The Redefinition of Greta Salóme

Being a woman of many hats isn’t always an easy thing. Especially in show business, too often artists are being pigeonholed into specific genres and styles that may not always represent their full creative capability. These stamps can be claustrophobic but for Greta Salome, Iceland’s latest Eurovision hopeful, this is old news.

Growing up a classically trained violinist, she has already experienced these labels as “the violin chick”, a Eurovision finalist, a solo singer-songwriter and a Disney star, all of which have only pushed her forward. She’s a full package deal and now, four years since her first Eurovision appearance in 2012, Greta is in Stockholm and ready to redefine herself in this twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If that isn’t exciting enough, her new album, set for release later this year, is the cherry on top of this cake.

“Yeah I get tired, but I always think to myself that I could have done more today,” she humorously tells me after being asked about her busy schedule. “Doing music full-time is a huge gig and it really takes up all my time.” Let’s be real: the fact that she was willing to do a Skype interview at 1 o’clock in the morning shows you how committed she is to her career as an emerging artist. Dressed in a simple Adidas black hoodie, she tells me more about the complexities of being a multi-faceted musician. “I always feel strange because as a classically trained violinist, it’s weird when people say: “oh you’re that singer”. Only because I’ve been playing my violin since I was four. Above all else, I’ve always seen myself as a musician who believes in diverse musicianship, like a musical chameleon. Sure, it’s hard to combine the classical and pop music worlds but I personally see them as a cohesive thing; I’m a violinist, singer, songwriter, composer, dancer… I see it as a full package deal. When I first performed on Eurovision in 2012, “Never Forget” was more out of my vocal genre, more theatrical sounding. “Here Them Calling” is much closer to what I’m currently writing so of course, I like performing it more because it represents me in the most authentic way.”

Greta will be participating in Eurovision a second time, something that rarely happens. Naturally, it would be a familiar return where fanatics of the show would know what to expect. But this time, her return to the big stage is so much more than a predictable three-minute performance; it’s a platform for her to showcase the new sound she’s been cultivating over the past four years, a milestone in her career. “My first Eurovision experience in 2012 was my debut, in a way. Some people just knew me as a violinist and didn’t know I could sing, while most people didn’t know me at all. It was a crazy time, but immediately after I performed, people would always say: “oh that’s the violin player”. Which was sort of like a stamp on your forehead. Then doing Eurovision itself is another stamp on your forehead, which turned me into the “violinist from Eurovision”. The world didn’t get a chance to see my songwriting side. So from there, I had to reinvent myself, to show people my true essence as a singer-songwriter, aside from Eurovision and my classical roots in the Symphony. That’s when I focused on developing a sound that was more in my style and although it took awhile, it was worth it. Because I work in show business, people always want to put you in a box but when you do one thing, you shouldn’t stop doing something else. Let’s just say 2012 to 2016 was about redefining myself as a musician.”

There’s a very positive energy that buzzes when Greta speaks. Instead of an information overload, she has a special way of using less words in her answers, giving them more power and significance. During her period of self-discovery, she was scouted to perform on the Disney cruise ships. What started off as a seven week contract, ended up being a five month gig, which then turned into an ongoing relationship between her and the most successful entertainment company in the world. How did it happen?

“It was a mixture of things. After 2012, I released my first album called “In the Silence” and toured around Iceland, playing small venues. I wouldn’t say I burnt myself out but I was worn out. I decided I wanted to focus on getting my music outside of Iceland and start connecting abroad. So I found a talent agency in the US who wanted to work with me and after I developed my show reel, they sent it to a person who had connections at Disney. A few weeks later, I got an e-mail from them asking when I wanted to start! It began as a seven week contract on the Disney Dream, which is a huge ship with 4000 passengers, two cruises a week. So you’re basically performing for 8000 people every week. Since it’s a sheltered environment, you get to grow as a performer. Eventually the contract became a five month deal, when we decided to make the show longer and bigger. Finally, they offered me a headliner deal where I got to produce and create my own show for the Disney Magic (cruise ship owned by Disney). I spent time working on the show in Orlando with some show directors from Disney and Broadway, graphic designers, costume designers… it was amazing! After a lot of work, the show was ready! We performed it for a few months and I’ll be continuing the show this June when I return from Eurovision. I’m definitely excited to go back!”

