Starting over isn’t always easy, yet resisting change is almost always fruitless. Nanna Hilmarsdóttir knew this intuitively when she began to write the songs for her first solo album, How to Start a Garden. In these ethereal yet grounded songs, she sings of being lost and hopeful, remaining calm through apocalypses large and small, with orchestration that feels as organic as a forest while also sculpted and modern.
Few debuts arrive, however, with experience as extensive as Nanna’s. After a childhood in a tiny town in rural Iceland, she spent most of her twenties in recording studios and global tours with her band, Of Monsters and Men, which arrived in 2011 to almost immediate ubiquity as their first album, My Head Is An Animal, topped charts worldwide. Their live prowess landed them headlining festival spots around the world. With three impressive and globally successful albums under their belt, Nanna found herself writing an album she felt needed to be delivered in her very own way. Like most of us, the years since 2020 have necessitated changes both mundane and enormous; like few of us, Nanna, as at home on a festival stage as in a rural cabin, is fluent in polarity.
In her cabin outside of Reykjavik, in the company of her dog named Vofa – the Icelandic word for ghost- Nanna reveled in the quiet, a liminal period between lives. The result is an absolute snowstorm of an album—chilling and crystalline, almost terrifying in moments, while achingly calm in others.
These are songs about slanted grief and finding your balance in the vertigo. “You say we’ll start a garden, after the snow,” she sings on the title track, alluding to a partner, but later, in “Disaster Master”, a song she worked on with producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman, War on Drugs, Hiss Golden Messenger) at Dreamland in upstate New York, she’s ready to go it alone: “Start with nothing/ start a garden/ the ghost and me.”
As Nanna wrote these songs, she spent a lot of time considering her neighbor’s lush garden, watching him tend it, watching it grow. A garden is a conversation with the seasons—everything constantly in a state of ending and beginning. It seemed the perfect image for where she was then, and for the shape this album was taking.
“A lot of things had to end for this album to become what it is” She explains “A long term relationship, my prior sense of home and belonging and security. But it’s also an ode to the joy of new beginnings: new relationships, a new home, new friendships, a new sense of self. The album takes place in this in-between state. I wrote it in Iceland and recorded it between Iceland and upstate New York. It captures a very specific time in my life of curiosity and reflection, when I felt very much in the middle of a surreal new reality and didn’t have a clear path in my direction—like how a snowstorm is somehow chaotic but calm at the same time.”
“Godzilla”, the first single which was written and produced by Nanna, is a graceful introduction to a project that is introspective and personal, but flush with universal themes. Nanna divulged to NPR’s Bob Boilen upon its release, “Lyrically it has a few different pockets to me. I was inspired by the Godzilla movies. I connected to this villain and the idea of waking up one day, like how Godzilla rises out of the water and the world is a totally different place that you don’t feel you belong to; This feeling of being out of place, but also being okay with that.”
“Crybaby”, the second single, co-produced with multi-GRAMMY winning songwriter, producer and musician Aaron Dessner (The National, Taylor Swift) at Long Pond in upstate New York, speaks to the kind of maturity you can only reach by returning to humility: “Well I / don’t have a problem / with crawling on fours”, a kind of wink at the moments when Nanna took her own sadness too seriously. She wrote it in her cabin, and describes “lying on my floor playing the guitar and feeling sorry for myself….it felt dramatic and a bit funny.”
Dessner’s knack for taking something seemingly fragile and elegantly turning into something truly epic fits perfectly with Nanna’s inherent skill at crafting songs that build into dizzying bursts of emotion. The soaring melancholy with a lyrical hook – “Can’t keep it up/ Can’t give you up..” – flirts with disco’s sad banger oeuvre. The corresponding video echoes the lonely dance floor energy, with Nanna dancing on her own under a static mirror ball at a sparsely attended party; however clumsy the moves, at least no one is paying attention. The freedom to express without the burden of an audience.
“Something isn’t right / Someone pass the wine” Nanna sings on “Milk”, another song she brought to Long Pond, with lyrics that evoke Joni Mitchell’s emotional pointillism. “You come back every month of May/ rose-colored in the disarray/ But something isn’t right/ perhaps another time.”
Throughout the album we can hear Nanna developing a nascent language of delicate distortions, a layered underpainting of whispers and crackles, friends’ laughter, and the patter of dog’s feet. The pianos seem to breathe, the woodwinds waver as if played by ghosts, while horns circle like a lighthouse beam.
After much writing and producing in her apartment in Reykjavik and her cabin in the wilderness, Nanna turned to her close friends and collaborators. Ragnar Þórhallsson, for songwriting, piano score and additional instrumentals, and Bjarni Þór Jensson as a musician and engineer.
The full arc of How to Start a Garden will stun its listeners—a gorgeous transition from purity into heaviness and back into an earned innocence, a ballad to the joys of being lost: “Well I fell in a black hole/ and I’m learning to make it a home/ and I want to stay stoic/ but there’s somewhere I need to go.”