Lead singer JJ Julius Son talks about Kaleo’s American debut A/B, what it’s like to see your music reach a worldwide audience, and how anyone can embrace the blues.
With a sound very much rooted in Southern rock, blues and folk, I was quite surprised when I initially learned the band is from Iceland, which I can only assume is a common occurrence. What’s it been like to play with people’s conceptions like that?
It just happens to be that way. I have listened to a lot of American music and Delta blues through the years growing up and it has influenced me in many ways. The fact that I’m from Iceland may shock people, but I don’t think about that much when I’m writing.
“All the Pretty Girls” made some in-roads in the States for you last year, while “Way Down We Go” and “No Good” have really started to pick up steam lately. What has it been like to see your music expand quickly like that, get such a positive response, and then go on to reach a worldwide audience?
It has been amazing. I’m glad to see people embrace the diversity of our music. It’s such a thrill seeing more people coming out to the shows and watch more people singing along.
You started originally as a covers band while still in your teens. What did you draw from that experience of reinterpreting other people’s work and how did it help you find your own sound?
I always tried to do things my own way, even if it’s only phrasing some of the melodies differently. I think playing together through those early years helped to bring us together and become a better live band. It was important experience that we needed.
All of your songs except one, “Vor i Vaglaskogi,” are in English, yet you can hardly ever tell that’s not your native tongue. What’s that been like for you as a vocalist to work on and how difficult was it to approximate a Southern accent?
I seem to write in English. It’s never been a problem for me. I think the accent has probably improved since moving to the States, but it has always been pretty natural to me. The reason might be listening to so much music from the South growing up.
Your debut album came out in Iceland in 2013 and was a big hit over there. What was the key to getting exposure outside of your home country and start building up a global fan base?
It probably didn’t hurt. However, it wasn’t until we released “All the Pretty Girls” as a single, after the album back home, that we had this massive interest from outside of Iceland.
The first time I heard a Kaleo song was when HBO used “No Good” in one of its early promos for Vinyl last year. Was that a big moment in terms of getting the band’s name out there more?
I think it all helps. TV syncs may expose your music to a certain audience that otherwise wouldn’t have heard the music. We were thrilled when we heard Jagger and Scorsese wanted to use the song for Vinyl. We’re all big Stones fans and went to see them in Nashville last year.
Many of the songs on A/B are older songs that have been around for a while, or were even on your first record. How did you pick what songs ended up getting included? Was it tough leaving off the likes of “Rock ‘n’ Roller” and “I Walk on Water?” Do you think you’ll ever release new versions of some of that other material?
Who knows? We did use some songs we had recorded before, and re-recorded or improved them in the studio. I think the selection of songs we chose for A/B made sense for the concept I was going for, which was to show the two sides and the diversity of the band.
You relocated to Austin after signing a record deal at the end of 2014, and then recorded most of A/B in Nashville. With a sound that was already heavily influenced from that part of the country, what has it been like to actually live in the South? Has it seeped even more into the band’s fabric now?
I don’t think it has affected me much for writing music. It’s been great so far, and Nashville is a wonderful place to record. Such a great music city. We like it in the South and people are very nice.
Has growing up in Iceland given you an outsider’s perspective and a different way of approaching these genres of music? Do you think it’s contributed in allowing you to stand out more?
Maybe it does give you a different perspective. I’m not sure. I think you can, for example, play the blues in many different ways, whether you’re from Africa, America, Iceland or somewhere else.
Lyrically, you’re not shy about engaging with many common tropes found in Southern music, such as being down on your luck, girls and heartbreak, and even encountering the devil on “Broken Bones.” How do you go about putting your own spin on those topics and ideas?
It really depends on the song. “Broken Bones” is a slave song and I wrote the lyrics from a slave’s perspective. Some songs are more personal than others, and therefore some of the lyrics relate more to a personal experience. Sometimes it’s just an idea or a feeling you’re trying to create that I feel fits the song. It’s different every time.
As someone who has spent their whole life in California, I very much appreciated “Automobile” and thought it captured well that carefree feeling of traveling up and down the West Coast. Was that song written about a specific trip you went on? Had you been to California before at that point?
I wrote that song in Spain while on vacation, sitting in the sun. I had never been to California or America at that point. In the past year, I have visited all those places, including Mexico.
Like I said earlier, “No Good” was the first song of yours I heard and that central riff still floors me every time I hear it. How did you come up with that and then structure the song around it?
I first wrote the riff, and then added the verse and finally the chorus. It’s a very bluesy song, especially if you play it acoustically. It probably all started tapping my feet and messing around on the guitar.
“Way Down We Go” features a distorted acoustic guitar with effects on it, so that it sounds electric even though it isn’t, which is something you don’t often find these days in music. How did your arrive at discovering that particular part? Are there other instances where you use more of a nontraditional approach in capturing different sounds and such?
Sure. We love to play acoustic guitars and resonators through amplifiers. I think we always want to try to develop new ways of playing and getting different sounds each time.
I’m a big fan of “Hot Blood,” which is one of the catchiest, most upbeat songs on the record and even has a choir on it. What was it like writing that one? Do you think it will be a single at some point?
It was fun writing and working on this song. I knew I wanted some soul girls to join my falsetto in the choruses, and the girls bring something fresh to the song. I think it may very well be a single later, yes.
A/Bis almost an even 50/50 split between soft and loud songs. Is there one style you prefer to write or play live over the other? Do you anticipate the band moving more towards one side in the future, or do you think you’ll try to maintain that 50/50 ratio?
I like doing both. I write very different songs, depending on my mood and what I’m into at that moment. Music is too diverse to not explore different things. I’m sure I will keep exploring and pretty much do what comes to mind.
When you were younger and just starting out in the early days, did you feel like you were always going to make it in music outside of Iceland? Were there moments of doubt it would ever happen or hardships along the way?
I always wanted to. I didn’t really consider music as a career until a few years ago. It’s such a privilege being able to do what you love.
How does your success so far compare to what you imagined it would be?
I don’t know what I ever imagined it to be, but I’m humble and grateful when I see all these people listening to my music. It’s what every musician wants, for people to hear your work.