Metro spoke with Mugison, a solo Icelandic singer/songwriter who was awarded Songwriter of the Year, Lyricist of the Year and Pop/Rock Song of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards on Thursday night. Örn Elías Guðmundsson was nicknamed Mugison, or “son of Muggi,” when crowds in Malaysia had difficulty pronouncing his name when he toured karaoke bars in small fishing villages with his father, Muggi. Mugison has come a long way since then, packing venues to capacity at three free major shows in Iceland this past December. He also sold more than 30,000 copies of his most recent album, “Haglél.”
How did touring karaoke bars with your father in Iceland come about?
Well, when my parents got divorced in 2002 in Malaysia, I went to spend a month with [my father]. We would drink every night at Malaysian saloons. One night, I got him drunk enough and he sang a Whitney Houston song with a deep voice [during karaoke]. As Malaysians have a high voice, they never heard this before —and I could see the attention that he was getting. We went around the country for two or three weeks. I would go in [saloons], buy him a couple of beers and he would sing… hearing him sing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in a deep voice is funny and beautiful.
That’s amazing. Did you sing with him?
[While he was taking a bathroom break during performances], he would say, “Now my son is going to perform,” and I would sing some Beatles songs — but they weren’t crowd-pleasers.
So, did your father continue performing after this stint in Malaysia?
Yeah, he has his own band — he fired me because I was always playing Europe and he wanted more commitment [from me].
So, how did your career in music start?
I’ve done music for a living for 10 years. I started late, at 25. Since a teen, I’ve been playing guitar and I love playing with [music] gear. After the [Malaysia] trip, I started singing… and writing an album.
You were originally an electronic artist; how did you make the switch to singer/songwriter?
When I got back [from Malaysia], I had nearly finished my first [electronic] album and then I sang two songs for the album. At festivals that I played, people would be like, “Do that guitar song!”
And things just spiraled from there?
Yeah, I played Rough Trade Festival in London as an early opener. There was no soundcheck, there were like 10 people there. So, we decided to start our own festival, Aldrei, in rural western Iceland and make all of these rules while we were drinking — nobody can have a soundcheck, everybody has to make their set special, nobody gets paid… I thought nobody would come, we thought it was a joke. And then tons of people showed up.
That’s pretty wild. What’s the music scene in Iceland like?
It’s such a small country, only 300,000. If we release an album, everybody knows you… everybody plays in each other’s band. [For example,] for Lay Low (another Icelandic act), when her drummer can’t make it, we call my drummer. It’s really a family — being so small, it’s hard to be a copy cat. If somebody started [a new band] that sounded like Sigur Ros, Sigur Ros might be there.
Do you enjoy living in Iceland?
Yeah, so I live in the Westfjords (a large, sparsely populated peninsula in Western Iceland). 7,000 people live in the whole area —100 people live in my town, it’s great to write. I have my own studio there.When I made my past albums, my family and people in my town helped out.
That must’ve been a really incredible experience. For this “Reykjavik Calling” showcase in Boston, you’re collaborating and performing with local Boston musician Eli “Paperboy” Reed. Who are some other musicians you wish you could collaborate with?
Well, my first love was Jimi Hendrix, I fell in love with his face and guitar. Also, Bruce Springsteen, I’m going to a festival in Denmark to see him. They’re amazing legends. Also, I’ve been in contact with Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys. I’ve also been listening to Tom Waits for 25 years — if I tried to calculate the amount of time spent listening to Tom Waits and my dad, Tom Waits would win.
Mugison headlines with Eli “Paperboy” Reed at the Paradise Saturday night as part of “Reykjavik Calling,” which matches four of Iceland’s best performers with four Boston area musicians in a free show. The event is part of “A Taste of Iceland,” an event going on this weekend sponsored by Iceland Naturally, WERS, Reyka Vodka and Quincy-based IcelandAir.