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#WomenToTheFore 9: Sunna Gunnlaugs

How would you describe yourself and what you do?
I’m a pianist, composer and teacher. My focus is on jazz but I have also written music for TV and movies. And I have worked as a presenter, directing festivals. My work is mainly about trying to improve the scene around me and I’ve also always been very interested in women’s role in jazz, the space and opportunities they have, it’s something close to my heart. 

How and when did you first become interested in music?
I was always into music, even as a kid. I loved The Beatles and started collecting albums. If my parents went somewhere, I’d give them a list of albums I wanted - mostly pop music, Michael Jackson, things like that. And then when I got into my teens, I got interested in jazz.

I don’t know why, because no one around me listened to jazz, except my mom, who listened a bit to Ella Fitzgerald. My dad was more into classical music. I loved to go to concerts with them.

My mother wanted to study an instrument but didn't have the opportunity so she made it available to me and my brothers and I started studying organ when I was very young.

By the time I was 15, I was curious about jazz. I’d read LP album covers closely- who was playing, who produced it. I wondered who Quincy Jones was, who produced Michael Jackson/ And I traced this all back to jazz. Then I’d get curious about who's Count Basie and it would lead me to Herbie Hancock. And so that's how I got into it.

I was fascinated by Bill Evans. My brother gave me You’re Gonna Hear From Me, my first jazz record. It’s not one of his most iconic albums, it was a live recording, but something about the way he played in a trio just captivated me. Also at that time, TV programmes here in Iceland would end at 11pm, and sometimes at the end of the broadcast they would play something like Oscar Peterson or the  Modern Jazz Quartet. I was fascinated by the walking bass and the drive and energy in this music.

What drew you to the piano in particular? And who were your early mentors and influences?
I was about 12 when my teacher tried convincing me to switch from organ to piano. I think he didn’t have anything more to teach me. Initially I didn’t want to, but after realising that continuing to play the organ would mean playing a lot of church music I quit.  Once my interest in jazz started, I went back and said I want to study piano now.

I had a wonderful teacher but he didn’t know jazz. Eventually I heard about a jazz programme here in Reykjavik. I was 18 when I started jazz piano and I still remember my first lesson - I was so excited to play Misty!  I knew about chords from the organ but now I was learning about extensions, adding ninths and thirteenths and I just thought ‘wow’! I started taking jazz harmony classes and loved it.

At this time I played jazz for myself but hated performing. I’d get incredibly nervous and I couldn't eat before performances or tests. I was terrified. But with jazz, creating your own music and playing with others changed that feeling. It didn't feel like such a burden because now I was a part of a group.

I had no plans to make music my career. I assumed I would study engineering or maths or something. But when I was 23 I just couldn't find anything at the university that interested me. And I realised music was what I'm supposed to do. 

Tell us about your studies in New York and what that was like, coming from Iceland to a city with a population of 18m? How did New York influence your development as a musician?
It's a small jazz scene in Iceland and I felt I needed something to drive me. I looked at studying in Europe or the US. One of my teachers had studied in the US and told me about the schools. I applied for a few and picked William Paterson, close to New York. 

The culture shock wasn’t New York, it was the New Jersey suburb! There were no buses after 7pm and no sidewalks to walk on. It was hard to get around without a car. But it was a great programme, and I ended up practising and playing sessions a lot. 

It took us half an hour to get to New York City. And it was amazing to sit at these small clubs  seeing musicians like Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron close up. The access to great artists was an incredible inspiration.

I was at the school for three years. I met my husband and moved to Brooklyn, in a neighbourhood with many musicians. It was a great environment to be in at that age. Everybody was writing music and bringing it to sessions to try it out. I ended up staying for 12 years.

From studying in the US, I have a lot of the American approach in my playing. But also my Icelandic roots and connection to Europe. It’s a mix. 

You spent the first part of your career in North America and moved back to Iceland in 2005. And you’ve toured across the world. From your perspective as a musician, what do you think the differences are between the North American and European jazz / improvised music scenes? What can we learn from one another?
When I was in the US, I was in a New York bubble, focused on that scene. I didn't have any idea what was happening on the European or Nordic jazz scenes, there was so much focus on American jazz. 

In Iceland, we look  outwards at everything. Perhaps because we're so isolated, we try to stay in touch with everything that's going on everywhere. I feel that European musicians are immersed in their own scene but are keeping an eye on what's happening in New York. It seems more open to different influences. 

