Behind the Cover: Kælan Mikla - Undir Köldum Norðurljósum

Becoming one with the boundless audiovisual creativity of the Icelandic trio.

Photograph by Pola Maria

The hotspot that is the Icelandic music scene has yet to settle. At the time, they hold their ground as one of the strongest providers of high tier black metal. Always dark and ethereal, the nation's acts come brimming with creativity and synth-punk trio Kælan Mikla are no exception to the rule. Their entrancing approach hit a high point with this year's release of Undir Köldum Norðurljósum via Artoffact Records, an effort chock full of vibrance and haunting atmosphere. It's a tremendous feat for the tight-knit trio as their work has taken them across all pounds to festival stages of all kinds, including The Cure's Pasadena Daydream and an SXSW showcase among others like Psycho Las Vegas that didn't come to fruition because of the pandemic. This is a testament to the accessibility of their craft, a craft that infiltrates spaces not known to host sound of their kind. It all comes illustrated by French duo Førtifem, who put a face to the Kælan Mikla spirit in ways symbolic and signature to their artistic tendencies.


We go Behind the Cover of Undir Köldum Norðurljósum with the minds behind Kælan Mikla and the artistic collective that is Førtifem to learn of their multifaceted partnership:

 

‘Undir Köldum Norðurljósum’ came to be over the course of almost two years and now, fans across the world have been able to experience it for themselves. Is it cathartic in any way to have invested so much heart in it and finally get to see it being enjoyed publicly?


KM: Absolutely! This is by far the most time consuming album we ever made, and we worked harder than ever on it, so to see it released feels almost surreal. We put our hearts and souls into this and it’s so heartwarming to see all the positive feedback from our fans.


It's very well deserved! Speaking of your purpose, is Kælan Mikla insular as a group, where you write and compose for yourselves instead of an audience? Or are you particular about the way you compose so that it best resonates with listeners, whether that be sonically or lyrically? Either way, fans have truly embraced ‘Undir’ as one of their own.


KM: We’ve always written first and foremost for ourselves. It’s the only way to stay perfectly true to our creative spirit. We’ve created a world of our own within our music and opened it up to our audience to explore with us this universe of Kælan Mikla. Our fans are a part of it too and that’s what makes it so beautiful.

kaelan mikla
Photograph by Polar Maya

Agreed. Iceland, and Reykjavik in particular, has such a rich musical history to learn and pull from. Currently, your hometown delivers among the best black metal in the world and judging by ‘Undir’, synth-punk as well. Whether it be the atmosphere, the “scene”, or the people in general, do you feed off of this energy as inspiration for wanting to craft something that pleases your creative ambitions?


KM: Iceland has a very prominent musical scene and a lot of people use creativity as an outlet in one way or another. As a nation on an isolated island in the northern hemisphere, we have lots of inspiration around us, being the vast and striking landscapes or the dark and dreary winters. That especially is what makes most Icelandic music have some sort of an eerie undertone.


It's definitely audible, regardless of the genre. Visually, did the Icelandic atmosphere influence your approach to the cover in any way?


Førtifem: It's impossible when you listen to 'Undir Köldum Norðurljósum' not to feel immersed in Icelandic landscapes and legends. The darkest and most magical ones certainly. As we can't read Icelandic, Laufey, Margrét, and Sólveig also explained to us the themes and stories for each song right from the start.

Førtifem
Artwork by Førtifem

It's not the first time we do very strongly contrasted black and white illustrations, but this approach had an additional relevance for 'Undir Köldum Norðurljósum'. It was a good way to translate into drawings the very harsh and contrasted Icelandic landscapes and to give a nod to classical depictions of nordic tales and folklore. As for Icelandic musical history, I can’t say it’s something that influenced our work, but in the same way, that French musical history didn’t influenced our work on Alcest’s albums.


Aside from Icelandic influence and reference, were there any external influences or distinguishing qualities, from the making of the art to the art itself, that you'd say had an impact on the end result?


Førtifem: Along with their explanations for each songs, Laufey, Margrét, and Sólveig also provided us with some visuals inspirations that they liked and linked to each songs. Upon seeing them, I immediately thought, "Okay, this is going to be a lot of fun to work on", because we have many visual inspirations in common and I knew this meant it would be a very pleasant journey. It was a whole world of dark and poetic fairytales, starry nights, wind and natural elements overflowing. It made me want to dive into the passion I have for early 20th century illustrators (Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Dugald S. Walker, Franklin Booth...). Depending on the projects, it's not something we always have the possibility to explore. Sometimes, it doesn't fit at all with what the artist/band want to see or express along their music.


So to see that they liked these kinds of illustrations, it gave us the confidence to go this way and beyond, to dare to try some new things. The end result is this mix of trust and tries and it's probably unique to this album.


It's an all encompassing effort, that's for certain. At the forefront of ‘Undir’, we find a wondrous illustration of course courtesy of Førtifem, which suits your music well. Prior to this, you had been working with Kinnat Sóley for consecutive releases, and she now took on the layout/graphic design. To what do you attribute the change? And what drew you to Førtifem’s work?


