Daði Freyr:"If the song hadn’t taken off like it did, I probably would have moved back to Iceland"
Corona cancelled Eurovision 2020 – but Icelandic musician Daði Freyr took over the internet with his song Think About Things anyway. We met him for a chat about his life in Berlin, Will Ferrell's Eurovision movie and next year’s competition.
Berlin-No-one could have imagined at the start of 2020 what disruption lay ahead from coronavirus. Daði Freyr Pétursson also couldn’t have imagined that his selection to represent his native Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest in May would see his song, Think About Things, go massively viral – it now has 50 million streams on Spotify, with the accompanying video scoring 18 million views on YouTube and inspiring a lockdown dance trend. He soon became the hot favourite to win the competition, securing Iceland’s first win.
Then the two collided, with Eurovision and gigs booked following his new success all cancelled. But for the musician, who lives in Berlin with his family, the song’s success was an existential achievement in itself, with or without the competition. He entered this year’s Söngvakeppnin, Iceland’s Eurovision selection programme (in which he came second in 2017), with the aim of securing his professional future.
“This time we wanted to see how far we could go in the actual competition,” he explains when we meet in Schöneberg. “The biggest part of the plan was to get another song played on the radio in Iceland so I could play more gigs there and keep working as a musician.” He never predicted the song's wild popularity, even if it had won Eurovision – but it was nonetheless welcome. “If Think About Things hadn’t panned out the way it did, I probably would have moved back to Iceland and done sound engineering. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t live in Berlin now.”
Daði is joined by his wife Árný Fjóla, who appears in the “Gagnamagnið” band - an ensemble of close family and friends who performed with him at both his Söngvakeppnin outings. The couple sometimes get recognised around Berlin now – Daði's 6 ft 10 stature probably helps - but Árný says the mammoth change the song brought to their lives has been worth it. “We really didn't have any money before,” she explains. “We spent all our money on the video – it was a huge risk but it paid off. Otherwise we would have had to move back to Iceland, stay with our parents, start new careers. Now we don’t have to worry - the timing was really perfect.”
Daði and Árný are also accompanied by their 18-month-old daughter Áróra, who inspired the sweet but upbeat song. The lyrics reflect Daði's experience as a new dad, looking forward to seeing his daughter discover the world – and finding out what she “thinks about things”. The family moved from Neukölln to Schöneberg early this year, into a bigger flat where Daði has a home studio – and a keen audience. “She really likes the new songs, and she’s talking so much now she’ll come into my studio and demand to hear them,” he explains with a smile. “If there's no music she’s going to get angry.”
The 28-year-old says he didn’t grow up any more of a fan of Eurovision than the average person in Iceland, where “even if you don’t like Eurovision, you’ll probably still end up watching it”. He explains: “It’s a huge competition where we get to play like everybody else. We don't get that with many sports where we are, but with this, every year we’re part of the World Cup and we can try and beat the big countries.”
But he did come from a musical family – his parents met as players in a marching band, playing drums and flute respectively. He was set on becoming an cartoonist- or a basketball player - before he says music "took over" in his teenage years. His dad, Pétur, a sound engineer for film music who also played in one of the bands participating in Söngvakeppnin 1993, set him up with his first drumkit and microphone as a small child.
More recently, Pétur helped his son out with the sound for the Think About Things video. The song's family connections don’t stop there – Daði’s two sisters provided backing vocals, and Árný’s dad built the makeshift instruments featured in the stage performance.
The couple have lived in Berlin for six years now, ever since Daði came to study music production and audio engineering at the Catalyst Institute for Creative Arts and Technology. They’d never been before, and he says they turned up with “all our stuff with us and crossing our fingers we would like it”.
Six years on, they very much do like it – in particular Berlin’s strong international side, which means they spend time with lots of other Icelanders, including friends Daði records with. “I know we’re in Germany, but I don't really think of it that way,” he says. “I was at a magic show the other day and there were 10 Icelanders there. When people ask me if I still live in Germany, I have to think about it.” Árný agrees: “I feel like Berlin is not really representative of Germany because it’s such an international place.”
“That's one of the most fun things about it,” Daði adds. “You're always meeting people from different places, but still people that have similar mindsets – they came to Berlin to pursue something. We're surrounded by artists constantly.”
He says it’s hard to compare the music scenes in Iceland (population 364,000) and Berlin (pop. 3.7 million), but finds the huge range of music here can lead some to “get stuck”. “In Iceland, there’s so few of us, everybody's in the same scene – there are people who play guitar in a metal band, but then they also play with this R&B singer, but also with a cover band, or whatever. Here, if you’re a techno guy, you're going to be surrounded by techno all day and everybody around you is just thinking about that – in Iceland, probably none of your friends do techno.”
“There are so many venues here too, smaller venues where anybody can play. We probably have three in Reykjavik, and they’re all downtown at this point because everything is turning into hotels.”
Berlin’s reduced pace of life suits them well too. “Iceland is so hectic,” Árný says. “But it’s also like, you have to have a family and you have to buy an apartment, you have to have a nice car, you have to have the right clothes and everything. Here you can just be whatever you want in your own time.”
