If anywhere feels like the end of the Earth, it must be Þingeyri. This small
village in Iceland’s Westfjords sits at the edge of the Arctic circle, by one of
the country’s most scenic fjords.
For amenities, it has only a shop, a post office, a café, a bank and a
swimming pool. Its biggest claims to fame are that it boasts the oldest
functioning mechanics’ workshop in Iceland and that its forbidding landscape was featured in Icelandic director Dagur Kári’s award-winning
art-house film Noi the Albino (2003). Any artist looking to pursue the creative spirit free of all distractions will surely find inspiration here.
In late 2019, shortly before international travel ground to a halt, one musician made the 850-mile journey north-west from their native Scotland to Reykjavík and then the seven-hour drive through western Iceland to Þingeyri in search of just such inspiration.
With only a Casio keyboard and a view of the Dýrafjörður fjord in front of her, Louise McCraw, aka Goodnight Louisa, formerly of teenage post-punk
revival band Skjør, came up with “little fragments about night terrors, soaked in reverb”, informed by “a ghostly presence that seemed to follow me.” Human Danger, released this week, was born – a synth-soaked exploration of existential and feminist themes characterised by McCraw’s
bewitchingly brooding vocal.
Skjør too had looked north for inspiration. Their name, pronounced ‘sure’ and meaning ‘fragile’ in Norwegian, was inspired by McCraw visiting the country in 2015 and the band’s first song, a thoroughly dream poppy affair, was titled Norway. Now, McCraw’s stint in Þingeyri has resulted in a record that reflects Iceland’s sparse landscape and the half-dream, half-nightmare sense of a place where the night-time hours are preternaturally long in winter.
While Iceland has a rich musical heritage of its own, from the thriving Reykjavík underground scene that spawned The Sugarcubes and Björk, to the ethereal soundscapes of Sigur Rós, and the recent splash made by Eurovision stars Daði Freyr and Hatari, it is the gothic-tinged synthpop of late 1980s and early 1990s Depeche Mode and the dream pop of the same era that dominates McCraw’s record. Skjør’s avowed influences, from Florence + the Machine (McCraw’s vocal is certainly Florence Welch-ish, but with more fragility), to indie-folk trio Daughter and Daft Punk are also in evidence.
“Iceland was quite lonely and isolating. There wasn’t anything else to do other than write,” McCraw has said, and this period of isolation provoked a lyrical concern with human relationships on the album.
“Each of the songs is about a different aspect of human danger, of how dangerous the world has become when we disregard others so easily and put our own desires ahead of them.”
This theme of rejection, possession and loss finds McCraw dealing with tortured celebrities, insistent spirits, victimised women and deceased loved ones. While the shimmering and thunderous Judith has a deeply unsettling feel reflective of its subject – a dark spirit McCraw has felt pursued by since childhood – the upbeat, honking synths of Only A Matter of Time are deceptive. The song deals with male violence against women, with the repeated refrain “The girls they know it well.” While it was originally inspired by the curfew put on women at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper killings, “After the murder of Sarah Everard, I felt even more compelled to talk about this,” McCraw explained.
Get Your Hands Off My Girlfriend explores the victimisation of gay women, while Diana is about the Princess of Wales – the ‘saviour’ who was “someone to lick our wounds”, but who was ultimately sacrificed. In Walter’s Waltz, inspired by the loss of two relatives, there’s an exploration of grief – “I pick up your pieces/That white linen nightdress/Cling to it now you are gone/ Knowing it will never be worn”.
Bad Habits And Gay Bars, a bittersweet but overall hopeful track, concludes the album and seems to bring the preceding angst to a kind of resolution.
While some artists draw their essential inspiration from where they come from, Human Danger shows how time spent in an alien landscape can provoke the deepest personal reflections.
Louise McGraw in five songs
Skjør, Self Control (2016)
Stabbing post-punk guitars characterised this debut single by McCraw’s former band.
Skjør, Living Without You (2017)
The angsty lyrics for this single were inspired by a children’s book by Edinburgh illustrator Paige Collins featuring a monster-like shadow stalking a town.
Goodnight Louisa, Hollow God (2019)
Like the new Human Danger LP, this debut single from Goodnight Louisa was produced by Kristofer Harris, known for his work with Belle and Sebastian.
Goodnight Louisa, Get Your Hands Off My Girlfriend (2021)
Perky 1980s synths create an unsettling juxtaposition with a lyrical exploration of the abuse of gay women in a searingly engaging track.
Goodnight Louisa, Diana (2021)
Melds together the myths of the goddess of the hunt and the Princess of Wales (“Diana runs/Diana runs from the hunters”). It was inspired by the appearance of the princess in one of McCraw’s dreams.