Planting A Thousand Seeds: Sunna Gunnlaugs
April 08, 2012 at 6:29pm
Top Icelandic jazz pianist and band leader Sunna Gunnlaugs is our guest this fortnight, we are happy to say! After the release of her highly successful trio album 'Long Pair Bond' in 2011, it seems Gunnlaugs' feet haven't touched the ground. However, we managed to briefly grab onto her ankles and pull her down for a quick chat before she and her trio soared off again, this time to JazzAhead Bremen with fellow Icelanders ADHD, Voices Of A Nation and the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band on April 21st.
Welcome, Sunna! What are you doing today?
Today I'm at home with my girls (4 and 6 year old) who are on Easter vacation. I'm also preparing for two gigs that my trio is doing next week. We are trying to find some time to rehearse over Easter break and I'm sending press releases to the media.
How long have you been playing jazz? What inspired you to start?
I started playing jazz when I started playing piano. I was 18. I played the organ when I was a kid and during my early teens I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to play more organ or switch to classical piano but then I discovered that one could study jazz piano. At that time I was really into Kool and the Gang and Quincy Jones. I had a video where Kool and the Gang talked about their influences who were all the jazz greats so I got curious. I always read the back of the album covers to see who was playing and I noticed Herbie Hancock on albums produced by Quincy Jones. The only times I heard jazz was at the end of the TV program or occasionally on the radio but it really appealed to me. I thought the walking bass was so cool.
Agreed! Are there many women in the Icelandic jazz scene, or is it largely male-dominated? If so, how does that affect things, if at all?
The jazz scene in general, whether in Iceland or internationally, is largely male-dominated. There are very few female instrumentalists in the field of jazz. I don't think it matters musically but I think that I actually benefit from it in a promotional sense. It is easier to stand out when you are one of few. I think that when I was based in New York and started touring with my band that the combination of being a women from Iceland with a NY based band made it easier to get the attention of the press.
We are very excited to hear you are part of a fantastic Icelandic line-up at JazzAhead Bremen - have you played here before? What are you most looking forward to?
I attended the conference last year and thought to myself that it would be really cool to get to perform there so of course I was thrilled that my trio got invited this year. I really look forward to getting to sleep past 6:30am... but seriously I'm excited to play at this great venue, Sendesaal that has a long history of great performances. It will also be nice to run into people I know from all over and hopefully make new connections.
We hear recently your bassist Toggi had a bit of a drama at the airport in Frankfurt! What happened?
A bit of a drama is an understatement. He flew with his upright bass in a flight case that we were going to store at the airport. When he opened the case we saw that the neck was broken where it attached to the body. It was a huge shock. We were supposed to play that night and were leaving Frankfurt early the next morning so we had to find someone who could repair the bass in less than 24 hours and find another instrument to use that evening. We were fortunate that our saxman Óskar Guðjónsson was already in touch with an instrument repair man who lived in a small town where two bass-makers had their shops. What a coincidence!
Phew! We've always wondered how musicians cope with having to put their instruments in the hold - sounds very stressful indeed. Any tips for ensuring this sort of thing doesn't happen?!
You can never be sure that your stuff is safe. No matter how many "handle with care" stickers you put on the case there is no guarantee that it gets handled with care.
Your album has been doing extremely well. Where does the name 'Long Pair Bond' come from?
Long Pair Bond is the name of one of the tunes. After I wrote the tune I posted a video on Facebook and asked people to suggest names for it. One person suggested "Long Pair Bond" and explained it..... "musicians part of long pair bonding! Monk & Jarrett do I hear synthesized by the incomparable Sunna." I loved it and picked that as the title of my tune. Then another person from PA suggested Autumnalia and I thought that it was also such a beautiful title that I had to write a tune for it. Then I blogged about it and those two people wrote lengthy comments on my blog and fell in love. Can you believe it? They now live together in CA.
Wow! That is a really lovely story. The power of music never fails! We love reading the blog on your website, and particularly liked the post about 'planting a thousand seeds' to make a tree grow, metaphorically and literally. Tell us about the 'trees' you've been growing, and how they are flourishing?
Thank you! It seems like the office never closes when you are an independent musician. When I wrote that post I was promoting my album 'The Dream' and booking a tour of Europe. I had read somewhere that in order to grow a hundred trees you had to plant a thousand seeds. Meaning of course, everything I do, whether it's booking venues or getting reviews, requires contacting way more venues and magazines than actually respond.
Since the release of "Long Pair Bond" last November my focus has been on reaching reviewers world wide and booking concerts mostly in the US. I'm fortunate to have my husband Scott McLemore on my "gardening team." When Long Pair Bond was released we started by contacting reviewers and bloggers with whom we had already had personal contact. Fortunately, they all dug the album and when we had a handful of positive reviews it seemed much easier to get new people interested. I can't tell you how nice it is to get so much positive feedback from everybody from Japan to USA to Finland. It really feels like trees are growing.
We are touring the US in June and so far we have 13 confirmed performances in 8 states both West and East Coast. That was really a lot of work and it was very helpful to be able to reach out to old friends in various places for help with contacting venues. It was also very nice when the booking person would reply saying something like "I know your music". I guess many of them are also involved in local jazz radio and had my previous albums for that reason.
Now that the US tour is almost all booked I will be turning my focus to booking Europe in spring 2013. I will be contacting venues that I have already played at and hopefully all the recent reviews will help us get into new venues. Maybe I can plant some seeds in Bremen.
And finally, what are you listening to at the moment?
I don't know if I should tell you. My girls rule the house today and are playing ABBA and Gummy Bear. If I get the opportunity I'll put on some Bobo Stenson or Bill Evans.
Good call. Thank you Sunna!