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Nanna performs songs from 'How To Start A Garden' in The Current studio

Nanna – studio session at The Current (music & interview)The Current
  Play Now [16:03]

by Mac Wilson

September 16, 2023

Nanna Hilmarsdottir — who uses the artistic mononym Nanna — is no stranger to The Current studio. As part of the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men, Nanna had been at The Current three times previously. Now, touring in support of her solo album, How To Start A Garden, Nanna returned to The Current to play songs from the album and to talk with host Mac Wilson.

You can watch and listen to the complete session above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

Mac Wilson: Hello, my name is Mac Wilson, and we are here in The Current studio with Nanna. Nanna, thank you for coming by today.

Nanna: Thank you for having me.

Mac Wilson: So we've had you in The Current studio a couple of times before, your time with Of Monsters and Men.

This is your first solo appearance here and you have an entirely new band of folks who are not on camera right now. But do you want to, if you can, introduce the folks who have played with you here today in your band?

Nanna: Yes. So in my band, my touring band, we have Bjarni Thor Jensson, he's playing guitars, and then Rakel Sigurdardottir on violin and vocals and bass and all kinds of stuff, and then Tomas Jonsson, piano, and then Magnus Trygvason on drums. 

Mac Wilson: You noted on Instagram a couple of days ago that you're at about the halfway point of the U.S. tour now. I know that America is a little bit larger than Iceland, but roughly, which direction are you working? Are you working towards the east coast or towards the west coast?

Nanna: So we're going towards the west coast. Yeah. So we're about to go and play L.A., and we're kind of working our way through America. Slowly but surely.

Mac Wilson: Have there been any any instances so far where your experience of touring or just like being around cities in America has been different than your time with Of Monsters and Men?

Nanna: Well, I haven't been touring, now, like we — Of Monsters and Men toured last in 2019, so it's been a while. And just being back on the road feels completely different, you know? But it's nice, too, because I'm revisiting a lot of these places. And, you know, they are still, some of the, like, same restaurants, you know, that I used to go to, or something like that, you know.

Mac Wilson: I'm thinking about it a lot in terms where if Of Monsters and Men, if you were playing like larger festivals, then you're on much more of a compressed time schedule. And I didn't know if you got any more time to explore. Like, you're talking about seeing the same places, do you have opportunities, then to be like, "Oh, I saw this place before — I have a little bit more time to get out and explore"? 

Nanna: Yeah! I have, I feel like I have more time now, which is quite nice, actually. So I've been trying to explore more this time around.

Mac Wilson: I overheard some of your band members in the booth before we sat down to chat, talking about Iceland right now, where even in the last couple of years and decades, where it's become such a popular tourist destination to always have, notably with the Iceland Airwaves festival, and how folks who are clearly tourists, it's almost like something that you have to navigate around when you are in Iceland. Is that a phenomenon that you've noticed as well?

Nanna: No, I don't feel like we are at that point. You know, I think it's, I think it's kind of expensive to go to Iceland. So it's, you know, I think people kind of sometimes think twice, maybe, about it, but but also, I don't feel like that's become the case yet, you know? Like, we had a very big boom in tourism, like 10 years ago or something like that. And I feel like it's kind of stayed consistent, you know?

Mac Wilson: Well, I have the app on my phone that tracks airplanes that go overhead. And just about every day, I see a Reykjavik flight, go over the house. So I mean, there's clearly enough people traveling.

Icelandair's Vatnajökull liveried Boeing 757
Icelandair's Vatnajökull liveried Boeing 757 aircraft.
courtesy Michael Raucheisen/Icelandair

Nanna: Maybe I'm just like desensitized at this point!

Mac Wilson: Yeah!

Nanna: Yeah.

Mac Wilson: So the new record that you've got, the solo album, is How To Start A Garden.

A woman stands alone on a snowy, frozen plain
Nanna, "How To Start A Garden," released May 5, 2023.
Republic Records

Nanna: Yes. 

Mac Wilson: Now, in addition to there being layers of metaphor with that, when you go and put that into Google, you literally get instructions on how to start a garden. Is that something that you took up at all literally, over the last couple of years during the pandemic, or otherwise, like literally gardening?

Nanna: Oh, I was trying very hard to like, become like, very wholesome and start these things. But I didn't do any of those things. But I had, like, I moved into a new house. And there was my neighbor, my upstairs neighbor, he is a big gardener. So I would just kind of watch him and admire what he did. But I have yet to start my own.

Mac Wilson: How about any new pets? 

Nanna: Oh, I have a dog, yeah!

Mac Wilson: You have a dog.

Nanna: I have a dog.

Mac Wilson: The dog works its way in as sort of an analogy in one of your songs. Can you walk us through where this dog of yours sort of plays a role as a character in one of your songs?

Nanna: Oh, well, you know, she's just kind of, she's kind of all around. Like, when we were recording, we would record in my cabin and, you know, she would just kind of be walking around, and sometimes, that would just be you know, part of the song. But also lyrically, she's very much a part of this record. I very much wanted for this record to bring everything that's important to me, like make it be a part of the album. So there's a lyric that says, "Can I go start a garden? The ghost and me," and my dog's name is Ghost. So it's kind of like a double thing of it's actually just talking about my dog.

Mac Wilson: And what kind of dog do you have?

Nanna: I have a black Labrador.

Mac Wilson: Oh, boy.

Nanna: She's very cute.

