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How Laufey Is Bringing Modern Jazz to the Mainstream

There’s a reason that Laufey’s new album has broken the all-time record as the biggest debut for a jazz album in Spotify history


Gemma Warren

Laufey is a rising young star who wants to showcase the beauty of jazz and classical music to the world. And she’s definitely succeeding so far. 

Armed with a mesmerising voice and innate songwriting ability, the Icelandic-Chinese singer wishes to entice new interest in the two beautiful music genres.

“It’s my guiding light as a musician, and it’s another way I keep myself motivated – my work isn’t done here,” she tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ.

“I don’t want jazz and classical music to have these reputations moving forward that they’re only for a certain set of society or people who are educated enough to indulge in it – I just want it to be the people’s music.

“Classical music originally was meant to be like that, and the same with jazz. It was a deviation from the rules, it was meant to be this freedom and whatnot. The fact that both genres now have these high barriers to entry is one of the reasons that it feels unrelatable for this generation, but they’re styles of music that I love so much.”

With a voice that could likely adapt to any genre, Laufey says it never crossed her mind to convert to a pop sound to chase success on the mainstream charts – instead, she wants to see jazz and classical music recognised on their own merit.

“It’s funny, when I started, I always expected that I’d really have to fight for my place being a jazz singer, and I’d have to be fighting labels or managers being like, ‘No, I’m going to stay my route,’ and that’s really not ever happened,” she confesses.

“This is the music that comes so naturally to me. I always had this blind belief that there was a space for it in the modern music world, that it just hadn’t been introduced in the correct way. This is what I do most naturally, I don’t even know if I could force another style out of me – thank god it worked out because this is my natural state.”

Still only 24 years old, Laufey’s work is certainly being noticed. She boasts 6.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone – a legion of loyal supporters she’s gained by staying true to her belief that there’s a place forces spotlighted genres in the mainstream.

She began playing the piano asked just four, following it up with cello lessons when she was seven. From her subsequent classical music training, she’s developed a stamina which is still evident to this day.

“Every single day, there were two or three hours of practice and lessons. It was less when I was younger, and then it got more and more,” she remembers.

“Music education means a lot to me and is the reason I can hold up the way I do. It’s a level of discipline and hard work that my parents really instilled in me as a kid – I was like, ‘Oh, crap,’ and now I’m like, ‘Thank you so much,’ because now I can have fun and relax.”

The Berklee College of Music graduate says she adored Ella Fitzgerald growing up, which led to her discovering more jazz icons. She has a fierce appreciation for Chet Baker, coming to love his interpretations of music in recent years.

While she does have a natural alignment with classical, in part thanks to her violinist mother, Laufey does like to look outside the genre for inspiration, insisting Taylor Swift can never go wrong. “I’ve grown up with these singer-songwriters who wrote very honestly about their lives and that’s where I got my inspiration for storytelling,” she says.

In her new album Bewitched, released earlier this month, she explores her lust for life – from the power of serendipity to being in love.

“Songwriting, to me, is just journaling out my life. All of these songs come from my personal experience and stories, maybe with a tinge of exaggeration, some of them more than others. If I’m feeling sad about something, writing a song puts a band-aid on it.”

The rich, classical accompaniments create a stunning backdrop for her soaring vocals as she demonstrates a control and tone that bears a striking resemblance to Judy Garland yet possesses its own independence at the same time. 

Although a renowned artist today with a social media following spanning millions across platforms, Laufey wasn’t immune to tough times during high school. Full of questions about the future, at times overwhelmed by curiosity as to whether everything would work out, she sometimes felt insecure and lost growing up.

With lingering reminders of that time today, even after achieving some of her most wild achievements, Laufey wrote “Letter to My 13 Year Old Self” as a way of going back and offering some reassurance when she needed it most – that’s why it’s one of her favourite tracks on Bewitched

“Iceland is a very isolated place and I was half Chinese and had lived in the States,” she explains. “I felt very loud, very foreign. I was a cello player and I wasn’t like ‘cool’ in that sense. I just remember feeling so awkward and out of place, and almost a little bit larger than life.

“I remember these experiences of hearing girls in the locker room whispering about who had their first kiss, and I was so far from that I was such a late bloomer. I wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be a singer, but I was scared sick, and it didn’t seem possible coming from a tiny island like Iceland.”

One of her lyrics talks about being made fun of for her Chinese name – she cleverly draws a comparison to today, being up on stage in front of little girls who yell it out at her shows, the same young women who might be going through similar challenges.

“I just felt like I owed it to my younger self, but also to all these younger girls that listen to me. I’m sure they look at my life now and think, ‘Wow, she gets to dress in cool outfits, go on stage, be a singer, and have this dream life,’ but I almost want to remind them that so much can happen in between those years, and there’s so much hope.”

Laufey has a clear process to get the feelings into a track that she wants to communicate openly from her mind: once written, she will bring her producer Spencer Stewart ideas with a combination of either piano and voice or guitar and voice. They’ll sit together and she’ll play the song, recording most of the album at his home studio.  

“We understand each other so well that it usually comes out quickly. I usually lay down the guitar first and then I sing. We recorded most of Bewitched in his home studio,” she reveals.

As a multi-instrumentalist, Laufey can play guitar, piano, and cello, while Stewart would play around with the bass and drums, trying out different sounds until landing on what they felt worked before layering strings on the songs.

“I always want to hear the string sound,” she says. “It’s great with modern technology, you can record cello on top of cello, on top of cello, on top of cello and make it sound like a string orchestra.”

Her twin sister played on a couple of the tracks and two of them were even recorded with the Philharmonic Orchestra in London.

“I think I’ve been quite lucky, I feel just really thankful,” Laufey reflects. “Every day, I’m just surprised that any of this is happening, I feel lucky.”

When she’s dealing with something that might feel too overwhelming, she’s quick to remind herself of the progress she’s made and how proud she should be of herself. And her fans keep her grounded, too. Under her bed, she keeps letters she’s been sent or given after shows from people who look up to her.

“If I’m having a bad day, I’ll read one, and that physical proof of having done something to someone is enough to make me happy and remember that what I’m doing is worth it.”

 Laufey’s Bewitched is out now via AWAL.