Chinese-Icelandic jazz singer Laufey wants Gen Z to fall in love


Laufey, a Chinese-Icelandic jazz singer, on the Reach grounds at the Kennedy Center. (Jada Imani M)

The 24-year-old, who grew up partly in Washington, is pining her way up the charts

Most musicals have an “I Want” song. It’s the song where the hero belts their desires to the last row. What they want is love, usually, and a little adventure, too.

Nearly every song on Chinese-Icelandic jazz singer Laufey’s new album, “Bewitched,” is an “I Want” song, and many sound as if they came straight out of a classic musical from the 1940s. Her life right now seems like one, too. Picture it: The curtain rises on a beautiful, young singer on the cusp of stardom. She’s playing sold-out concert halls. Her face is splashed several stories high across a billboard in Times Square. She is making her dreams come true, and yet she’s pining away for someone, somewhere.

Laufey (pronounced Lay-vay) wants Gen Z to fall in love with jazz. She wants them to fall in love, period. Her genres are jazz and classical and bossa nova, but what she really makes is a soundtrack for falling in love.

It’s music for swooning. Music for wishing. Music for walking in the park in a swishy dress and catching the eye of a handsome stranger.

“We’ve grown a new generation of hopeless romantics,” she says, standing on the roof of the Kennedy Center on Friday.

Laufey is taking in the sweeping views of D.C., one of her hometowns, before a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, on the day of her album release. The 24-year-old has a legion of Gen Z fans who love her old-fashioned, star-gazy notion of love — perhaps, she speculates, as a reaction to the fast pace and endless choices of dating apps. Classic musicals and rom-coms show “us a slower pace of falling in love, which seems very romantic.”

Her lyrics speak to eternal feelings, but wink at 21st-century sensibilities. On the track “Dreamer,” she sings that she’s “giving up, I’m throwing in my hat, I can’t take another lifeless little chat.” “From the Start,” a peppy bossa-nova single, laments the threesome of “me and you and awkward silence.” It could all easily veer off into kitschy, twee, Pink Martini territory, but stays on the right side of that line, anchored by melancholy and truth.

“A lot of my songs live in that bubbly world,” she says, “but I’ll bring it back to Earth with some kind of brutally honest statement,” usually at her own expense.

She composes with an ear for timelessness. There are no references that will date her songs. They float in an ether between the 1940s, the 2020s, and — who knows? — maybe a century to come.

In a way, this is the story of a hometown girl made good. Laufey was born in Iceland, but has lived in Washington three times, most recently during the pandemic. Born Laufey Lin Jónsdóttir, her Chinese mother is a violinist and her Icelandic father works for the International Monetary Fund. Her childhood bounced back and forth between D.C. and Reykjavik. She has a twin sister, Junia, who works as her creative director.

The Jónsdóttir sisters, who are trilingual, lived in Spring Valley and attended Horace Mann Elementary School for several years. Their parents would take them, as children, to the Kennedy Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra and the ballet. This is not Laufey’s first time performing in the concert hall — she played the cello in the NSO’s Summer Music Institute as a child — but it is her first time performing her own songs here.

“I feel very plugged into D.C. culture,” she says. “It feels very much like home.”

“It feels like our mom is coming to pick us up,” Junia muses before the show. (Their parents are back in Iceland.)

Laufey’s family listened to Bach and the Beatles in equal measures. Jazz, often Ella Fitzgerald or the Gershwins, was always in rotation. As a gangly teenager, Laufey appeared on “Iceland’s Got Talent” and “The Voice Iceland.” She attended Berklee College of Music, and when she was stuck at home during the early days of the pandemic, she began writing songs and performing them on social media. She started to get a following on TikTok, posting stylish videos of herself singing that earned hundreds of thousands of views. Her first album, “Everything I Know About Love,” was released in 2022.

It charted in Iceland, where Laufey is a recognizable face. What’s it like to be famous in a nation of less than 400,000 people?

“It doesn’t take much,” she says. When Icelanders encounter Icelandic celebrities, they tend to be pretty chill. “Chances are,” Laufey says, “you’ll see them again. It’s like, not that exciting. I grew up running into Bjork in the supermarket.” But people will sometimes approach her in Reykjavik bars after they’ve had a few.

With “Bewitched,” her profile is beginning to rise in the United States.

“We’ll still be talking about her in 20 years. That’s my guess,” says singer-songwriter Ben Folds, the NSO’s artistic adviser and host of last Friday’s concert. “She’s incredibly, almost boldly articulate in an era [in] which that is risky and people like to stay a bit esoteric and abstracted.”

He adds: “The TikTok s—, I could care nothing about.”

But the “TikTok s—” — she has nearly 3 million followers — is what’s getting teenagers to listen to jazz. Her music nicely dovetails with two TikTok trends: The notion that one should “romanticize your life” as well as have “main character energy.” Both concepts encourage users to feel grand feelings and be the protagonist of their own personal movie, even if they’re just commuting on the subway.

“A lot of my fans just say that when they listen to my music, it makes [them] feel like they’re walking around Central Park or that they’re in a jazz club years ago in Paris,” she says. “Others might think it’s cheesy, but I just think it’s so wonderful that my music can provide a soundtrack to that.”

And Laufey is good at TikTok, too, crafting clever and funny short clips to connect with her fans. In one, she addresses the similarities between her music and the Disney canon — all the Disney princesses sing an “I Wish” song, too — and she doesn’t cringe at the comparison.

“To me, it just feels like there’s an air of accessibility around it,” she says. “And I never like to have an air of pretension. … Disney feels like it is for everyone, so I’ll take that any day.”

Laufey’s growing success didn’t come from the tap of a fairy godmother’s wand, though. It’s the result of a deliberate vision.

“It was important from the get-go to create worlds” and have, in her looks and social media, a “visually compelling story to go along with her descriptive and world-building songs,” says Junia, who last month quit her job as a creative director at the Universal Music Group to work for her sister full-time, and to join her on an upcoming tour (a D.C. concert at the Lincoln Theater on Nov. 4 is already sold out).

Junia’s vision, with Laufey’s collaboration, is a preppy ’60s schoolgirl-esque look with pops of French Yé-Yé — loafers, socks, pleats, puff sleeves — that her fans call “Laufey-core,” and emulate at shows.

“We want to be fresh while keeping on top of those classic elements, just like in her music,” says Junia. Fashion houses are beginning to notice: Chanel is dressing Laufey for some upcoming shows.

There is one song on “Bewitched” that has a different tone than the rest. In “Letter to My 13-Year-Old Self,” Laufey pens a missive to the girl who had trouble fitting into each of her cultures — the girl whose Icelandic name was mispronounced in America and whose Chinese name, Bing, was mocked in Iceland.

She sings: “I’m so sorry that they pick you last/ Try to say your foreign name and laugh/ I know that you feel loud, so different from the crowd/ Of big blue eyes and long blond hair and boys that stare.”

As a teen, she says, “I felt like I was just so awkward and I wanted to be a singer, but I didn’t think I was — you know, honestly, I didn’t think I was beautiful enough.”

But now more people are about to know her name, which originated in Norse mythology as the name of Loki’s mother. She knows that people will probably mispronounce it, and isn’t too bothered anymore.

“I kind of enjoy the discourse around my name,” she says. “It’s kind of an enigma.”

As she tells her 13-year-old-self, in song: “One day you’ll be up onstage/ Little girls will scream your name.”

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