KM: We got introduced to Førtifem during our tour with Alcest, as they have illustrated most of their work. We were very intrigued and once we started collaborating with them, it was a match made in heaven. They did six gorgeous illustrations for the album and the booklet, while Kinnat Sóley did the graphic design and the layout around it. Kinnat has collaborated with different artists for different albums, for example our previous album, 'Nótt eftir nótt', was a collaboration between Kinnat Sóley and photographer Verði Ljós.

Cover by Kinnat Sóley and Verði Ljós

A fantastic collaboration that was. Jesse, another day, another fantastic collaboration under your belts. It’s direct and symbolic of the band and Iceland as a whole. Upon being presented with the themes, lyrics, and/or the ideas, what did you set out to envision?


Førtifem: The start and the most important part of this collaboration was to design Kælan Mikla's "Kælan Mikla"! In other words, the band take her name from a character from the Tove Jansson's Moomins books, the Lady Of the Cold (Kælan Mikla in Icelandic). It's a goddess-like allegory of the cold that doesn’t physically appear in the books but does in the animation adaptation. The band wanted their own version of this character, one that would relate more to their musical universe.


We spent some times sketching her face and her clothes, she had to be magnificent, delicate and powerful, like she rules upon the snow and the mountains. In the end, we've also been very inspired by Laufey, Margrét and Sólveig's attitude and appearance when they're on stage. This Lady of the Cold is kind of like a fourth member of the band or an incarnation of the power they have when they're all three together on a stage.


She's apt as their visual identity. As you note, Førtifem had illustrations done for several singles beyond just the cover itself, specifically for ‘SÓLSTÖÐUR’, ‘ÓSÝNILEG’, and ‘STORMURINN’. Do you feel as though the arts play a crucial role in the expansion of your music’s themes, lyrics, and overall messaging?


KM: This album is our most lyrically visual album, hence the most fitting to have illustrated. The songs were all written beforehand and we made the commissions for Førtifem with translations of the lyrics and an idea of what we had visualized. They did an amazing job on bringing the songs to life and the final outcome exceeded our expectations by far. It makes such a big impact to be able to show the audience a glimpse into the song’s storylines.

Førtifem
Artwork by Førtifem

You also had various illustrations done for Alcest’s ‘Spiritual Instinct’ (2019). Interestingly enough, Neige is on this record. They’re obviously very intentional about the way they present their music. That said, how would you characterize the entire collaborative process?


Førtifem: As they mentioned, the idea to work together on this album is really thanks to Neige and the tour Kælan Mikla did with Alcest at the beginning of 2020. While on the road they talked about the collaboration between us and Alcest on 'Spiritual Instinct' and how we really worked on putting in pictures a universe and a story accompanying the whole album rather than just working on a nice cover (not that there's anything wrong about that, it's just a different process!).

Førtifem
Artwork by Førtifem

This way of taking care of the visual part of an album interested Kælan Mikla, so when they contacted us, they already had a good knowledge of how this could go.

We'll have to say that at first we were hesitant though, or careful rather! Our collaboration with Alcest has been going for several years now and we've also spent a lot of moments as friends along these years. Our understanding of Neige's vision and sensibility was already consequent when we started working on 'Spiritual Instinct', and even then, it still was a long process and certainly out of our comfort zone! We already appreciated Kælan Mikla's music and universe, but was it a good idea to dive directly into a rather consequent project together? When starting a collaboration with a new artist or a new band, we usually like to do a small project first, a merch design for example, to see if everybody feels comfortable and if the communication is fluid and easy for everyone.


That's an interesting approach, but evident of the care and genuineness of your work. Judging by the synchronicity of the audiovisual elements, it’s quite obvious that your music partnerships are rooted in honesty and understanding of the material being presented. This is more than a mere commission or business transaction, but a genuine work that puts a face to the music using your engraver-loving techniques. Do you feel as though it’s important for you as artists to be on the same page and establish a common ground early on?


Førtifem: It's something we absolutely need in a musical collaboration. As we were saying before, if the collaboration is difficult, if we don't feel like we understand what the artist has in mind or if the artist is not convinced by what their material inspires us, I don't think it's worth going on. There will be a disappointment or something missing at least. Music and illustration are made with a lot of heart, the final result must reflect that. That's why we always ask for a bit of visual inspiration from the artist as a starting point. It really help us understand the worlds and vibes that surround their sounds. We also ask that they work with us because they think we can do something that they'll feel comfortable with. When someone contacts us saying, "We love what you did for XXX and we want something very similar", we usually tend to refuse the project.


As crazy as that may sound to some, it shows that your craft is more valuable than a check. You could easily pump out similar works and take on commissions left and right, but opt not do so. Jumping back into ‘Undir’, what did you envision when first approaching Førtifem for the project? Perhaps a new rendition of the ‘Lady of the Mountain’? Sometime last year, we hosted an interview feature with your Icelandic colleagues in Sólstafir who elaborated a bit on the Johann Baptist Zwecker painting of the ‘Lady of the Mountain’.


