, I expected it to be an older audience — which, with some exceptions, was not the case at all. I started thinking about it again in terms of what to wear to the show tonight, I thought, well, this kind of music feels like classic black-jacket music. And then I remembered that most of the audience is going to be college-aged or a little bit beyond, so a hoodie may be more appropriate.

Right. They definitely dress up, though, I will give them that. Even for a venue like this, I’m sure they’re more dressed up than they would usually be. Which is really sweet. But yeah, I have quite a young fan base, and it’s definitely not by accident.

I definitely set out to specifically make sure that Gen Z heard my music, and… “market it to them” sounds really bleak, but, you know, to make sure that those were the first ears hearing it. Because there are so many amazing jazz singers and more traditional singers that already serve an older audience. And growing up, I loved the Great American Songbook so much, and that kind of sound, but I felt like there was no one kind of on the pop scene doing that… no one there for, like, jazz or Great American Songbook-adjacent music. So I became the singer that I wanted to look up to: somebody who made music that maybe sounded maybe older, but was very much just a living, breathing, 24-year-old person… a girl.

I think that’s one of the reasons I use social media a lot, and especially in the beginning, I used TikTok and Instagram a lot, because that’s where Gen Z is. My whole goal as an artist is to introduce this music to a new generation of listeners. Further than that, obviously, I want to play for lots of different audiences. But when I started out, the most obvious would have been to go directly to an older audience, and I took the back route of turning down offers to do things in that specific arena first.

With my tour last year, we played a lot of smaller clubs where I don’t think that kind of music has ever been heard. Like, we played a venue in Nashville that was so divey, and we’re like playing standards on stage. It was such a fun juxtaposition of worlds. And I’ve really found that Gen Z has such a versatile palate. They will really listen to anything. I think what they care about is relatability — relatability to lyrics, and relatability to the person that’s in front of them. And, you know, I don’t pretend I’m from a different century or anything like that. I don’t think I was meant to be born in a different decade. I’m very much a child of this generation, but with a love of older music. So, my music and project is kind of a blend of all those worlds. But my grand hope is that it’s just music that people can turn on in the car and it doesn’t annoy anyone in the family.

There have to be a lot of older people that are into your music that we aren’t necessarily seeing in the audience at your shows, though. I’m convinced that it’s because your concerts sell out so fast, and it’s only the younger, hungrier audience that is fast enough to jump on those tickets the moment they go on sale. Maybe when you are graduating to bigger venues, we’ll see some of the older audience that is a little slower on the uptake and can’t even get into the shows now.

Hopefully. Now that I’ve harnessed that Gen Z audience… I love to see a lot of people bring their parents to the concerts, and they seem to enjoy it as much, as well, and I get a lot of DMs from parents being like, “This is similar to the music I grew up listening to, and I’m so proud of my kid for listening to this music, and we’re gonna come to your concert together.” That makes me so happy. I think there’s so many rifts between generations right now — like, boomers vs. Gen X vs. Gen Z vs. Gen A now — and I want to present something that can be a uniting factor between generations. But I think pop culture starts with the youth, so that’s why I’ve started here.

For someone who is older and maybe more attuned to the Great American Songbook than your primary audience, your music can be a little jarring at first, in a good way. Because maybe you are expecting the music to be matched with the language of another era. And one thing that stands out is that you use the word “boy” or “boys” a lot, which is very contemporary. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, a female singer definitely would not have strayed from using the word “man.” Everyone cultivated a mature audience; youth culture wasn’t a thing yet!

Right — it’s very Taylor Swiftian language. I always say that I write very much like I speak. It’s very, like, literal spoken-word, with a rhyme here and there.

My musical influences will always come from what I grew up with, which is jazz and classical music. But I spend a ton of time on the internet, and therefore my speech is very affected by what’s going on on the internet. And I think I talk like a normal 24-year-old. I think it would be very inauthentic if I were to write songs with the language that Cole Porter was writing his songs in.

And yet you’ve spoken eloquently about pop and jazz standards and how a lot of those songs came out of musical theater, where you have to write kind of literally because the songs are being presented as part of a physical narrative, and you can’t interrupt a play to have this kind of impressionistic, poetic performance.