“I know that Eurovison isn’t the beginning or the ending of anything… it’s a gig … People keep saying it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but for me, it’s twice-in-a-lifetime and I’ll never take that for granted.”

You’d think you’d start to feel seasick or slightly anxious being on board a giant ship for weeks, but that certainly wasn’t Greta’s experience at all. “I can’t say that I was. These ships are enormous, you have 4000 passengers and 2000 staff, so you’re always around at least 6000 people which is almost the size of my hometown! What’s cool is that it’s a huge market and you’re able to reach so many people, some that you wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Disney is big on quality, so you can’t have a bad day with them. I loved it, I absolutely loved it. When you’re part of something like Disney, you feel like you’re part of something amazing.”

With anything really great, there’s always an ending or a comedown that can be challenging to go through. There’s a popular saying that “it’s not about how you enter, but rather how you exit.” Having experienced both Eurovision and Disney, these feelings are familiar to Greta. “Definitely. Eurovision is a great thing, it’s a privilege to do it twice. But it can devour people, something we call “the Eurovision monster”. Everything is about the competition when you’re in it, but when it ends, you have to redefine yourself apart from that one song that people know you for. If you’re not careful, it’s so easy to lose yourself in the fiasco.

Going back a second time, I have a song with a strong message that represents where I am in life right now. Over the past four years, I’ve grown so much as a person and I know that Eurovison isn’t the beginning or the ending of anything… it’s a gig. For me, it’s a concert, a great venue to showcase my new body of work and nobody can take that away from me. If I can touch one person with my music, then my mission is complete. Doing it a second time, I know what to expect. But most importantly, I know what not to expect. I see this as a huge concert that I’m privileged to be part of. People keep saying it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but for me, it’s twice-in-a-lifetime and I’ll never take that for granted.”

Of course, getting a second chance to win it all comes with a greater pressure. “I think I feel pressure in every performance, no matter where I perform. It doesn’t matter what it is, you always have to believe in what you’re doing. Most of the real pressure comes from myself, wanting to do my best. This time around, the only pressure I feel is that the Eurovision fan base knows me so maybe they’ll be expecting more from me. Either way, it ultimately wont change the overall outcome and I wouldn’t let it affect my performance.”

I ask her if she got nervous before walking up to that microphone. “I really can’t remember. When it comes to bigger projects, I tend to zone out. Also, when I write a song, I never remember how it starts or ends, almost as if I’m outside myself. Sure, I sometimes get butterflies but I tend to get more agitated than nervous, I want to get things over with, I wanna do well, and want to enjoy the celebration afterwards.”

We start talking about our favourite artists and I’m surprised to learn that the same singer of “Hear Them Calling” who we’ve grown to love is also a big Pitbull fan. “For real, I like anything from hard metal to pop dance hits from Pitbull.” I nod my head, confessing my own secret liking for his music. “I’m glad someone admits to this! I listen to a lot of indie stuff, I love a lot of Nordic and Scandinavian singer songwriters such as Ane Brun or one of my favourites, Sigur Ros. Sleeping at Last is also another favourite group. I really love  Lady Gaga because her music is great but more importantly, she’s got a strong inner voice. Ellie Goulding has a wicked essence as well. I feel like she’s definitely underrated because her music has so much substance. Lately, I’m really loving Sia, especially after watching her recent performance at Coachella. I’m into strong women who write their own songs and pave the way from themselves.”

“When people say: “I don’t support the gay lifestyle”. I always say: “what lifestyle?” It’s almost like saying: “I don’t support African-American lifestyle.”

