Truth be told, Icelandic artist Yamaho (real name Natalie Gunnarsdottir) was unknown to the XLR8R team before seeing her name on this year's Sónar Reykjavik lineup. Yamaho was scheduled to play a two-hour b2b set with Cassy to close out the festival, so naturally, our ears pricked up—and the set and Yamaho’s performance exceeded expectations. With each track, Yamaho enamored the crowd with intoxicating grooves that sunk into the skin, and her grace and subtlety behind the decks was transfixing, too. As the last track rang out, Yamaho and Cassy were met with screaming adoration and applause from the sweat covered crowd and we immediately wanted to know more about the somewhat mysterious Icelandic DJ.
Tracing her story back, Natalie was born in Chicago to an Icelandic mother and American father before landing in Iceland at three-months-old to be babysat by her grandparents—a move that resulted in her living there to this day, which was “the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says. Her grandfather was a musician and introduced her to all kinds of wonderful, interesting music at a very early age while teaching her how to listen objectively and play what she was hearing. From there, a world of musical exploration opened up and at 18, Natalie brought turntables and dove head first into mixing and DJing in bars and clubs throughout Reykjavik—and this is when Yamaho was born.
As a DJ, Yamaho touches on Detroit techno and Chicago, NY, and New Jersey house, with elements of dub and disco also regular touchstones. A known and respected artist in Iceland, a key international break arrived with the advent of Secret Solstice in 2014, with Yamaho showcasing the festival—Djing and singing—in London, before going on to perform at Airwaves, Sónar, and, of course, Secret Solstice. Following that, in 2015, Yamaho launched her side project Dark Features at Sónar, presenting a fusion of African drums, live instrumentation, and electronic elements.
Following a period of personal time off over the last two years, and with a range of high-profile gigs lined up, XLR8R reached out to Yamaho to learn more about her history, the fertile scene in Iceland, and her plans for the future.
Yamaho will be playing alongside Bambounou, Konstantin Sibold, Shifted, Roman Flügel, DJ Yamaho, DJ Boring, Bleak, Oliver Deutschmann, and many others at this year's HER DAMIT Festival, taking place from June 8 to 10 in Freudenberg, 50km outside of Berlin. You can find more information and tickets to HER DAMIT here.
Let’s start with your upbringing. I understand your grandfather was a musician and introduced you to a lot of music—what are some of your earliest memories of this time?
He opened up the world of music to me. He played the accordion and keyboard even though he lost his sight and the front of his right arm when he was very young—and somehow he still managed to play beautifully. He bought me a drum set and we started a band when I was seven years old. We were a duet and played some shows. Those are my fondest memories.
Did he teach you how to play and read music? What sort of music were you playing with him?
He taught me rhythmic arrangements to go with his music. He played the accordion and I was on drums. We were playing old Icelandic songs and something close to polka music (popular folk dance music).
Do you remember some of the artists and records he would play you?
Yes, he played me a lot of Les Paul and Louis Armstrong.
That really set the tone for my search for sound and the way I listen to music. My sensors are fine-tuned and I spot the good from the bad really easily because of this, I think.
How do you think this affected your growth as a person and artist?
It really shaped me in terms of my search for sound and made my musical range a lot wider. I was also introduced to different rhythmic progressions and arrangements.
Can you explain more about these rhythmic explorations and search for sound?
Well, he was blind so his ears were his tools. He would listen to and take interest in music that had either quirky sounds or really elaborate arrangements. We would sit together in his music room, sometimes in the dark because I wanted to sense the music the way he did and just listen and then we would talk about what we had just listened to. He would point out things to me in the songs and how they were played. He taught me how to listen with depth. That really set the tone for my search for sound and the way I listen to music. My sensors are fine-tuned and I spot the good from the bad really easily because of this, I think.
Do you think this focus on rhythm early on in your life was a catalyst for your love of house and techno?
Good question! I think so. That is also why I really love good disco and its beat progression. There is so much force in the beat and ability to take you to a different place. That is what has had me going for all these years and still does.
How long did you keep playing the drums? Do you still play now?
I played the drums for a few years. My grandparents bought me a professional set, then at some point me and my friends got into rock and we had pretty intense rehearsals. One day we really went all in and the drum set got damaged. My grandparents were not happy with that outcome and didn't want to replace it—which is understandable. So that was a break in my drumming career. I started again in 2006 and played until 2009 when I fell off my grandparent's roof and injured my leg and arm, but that's another story!
You also bought turntables and started mixing at 18—what inspired this move?
Well, I listened to the radio a lot and all the dance music shows. I really loved how the songs would mix together and the progression in DJ mixes. I would hang out a lot in the record shop and go through a lot of music, and then at one point, I started to imagine how some songs would sound together. This curiosity drove me to purchase turntables and start experimenting.
How did you learn to mix?
I taught myself. Luckily I got a built-in metronome but it took many hours of practice until I got the mix on lock.
Do you think your exposure to rhythm so early on helped you to beat match?
I think that definitely helped a lot for me to get the hang of it. But like everything, practice is key to a successful performance.
What sort of music were you interested in at the time?
Hip-hop and house music. Hip-hop was really popular in my crowd but house music not so much. When you are at the tender age of 13, approval is important, so I kept my interest to myself. But at 17 I felt confident to share my love of dance music with my peers and I have been doing that ever since.
How did your peers take it when you first started introducing house music to them?
Well, to be honest not all were very happy with that. I laugh at it now but when I started sneaking in dance music in my sets I would get complaints about this house “music” I was playing. But I was firm in my belief and it didn't stop me.
I understand dance music wasn’t popular in Iceland when you started playing out at bars and clubs—what was being played?
