‘How Come They’re So Creative?’

How Come They're So Creative? pp 8-9

How Come They're So Creative? pp 8-9Relative to the size of the population, the Faroe Islands produces an astounding amount of music—one record per week, which proportionately would translate into 6,000 albums per week in the U.S. — and we haven’t mentioned fine art; so why, what’s going on?

The Faroe Islands, as a nation, puts out a staggering amount of creative work. The country of less than 50,000 people has a symphony orchestra, an art museum filled with accomplished creations, and a music scene that rivals that of much larger nations. At the time of this writing, there are two Faroese bands touring the United States, and another two touring Europe. The Faroes support two multi-day music festivals during the summer (the G! Festival, and the Summer Festival). Perhaps the most striking example is that of the Faroese record label, Tutl. They only release music from Faroese artists and, on average, they release an album a week. If an American label wanted to release that much music relative to the size of its population, it would have to release 6,000 albums every week.

This leads to one inevitable question: why?

That’s not an easy question to answer, but I’ve spent the last five years trying. I produce a podcast about the Faroe Islands and in the process of recording more than 200 episodes I’ve had the chance to speak to some of the most acclaimed musicians and creative people in the country. During the course of our interviews, I always ask the same question, “Why does the Faroe Islands produce so much great art relative to its size?”

While my years of inquiry have yet to produce a conclusive answer, some themes have emerged that shed a little light on what it takes to produce a whole nation of singers and artists. (Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the water.)

“I really can’t tell you. Maybe it’s that a small nation feels it needs to put its stamp on the present, more than a huge nation like the US or Germany.” So says Heri Joensen, the lead singer and songwriter for Viking metal band TYR. “Not that there aren’t bands from those countries, but there are relatively more from the Faroes. Maybe we feel the need to make ourselves noticed.”

‘Need to express’: Many people I spoke to cite the small size of the Faroes as an inspiration for artists. Kristian Blak is the founder of Tutl, the record label that puts out a release each week. “When you have a little nation, you also feel it’s important that you do something,” said Blak. “I don’t mean that musicians feel that they have to, but for many people it’s a shorter step to go into recording in a studio here than in another country. The bigger the society, the harder it is to step out and say, I am an artist, I am a singer and I have something to record.”

Of course, simply being small isn’t enough. Cultural critic Birgir Kruse says the Faroes’ isolation has also played a big role in preserving Faroese traditions and nurturing the arts.

“Being so far away from any other huge country that could swallow us up has functioned as an incubator,” said Kruse. “You could say that time has stood still for centuries in the Faroe Islands, but it hasn’t. If you compare it to the islands close to the UK mainland, all their dialects have disappeared. In Shetland and Orkney, their language is gone. That could have happened in the Faroe Islands had we been situated in another area.”

Singer Budam agrees. “We are very isolated from the rest of the world and only 100 years ago we were completely isolated from the world. So there’s a need to express something, I suppose, because you are undisturbed by the modern world. Of course, now we’re being quite influenced by the outside world. So maybe it’s this clash between being isolated and becoming a part of the world. People here have always had the need to express themselves,” he said.

When Budam expresses himself musically, it’s usually in a theatrical style that draws heavily on the German cabaret tradition. But when talking about why his country is so creative, he goes back to tradition. “We have preserved the Faroese chain dance, and the Kingo-style singing… the old psalms… everything has been well preserved. People just feel the need to express themselves and here it’s so obvious because we’re in the middle of nowhere and not so oppressed by modern needs.”

How Come They're So Creative? pp 10-11Empty seats: G! Festival founder Jón Tyril echoed Budam’s sentiments. While Tyril’s festival focuses on cutting edge popular music, he believes Faroese creativity is rooted in something that goes back much further than rock and roll.

“I think it has to do with tradition, of course,” said Tyril. “We’ve had some really strong musical traditions in the Faroes. Music has played a really big part of people’s lives. Not just as something you would hear in a concert, but as a part of everyday life. Whether you are working, or celebrating, or in social life, people are singing. I think people are brought up in it. People also go to church a lot, and there’s lots of singing there. If you go to a Faroese wedding, or if you speak to someone who has been to a Faroese wedding and you ask, ‘how was the wedding?’ they will answer, ‘yeah, it was good, the singing went really well.’”