Yeah, exactly. Yeah, you need to describe the surroundings, what you’re eating, what it smells like, what you’re wearing — these are all things that you hear in jazz standards because so many of those jazz standards are taken from musicals. And, yeah, I think that was my first songwriting lesson, so I think I definitely mixed that in there. That’s what I really loved about songs from the Great American Songbook: the songs are easy to understand; you know what’s going on; there’s not much deciphering that needs to be done. Every song is like a little movie.

A lot of your songs do feel like classic torch songs — but then, a lot of Taylor Swift songs are torch songs, really. You do drift toward songs of longing. But you’ve talked about how between your first and second albums there was a shift in the thoughts or experiences you wrote about. Like, when you were a little bit younger, you were imagining heartbreak, and then you experienced some of the real thing. All of that kind of stuff happened in a compressed period, it sounds like — even though, in your early 20s, maybe it seems more spread out.

Oh, definitely. I mean, my first album is all about the very first experience, which came to me quite late in life. (Before that) I was so focused on school and college applications and auditions that I just didn’t even think about relationships or love. So it all kind of started when I was like 20 or 21, which is when I started writing my first album, “Everything I Know About Love.” The first time I got rejected, I remember thinking, “Does everybody feel this?” This is such an intense feeling. And it turns out most do. And it’s something that is so uniting, but nobody has the answer to. And so it was just so fascinating to me. So, on my first album, I mean, I literally have a song called “Questions for the Universe.” There’s more of a naive tone on it, you know? And I think with “Bewitched,” I’ve grown a lot more as a woman, as a writer, and learned a lot more about love. And I think my thoughts about love were more like statements rather than questions in this one.

So even though those albums were only 13 months apart, in release dates, they were a world apart, as far as where you felt you were at, when you were writing or making them?

Well, yeah, when you’re a 24-year-old woman, things happen very fast. And you think you understand everything! But I definitely don’t.

You have a song on your latest album called “Letter to My 13-Year-Old Self.” You sing about feeling excluded and sing, “I wish I could go back and give her a squeeze.” But you had reasons maybe to feel alienated that the normal girl wouldn’t. You were getting attention for your musical skills at a very young age, but it wasn’t always attention that felt flattering to you. Like, when people talked about how mature your voice was, that wasn’t necessarily what you wanted to hear.

No. I was 13 years old and singing in a singing competition (“The Voice Iceland”), and they were like, “You sound like a 40-year-old, twice-divorced singer!” And I just like, “I don’t want to feel old and weird like that. I just want to be a girl.” And so I felt just like a circus act almost. But now I’ve grown into that voice, and it’s fine. But, yeah, it’s very odd.

Is there anybody whose voice you think is similar to yours? Because it’s not the type of voice you hear on the radio.

A lot of the older jazz singers. And that’s why I immediately started singing jazz, because as much as I loved Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, I didn’t hear my voice in them. But, I mean, far from being at their level, but still, I heard parts of my voice in Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday or Julie London or Peggy Lee and those singers. At least I wanted to be like them.

Do you have a sense of how the young part of your audience experiences this music, genre-wise or era-wise? Do some of them not even know or think about the eras it harks back to and just think it’s some new subgenre of bedroom pop?

I think a lot of them do think it’s jazz, though some songs resemble jazz more than the others. I just don’t think they care that much. To them, I know it sounds nostalgic — I think that’s the genre. But I always say this generation just doesn’t care about genre. We don’t go to a record store and go to our favorite genre section. We don’t run to rock because that’s our friend group’s thing, or run to funk or disco or whatever. We open up a Spotify playlist called “Walking Home on a Rainy Afternoon.” And it will be a mishmash of many different decades of music and different styles, with that one thing in common — that is, the feeling of walking home in the rain in an afternoon

I have a lot of musicians in my audience. So it’s very much a musician’s music, I think. I play a lot of different instruments on stage, and I kind of do that as a way to show that women can do that too. I don’t think there are a lot of women who do that.

I was talking to people in the audience when I saw you at the Ford about what they gravitated toward in being a fan of yours. The girl I was sitting next to attends Cal State Northridge, and talk about the bullseye of a target audience… besides being roughly your age, she was Asian and majoring in music.

There you go. Bam, bam, bam!

You seem destined to be like a hero to people in music education, or to students coming up through it. You’re somebody who they can relate to as normal in so many ways, in lyrics or fashion or attitude, and yet they see you having gone through the discipline to achieve what you’ve achieved.

