“Girls feel so overwhelmed because it’s such a male-dominant industry,” Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir tells Billboard. “They just see a bunch of dudes around and they think, ‘Oh, they know what they’re doing,’ like they have some magical ability that we don’t… And that’s complete bullshit.”
The Icelandic Of Monsters and Men singer had been abiding by her trusty acoustic guitar for years when finally, during the making of the band’s latest record, she’d had enough. Sitting down with the rest of the band was a process that seemed nearly foolproof at the beginning of their careers — it enabled them to pen “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound,” two No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs airplay chart — but after wrapping tour in support of 2015’s Beneath The Skin, it was a process that needed to be refreshed. It got to the point where Hilmarsdóttir would sit down with her guitar and know exactly what was about to happen, comfortable chord progressions among other predictable ideas that would have maybe sufficed in the past.
After years of looking around the studio and seeing only men, she decided to change that. It scared her — having no “real” production experience — but according to Hilmarsdóttir, it was vital, not only for the band’s next steps, but for herself and women everywhere.
The final result was the group’s third album, Fever Dream, out today (July 26). “There were so many moments of me not feeling strong and powerful,” Hilmarsdóttir says of the writing process. The lead single, “Alligator,” came from that place of not feeling strong. The group needed to create something to contradict that vulnerable feeling and make them feel empowered, even if it was a lie at first.
Singer-guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson supported Hilmarsdóttir’s new approach and the band members wrote separately, rather than together as a group, for the first time ever. That need for newfound power is evident throughout the record, and despite having no experience with this new method as a band, they created what is perhaps their most ambitious work yet.
Billboard chatted with Hilmarsdóttir about the writing process, as well as what it’s like to be a woman in modern rock music.
It’s been nearly four years since you released Beneath The Skin. What have you been up to since then?
We toured Beneath The Skin for about a year and a half. Once we finished, we came back home and tried to get back into our lives here in Iceland. So kind of immediately, we started writing this next album. We built our own studio, so we put a lot of time and effort into that.
You’ve said in the past that the writing process for this album was different this time around. How did it feel to go against your instincts and opt for a computer instead of an acoustic guitar?
It was extremely liberating, to be honest. At least for me. Every time I picked up a guitar, I knew exactly what was coming and exactly what kind of a song I would write. I wasn’t very excited about that, so I needed to figure out ways to feel excited. The computer was like a whole new toy, and it was also a huge challenge. I wanted to be able to record myself and get into that world. It’s a bit overwhelming also, because you’re not just playing around — you’re trying to write an entire album — and just learning something new takes time and energy. But I just decided I was going to go fully into it and go crazy and not wear normal clothes for many days in a row [laughs] and just lock myself inside and get really into it.
So it was also a really important process for us to explore our sound and do something new. It’s our third album and we don’t want to just repeat what we did. We want to grow and evolve, so this was necessary for us.
Was that scary at any point? Did you have any experience with the more technical aspects of music prior to that?
No, I had no experience with that. My entire experience with songwriting has been very organic, in a way of fully fleshing out an idea in the space that you’re in with just one instrument. Which is really nice, and I think having that background is super important because then you know how to build a song. I noticed right away that when you’re using a computer, you work more in loops and you’re thinking more about how you can sample your voice and then create a rhythm out of it. It’s really fun. I started to focus more on soundscapes… it was just a completely different way of writing. It was very exciting, but no, I’ve never done that before.
Is there any advice you have for other musicians who might feel stuck in a rut in a similar way, besides switching instruments?
It’s easy to be like, “Okay, I know what I’m doing here with this instrument,” and fall into that safe place, but not a lot of innovative things happen in a safe environment. You have to step outside of it and be completely overwhelmed and feel uncomfortable and then maybe something new comes out of it. So yeah, I would say to always challenge yourself in that way. It’s also important to remind yourself that nobody knows what they’re doing at all, at any moment. I really, honestly think that. Of course, when you’re stuck, you don’t know what you’re doing, but you just gotta keep going.
This album addresses what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry. What initially inspired you to embrace that theme?
Sometimes when we were writing some of my songs for this album, I didn’t feel very powerful. And like I said, I strongly believe that we had to do it this way, but not everyone in the band was as comfortable with that shift. Both me and Raggi had to be like, “Yes, we’re doing it this way.” It’s empowering to do your own thing because you know what’s right for you. And then it becomes something that you’re very proud of. So when writing this album, there were so many moments of me not feeling strong and powerful and then going just like, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna do it anyway. I’m going to force it until I feel it.” When I listen to the songs now, I feel it. I feel like an alligator — I feel strong when we’re performing that — but it didn’t come from a place of feeling strong.
“Alligator” is about being vulnerable but also strong.
Yeah, it comes back to how vulnerability is such a strength. You need to be very strong to be vulnerable, it’s so easy to put on a shell. The song is like an alligator — it’s rugged and charging at you, but it’s definitely not like the soft lyrics. It comes from having that “I’m going to fake it ‘til I make it” mentality.
That song kind of contrasts your other single, “Wild Roses,” which is a lot less aggressive. Was that contrast intentional?
It wasn’t that intentional. It kind of started off as a dance track [laughs], like it had the “boom, boom, boom, boom,” just that initial rhythm. Same thing with “Alligator,” that rhythm was just driving us home. It was nice putting out “Alligator” and having people be like, “Okay, they’re doing a rock album” [laughs], and then we put out “Wild Roses” and we were like, “ha, gotcha.” That song definitely is more vulnerable… It’s a sad song that talks about feeling a lot of things and not really knowing what to do with them but not avoiding them either. Just kind of leaning into your sadness.
I was also very inspired by Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Power of Myths. There’s this one story that talks about how you have to participate in life to say yes to the serpent — that’s why I’m always talking about a serpent — which means going on this journey without knowing where it’s going to lead. It might be a horrible journey, but you do it anyways because it’s better than saying no and not living. That’s where the inspiration from that song comes from.
This is shaping up to be one of your most distinct albums yet.
Yeah, it’s different. It’s written differently but also lyrically, I think it’s very different. There’s definitely “us” in it, but Raggi and I wrote more separately — we wanted to give each other more space to kind of say what we needed to say. When you’re writing with someone, which we’ve always done in the past, you have to suddenly explain what you’re thinking to someone else. You have to hide everything more. With this album, we don’t really hide at all. Sometimes it’s painfully in your face and for us, it’s even kind of strange to talk about this album because we’re used to hiding behind layers and layers. Now we have to kind of own up to it.
How do you think longtime fans will react to the new sound?
Honestly, I think some of our longtime fans will have a very difficult time with this album at first, if they’re comparing it to our other works. Our job as musicians and artists is to explore and to not get stuck in a sound that people think that we are. We never made those rules up for ourselves, and we are the kind of band that wants to develop our sound. Making albums and being in this business is only fun if you get to truly express yourself, and we did that for this album. We pushed ourselves and we grew. Speaking for myself, it was like a growth spurt. I learned and grew so much and I’m so incredibly proud of this album and it feels like it was exactly what we were supposed to do in this moment in time.
I know that some people won’t like it, because it’s different and people don’t like change, but that’s okay. Even if we get a bad reaction, at least I know that we’re making the album we want to make and that’s the most important thing. But I hope people can listen to it and not compare it to what OMAM is in their minds, because that’s not the rule we set up for ourselves [laughs].
You’re going on tour soon. What can fans expect from that?
Yes! We are super excited to travel again, meet everyone again, play shows… It’s the best part, to get out there and play these songs. And we’re just piecing the show together right now, so it’s going to be such a good time.
Fever Dream is out now via Republic Records. Listen below.