Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in October 1990, Jóhanna Guðrún Jónsdóttir (a.k.a Yohanna) was singing almost before she could talk. She moved to Reykjavík with her Icelandic parents when she was just two years old and was soon after enrolled at a lauded children’s singing school, where she learned the basics of performing modern pop songs.Yohanna recorded her first album at the age of nine, which was released on her tenth birthday in 2000. This debut album was a huge success and was followed up by a second album in 2001, confirming her status as child prodigy. Her third album, consisting of popular Christmas carols, was released in late 2003.
Yohanna’s teenage years were spent working in and out of the studio with musical instructors, songwriters and producers. After turning down a recording contract with a major label, Yohanna spent some time in Denmark working on her vocal techniques. During this time she also recorded her first adult album ”Butterflies and Elvis” with British songwriter Lee Horrocks and sound engineer Thomas Yezzi.
In 2008 songwriter and producer Óskar Páll Sveinsson set out to ask Yohanna to interpret the song “Is It True?” for the 2009 Icelandic National Eurovision Preselection Song Contest. It proved an erudite move as she famously won 2nd place in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Though just eighteen, Yohanna now teaches children to sing at the school where she started her own career some ten years ago. She is still concentrating on developing her own vocal technique by attending classes at the Reykjavík Academy of Singing and Vocal Arts.
You began singing at a young age – what are your earliest memories?
The first memories of me singing would be when my mom and dad had visitors, and I would always sing for them, whether they liked it or not! I also did this at all birthday parties or if we were invited to dinner somewhere! Name it, if I had the chance to sing for someone, I always did.
You weren’t born in Iceland but your parents are Icelandic, right, and you moved to Iceland…when?
Yes that‘s right I was born in Denmark. My mom and dad are Icelandic, but they moved to Denmark for studying and stayed there for five years. They moved back home in 1992 when I was two years old.
What made you/your parents settle on voice rather than instruments?
I am told that I started to sing at a very young age. My parents thought it was something special and they introduced my to all kinds of music and to all kind of singers, both classical singers and pop singers. They noticed that I had a lot of music in me and when I was five years I started piano lessons based on the Zuzuki-method. When I was eight years old I went to a singing- school and from that moment, it was clear that I would settle on voice rather than instrument. My parents never pushed me to sing or play an instrument, but they have always supported me and I am so thankful for their belief in me.
The singing teacher María Björk is mentioned in your bio – what can you tell us about her, and how influential has she been in your life and career?
I met Maria when I was 8 years old, she was hosting a big singing competition in Iceland for children. I got into the competition, and afterwards she said that she wanted to see more of me, and invited me to go to her singing school. After I had been going to her school for a while she called my mom up and said that she was interested in making a record with me. Of course I was thrilled, singing had always been my dream. We ended up releasing 3 records in Iceland (not including “Butterflies and Elvis“). Maria is the reason that I am a professional singer today. If not for her I would not have gotten this far. We have been working together for almost 11 years now. That’s a very long period of time. I am also very thankful that she has never stopped believing in me and my music. That means everything to me.
You had a lot of international experiences at a young age – what can you remember of your first trips abroad to vocal schools and/or recording studios?
My first trip abroad was to New York when I was 11 years old. On that trip I met Ric Wake and Tommy Mottola. They made a big difference to my career because they introduced me to very talented people in the music business, like Corey Rooney, Billy Mann and Lee Horrocks. I did some work in the studio with Ric and I also got a chance to write with Corey Rooney on that trip. We wrote a beautiful ballad called “Through My Eyes“. I spent the day at Corey’s beautiful house. We did not start writing until the evening because we had the day getting to know each other. By the time we finished the song it was very late, almost morning. I had fallen asleep when it came to singing the bridge in the song so Corey sang the bridge. If you listen to the demo you can hear Corey singing the bridge. It was a wonderful day and I will never forget working with this talented man.
What were your major or most memorable singing experiences before you made Butterflies and Elvis?
