Interview: Sunna Gunnlaugs – “Keys For Traveling”

My interview of Sunna Gunnlaugs was originally published at AllAboutJazz.  You can read the original interview article here, at AllAboutJazz).  Below is an updated version, with added audio, video, photos, and links to related material, all which became available following the conclusion of her 2012 tour.



Pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs is back in the USA for a visit. Following on the heels of the critical success of 2011 release Long Pair Bond, Gunnlaugs will be touring from coast to coast beginning in Berkeley, California and hitting several cities along the way to a three-day grand finale in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She’ll have the Long Pair Bond trio in tow, with Scott McLemore on drums and Þorgrimur Jonsson on bass.

Originally from Iceland, Gunnlaugs went collegiate at William Paterson College in Jersey before setting down some roots in Brooklyn, where she immersed herself in the jazz culture. It’s her blending of Icelandic folk and N.Y.C. jazz that has developed her voice into something quite compelling and distinct. After a series of solid recordings, Long Pair Bond emerged as the perfect synthesis of the elegance and earthiness that was increasingly defining Gunnlaugs’ sound. A collection of tunes that engage both heart and head, Long Pair Bond has established Gunnlaugs as a vital part of the modern jazz scene.

Dave Sumner: So you’ve got a U.S. tour coming up, you’re a D.I.Y. musician, you live overseas. How has it been setting this tour up?

Sunna Gunnlaugs: So much work! But it’s rewarding when people are receptive. I think I benefit from having lived in New York and knowing people all over the U.S., either from New York or from William Paterson [University]. Even just getting a work permit in the U.S. is a lot of paperwork and very costly, too.

DS: Are you still making arrangements?

SG: Yes. according to the search engine we used, we just booked the very last minivan available on the West Coast two days ago, and we are still working out the details for bookings on a few days that I haven’t posted yet. It’s mind-blowing how much dough we have to cough up even before we leave Iceland—you know, airplane tickets, car rental and such. These days we are focusing more on promotion—contacting radio stations and media [to tell them] where we will be playing.

DS: Other than the last few dates of booking venues, what are you doing as far as tour promotion? Are there any outlets that are particularly effective? How much are you relying on word of mouth?

SG: We are setting up radio interviews, which is going well. We are contacting print media and trying to get some write-ups in general newspapers. That’s a bit harder. It is rather rare that European groups tour the U.S., so I’m trying to use that angle to get into the papers that, unfortunately, show little interest in jazz. Twitter is useful and also Facebook. I do have a mailing list and will be sending out a newsletter. I don’t think you can really rely on word of mouth. I’ve also been reaching out to Icelandic societies in the U.S., asking them to announce our tour in their newsletters.

DS: It’s funny how technology changes our concepts of general words and phrases. Word of mouth often means social media like Twitter and Facebook. But you’re right, the connotations and original usage of “word of mouth” describe more of a face-to- face (or phone) conversation.

SG: I’m going to try to activate a street team by having downloadable posters on my website. Any suggestions on tour promotions are welcome.

DS: The tour posters are a nifty idea. A lot of indie bands do exactly that, making very cool posters for people to have in their home and to spread around town. Are you doing the posters yourself or hiring it out?

SG: We designed the poster ourselves. It should go up tonight or tomorrow. It would actually be really nice to have a manager when you are doing a tour like this.

sunnagunnlaugs_longpairbond_dssDS: Long Pair Bond received some wide critical acclaim, making it into the Top Ten of 2011 lists of various critics and general listeners. Has that recognition made things any easier in setting this tour up? Has the acclaim translated into momentum, going into 2012?

SG: It has definitely translated into some momentum. We are still getting great reviews from Japan and Belgium, and the CD is now being distributed in the U.K. We feel a sense of encouragement from all this, and maybe that’s why we put so much energy into booking this tour of the U.S. We started out with an offer from the Rochester Jazz Festival and one offer from San Francisco, and the rest was basically booked around those two. I think all the attention that Long Pair Bond has gotten must make us look more appealing to venues. I’m rather proud of having booked a two-week bicoastal tour of the U.S. from Iceland. Google Maps has been my best friend in recent months… figuring out which cities to target and how to get there. It’s so far between places in the U.S. It is actually much easier to tour Europe and quite a bit more comfortable because of the train system. One thing I don’t look forward to is sitting in a car for four to six hours almost every day.

