vocal jazz sensation shoots for the stars

Laufey is standing in the middle of a north London photo studio, about to make a very important decision. “OK, Taylor Swift,” says the Icelandic-Chinese jazz singer, having just chosen the playlist to soundtrack her NME cover photoshoot. “I need Taylor’s energy,” she insists.

It’s a muggy Friday afternoon in July, and the 24-year-old artist – born Laufey (pronounced lāy-vāy) Lín Jónsdóttir – has just emerged from her dressing room draped in a shimmering blue gown, a reveal that garners a response like she’s just walked down the stairs on prom night. She carefully positions herself in front of a glittery, fringed foil curtain, before Swift’s ‘Midnights’ track ‘Bejeweled’ starts to boom over the speaker (“I can still make the whole place shimmer”). “This is the right song for the occasion,” Laufey grins.

It feels especially fitting that Laufey’s first-ever digital cover shoot immediately resembles such a classically sentimental milestone, given that these last couple years have been full of them. The singer released her debut album, ‘Everything I Know About Love’, in 2022, an intoxicating blend of jazz and classical with a pop sheen that NME described as “an ode to the magic of life’s little moments.”

Militarie Gun (2023)
Laufey on The Cover of NME. Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

“I definitely romanticise a lot of things,” she tells us later in the day, dressed back in her casual clothes and perched on a breakfast bar stool in a common area. “I think it comes out of seeing the beauty in the small things. That’s what romanticising is.”

Along with her second record, ‘Bewitched’, coming next month (September 8), Laufey has already reached national treasure status in her home country of Iceland.

“I feel like I’m getting closer to bringing jazz back to my generation”

Last year, she performed with a 55-piece orchestra at Reykjavík’s prestigious Harpa concert hall, the heart of the city’s cultural scene that’s home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and has previously hosted fellow Icelandic natives like Björk and Of Monsters and Men.

Laufey sold out two nights there, performing to crowds that ranged from traditional jazz aficionados to old schoolmates and devoted ‘Lauvers’, as she recently branded her fanbase. She’s since immortalised the career-highlight performances on her recent live album ‘A Night At The Symphony’.

Laufey 2023 NME The Cover
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

In the online world, meanwhile, she’s built impressive social followings of 2.5 million and 1.1million on TikTok and Instagram, respectively, where she’s caught the eye of the likes of BTS’s V and Billie Eilish, the latter having reposted Laufey’s jazzy spin on her ‘Happier Than Ever’ song ‘My Future’.

Still, it’s her own music that’s generated the biggest buzz, with recent runaway hit ‘From The Start’ blowing up on TikTok and entering Spotify’s Top 50 chart in the US, racking up over 80 million streams on the platform since its May release.

But it’s not difficult to see why Laufey has attracted so much good fortune on her swift ascent these past few years. One would only have to watch the music video for the title track of her new album to understand her deep commitment to modern-day storytelling that has left so many spellbound. ‘Bewitched’ – which opens with a twinkling classical arrangement courtesy of the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, and sounds like it’s been plucked right out of the Golden Age of Hollywood – depicts a love story set in London, in which she swoons: “You bewitched me from the first time that you kissed me.”

Laufey 2023 NME The Cover
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Like so many of her songs, it bottles up the dizzying feeling of being head over heels for someone. Whether she’s romanticising a fleeting interaction with a stranger on the tube or wistfully reflecting on a past love, Laufey seamlessly blends jazz instrumentals with the kind of diaristic pop lyrics that you might expect to hear from artists like Gracie Abrams or Lizzy McAlpine. These vignettes of her real life are unsurprisingly resonating with listeners at a time where popular social media self-love mantras encourage young people to “be the main character” and “romanticise your life”.

“I think love makes everyone really silly,” Laufey says. “I remember the first time I went on a date, we had a glass of wine and we kissed and then I left in the rain, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s really like the movies!’”

Laufey 2023 NME The Cover
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

The simplicity of the timeless sentiment paired with the nostalgic romanticism of her musical roots has attracted a hugely intergenerational pool of listeners. Her younger fans are swept up by the Disney-esque magic of the songs – music to waltz around the living room on a lazy Sunday morning or plod about a drizzly Notting Hill pretending you’re in a Nora Ephron film. At the same time, older fans are intrigued by a fresh new voice that resembles the music of times gone by.

“I was an odd kid. I was the 13-year-old with the old lady voice.”

Much of the charm, though, can be pinpointed to Laufey’s exquisite technical brilliance. Inspired by jazz music legends like Chet Baker and Billie Holiday, Laufey can serenade an audience with deep, pitch perfect vocals while effortlessly rotating between cello, piano and guitar, countless hours of practice stored in her nimble hands.

It’s a unique position to be in for a rising artist – one who looks right at home amongst a grand orchestra, and can also post TikToks with Gen Z-coded captions like: “I made the song ur [sic] going to play at your imaginary wedding to the person you don’t even dare talk to”. For Laufey, that simply underlines the universality of the classical and vocal jazz that she has loved “blindly” for her whole life. “I think it’s this really beautiful middle ground that can bring generations together,” she says.