The US scene is focused on what's happening in America, partly because it’s difficult for non-US artists to get visas to play in the US. Being closed off is not the best thing for any artform. Ideally you would  have access to many different influences and inspirations even if you decide, no, this isn’t for me. At least you're exposed to it. It would be much better for the musical development of the scene if the US would open up their work permits to artists. I think everyone, American and European, would benefit from it. 

What have been some of the highlights or most memorable moments of your career so far? Tours, collaborations, or experiences that stand out?
I always really liked touring, seeing new cultures and places, eating local food. If I’m in Germany the promoter asks me if I want to eat Italian food, I will always say I want German food. I'm in Germany. That's what I enjoy about it. 

And of course, I love the connection to an audience. The first time I did the Canadian festivals, when I was living in Brooklyn, that was amazing. And my first major European tour was incredible. And I don't know if it was because I was an Icelandic woman with a band from New York that was interesting, but we got all these bookings and toured for three weeks. It was great to get to play music with your band every night for that period. 

Memorable collaborations? Playing with Julia Hülsmann, a German pianist, and this has been great. Just playing with another pianist is a totally different thing. And having this woman to woman relationship is very positive, I cherish that.

I feel blessed having these opportunities. When you tour you go to small towns that you never visit as a tourist. I love the experience of these places.


You’re a pianist and composer - how would you describe your music? And how do you approach composing?
My music has Nordic elements - it’s narrative and lyrical, melodic but with some American roots. Since moving to Iceland, it’s more open. There's more space in it than there was when I was in New York.

I have an easy time writing music. It comes to me quickly. Normally, I just hear it. In New York, a melody might come to me on the train and I’d go home and figure out the harmony.

Now I go more to the piano and just mess around, so it starts life as an improvisation. I can also create a mood, like for a TV show. They need a 13 second piece with a certain mood, and I can put myself into this feeling and some music will come out. I can do the same if I feel like we need a more energetic tune with my band, I put myself into that gear and see what comes out. 

You’ve also been the artistic director of Reykjavík Jazz Festival.How would you describe your approach to curating a festival? 
It wasn’t a position that I sought out. It fell into my lap and I decided to take it on. I tried to create a festival that would be interesting to people living here, while supporting the jazz scene and creating opportunities for musicians and composers. 

I focused on collaborations between Icelandic bands and interesting international artists, mainly from Europe, but also New York. Again it’s important to have that inspiration - for the artists here to see other bands on stage.

I wanted to raise the festival's profile and make it a force for the local scene. We have great musicians here, but not everybody knows how to take that step to start performing outside Iceland. So that was also something that I was trying to do, to create these little bridges between Iceland and the rest of the world.

Have there been particular challenges for you as a woman artist and composer? 
I wonder if a lack of role models contributed to me only making the decision to pursue music as a career in my twenties.  Looking around me, there weren’t any women playing jazz in Iceland. Female instrumentalists weren’t visible. They have always been there participating, but history isn’t writing them in. 

At music school in Iceland, the guys would get together to play and although everyone was nice and friendly I was a bit isolated. There were just a handful of us women in the jazz department at William Paterson so even there I felt like an exception. Even in New York, I didn’t see any women in the role of sidemen. They were all band leaders.

I realised if I want to play gigs and tours, I have to put my own band together, and I have to book it and organise it. So that's what I did and I’m still doing it!

On one tour, I had some problems with my sidemen. I actually threatened to leave one out at a bus station somewhere far away from New York if he didn't behave. 

When I was booking the first tour in Europe, I stood out  - I was an Icelandic woman, not just another guy from New York. It was interesting for journalists to write about - who is this woman from Iceland with long blonde hair. And so it became about my looks rather than the gig. You wouldn’t write that article today but I did benefit from the exposure.

I had good people around me in Brooklyn playing sessions together, but some of them had a hard time with me being their leader. They didn't mind playing with me, but had a hard time with me being the boss. 

And here in Iceland, I still don't feel like I'm a full member of the scene. I'm still a little on the edges, particularly when I ran the jazz festival and was in a position to say no. I think they had a really hard time with that. 

You have to be a bit tough to survive this, and it's important to find the right people to surround yourself with. It's important that you feel joy in what you do.

You’re founder of Freyjujazz, a cycle of concerts / festivals that highlight women in jazz. Can you tell us more about this and what you set out to do?
When I moved back to Iceland I was surprised to still be the only woman on the scene, except for some vocalists. I thought, wow, why is this? Women were studying on the jazz programme but they weren't on festival stages. When I started booking artists for Reykjavik Jazz Festival, I was conscious of making room for women, but nobody was coming forward.

I figured that women felt like the scene wasn’t open to them. So I started Freyjujazz as a concert series, to create some opportunities. 