In one of my trips to NYC, I got a very bad cold. We had a deadline so it was horrible just sitting in the studio all day not being able to sing. It´s very funny to listen to some of the demos we did back then, you can hear it so clearly how sick I was. At one point in this trip, there was a man in the studio that I had never seen before, so I asked my producer Ric Wake who it was. He told me that he was from the Jennifer Lopez team and that he was looking for a singer to sing a demo for her. And that he needs it quickly. To cut a long story short, I ended up singing the demo. It is hilarious listening to it of course because I had a horrible cold. But I got a message the day after that she really liked it. The day after I sung the demo I went to a special “vocal doctor“. She put a camera down my throat and showed me a video of my vocal chords. Pretty amazing! She could see that they were very swollen and told me I would have to get a steroid shot in my butt. I was not excited about that at all! But she told me that Pavarotti and Celine Dion did this all the time if they had a sore throat and had to sing. So I went with it and the doctor was right. In two days I was healthy and singing in the studio.
Describe the music style on your album in 5 words?
It’s one word too much but I have to say them all: honest, pretty, dramatic, from the heart.
How was the experience of making Butterflies & Elvis and who was involved?
The experience was great. It was a lot of hard work and a very emotional time for me. I went to Los Angeles for 6 months to write and record. During this time I missed my family and boyfriend a lot and it inspired me to write the songs. I think this record really reflects the way I was feeling when I was there. It’s all from the heart. Lee Horrocks is a songwriter who worked with me on the record and produced it as well. Then of course since we were based in LA we had a chance of getting some great music players to play on the record, like Abe Laboriel Jr, Ben Peeler, Holly Brook (backing vocals) and more. Overall I am very proud of B&E.
Did you write all the songs yourself or were other songwriters involved?
I wrote the songs together with Lee Horrocks J.
“Is It True” is on the Ltd Edition of the album, but not on the original – was this song was recorded after you made B&E?
Yes, that is correct, the original album had already been made when “Is It True?“ came along. When B&E was released internationally we decided that “Is It True“ had to be on the album. The funny thing about it is that I think it really does fit on to the record, although it was written a long time ago by different writers.
How did that particular song, and your entry into Eurovision, come about?
Óskar Páll, one of the writers is a known songwriter and producer in Iceland. He produced a song for me back in the days and we really made a good connection back then. Years later I got an e-mail from him, he said he got a song into the semi finals in Iceland and that he would love for me to sing it. After listening to the song a few times I started to really like it, and decided to give it a shot. I went to his studio and recorded the song, it came out really good. He actually said to me after we got 2nd place in the finals in Russia, “who would have thought we would end up here, when we were recording this song months ago in Iceland”.
What did you like about the song in particular?
I liked the lyrics and I heard straight away that this was a song that could really fit my voice. When I started to practice the song and play with it, that’s where I really connected to it. One of the good things about “Is It True“ is that is just seems to get better every time you listen to it.
What are your thoughts on Eurovision, looking back – was it terrifying? Enjoyable? Fun?
It was pure fun. Me and the whole team from Iceland had so much fun together. And meeting all these professional people is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget.
How was the reaction from Icelanders when you got home?
Getting home was amazing, When we landed at the airport there were people cheering, giving us flowers, the national TV stations were there and even the Minister of Culture was there and gave us a speech. It was perfect. I had never imagined that the people would be so happy. We went straight from the airport to the big square in the middle of Reykjavik, and there were 10.0000 people congratulating us. There was a big stage and I sung “Is It True”. It was a great day.
Would you do it all again?
Because my experience of ESC was so great, I really don't know if I have the guts to go again. When you win 2nd place once, you won’t be able to do much better next time. So I think I won’t be going to the Eurovision stage again. In my mind the experience is perfect and I want to keep it that way.
You recently signed with Warner, right?
Yes I just signed with Warner music in Sweden. After ESC they contacted me and were very interested to release B&E in Europe. Getting my music out to the world has always been a dream of mine, so of course I went with it! I am extremely happy about this.
B&E was released in Sweden last year – how has the response been?
The response was great. “Is It true“ has been number one on the radio for a long time, and B&E went to number 8 in the charts, which is pretty cool.
Has it already been released in Europe?
It has been released in Sweden, Norway and Finland. But Warner music are working on getting the release dates for other countries sometime in the next couple of months.
What are your plans now for the future – which directions do you want to take your career?
I am already planning the next record and I am very excited about that. I can’t wait to start working on it. I hope and pray it will be a worldwide success. I want to be able to write and sing for people all over the world. My goal for next year is to get my music to the US and I am planning to move there. I would love to meet singers, writers and musicians.
Source: Iceland Music Export (IMX)