Laufey 2023 NME The Cover
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Music has been a part of Laufey’s life for so long that she doesn’t even remember starting to learn piano. Growing up between Reykjavík and Washington, D.C. – the US capital raising her to speak with a cut glass American accent in English – she was brought up in a musical family with her identical twin sister, Junia. She would practise piano and cello every day alongside her mother, Lin Wei, a classical violinist who has taught in musical institutions in Reykjavík, London and Hong Kong. “I think it wasn’t until I was around 13 or 14 when I really started to love it, and understand it as something to love and not a task,” Laufey recalls.

In her early teens, she began singing jazz standards, resonating with fellow low register artists like Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. “I feel like I’m just growing into it now,” she explains of her mature voice, which simmers at the low end of the vocal register that few pop artists in their mid-20s could reach. “I was kind of an odd kid. I was the 13-year-old with the old lady voice.” In 2014, she was a finalist on Ísland Got Talent before appearing on The Voice Iceland the next year, during which she reached the semi-finals and became the youngest competitor in the show’s history.

But it took a little while longer for Laufey to carve out her own musical identity, telling NME last year that she “struggled endlessly” in that pursuit. It wasn’t until she received a Presidential Scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts – which counts Charlie Puth, John Mayer and St. Vincent among its alumni – that she experienced a real turning point.

Laufey 2023 NME The Cover
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Having prioritised her education over parties, alcohol and relationships up until the age of 20, she started dating, going to jazz soirées, and collecting new life experiences to write about. “Love and relationships became this really curious thing to me, because I entered into it so late that it went from nothing to something in like a night,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Everybody goes through this?’”

Laufey’s musical intuition proved the perfect conduit for those “intense” feelings. After graduating last year and relocating to LA, she started to break away from the perfectionist mindset of the meticulously technical genres she trained in. “You have to learn to unlearn, I am a true believer in that,” she says. “I’m breaking so many rules every single day, and I think that’s where you make good music.”

Take a song like ‘From The Start’, for example, a bossa nova-tinged jazz ditty which features a scatting interlude, but also includes pop lyrics like: “Listening to you harp on ‘bout some new soulmate / ‘She’s so perfect’, blah, blah, blah.” Elsewhere, she recalls the magic of falling for someone (‘While You Were Sleeping’), writes comforting words to her younger self (‘Letter To My 13 Year Old Self’) and reflects on a lover she can’t let go of (‘Promise’), the latter of which features the beautifully devastating lyric: “It hurts to be something / It’s worse to be nothing with you”.

Laufey 2023 NME The Cover
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Her reasoned rule breaking is not only a telling indication of Laufey’s technical proficiency, but of her greater mission to bring jazz back to the masses. “I always said to my mom, I remember when I was 11 in the car, ‘I want to do for jazz music what Taylor Swift did for country music’,” she recalls. “With every day, with every little achievement, I feel like I’m getting closer to that goal of bringing jazz back to my generation.”

Laufey, a self-described “huge Swiftie”, also looked to the global pop sensation’s example to help refine her own lyrical fluency. “I think she’s one of my biggest songwriting inspirations, and the way that she’s managed to reinvent herself, and stay relevant, and still so poised and speak her mind, is really just remarkable,” Laufey says.

It’s also helpful that she has plenty of musical peers to inspire her, too, having bonded with NME’s inaugural The Cover star D4vd over their similar music tastes. “I had heard his music all over TikTok, and I was like, ‘This kid is so talented’,” she recalls. She reached out online only to find that he had already messaged her a few months prior, which led to their cinematic duet on ‘This Is How It Feels’ from D4vd’s recent EP ‘Petals To Thorns’.

She’s also become close with fellow pop romantic Beabadoobee (they recently “addressed rumours” that they were “long distance cousins”). “I’ve been a fan of hers for so long, so to get to be her friend now, it’s insane,” she says. She’s been able to offer advice about the whirlwind world of touring with a live band that Laufey’s still fairly new to, ahead of a stacked schedule of sold out shows this autumn, including a performance at The Ford in LA this September with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Witnessing Laufey’s effusive gratitude for every success that has come her way so far, it’s plain to see why she’s branded ‘Bewitched’ a “love album” – it’s a record about being in love with life. So, with the album’s release just a matter of weeks away, how is Laufey feeling about the L word right now? “I feel…” she smiles, pausing for a beat. “I’m looking forward to a lifetime of it.”

Laufey’s new album ‘Bewitched’ is released September 8 via AWAL

Listen to Laufey’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and on Apple Music

Words: Hollie Geraghty
Photos: Eva Pentel
Styling: Kate Sinclair
Hair and Makeup: Elena Diaz
Location: TYX, Tileyard London. Read more about TYX here.

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