I’d say to male artists, here's an opportunity to play your music but I’d like you to collaborate with a woman. And none of the guys reached out to do anything with a female musician. 

But some groups of young women came together, and they ended up booking the guys to come and play with them. So that was interesting to me. Again, the woman had to be the leader. 

I did this for about three years and then decided to turn it into a festival just as Covid hit. 

Finally I held the first edition of the festival in early 2023. It was great. Half the artists were Icelandic and half came from abroad, half were women and half were men. There was good exposure and an incredibly nice vibe around it. 

I'm trying to make women more visible to young people, so they have role models and they see a festival with great artists, great music,  and as many women on stage as men. 

I’m hoping to run the festival again next year, and I’m waiting for the grants programme to open again.

It takes time to really change things. Hopefully more women will come into the music schools with an interest in jazz. But they still find it hard to enter the scene because there's a sense that jazz is a competitive sport. And most women in the music schools don't like that idea. They don’t want to come into a session or gig to prove themselves, they want a space to express themselves.

Is there anything you're observing as a teacher  - are you seeing more female musicians come through?
As a teacher, I have no female students at the moment. They're all guys. I've taught young women before who, especially during their teens, are concerned about how they are perceived. There’s a hesitancy to take risks performing, especially something that is unprepared, like improvisation, because they’re concerned about not doing it well. 

I wonder if we need to get them into jazz much younger. Because kids are just kids and they're not so concerned about what others think of them. 

Who are the women/non-binary people you work with who inspire you the most, or which female / non-binary composers and artists are you most excited about at the moment?
I’m inspired by so many of the people I work with. Julia Hülsmann, Angelika Niescier - I just love her energy - and Sarah Chaksad from Switzerland. When I meet these other European women, I feel that I'm seeing my sisters.There’s great connection and inspiration with them. 

A while back, I was asked to bring a group of German and Icelandic musicians together for  a meeting of the Iceland and German president here in Reykjavik. We were six women together in a band, and it was incredible. So much fun, we were laughing all the time. Everything was so easy, deciding what to play and how to do it. And I remember commenting to the drummer Lizzy, wow, this is so easy. And she agreed, saying there was no competition, it was a collaboration.

Living in Iceland, I’m quite isolated and I love this energy I get when I’m collaborating with other women. 

Another musician I really admire is Linda Fredriksson. I love her new project Juniper. She’s a baritone sax player and makes amazing music. It references older American Jazz, but with new elements within it. Hildegunn Øiseth from Norway is amazing and so is Maria Kannegaard. There seem to be more and more women instrumentalists in Germany like Eva Klesse, Eva Kruse, Heidi Bayer so maybe we are making progress. 

You’re involved in a mentorship programme with EJN. Is there advice that you would give to young people embarking on a career in creative music? 
Networking is so important - connecting personally with people, not just musicians but everybody. I think some musicians tend to isolate themselves but it's really important to have a good relationship with people on the radio, for example and critics. If someone plays your music on their show you can drop them a note thanking them.

What’s missing from music education is how to survive as a musician. You need to have some business skills, for example how to make contracts, and knowing what you can ask for.

And try to find your musical voice, something that is unique to you. There was a teacher at my school in the US, Kenny Burrell. At the time I was really into Bebop and he said to me, one day you're going to mix your Icelandic heritage into your music. And I thought, what is he talking about, how does that fit into Bebop? And a few years later, I realised it was already finding its way out!

Finally, have good relationships with the people around you. You’ll go through tough times and it helps to have good people around you. Be nice, be a good person and you will get a lot more work if you're a positive influence. If you're a great musician but a bit of a dick, nobody will want to work with you. 

What is next for you? What is exciting you artistically?  
I’m just excited to tour again. Covid was hard because we lacked all these opportunities to interact with audiences. I think it had much more of an effect on me than I realised at the time. So there’s so much joy to be had from touring again with my band.The feeling of playing again is just incredible 

I'm going to focus more on playing and writing music and I have some exciting new projects here in Iceland. I'm writing music to Icelandic poetry with a vocalist and still following the release of my trio album Becoming.

I love doing these different things and the endless process of discoveries, you know? And always going someplace new. The unknown is great too, it’s exciting to not know where you’re going!

Image credits: 1 Photo Oli Mar, 2 Photo Hördur Sveinsson, 3 Sunna with Julia Hülsmann, Photo Hans Vera 4. Sunna with her trio Þorgrímur Jónsson - bass Scott McLemore - drums. Photo Hördur Sveinsson


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