A lot of rock 'n' roll, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s music. If you didn't bring those records with you, you could be sure to find trouble in the DJ booth.
Were you trying to guide the audience and slip in some more dance-focused records?
Oh yes, absolutely. Electro was my stepping stone and from there I would take them on a journey. These years taught me so much of how to curate a long night and use the songs to steer the way.
Do you remember when dance music and culture properly started filtering in?
Yes, I do remember, it was around 2006. Electro house came in with a bang and DJs all wanted to play it so that was the beginning. And now when you go to the supermarket there is deep house playing through the speakers. Times have changed indeed!
Where were you finding house and techno records at this time?
We had a really good record store called Þruman, which translates as “thunder.” It was owned by a DJ and he was really active in buying fresh stuff from around the world. Then we had an alternative record store which was good as well, called 12 Tones.
How was the clubbing scene in Iceland at this time?
The clubbing scene was great in the ‘90s with warehouse parties and all that. Then when both of the biggest clubs closed not much was going on and the parties moved into the cafes with a much smaller space to work with. That is also a factor why it was hard to play dance music.
When was Yamaho born and what is the story behind the name?
Yamaho was born at this time of year in May but many moons ago. I was in the countryside with friends and we were celebrating the birthday of a good friend. I was in the hot tub with my friend Frosti Gringo and that's where the name erupted. Yamaho. I can't really get into more detail other than that :)
When did you start looking at DJing as a career option?
I started looking at it with those eyes pretty early on. I really enjoy playing good music for other people and having that interaction with the crowd, so it was clear to me this is what I wanted to do.
And is DJing your full profession now?
Yes, it is. Like I said earlier, I have been helping my grandparents out since I moved back in 2011 so DJing was the most flexible job for me time-wise but you have to be creative when it comes to living off an artistic profession so I make playlists as well for certain fashion stores and companies. I really enjoy that as well because you are setting different moods for different situations.
When did you move to Berlin? Was a career in music the catalyst?
I moved there in 2011. I’ve always been drawn to Berlin, I think I had a previous life there; I always feel like I’m home in the city. Very strange but fun in a way. I first went there in 2001 and since then I’ve always visited regularly. Career-wise yes and no. It is the techno capital and I felt a creative energy I wanted to tap into.
Were you writing music at the time? Or was the focus on DJing?
I was starting to write my own then and putting a focus on that. DJing is always my focus no matter what is going on in my life.
And you moved back shortly after to look after your grandparents, which lead to you entering and winning a DJ competition in Reykjavik before going on to compete in Ibiza—can you tell me more about this experience?
Wow, that was quite a surreal experience. I was asked to partake in a DJ competition and I initially said no because I thought I was too old for it—however, in the end, I agreed to do it. I ended up winning the competition here in Iceland and went on to compete for Iceland in the Movida Corona competition in Ibiza. I was the only girl there and the only one playing old-school house. I ended up in the semifinals and played at Pacha but the judges later told me they were looking for a commercial DJ but loved the music. It was amazing to be able to go to this amazing island and play at the legendary club, though.
You then wrote and contributed vocals to “Release Me” with Intro Beatz, which become a hit in Iceland, before going on to showcase the project live on the festival circuit at Airwaves, Sónar, and Secret Solstice—was this your first foray into singing?
Yes, it was. So nerve wrecking I can tell you. But the crowd gave me so much positive energy it was all worth it. I am more of a singing at home kind of person but I'm trying to break free from that.
How do you get past those nervous feelings? Do you get them when DJing, too?
When I was younger I used alcohol to get by the first nervous hours. But today, I’m older and feel calmer and more secure in my own skin so I don't need that aid anymore. What gets me going is the love of the music and the love of DJing for other people. The minute I start I enter my zone and I stay there until my set is over.
Do you have plans to incorporate more vocals on future projects?
Yes, I have those plans. I don't consider myself a singer but I love doing it and I think I have built up courage to continue that venture.
Who are the artists in house and techno that you think are incorporating vocals into their work in a tasteful and interesting way?
Introbeatz & ILO are really setting the bar when it comes to Icelandic house music.
How have you noticed the scene grow over the last few years?
It has grown so fast lately. With all the DAWs becoming so accessible and new affordable equipment coming out every year, more and more people are able to make music. People have also been showing the music more interest in general and all the DJs just want to play dance music. That is a great progress I think.
What do you think it needs to further progress?
I am very happy with where it is right now. It is always progressing and more and more people are getting recognition like Volruptus and Bjarki, for example, who are both on Nina Kraviz’ label. I am very happy for them and I hope people will take further notice in the Icelandic scene.
Your Dark Features side project mixes African percussion with electronic elements—can you tell us more about this project?
That project was and is my attempt to expand my interest in music further and explore the depths of music making. I love the power of African drums and the vibe they give so I had to incorporate them. It is also a tribute to my grandfather and what we experienced together through music.
Can you explain how this particular project came about?
I wanted to take myself a step further and also I wanted to do something in honor of my grandfather's memory and implement what I had learned and gone through with him. I used some of his old instruments in the project and it somehow feels like he became a part of it. I also wanted to explore the darkness and light aspects of music making. We all go through dark valleys and happy times at some point so that exploration is Dark features.
You told me that you make a lot of music but are shy about it and it ends up on your hard drive. I think many producers of all calibers would go through this loop—how do you think you’ll get past it?
Good question! I have been playing them in my DJ sets to see the reaction. That for me is one of the first steps to get past this wall of fear and breakthrough to the other side. I think :)
What’s next for Yamaho?
Next up is HER DAMIT festival. Can't wait!