DS: What can people expect for the upcoming tour? Who is in the lineup? Will it be primarily Long Pair Bond tunes you’ll be performing? Older stuff? New?

SG: The lineup is the same as on Long Pair Bond. It’s a bit funny since we have these Icelandic characters like “Þ” in Þorgrimur. Some people think it’s a “P,” so when he went into his interview at the U.S. Embassy regarding the work permit, some of the papers said “Porgrimur” and some said “Þorgrimur.” I think they agreed to make it Thorgrimur [that’s how it’s pronounced], but you can call him Toggi. We are promoting Long Pair Bond on the tour but also preparing for a new recording, so it will be a mix of selections from Long Pair Bond and unreleased material.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The above video was recorded while on the U.S. tour.]

DS: How did the title “Long Pair Bond” come about?

SG: I had just written that tune and needed a title for a performance, so I posted a little video on my Facebook site and asked people for suggestions. There were many great suggestions. A lady in California suggested “Long Pair Bond” and a guy in Pennsylvania suggested “Autumnalia.” I picked “Long Pair Bond” for that tune but liked “Autumnalia” so much that I wrote a tune for that title. Then I wrote a blog post on my site, and those two wrote lengthy comments, fell in love, and the guy moved out to California. How is that for a story? I am hoping to meet them.

DS: Wow, that sets the bar pretty high for your next album. You can check “Love Story” off the list. The next recording will have to tackle World Peace. Speaking of next recording, are there any new projects in the foreseeable future, or is this primarily going to be Sunna’s tour year?

SG: The plan is to record when we come back to Iceland in July. Same place, same engineer, same piano tuner, new music that should be well greased after the U.S. tour.

DS: On your site, you posted tour diaries from past shows. Will you be keeping one for the upcoming U.S. tour?

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  Gunnlaugs did, in fact, post a bit on the road.  Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 of her tour diary.]

SG: I’ll try to keep a tour diary. It’s a great way to stay in touch with listeners. I actually wish I was better at updating my blog, but I just don’t have the time to write consistently. Maybe because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I need to feel right about what I post, so I read them over and over before publishing. Also, we have had some issues finding internet connections in the past [while on the road] or just the time to write and upload the post, so I don’t expect daily updates. It’s amazing how busy you can get when you also need to sample espresso and hunt down green shakes on the road.

DS: Green shakes? Like wheat-grass health stuff? Or is it a shamrock shake kind of thing?

SG: Wheat grass would be good, but a shake with kale and mango is super tasty. It jells well with the pleasure center. If all fails, I’ll go for a mojito or apple martini.

DS: If they make a kale martini, they might be onto something. Maybe combining the apple martinis and the blog posts will help you knock off two birds with one stone.

SG: Apple martinis and blog posts sounds like a good match.

DS: Any chance you’ll have a tour diary entry that begins with the initial steps to set it up?

SG: A manual? Maybe if I include the initial steps in my tour diary blog posts it will help other bands from outside the U.S. do this. It’s a daunting task.

Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio at Tula's, photo courtesy of Daniel Sheehan, EyeShotJazz
Trio live at Tula’s, photo by Daniel Sheehan, EyeShotJazz

DS: Is there a particular U.S. city or venue you enjoy performing at? One that you’d like to perform at one day?

SG: Of course I’d like to perform at the Village Vanguard one day. Who doesn’t? We are playing a lot of new venues on this tour, and I am really looking forward to coming to Portland and Seattle for the first time. I’m so thrilled and honored that Jim Wilke from KPLU is going to record us at Tula’s in Seattle.

DS: You’ve been putting up a lot of live- performance tracks on your site, all set at a price of free. What was your motivation for this? Can fans expect to see more of it? And if so, will it continue to be a mix of older and newer performances? Anything we can expect from the upcoming U.S. tour?

SG: The world is a big place, and I live on a small island. With cost issues, it’s not that easy to go play other places, so I don’t do it that frequently. But where would I be without my listeners? They are very important. So to maintain some sort of a relationship, I offer these free downloads. You could say they are, in a way, a substitute for a live concert. We will record as much as we can during the tour.


And you can read my review of Long Pair Bond on Bird is the Worm HERE.

Also, you can check out more photos by Daniel Sheehan from the Sunna Gunnlaugs Trio’s show at Tula’s, as well as photos from other shows and subjects on Sheehan’s site