Oh, I hope that. I mean, music education is everything to me. My mom’s a violin teacher. My grandparents were both professors of violin and piano in China. And the reason I can go on stage and have the stamina to do that is because of my music education. Also, I’ve been through that whole system and I’ve seen my friends who didn’t end up playing music, but they just learned so much from it, and they’re all doing their own great things now. So I’m really, really passionate about it. I think it gives kids a way to express themselves, but also a way of learning good focus and good skills, but also, most importantly, community.

And then, the Asian portion of the audience is quite large, yes, especially in California.

That is so completely evident at the shows here, and I did wonder how different it might or might not be from other parts of the country.

Yeah, I definitely have a very large Asian audience. It’s definitely most potent in California, which is just the sweetest thing in the world. I think, if anything, it just goes to show that there are so few Asian artists. Even when I was a kid, I literally just didn’t think that Asian artists… [She pauses.] Asians were classical musicians; that was it. And I feel like I’ve built the community that I so wanted growing up. You know, it’s a stereotype that Asian kids start playing music the second they can walk — and it’s true. I think it’s something that unites us all. I think one of the reasons that the music resonates is because of that: We’ve all studied a bit of classical music in our lives.

But also I write a lot about this kind of feeling of feeling left out or a bit foreign. And I think that’s something that a lot of Asian kids go through, especially in the States. So, yeah, it’s cool. It’s really fun. I love it. If you would have told me when I was younger that a group of kids would be getting together to listen to my music and the majority of them would be Asian, I’d be so happy.

Going back to your fandom for a second… some of your fans are into not just the music but adopting… is it called Laufey-core fashion?

Yeah! They’re so cute.

There was even a description in Teen Vogue where they described everything from the shoes to the collars. Maybe that was a little too specific, but maybe not.

Yeah, it’s quite specific. They’ve got it down to the tee. You’ll definitely see, out in the audience, a lot of ribbons in hair, and little shirts and dresses and loafer shoes. I never thought I’d become someone that people look to for fashion. I mean, I love clothes and I love expressing myself through the way I dress. I like to say I dress very much like my music. It’s very classic, timeless, but with like something fun and modern. But yeah, I think just because I use social media a lot and I like posting what I’m wearing, the fans started dressing like me. And it’s such a fun community to be a part of, and I love seeing their little variations in my outfits. It makes me happy.

Since this is Variety and we do have a lot of film industry people reading, we know you want to do film music, so this is maybe a good place to advertise that.

Yes. I’m putting it out into the universe. I will not leave this earth until I score a film, slash, write a movie musical.

You’ve said seeing “La La Land” inspired you in some regard, right?

Oh, 100 percent. Because I grew up watching the Golden Age films, right, and no one around me watched them. But then when “La La Land” came along, everybody watched it, and further than that, everyone devoured it, and the music too. Everyone was listening to the album, and I remember like my first reaction was like, “Oh my God, my secret’s out. This thing that’s so close to me and true to me, everybody loves it now.” And then my second thought was, “This works. It totally works.” And that was my first example of this project being able to have feet in this decade.

You have mentioned being inspired to want to do film scores by your fellow Iceland musician, Hildur Guðnadóttir…

Yeah, she’s so cool.

But then you also want to do a Bond theme, you’ve said, so you’ve got a lot of aspirations.

Yes. I really want to write and sing the James Bond theme song before I leave this earth. That is, I would say, my biggest goal. And to win the Grammy.

As far as touring goes, you sell out every date instantly, with demand drastically outstripping supply, when we look at resale values. You will need to graduate to bigger and bigger venues. But will arenas and the biggest amphitheaters be a good venue for this type of intimate music?

I want to tour even more — I think that’s the solution to the ticket issue, or lack thereof, if you will. But, in some of the bigger venues that I’ve played, like in Asia, with upwards of 5,000 people a night, I’ve played solo, actually. And those have felt strangely like some of the more intimate shows. I think a lot of the intimacy comes from addressing the audience a bit and talking to them so it doesn’t feel like there’s a wall between the artist and the audience. The way I go about performances, I think about it a lot from the viewpoint of the listener. I remember going to concerts when I was younger and my favorite part of the concert being the one where the artist kind of broke from their bit and just talked to the audience. So, I always make a point of doing that. I went to a Taylor Swift concert in 2018, and I remember her talking being just the best part of the show. Even though it was in a literal stadium, it felt still intimate.

