Tim Hughes talks to the band whose Nordic roots have inspired a hidden world

There’s something magical about Iceland. Perhaps it’s the topsy turvy scenery of bubbling mud, frozen waterfalls, lava caves and the ghostly glow of the northern lights. Or maybe it’s the tormented treeless landscape of jagged rock which looks like the world has turned itself inside out. Either way, it’s a magical place which is still the haunt of strange creatures: hidden beings... and elves. Yes, really. Nanna told me so.

“Elves are a big thing,” she says. “We believe in another world. We are open-minded and don’t go ‘that can’t be’.”

Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir is the gentle-voiced singer of Icelandic six-piece Of Monsters and Men, a band who have quietly been taking Europe by storm with critically acclaimed album My Head Is An Animal.

Bouncy and uplifting their exuberant folk-rock is steeped in the Nordic folklore and open-minded nature which still affords so much respect to those elves.

“Iceland can be an isolated country and that translates to the music,” she says. “We get stuck in our little world.”

And, it seems, we can’t get enough of it. The album went gold in the UK, peaking at number three in the charts, and went platinum elsewhere in Europe. And live shows, such as tomorrow’s in Oxford, sell out instantly.

“It’s going well,” she says in a pretty, lilting accent. “Last year was a really big one for us, and this year we are touring a lot — so it’s all very exciting.

Previously an acoustic artist playing under the name Songbird, Nanna formed the group with co-singer Ragnar ‘Raggi’ Þórhallsson. The band is completed by the tongue-twisting line-up guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, piano and accordion player Árni Guðjónsson, and bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson.

It has all happened very quickly, and with a typically Icelandic lack of fuss.

“It’s one of those things,” says Nanna. “It just happened. I’ve always wanted to be in a band and playing with people, connecting with someone else but it didn’t happen until four of us entered a music competition.

She recruited Raggi, Brynjar and Arnar to beef-up her sound, but realised there was something special in the blend of her and Raggi’s vocals. They were later joined by Árni and Kristján. “We were be in the same place at the same time,” says Nanna. “It was a fun time.”

And, she says, having a multi-instrumental band, members playing everything from glockenspiels to accordions, has allowed her to take her music in more adventurous directions. She adds: “It has opened up much more potential. You can go in any direction and make anything you want.

“All of the songs start acoustically, with an idea and a melody, but when we get together the songs take a totally different turn. They go somewhere else. What’s cool about being in a band is we all have ideas. It very much comes from ‘we all’.

And, it is rooted in the culture and mysticism of the volcanic homeland.

“It’s not a concept album but I wanted to create another world,” she says. “And I wanted people to feel they were a part of that world.”

The key to that is storytelling – whether it be the true story of a frontiersman attacked by a bear or a whale with a house on its back. Then the heartbreakingly bittersweet Little Talks and King & Lionheart, with their videos of fantastical landscapes and mythical creatures.

Where does it all come from? “I don’t know where the strange creatures come from,” she says. “I think it goes back to kindergarten and the stories we get told as kids.

“King & Lionheart is a song I wrote about my little brother,” she adds. “He lives in Canada so I don’t see him very often. The song is about creating this world we can share — our own little place.”

The songs are the result of a collaboration between the two co-singers. “The way the stories come about is me and Raggi sitting talking,” she says. “We meet in each other’s living room and have a beer and just tell stories until something interesting comes out.”

At first, she says, their sound left listeners surprised.

“When we started getting radio play, a lot of people thought we weren’t Icelandic,” she admits. “And I doubt we have the most Icelandic sound. When people think of Iceland they think of Sigur Rós and ambient music, but there is so much more going on in the music scene there; it’s hard to say what’s Icelandic.”

So are they being hailed as heroes in their diminutive homeland, the population of which, 320,000, is half that of Oxfordshire’s? “People are actually really shy there,” she says. “They don’t want to come up and talk. Everybody knows everybody so people are worried about saying something stupid or weird, as you know you’ll meet each other again.”

It has, she says, been a great ride so far. They met fellow Icelander Björk in Holland and toured America. “That was great,” she says. “A lot happened – in one show the entire power went out. We still did it, though, – it was one of the best shows we’ve ever done. It was really cool.”

But, she says, one of the nicest things is being able to meet friends from home in the most unlikely places. “Wherever we go we have people coming to shows and giving us dried fish and hard Brennivín liquor,” she laughs.

  • Of Monsters And Men play the O2 Academy Oxford tomorrow (Friday)
  • Tickets have sold out