On the way to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (I’ll explain later) following a photoshoot on some black Reykjavik beach rocks in the dead of a wintry Icelandic night, Sabrina Mae Teitelbaum – better known as Blondshell – and I, coats pulled tight against a stiff North Atlantic wind, get to talking about her year. It’s been one which has seen her making ‘one to watch’ lists across the globe, had her performing multiple high-profile shows, and seen her eponymous debut album achieving international success, reaching #11 on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2023 list, where they call it “a stunning mess of emotional fury and female outrage”.
She’s here to headline Iceland Airwaves – a buzzing eclectic festival held across a multitude of venues in the country’s capital. Here, she is surrounded by the Icelandic dry-wit of Icelanders, a similar type noticeable in her lyrics – “You’ve been in the bathroom. Perfect for an asshole”, she deadpans in ‘Sober Together’ – and a monochromatic mood that’s both visible and tangible in her album, “Iceland’s like the moon”, she observes. The city has a melancholy, searching, introspective feel with a creativity that appears to thrive best in the darkness. Could the same be said for her? “I think the attitude of my music is just a big ‘fuck you’, and I wanted that at the time because there was a lot I was upset about… plus it was Covid, so I was stewing”, she tells me. “Everybody’s lives shifted. If you were kind of dating someone, you were either really dating them or not dating them at all. There were a lot of life changes, so I had a lot of time to write. I was writing with a guitar at home, but when I brought it to the studio, the sonic stuff came out.”
The pandemic saw her transition from her first, far more pop-driven on-stage persona, Baum, a name she assumed after a short stint at LA’s USC’s Thornton School of Music. She found herself isolated during the early part of lockdown, and, slowly and unconsciously assuming a very different sound, accidentally started transforming into one of the leading lights in the renaissance of an iconic 90s musical movement. “I listened to grunge as a kid, but I didn’t really connect to it that much because it was just themes and lyrics that were just too advanced for a kid to connect to. Then, in Covid, I was revisiting that era as an adult for the first time”, she continues, now sitting in the cafe of the Phallological Museum. “I saw Miley Cyrus cover ‘Doll Parts’, and I had never listened to this album as an adult or thought about the lyrics in this way, so I started with Hole. I went through a lot of Riot Grrrl, I’ve been covering Kathleen Hanna, and I was listening to a lot of La Tigre and Bikini Kill, and that went past what I knew as a kid.”
Throughout the exhibits, Sabrina displays the glib, some would say Gen-Z humour and attitude which runs through her album – “Everything reminds me of him”, she drolly comments, as she stands beside an information board entitled ‘The Devil’s Penis’. On the record, this deadpan is mixed with the kind of honesty and vulnerability that the world is starting to associate with her generation, “I think my kink is when you tell me that you think I’m pretty” she sings through voice distortion on the soaring ‘Kiss City’…
So, does she feel like a Gen Z spokesperson? “I don’t want to be categorised in this way… I feel old when I go on TikTok. I definitely wasn’t like ‘I would like to be part of the wave”. Yet somehow, here we are… why does she think we’re seeing a grungier side of music now? Is another disaffected generation starting to get the faint whiff of teen spirit? “I think partially it’s a response to music that’s been coming out the last ten years. Dream pop sunny, happy, lo-fi production and the 90s is the polar opposite of that, kind of pristine production and this attitude of ‘I don’t care’. It was just the first time as an adult that I was like ‘oh I get why these people are so angry’. So many songs that are about experiences specific to being a woman, and when you’re 23/24, you get it.”
Now 26, there’s a small matter of a follow-up album to be made, but that’s for when she’s left Iceland, finished her US tour, and has some downtime. Tonight however, having raided the gift shop of the penis museum (a baseball cap, some postcards and a few magnets if memory serves), it is Blondshell, not Sabrina, on stage – the diminutive, eloquent and unassuming Teitelbaum having transformed into a bombastic riot grrrl – racing through her album in a cavernous Icelandic art museum; an enthusiastic, demographically uncategorisable audience throbbing under the wave of lights, grunge and shoegaze, and hanging on her every word. This is quite clearly a star in the making, and I’ll be telling my nephews that I once chatted to her whilst standing next to an authentic cast of Jimi Hendrix’s schlong.
Blondshell: Deluxe Edition is available now