Like old friends reuniting for the first time, we got onto the topic of fitness, how living a healthy lifestyle has been part of her success and how it played a part in her performance of “Hear them Calling” in Söngvakeppni Sjónvarpsins (The Icelandic pre-election for Eurovision). “I have to admit, I haven’t been keeping up with my fitness as much as I would like to. (laughs) With that said, I love Crossfit, boot camps, running and working out at the gym. Being active has always been very important my in life. I enjoy it. Plus the choreography that Ásgeir (Helgason) has me doing is definitely intense. I sometimes get out of breath. For Söngvakeppnin, I wanted to make a three-minute art piece that would stand out in any context. I wanted to interact with shadows that pushed me around, sort of representing how negative voices can push you around. I wanted everything to be mystical and enchanting. I teamed up with my graphic designer Ólöf Erla Einarsdóttir and the talented Australian filmmaker Jonathan Duffy to make this happen. Then Ásgeir joined the team to work on the choreo and got my body working real hard. I would sometimes get out of breath in rehearsal, but I kept going and it worked out. I wanted to emphasize the lyrics with the graphics and ultimately, everything came together.”

Having grown up with a best friend who’s gay, Greta talks openly about her connection to the community and her ongoing fight for equality. “Most of my best friends are gay. I got to see one of my closest childhood friends blossom after coming out. He found his happiness and it was definitely something that was very important to me. I mean, “Hear them Calling” is about negative voices which is something the gay community can easily relate to. If you have a cause or a voice that needs to be heard, Eurovision is the perfect place for that. Also, all the guys on my team are gay and today they’re some of my closest friends. They’re like family to me. When people say: “I don’t support the gay lifestyle”. I always say: “what lifestyle?” It’s almost like saying: “I don’t support African-American lifestyle”. We both laugh in agreeance.

The conversation begins to explore these negative voices, the reasoning behind it, and why people feel compelled to bring others down. “When I performed in London, everyone was discussing the (former) Icelandic Prime Minister situation which isn’t a positive topic. However, I will say this: people’s actions aren’t always reflective of their personalities. We all make mistakes. I’m not saying we should have supported him as a Prime Minister, but between every mistake there’s a person with a family and a soul, so we have to be careful when we judge them or criticize them. It’s such a fine line. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean lowering your standards. We can still make the same demands politically but to forgive and be respectful of his personal life. Its been interesting to see some people showing cruelty towards public figures, online with social media, it’s really sad! We can be critical without being cruel.”

I mention the recent situation where celebrity gossip site LadBible publicly fat-shamed Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, poking fun at his physical changes. Miller went on to call them out, opening up about his struggles with suicide. “I loved his take on it. He’s super successful, he’s part of the gay community and he’s using his voice for change. He’s an inspiration for so many gay people who want to come out and work in the show industry. For him to step out and stand up, I applaud him, as media can be so cruel. Also, you have to make sure you don’t take yourself too seriously. You need to have a sense of humour, you have to laugh at yourself. There hasn’t been a negative comment that has really impacted me at all. I remember I saw this comment after I won Söngvakeppnin that said: “I fucking hate Greta Salóme”. Part of you wants to think: “why do they hate me so much”. But on the other hand, you don’t know what that person is going through, so you can’t let it bother you. Then I get handwritten letters from little girls saying they want to play violin like me… those are the comments I focus on.”

“When I performed in London, everyone was discussing the (former) Icelandic Prime Minister situation which isn’t a positive topic. However, I will say this: people’s actions aren’t always reflective of their personalities … I’m not saying we should have supported him … but between every mistake there’s a person with a family and a soul, so we have to be careful when we judge them or criticize them.”

It’s getting very late and by this point, yet, there’s no feeling of urgency or impatience. Instead, the tone of her voice seeps with gratitude, it lives in the moment. You can tell she’s genuine in her exchange of words, always speaking from the heart. I realize it’s her self-awareness that has carried her down all these different paths, as she embraces life in the present, but opens herself to the possibilities of the future. “Right after Eurovision, I’ll return to Disney in June and then I’ll like do some touring. My 2016 is almost packed full. I’m working on a new album that I hope to release before the year is over.”

I stop her in her tracks… a new album?! “It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’ll be in the same style as “Hear Them Calling”. I’m hoping to release it by the end of 2016.”

She smiles, almost as if she just told a secret. “But more long-term, I think I would want to be doing exactly what I’m doing right now. Taking chances, expecting nothing but hope for everything. Never taking these experiences for granted. I always have a mental vision of a lake in my mind, where my mom would always say: “Greta, don’t let the water be still”. I have to keep the water rippling.”

Photos: Courtesy of Greta Salóme.

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