Laufey opens up on girlhood, fashion and finding home

The singer-songwriter spoke candidly in a rare speaking engagement at USC.

Laufey wrapped up her speaker event at Bovard Auditorium Thursday night by picking up her electric guitar to perform her two of her most streamed songs, “From the Start” and “Valentine,” for the audience. (Zongyi Wang / Daily Trojan)

Rarely had Bovard Auditorium been the subject of such fervent attention as it was Thursday evening, when Laufey was scheduled to appear. The line to enter the venue, having materialized early that morning, snaked across a sizable chunk of Trousdale Parkway and through Founders Park. Inside, a soothing ambiance, carried by lilting piano covers of her most recognizable songs, gave way in the course of an hour to the electric buzz of an expectant 1,200-person theater.

In time, the lights dimmed, the curtains shifted and out came representatives for the USC International Student Assembly, which had arranged the event in coordination with the USC Speakers Committee. Playful boos broke out in the audience. Then, finally, she emerged: Laufey, the Icelandic Chinese jazz-inspired sensation and the recent 2024 GRAMMY winner for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Now, the audience roared.

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This was a one-of-a-kind moment for Laufey. In the almost four years since she stepped into the limelight, performances have, of course, run aplenty, but speaker events like this one, especially on a college campus, have been sparse. Perhaps understanding this, the audience at Bovard hung on to the 24-year-old’s every word; Laufey herself seemed to revel in the new environment as she settled into her side of the stage, opposite ISA representatives and moderators Luisa Luo — a freshman majoring in sociology as well as comparative literature — and Morgan Ma — a senior majoring in business administration with an emphasis in finance.

Laufey spoke of her experience having grown up in both Iceland and the United States. Her relationship with Iceland, especially, was in constant change — from when she was born in Reykjavík to then living briefly in Washington, D.C., before returning at the age of 9 and having to relearn Icelandic from scratch.

“Sometimes I feel like I didn’t completely catch up,” she said.

Sitting opposite moderators Luisa Luo and Morgan Ma, Laufey spoke of her experience having grown up in both Iceland and the United States. (Zongyi Wang / Daily Trojan)

She then left again to attend Berklee College of Music, where she kickstarted her career. Now, coming back to the U.S. “is always like a homecoming” for her.

“Anytime an Icelander goes abroad and does something outside of the country, it feels like you come back and it feels a bit like a victory,” she said.

But the question of “home,” ever the dilemma for many who grew up in more than one place, is even more complicated nowadays for Laufey, whose recent tours have taken her from coast to coast, and from Dublin to Beijing.

“I see a little bit of myself in every single city,” she said, adding that she has had to resist the urge of saying, “Oh my god, I’m gonna live here,” on almost every stop of her tours.

When asked which, of all the places she has been, spoke to her as her “sincere home” — a hard-hitting first question from Ma — she seemed unable to decide for a moment. Then, she settled on an answer: “I think where my parents are, that feels like home.”

In a lighter moment, Luo — who is also an Opinion staff writer at the Daily Trojan — requested a breakdown of the singer-songwriter’s so-called “Laufey-core” fashion sense: her particular “distinct taste for outfits,” as Luo put it admiringly, featuring “sparkly designs” and “flowy dresses.”

“I don’t know, I just like clothes,” she said, visibly flustered. “I dress either like a 5-year-old girl or an 85-year-old woman.”

“Leaning into just being girly, and leaning into girlhood — I find so much strength in that,” Laufey said. (Zongyi Wang / Daily Trojan)

But a thought struck her as she spoke. Pushing through some embarrassment that it “could randomly get philosophical,” she explained that her fashion and her music were interlinked.

“My music … sounds old, and I try to make it as timeless as possible,” Laufey said. “I really want it to stand the test of time. And I think I subconsciously do that with everything.”

And the opposite — the “5-year-old girl” sense — is also true of her fashion, and her career, and quite literally so, given one of her songs is called “Letter To My 13 Year Old Self.” Laufey recalled wearing “a lot of skirts and dresses” as a young girl and her “girly” aesthetic being frowned upon, but she has stuck steadfastly by that choice through adulthood.

“Leaning into just being girly, and leaning into girlhood — I find so much strength in that,” she said. “And I really do get quite emotional at my concerts when I see fans coming and really leaning into girlhood, as well.”

As for her music, Laufey credited her mother for establishing the fundamentals: violin and piano lessons; classical music playing in the house; practice, practice, practice.

“Then when I got to a certain age — I think I was 14, or 15, or something — my mom was like, ‘Okay, you choose,’” she said. She chose to continue, and the rest is history.

It took some years after that to muster the confidence to turn her musical abilities into a career. When she started applying to colleges, she was considering an economics major. Even as she received a full ride from Berklee, her reaction was, “Oh, I guess they’re just handing out scholarships.” It was her mother, and the community at Berklee, “where everybody was creating their own music,” that encouraged her to at least try.

Around 2020, Laufey emerged on TikTok and YouTube, covering classic jazz standards with a cello as background and rich, soulful vocals instantly reminiscent of the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.

Four years later, she stands tall as a GRAMMY-winning artist — not for jazz, but Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Not that the album that won her the award, “Bewitched,” was anything like Jon Batiste, Cory Henry or Samara Joy, whose recordings had been nominated in jazz categories, but it did come as somewhat of a surprise, especially after media had hailed her as a jazz Jesus who would “save” the genre from an apparent demise. Working jazz musicians, and The New York Times, have disputed this characterization.

Luo asked whether she felt that title of “pop” was restrictive, given the “very strong connotation” such a label carried. She didn’t seem to think so.

“It’s just so hard to put music into different genres these days,” she said. “Music is just music. Mozart was the pop music of the time. Chet Baker was the pop music of his time.”

After a round of quick-fire questions, the moment came that everyone had been waiting for.

Laufey made her way to stage left, where an electric guitar and mic stand had been waiting since the beginning. Wrapping the strap around her shoulder, she said, slowly, “Alright. This, uh — this first song is called, ‘Valentine.’” Gasps, eerily synchronized screams — then complete silence, as she sang: “I’ve rejected affection, for years and years …”

Correction (March 26 at 4:04 p.m.): A previous version of this article neglected to credit the USC Speakers Committee as one of the event’s organizers, alongside the International Student Assembly. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.

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