Mac Wilson: So how old is your black lab now?

Nanna: She's like, two and a half or something like that. Yeah, she's like, she's a teenager.

Mac Wilson: So one of the projects that we got over the last spring was we have a black lab mix. You can tell that he's got something else in him, but black lab through and through. They're they're very, very smart and they're very dumb at the same time. And I love living with that dichotomy with lab mixes.

Nanna: Right! I mean, they're just so like, they love everyone. And they love other people, sometimes more than they love you! So they'll just like run up to anybody, which is very endearing and very cute. But they also, I mean, my dog is like, she's just really funny like that. Just, you know loves people very much.

Mac Wilson: We're here in The Current studio with Nanna; the new record is How To Start A Garden. And Nanna, one of the cool things I appreciate about some of the songs on the album is songs like "Sputnik" and "Godzilla," where those words are not necessarily mentioned in the song, but they're really like elaborate metaphors about it. Is that a case where you started off with like, a mental image of either of these things, and you're like, I'm going to try to add as much descriptive material about it and put myself in this head without just naming it in the song? Was that the case? Did you start off with that specific image?

Nanna: No, I didn't. I mean, for both of those songs, that was just kind of the title that came along, when I was working on the lyrics or, you know, I was like, working on the melody and the lyrics at the same time, and everything was just kind of like, in a big mess. And then it just felt like, a thing that described the feeling, really. Like with "Sputnik," where it's just like, you know, like a traveling companion, like a satellite is like traveling with us. And that, to me, felt really beautiful, you know, and just captured that exact feeling of the song. And then with "Godzilla," it's the same thing. It just felt, I don't know like big and — like the word is kind of the opposite of the song. But there's something, like there's a tension, you know, in it. And so "Godzilla" felt like it really represented that song. 

Mac Wilson: And with the name of the album, How To Start A Garden, it feels very intentional, the word "start" is in there, like this is really the start of something for you with the solo material that you're putting out. This doesn't strike me as just, "Oh, these are some songs that I had lying around, and I put them out on the side." Like this is your own separate thing. We've talked about your work with Of Monsters and Men, but this also feels like a very intentional start in and of its own point. Does that feel like an accurate assessment of where you're at now?

Nanna: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, it feels like, you know, I think this record is pretty different from what I've done with Of Monsters and Men. There's like songs with them that I'm — with my band — where maybe you can hear this world a little bit. But it was nice for me now to kind of go and just completely dive into this world, because I really felt like I needed to do that.

Mac Wilson: And I am curious to ask, because The National are coming to town, to Minnesota, next week: You worked with Aaron Dessner on some of the music on the record. How many days or weeks or rather did you spend working with Aaron and how did that experience go?

The National perform at Rock the Garden 2019
Aaron Dessner of The National performing at Rock the Garden 2019.
Mary Mathis | MPR

Nanna: So I went up to Long Pond; it was October, I'll get very specific now, it was October 2021, I think. And we spent like a week together first. And I really didn't know; I was just, you know, I'm just a fan, so I was just excited, you know, to meet and hang out and see what would happen. And we kind of went through some old demos of mine and picked out a few that we felt like we could work on together. And then I went back to see him for another week, so it was like two weeks all in all. Yeah. And it was great. It was really such a, you know, like, it's such a beautiful studio. And Aaron is amazing. And it was a very, very cool experience.

Mac Wilson: This is probably naive of me, but is there a literal long pond there? Like, water wise?

Nanna: Oh, yeah. There's a pond there.

Mac Wilson: OK.

Nanna: Yeah, there's a little pond, you know. And yeah!

Mac Wilson: It's one of those studios that, I mean, with Taylor Swift and otherwise, it's becoming one of the most well-known studios in America, like Electric Ladyland or something. Like it's that iconic of a place, so I am more and more curious what life is like, really, behind the curtain at Long Pond.

Nanna: I think it's a beautiful studio, also because it feels very... It feels like a very creative setup, you know, that there's like, there are stations everywhere, so you can kind of, you can kind of go around the studio and just like wherever you sit down, you just start recording, which is really, you know, I think it's pretty brilliant. And in the room itself it's just, it feels like a home, you know.

Mac Wilson: Well, Nanna, thank you for stopping by today, your show in Minneapolis. Thanks for stopping by and playing those beautiful songs with your band. And we look forward to seeing you again soon. 

Nanna: Great, thank you so much for having me.

Mac Wilson: Thank you again for coming by today.

A woman sings and plays guitar in a recording studio
Nanna performing in The Current studio on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023.
Evan Clark | MPR

Video Segments

00:00:00 Disaster Master
00:04:43 Godzilla
00:10:24 The Vine
00:13:48 Interview with host Mac Wilson

All songs from Nanna’s 2023 album, How To Start A Garden, available on Republic Records. 


Nanna Hilmarsdottir – vocals, guitar
Rakel Sigurdardottir – violin, vocals, keys
Bjarni Thor Jensson – guitar, backing vocals
Tomas Jonsson – keyboards
Magnus Trygvason Eliassen – drums


Guest – Nanna
Host – Mac Wilson
Producer – Derrick Stevens
Video Directors – Evan Clark, Eric Xu Romani
Camera Operators – Evan Clark, Eric Xu Romani
Audio – Josh Sauvageau
Graphics – Natalia Toledo
Digital Producer – Luke Taylor

Nanna – official site