Ironically, that abundance of singing actually prevented one Faroese artist from finding her voice… at least for a while. Greta Svabo Bech was attending university in Liverpool, England when she was recruited to be the lead singer of a band called Picture Book. When they performed at the 2011 G! Festival, I asked Bech what it was like growing up as a singer in the Faroe Islands, her answer surprised me. “Everyone sings here, it’s just a thing that people do at parties,” said Bech. “And that’s why I never saw myself as a singer before, even though I love singing. So coming back and being the singer of a band… it’s not difficult, but I was nervous “

Six months after giving that interview, Bech was attending the Grammys in Los Angeles after being nominated for “best vocals” in the “dance” category. In 2014, Bech performed as a solo artist at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Teitur Lassen is among one of the best known singers from the Faroe Islands. Over the course of his career, he’s lived in Los Angeles, London and Copenhagen. About a year ago, he returned to the Faroe Islands to live and reflected on why there are so many creative people in his country.

“I think it’s a very expressive society. The weather is expressive. Relationships are expressive. Things are very intense. You get to know people very closely. If someone dies, it’s not just something you read about in the paper, it’s usually someone you know or someone you’ve seen. Things can be very dramatic and people keep an eye on each other a lot. There’s a lot of frustration and happiness and a lot of all these things artists thrive on… stuff that creative people use to create with. There’s a lot of that everywhere, just looking out the window. But it’s not just in music. It’s even sports or even in painting. Also, we have so many people multitasking. It’s a place where you can express yourself if you have a gift or an urge to do something creative. There’s a lot of empty seats there, you can just go ahead and do it.”

A bit richer: Many artists said the stunning landscapes of the Faroe Islands help inspire artists. “Because it’s so beautiful, you have to get inspired. I don’t know how you couldn’t be. I think the environment affects us drastically,” said Heidrik, a Faroese singer and film director. “You almost have to be creative just to enjoy yourself here. There’s not much to do, and I think that’s why so many creative and talented people are here as well. Because if you want something, you have to do it yourself. Also the isolation. You’re kind of trapped here in the Atlantic. If you’re a writer, it’s got to be great. Come to the Faroe Islands and you’ll get peace and solitude.”

“It might be a combination of boredom and beautiful landscape,” said Knút Háberg Eysturstein. Eysturstein comes from a long line of musicians and creative people and agrees with those who credit the Faroese scenery for inspiring artists.

“Kristian Blak (the founder of the Tutl record label) says that everyone has access to the horizon here. You can always see where the ocean ends, and you always wonder what’s beyond that. And that’s a very inspiring thing to have 24-hour access to. Combine that with boredom and not having much to do, you just have to do it yourself. And that is an inspiring thing. You can’t just depend on someone else to do stuff: electronic music, painting, rock music, or whatever. You just have to get going and do it yourself.”

How Come They're So Creative? pp 12-13So to boil it all down, if you take a small country, isolate it, throw in some gorgeous scenery and give the people nothing else to do, then traditions will build up that will generate scores of talented artists for generations.

But maybe it’s simpler than that. In my 2010 interview with Kristian Blak, he told a story that stuck with me. It involves a man considered by many to be the greatest Faroese writer ever. “The writer William Heinesen, in the 1930s, wrote an essay about how an amateur becomes a professional without thinking about it. It just comes by accident. He talks about himself watching a bunch of amateur theater people rehearsing and they say ‘we need someone to paint the sets in the theater.’ And he realizes doing this that he’s actually quite good at painting, which he wouldn’t have known if there had been a number of painters that were professionals. But now there was nobody and he was asked to do it so out comes William Heinesen as a painter. He never regarded himself as a painter, but he has quite a large production of artistic work. And I think there can be a parallel in music.”

So perhaps this is just an example of a small society being forced to use its workforce as efficiently as possible. Because it’s so small, everyone is going to have the opportunity to try just about everything at some point. And some people will discover talents they never knew they had. The country’s most prominent comedian learns he’s also got a knack for politics and gets elected to the parliament. A mail carrier tries his hand at radio and becomes the host of his own interview program. A hardware store owner plays for the national football team and scores a goal that defeats Austria in the Faroes’ first international match.

These are all things that have actually happened in the Faroe Islands, and a version of that story happens every time some kid in a basement is handed an instrument and told, “We can’t find anybody else to play bass on this song. Why don’t you give it a try?”

Why does so much art and music come from the Faroe Islands? We may never know for sure. But our lives are all a little bit richer because of it.

Matthew Workman is the publisher of the Faroe Islands Podcast.