Eurovision isn’t the only thing corona cancelled for Daði – in the days before our interview, he announced his November and December European tour dates were getting rescheduled to next year. “I can't wait for things to be back,” he says. “It's super weird to sell out shows for the first time when I'm planning a tour and people are actually buying tickets, and then I just can't go to the gigs.”
But the success of Think About Things helped cushion the blow of Eurovision being cancelled. “I wasn’t really sad about it – things had already started rolling, so there was a lot for me to do anyways. It would have been harder if the song hadn’t taken off like it did. But we were also expecting it, because everything was getting cancelled. So why not Eurovision as well?” He says he particularly enjoyed this year’s would-be Australian entry, and was excited to see Russia’s performance on stage.
And what about Eurovision 2021? While several other countries have automatically confirmed their 2020 representative for next year, Daði still isn’t sure what’s in store for him. He says he’s “willing” to take part – but it depends on whether Icelandic broadcaster RÚV selects him internally as the act for 2021, rather than holding Söngvakeppnin as usual. On the day of our interview, he says he’s expecting the decision “in the next few days”.
“The only way we'll be going is if they send us straight to Eurovision,” he says. “I want to compete, but it's just so much work to do the Icelandic competition, and at this point, it doesn't really make sense for me to do that whole thing again. If we can go straight to Eurovision, we can focus on that the whole time instead of having to split the focus.”
With an absence of tour dates lying ahead, Daði now finally has time to work on new material. Quarantine didn’t necessarily bring him more time in his home studio – the explosion of Think About Things meant he had to spent more time on business and promotion, signing to a new distributor and publishing company.
He did release one new song during lockdown – Where We Wanna Be – complete with a homemade, one shot music video. “It’s very much about the quarantine, and having those two as well,” he says, referring to his wife and daughter. “Not everybody is this lucky with who they got stuck with during quarantine.”
He also found time to (begrudgingly) cover Ja Ja Ding Dong, one of the songs performed by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams’ Icelandic alter egos in the recently released Netflix comedy Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga. “When I watched the movie, I knew people were going to ask for it and I decided I wasn't going do it,” he said. “But then as time went by, people were asking more and more, so I did it just once. But it’s never going to happen again,” he concludes emphatically. When he played the Reeperbahn festival in Hamburg two weeks ago, he asked security to remove an audience member who shouted at him to play the song, quoting the film.
Otherwise, Daði and Árný thought the movie was “stupid, but funny” – despite what they call Pierce Brosnan’s “horrible, not understandable” attempt at an Icelandic accent, inaccuracies in some of the Icelandic characters’ names, and the “grammatically incorrect” Icelandic lyrics in the film’s climactic song. “It’s so weird to me – it would have been so easy to contact one Icelandic person and ask them, ‘is this correct?’” Árný says. “Instead they have this huge budget movie, and in the climactic moment at the end the Icelandic is just not right.” “There were Icelanders who were actually annoyed by it,” Daði adds. “I think it's funny – I don't really care.”
He was asked to help promote the film, and shared a cover of another of its songs, Volcano Man, on social media. There were other things he turned down because they “didn’t really fit me”. The film stars a host of real-life Eurovision entrants and Daði thinks if it had been made one year later, he would have been among them. Nonetheless, he still has one idea he'd like to pursue in the future. “I’m going to try to get Will Ferrell in a music video – just something I’ve been thinking about,” he says. “I think that would be a good opportunity for him,” he adds drily.
New songs are in the pipeline too, with hopes for an album next year. A festive offering could be on the cards in the form of a new English version of Daði's Christmas song Allir Dagar Eru Jólin Með Þér (Every Day is Christmas With You). The success of Think About Things saw it remixed by Hot Chip, one of his "all-time favourite bands” – and he says there are lots of artists he would like to work with, like Norwegian singer Sigrid. “That’s being realistic – in a perfect situation, that would be Daft Punk or Stevie Wonder,” he adds. Maybe Will Ferrell has some connections? “He has to. I mean, we’re like this now,” he says, crossing his fingers.
If he does return to Eurovision next year, he’ll have to enter with a new song – but he already has some musical ideas, as well as for the potential entry's staging and presentation. Those elements also came early with Think About Things – its now iconic dance routine followed later.
Either way, Daði wants his friends and family from Gagnamagnið there with him. “The main reason I want to go back is to experience Eurovision with those guys,” he says. “Whether we compete next year or not, if there's going to be people in the audience I think we'll probably try to be there.”
Daði certainly doesn’t suffer from the tunnel-vision ambition some artists enter Eurovision with – but he knows what the name of the game is when representing your country at the world’s biggest music competition. “I'm going to try to win – but I’ve got to make a song that’s got the goods to go high in the competition first,” he says. “If we can go with our group of friends to Eurovision and take home a trophy, that would be a good story. But the point is not to win. We’re going to aim for the win - but we'll expect less.”