KM: We had a bunch of stylistic inspirations: fairy tale illustrations with a slight nod to Japanese gothic art, something ranging from Harry Clarke to Takato Yamamoto and many many more. The ideas we had really fit well to the style and ideas of Jesse from Førtifem and he really impressed us with the outcome. As he notes, the cover illustration was his interpretation of Kælan Mikla, a character from the Finnish books about the Moomins. It’s the lady of the cold, the coming of winter anthropomorphized.


The historical context and varied influence came together quite nicely. As a duo with an abundance of accolades, Førtifem excel at capturing a project’s intended goals. How would you characterize the entire collaborative process?


KM: They absolutely captured the whole essence of the album! We showed them the songs we chose to be illustrated and sent them a folder of lyric translations and some inspirational drawings, with a small description of the song’s mood and what we had pictured. They took it and made it their own and really took it to the next level. We couldn’t be more happy with the result, definitely a perfect collaboration.

Photograph by Polar Maya

Your promo photographs also carry a mystifying aura that definitely garner a sense of intrigue. You all stood amidst the snowy mountains with swords held high, shrouded in darkness. It’s ethereal and empowering in a sense. Would you say there’s a commonality with the central figure on the cover?


KM: As our band is named after the queen of winter as we previously explained, we try to summon this spirit in all our performances. Those promo photos are from the music video for our single 'Sólstöður', created by Polish artist Pola Maria. In the video, we are also performing as spirits of nature and winter, summoning the powers of the harsh Icelandic winter landscapes. Førtifem's illustration for the cover was also based on the song 'Sólstöður', so there’s indeed a direct connection there.

It's all intertwined! Jesse, your work breathes beyond the digital medium and is of course printed on shirts and used on stage imagery in front of thousands of fans. It’s accessible and sparks curiosity for those looking to go beyond the surface level. If ‘Spiritual Instinct’ and ‘Undir’ are anything to go by, your art stands as an inspiration to many. What role do you feel the arts play in the contemporary time?


Førtifem: I don't think the role of arts has changed that much in the last 100 years. Surely, the way it's conveyed has, via the online and non-tangible world, but his prime role - if we focus on our field of illustrating pieces of musical or written works - is very much the same. When I was talking about early 20th century illustrators as a source of inspiration, it's also based on how their works were part of a book and helped shape visions for the reader. It's similar to our task for 'Spiritual Instinct' and 'Undir Köldum Norðurljósum' in the end. Of course in 1900, there were probably less merch shirts :) During Covid, we were happy to create some merch or limited editions for artists/bands. With no concerts to go, the physicals and visuals goods became more valued.


I'd agree, just based on what we've seen in the recent months and pandemic years. Musically, each track flows from one to the next with ease. It haunts yet makes you want to dance in such an infectious manner. How significant a role did camaraderie play in the development of ‘Undir’? It’s clear that you all have a tight bond that extends beyond a typical professional relationship.


KM: Thank you, we are happy to hear that. Much rather than some type of a technical band, we are just best friends who met in high school almost a decade ago and decided to create something together for fun. We never expected it to become our live job, but it did. In the end, we are still just best friends casting spells together and having fun, so that’s what makes our creative process so tight and synchronized.


Five full-lengths in and your growth continues to be immense. ‘Undir’ is arguably your best of course, but speaking more on the live setting, you’ve shared the stage with The Cure here in Los Angeles, Alcest, an SXSW showcase, and had a slot in the annual Psycho Las Vegas festival. To what do you attribute these fantastic opportunities?


KM: 'Undir Köldum Norðurljósum' is our fourth album, we are so happy to see the growth happening each year both within ourselves and with each album, as well as seeing our fanbase expand. It means the world to us seeing all those people connect to our art. We were really honoured by the chances brought to us by the legendary Cure and the Alcest tour, which also had huge impact. Both things we are eternally grateful for. Sadly our SXSW and Psycho Las Vegas got cancelled do to Covid-19, but we are really striving for more chances to come along once things are back to normal. It’s hard to tell exactly what to thank our success to, we always work hard and dedicate our time to the band and it pays off. Also we thank our fans for spreading the word.


It's a combination of things really. From your commendable work ethic to the intentionality of every aspect of the release, there's not just one particular element to your success. In closing, Kælan Mikla is boundless. Musically, your synth laden post-punk is transcendental and is clearly well-received by audiences of all kinds. Looking back at your start in a city library and how well ‘Undir’ has been received, where is Kælan Mikla now, mentally, physically, and emotionally?


KM: A long time has passed since our debut performance and we’ve grown from being emotionally confused teenagers to adults, as you can tell from the themes of our music. We all have our highs and lows, but most importantly, we always stick together and use our art as a way to cope with life’s challenges. Each year we keep on growing stronger as individuals and as a band. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.

 

Undir Köldum Norðurljósum is available now via Artoffact Records. Order yours HERE.

Førtifem
Cover Artwork by Førtifem