In L.A., do you have the ideal venue you’d like to play? Reviewing your performance at the Ford this year, I said it would seem inevitable you would be playing across the street at the Bowl, maybe as soon as next year.

The Hollywood Bowl is definitely the dream. The venues where the great classical and jazz and pop acts have met, those are my favorite venues, and the Bowl is definitely an example of that.

Before we move into next year, let’s take a turn into Christmas. You have put out a fair amount of holiday music this year. You sort of have to collect it all in pieces, but it adds up to nearly a complete Christmas album if you put them together. There is a solo EP, there is a two-song single with Norah Jones, and even beyond those things, a Spotify single (“Winter Wonderland”). It’s fun to get to hear you do the covers for Christmas, because otherwise you don’t do many covers.

Right…

In your normal set you’ve got the Keely Smith song. Undoubtedly, people would love to hear you go through, like, the entire Great American Songbook.

Yeah. Oh, and I definitely will at some point. I think I’m writing my story first, but there will come a point where I, of course, will do that. But I want to do it when I’ve gathered an audience of people who will listen to it and learn something from it, and not just an audience that will drift to it because they already know it, if you know what I mean.

But for Christmas, as much as I love writing originals, Christmas is the time of year where I’m like: Keep it classic. I love doing my own spin of these songs that I grew up listening to… “Christmas Dreaming” is not the most common one, but I’ve heard so many of my favorites do it. I kind of want to be the modern voice for that song.

I looked up the covers that have been done of “Christmas Dreaming,” and it really is not a long list at all, compared to another song you do that originated with Sinatra, “Christmas Waltz,” which has a lot more, even though that one is not on everybody’s must-cover list, either.

Right. But then again, “Winter Wonderland” is very, very common and very, very, very covered, but…

You and Norah did “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and you did it with the better, original lyrics (“until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow”), not the rewritten ones. There is always some suspense, for some of us, about which version of the lyrics someone is going to do…

Really? I’m happy we got it right, then.

Speaking of Norah, you have said you felt like you didn’t have a lot of models for your career, in terms of all the hybrid things you wanted to do, but you felt like there was at least something you could look to in Norah’s career, where she hit on different points and wasn’t limited to one thing. What was it like getting together with her, and did you have a chance to tell her about her impact on you?

Yeah, absolutely. It was really interesting hearing about what she did back then compared to now – like, obviously social media wasn’t even a factor back then (in the early 2000s), and now it’s everything. But yeah, I made it very clear to her… I’ve gotten to meet a lot of my favorite musicians now who are close to my age, and kind of “of” the digital age, and so I’ve almost gotten used to the idea of them before meeting them. But seeing Norah was like seeing a mystical figure — she’s someone I’ve truly listened to since I was a baby, or since I was a very young girl.

And I remember when we were recording, just listening to her play… She has such a distinct style of playing piano, and singing as well… It’s funny because my fans often tell me, “Oh, this is just like the recording,” and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” And then I listened to Norah and I’m like, “Wow! It’s just like the recording. It’s crazy.”

One last thing about Christmas: What sort of Christmas traditions did you grow up with? In Iceland, are they going to be very similar to ours, or completely different?

No, they’re quite different. I grew up partially in the States, and so I was very aware of American Christmas traditions; we just didn’t do them, really. With Icelandic Christmas, we have 12 Santas instead of one. And they’re mountain trolls, basically. And in the 12 nights before Christmas, each one of them comes down and gives a child a present in their shoe. So you put your shoe up on the window, and you get a little present, which will range from a book to a tangerine or something. And we celebrate Christmas on the 24th, so all the gifts are open, then the 25 is a dinner with family and usually just like a walk. But, yeah, Icelandic Christmas is very special, I think. We’re the closest civilized nation to the North Pole, so I like to joke that’s why I release so much Christmas music.

Any celebrating you’re looking forward to this year for Christmas?

Yes. My grandma turns 90 on the 19th in Iceland, so I’m going back home, and that’s kind of the start of my holiday. I’m singing at her birthday, and then I’m just gonna relax and be with family, and hopefully it will snow. Knowing Iceland, it probably will.

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