Herdis Stefánsdóttir on Kónguló to scoring Knock At The Cabin: “M. Night wants you to figure it out for yourself”

After a highly successful film and television scoring career that has seen her scoring the Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston-starring Essex Serpent, and recently, M. Night Shyamalan flick Knock At The Cabin, Herdís Stefánsdóttir needed a new creative outlet. She chats to Headliner about her incredible new avant-garde pop singles under the name Kónguló, as she gears up for her next scoring projects.

Besides her solo project and music for film, Stefánsdóttir has composed for installations in museums, dance, and theatre — not bad for a law school dropout. She began composing relatively late, in her early twenties and formed synth-pop duo East Of My Youth in 2015. As her interest in film and music grew, she left Iceland to study film scoring at New York University, and upon graduating interned for the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson in Berlin while he was writing the music for 2016’s Arrival, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Now based back in Iceland with her partner, fellow composer Dustin O’Halloran, Stefánsdóttir recalls this early period of her life as she transitioned into becoming a professional musician. “I'm not one of those musicians that was always in music,” she says. “I'd always played the piano and was very interested in that as a kid. And I remember it very well: one day I sat at the piano and started improvising. And I was like, ‘Whoa, okay, this is cool.’

“I was studying law at the time and really wasn’t enjoying myself. I started studying music theory by myself, and one thing led to another and I ended up studying the classical composition programme at the university here in Iceland. I was also really interested in electronic music, and I was watching YouTube tutorials about compression and EQ instead of going out on a Friday night. I formed an electro-pop duet.”

I was watching YouTube tutorials about compression and EQ instead of going out on a Friday night.

A hugely formative moment in her artistic life came when Jóhann Jóhannsson visited New York for a screening of The Theory Of Everything, the 2014 Stephen Hawking film which earned Jóhannsson a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination.

“Me and a bunch of my school friends went to the screening,” Stefánsdóttir says. “My teacher said I should go and talk to him, seeing as we were both Icelandic. I was very shy about it, but I’m a huge fan of his music — I think he was a very, very important composer. So I did say hi to him, and it’s such a small world because his niece was my roommate. I told her I met him, and she said I should send him an email to see if he ever needed help with anything. A few months later I was visiting Berlin and asked if he’d like to meet for a coffee, and he replied asking if I could start on Monday! So I moved to Berlin and never went back to school.”

It wasn’t only a formative moment as she began her film music career while getting the opportunity to work with Jóhannsson, but it was a very special studio setting in Berlin, as Oscar-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir was based there at the same time, as was her now-partner Dustin O’Halloran.

“He is the one that ended up giving me really valuable advice, which I treasure. He asked me, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I replied that I didn't know, I just wanted to make music. He said, ‘You can work for me or some other composer and go up the ladder for 10 years, or you sit down and you just surround yourself with people that inspire you and make art and music’. I thought about it for one day and then decided to quit working for Jóhann and make a record. He was a very beautiful soul and you can really feel it and hear it in his compositions.”

The Sixth Sense deeply affected my life and made me terrified of ghosts.

It’s advice that certainly paid off for her, and continues to benefit her as she releases two incredible singles from her new solo project, Kónguló. The first single that announced the arrival of Kónguló was Be Human, a deeply electronic pop track that is both dystopian and avant-garde. It is the first of two singles that see Stefánsdóttir collaborating with vocalist and producer neonme.

Be Human was a complicated song,” she says. “I started writing the verse and the melodic part, and then put it on the shelf and months went by. I didn’t know what it was, it was kind of electronic and a little bit hip-hop. I worked on it a little more in L.A. with a friend who was visiting. We were working on the track in this basement apartment. Then when I was back in Iceland, I went to a show, and I saw this girl performing with her band, and it was Salka (Valsdóttir), who is neonme. 

"Seeing her performing and hearing her production, I just felt this connection. So I wrote to her, feeling shy, and we became these pen pals who loved each other’s music. She ended up singing and rapping on Be Human. The song was almost three years in the making.”

The second single with neonme on vocal duties once again, The Water In Me, is even harder to define. A five-minute sprawling odyssey, it morphs from atmospheric pop into a dance breakdown. But, as you may have gathered from the near-sacred way in which Stefánsdóttir talks about making music, it’s unsurprising that she followed her instincts and made this hotchpotch of sounds and genres work together brilliantly.

The Water In Me was a very long process. I always try to be a minimalist producer, but I ended up with almost 300 tracks of audio, and I was always changing the structure. I brought in neonme and in the end figured out some kind of a song, even though it's not structured as a traditional pop song.”

when I saw some early footage, I could see these references to the golden age of horror and Hitchcock.

There is plenty more to come from Kónguló, as Stefánsdóttir finishes the project’s debut album, and 2024 will see her perform this music live at the world-renowned Iceland Airwaves festival. Before getting stuck into all this, she has just completed work on one of the biggest films of her career, Knock At The Cabin, the Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint-starring psychological horror film from the legendary M. Night Shyamalan.

“That was another cosmic event,” Stefánsdóttir says. “My agent called me and asked if I knew who M Night Shyamalan was. I said, ‘Yes, of course I do!’ He is the man who made me not sleep for years when I somehow saw The Sixth Sense when I was a kid, which deeply affected my life and made me terrified of ghosts. He had found some of my music and was listening to it, while he was writing the storyboard for this film, and we just had a Zoom call and he hired me, which was amazing.”

Writing a deeply raw and primal score for its subject matter, history somewhat repeated itself: “I have a daughter and I had to bring her along to a few of the mixing sessions, and she would say, ‘Mummy writes scary music’. I really hope I haven’t traumatised her! We worked with all these sounds like contrabass clarinet which I did loads of sound editing on, there’s some classic Moog bass in there, and I worked with some other solo players also and then some orchestra.”

Further good news is that Shyamalan was a dream to work with. “He didn’t use any temp music and didn’t really tell me what to write at all. He instead asked me to write some music after I read the script — he wants you to figure it out for yourself. So I spent a few weeks digging into what I thought the sound of the film would be. 

"When I saw some early bits of footage, I could see these references to the golden age of horror and Hitchcock. So when I presented my ideas, I said, ‘I will do a contemporary score, but let’s have these little nods to Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann’. And somehow that was his intention all along also.”

With the actor and writers’ strikes at an end, Stefánsdóttir does have films she is commencing work upon, though she is legally obliged to remain tight-lipped about those. In the meantime, the two singles from Kónguló are available everywhere to listen now, giving you a beautiful opportunity to say you had already listened before the pop-project debuts at Iceland Airwaves in 2024. 

And if you’re in the mood for something a bit more unsettling, the Knock At The Cabin soundtrack is streaming now also, although you may jump out of your skin if someone then rings your doorbell.