Attentive music fans have had some time now to become familiar with who and what the singer Laufey is: a young Icelandic-Asian-American woman whose traditional balladry often recalls the pre-rock era. Still, for a few of us, it might have come as a very slight surprise to see her step onto the outdoor stage of the Ford in Hollywood over the weekend and be reminded that she is 24 and not 124. If ever we’re tempted to mistake her for a centenarian, anyway, it’s only in the best possible way. Laufey’s ascendency to major-league pop artist is one of the most heartening musical phenomena of the last couple of years… or should be, to anyone who has any particular affection for the sounds and songwriting styles of the Great American Songbook years.
There’s never a complete shortage of talented youngish people who feel some kind of affinity for jazz standards, but one crucial difference with Laufey is, she’s writing her own great American songbook, or at least getting a very creditable start on one. Performing Saturday at the Ford with the LA Philharmonic as her backing band, Laufey did do three covers from the classic era — “I Wish You Love,” “Misty” and “The Nearness of You” – but the other 18 were her own, virtually all of them feeling completely of a piece with the stuff of Hoagy Carmichael. Or of Astrud Gilberto, given that newly minted bossa nova numbers came up more than once in the set.
It’s not unfair to view this as semi-anachronistic stuff. Yet Laufey is wildly popular, far more so than chart positions would indicate. The Ford show was an instant sellout, with resale tickets generally be offered for $300-600 in the leadup to the weekend… and her two sold-out shows at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in November going for even more. (Every date on her fall U.S. tour sold through practically instantly.) So, given that she probably could have filled the Hollywood Bowl across the way, was doing a show with the Phil at the Bowl’s more modest cousin, the Ford, a deliberate underplay, or an accidental one? Let’s assume it was partly on-purpose, considering that she values intimacy enough that she spontaneously added last-minute shows at the Catalina jazz club and Pan Pacific Park this past week, in the leadup to her full-orchestra gig. Just a couple of years past graduating from Berklee, Laufey (pronounced “Lay-vay”) likely has a good head on her shoulders about accommodating all crowd sizes in due time.
Who is jumping on these tickets for Laufey (nee: Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir) the moment they go on sale? It makes for an interesting demographic puzzle that the Ford gig went some way toward solving. Close to half the audience appeared to be Asian, eager to embrace a new star who operates well outside any typical cultural/genre box; maybe three-quarters were under 30. And, sprinkled around lightly, like literal salt-and-pepper, the grayhairs you might normally expect to find at a show this rooted in the sound of pre-youth-culture classics. (Typically, even when it’s a younger performer doing music that recalls the G.A. Songbook, it would tend to be: Average age, dead, as they say in show business.) But clearly her music is registering with an audience that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the gap between contemporary bedroom-pop and Cole Porter writing about “the silence of my lonely room.” It’s a kick to witness it happening.
Laufey happily splits the difference between acknowledging that there is a big throwback aspect to this and then throwing away some of the things that would mark her music as pastiche. “One of my goals as a musician is to bring jazz music and classical music back to my generation,” she plainly told the Ford crowd, introducing her version of “Misty” early in the Ford show. Some of the songs sounded like they could have been plucked out of the hit parade of te early ‘50s, with no alterations. Her alto is a tone that actually does sound era-specific; she sounds closer to June Christy than anyone currently making a mark in pop — the nostalgic aspect has a basis in her very vocal cords.
Yet Laufey isn’t trying to make her songs completely timeless — it just works out that way some of the time. She’s a self-avowed Swiftie, on top of her Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday fixations. And so, even when she’s singing torch songs, in her parlance, it’s age-appropriate “boys” who who threaten to “break my porcelain,” not the man that got away. She may be pining for a lost love in the wee small hours of the morning, but a good portion of her fans will receive that late-night longing as something that happens in-between cramming for finals, not standing under a lamppost with a fedora and a Chesterfield. In “From the Start,” the kickoff single from her just-released new album, she sings “Oh, the burning pain / Listening to you harp on ‘bout some new soulmate / ‘She’s so perfect,’ blah blah blah / Oh, how I wish you’ll wake up one day…,” it’s kinda “You Belong With Me” reborn as a collegiate-level classic samba.
The different auras as well as eras Laufey straddles could be seen in her costume change at the Ford. She started off with a 25-minute solo set, wearing a short white skirt and mostly playing a light electric guitar, looking kind of like a modern-day indie-rock princess, at least before she moved over to a Steinway. When she returned a short time later with the full LA Phil in tow for the bulk of the show, Laufey was slightly more elegant and glam in a longer, sparklier dress. There’s a slight formality to her stage presence, the kind you might expect from a Berklee grad who’s done a lot of classical recitals — she started out on cello, before mastering piano and guitar — and maybe the similarly high-class feel to her diction has something to do with growing up multi-lingual and multi-cultural in Iceland, fluent in Chinese as well as English. But ultimately she comes off as pretty-cool-normal-girl, freely presenting herself as a hopeless romantic who lusts after “boys on the tube” (she spent living in London, before moving to L.A.), even if she probably won’t start running down a ramp in her shows anytime soon.
As good as she was all by herself, the Phil did not let down in its duties to make the material from her EP and two studio albums more lush and lucious, without overpowering in any way. And yes, it was a full complement of Philharmonic players shmushed into the medium-sized Ford stage, not the chamber orchestra downsizing you might have expected at the venue. (Somewhere in here, there’s a “Why did the LA Phil cross the road?” joke to do with their rare move across the Cahuenga pass for this show.) On record, Laufey usually achieves a strings sound by multitracking her own cello, with occasional violin assists from her sister in the mix. The new album does have a more symphonically enhanced number, “California and Me,” which provided the template for the full orchestration that the Phil was able to add throughout the performance, including brass, woodwinds and a very busy harpist that haven’t been heard so much on her records.
(Hint to somebody: It’d make a great complement to the studio album to have this show out as a live record, though someone might have to do some work to mix out the helicopters that kept passing directly overhead for the first half of the set.)
Looking ahead, we might wonder how Laufey could fare with the Grammys. In a decade where Jon Batiste surprised everyone as a Recording Academy favorite two years ago, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that she’s a strong candidate for a best new artist nod. If she hadn’t existed, the Grammy in the Schools program might have had to invent her, as the most ideal possible poster girl, even if her schooling was over in Reykjavik, Iceland prior to her Berklee stint. A teen cello prodigy who turns her multi-instrumental prowess into pop stardom, even as she’s crafting songs that sound passionate to twentysomethings and strangely familiar to eightysomethings? You couldn’t make up that story. It’s good we don’t have to, so it’ll be interesting to watch what happens between now and what by all odds should be a full homecoming house across the ravine next summer.