For many people the word paradise evokes images of white sandy beaches and turquoise waters shimmering in the sun. Not so for James Cox, founder of Paradís Sessions, a series of completely unplugged concerts featuring Reykjavík musicians.
“When I studied human geography, there were always a lot of questions about space, place, and identity flying around,” James tells me. “I’ve always been involved in music so when I moved here I was inspired to start capturing all the interesting artists in this vibrant music community, but to set it against the backdrop of Reykjavík, ask questions about the environment around us.”
Playing it Close
Paradís Sessions began as a series of performances in local café Reykjavík Roasters last year. The project was recently relaunched at experimental music venue Mengi in an event featuring local artists Elín Elísabet, bagdad brothers, and MSEA. The three acts illustrated how pulling the plug can enhance both audience members’ and musicians’ connection to the music.
Elín Elísabet opened the evening with a folky vibe that was right at home in the acoustic setting. Featuring soaring melodies and personal lyrics of love and travel, her songs were accompanied by her own guitar playing. Elín charmed the audience with weird and wonderful stories of meeting a rapper in Senegal and finding a huge rat’s nest in her building—exactly the kind of anecdotes that make a concert feel more like a living room hangout with your closest friends.
Bagdad brothers proved as much a comedy duo as a band. Lead singer Bjarni introduced one song by saying: “This song is about my friend Sylvía, who is an a--hole. Sylvía, are you here?” The ‘brothers,’ who both play guitar, normally perform amplified and with a bassist. The acoustic setting put their jazzy harmonies and sophisticated arrangements in the spotlight. The pair’s funny and thoughtful lyrics, however, were the real star of the set.
Closing act MSEA usually composes and performs with electronics. At this performance her gear was replaced by a more human element: multi-instrumentalist Sunna Friðjóns, who helped MSEA bring her layered compositions to life in a fresh way. As much performance art as music, the tight harmonies and coordinated movements of the two evoked undoubtedly electronic vibes—yet worked perfectly in the acoustic environment.
“I hope the unplugged setting made the audience feel closer to the music performed,” James said after the show. “I hope they’ve felt something more than from the average gig, that they are refreshed, and maybe considering what paradise means for them.”
Paradise as a Point of View
The remaining Paradís Sessions in this year’s series will take place in outdoor locations around Reykjavík. Iceland is hardly known for its balmy summer, but James takes that in stride. “The weather will play a big part of course. For example right now it’s sunny and the sky is blue but five minutes ago it was snowing. But those challenges are all a part of it. That all makes it so interesting,” he says. A videographer will attempt to capture the magic of each gig, as well as record brief interviews with the artists exploring the theme of paradise.
James hopes the rawness of the performances proves refreshing for those who witness the series. “I hope that anybody that gets caught up in us filming around Reykjavík feels like they’ve been a part of something unique, something different,” he remarks. “The idea is to capture the ‘real life’ of live performance, in its most basic form—the rawness, the imperfections that can actually make things perfect, and make us think about this idea of paradise.”
So what is paradise for James? “It’s not a place or a point in time, but something that I have control of—the choice I can make to enjoy every moment.”
All photos by Dominika Miłek.