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Laufey, 23, is bringing jazz to Gen Z: ‘We’re all looking for an escape’

The Icelandic singer has gone from making TikTok videos to performing her original music with symphonies in two years.
Laufey released her debut album, "Everything I Know About Love," in August 2022.
Laufey released her debut album, "Everything I Know About Love," in August 2022.Courtesy Gemma Warren

Laufey Lin, a 23-year-old Icelandic musician and songwriter (known by the mononym Laufey to her fans), never dreamed that her music, which she started writing while she was a college student in Boston, would reach as many people as it has.

Now, almost three years after she recorded her first single, Laufey (pronounced Lay-vay) has released a debut EP and full-length album, has garnered almost 700 thousand followers and over 18 million likes on TikTok — and performed with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for two nights in October 2022.

Laufey is encouraging younger generations to fall in love with jazz and classical music thanks to her enchanting jazz-infused discography — which fans have likened to the soundtrack of a Studio Ghibli or Disney film.

Laufey recorded her first song on her college campus at Berklee in the winter of 2020 — when COVID-19 started becoming a global threat.

"I was like, if I don’t record this song today, I’m never gonna record it. I don’t know when I’m coming back to campus," she told TODAY.

After the April 2020 release of "Street by Street," her first single, Laufey noticed that people were taking to her music on various streaming platforms. Within a month of its release, the single reached 100 thousand streams. Her takeoff coincided with the rise of TikTok, which was the most downloaded app in 2020.

From viral TikTok songs to symphonies, Laufey is Gen Z’s ticket to making jazz cool again
From viral TikTok songs to symphonies, Laufey is Gen Z’s ticket to making jazz cool again.Courtesy Gemma Warren

From there, Laufey took on a manager and continued writing as the pandemic drew on.

Now, at the tail end of 2022, Laufey boasts almost 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Her song "Valentine," which went viral on TikTok after its release in February 2022, now has about 18 million streams.

Her streams have gone up, but her objective remains the same: Laufey wants to connect younger audiences with genres they might have previously written off.

“Gen Z didn’t grow up going to CD stores and going to our favorite music genre sections. We grew up consuming whatever’s cool on TikTok and going on Spotify and listening to 'rainy day' playlists — which may include a range of different styles of music. And I think that is the coolest thing. I think that’s why I’m able to thrive in 2022 with my music,” she said.

How Laufey brought jazz to Gen Z

Before her debut album, "Everything I Know About Love," was released in August of 2022, she had also released an EP of seven songs called "Typical of Me" in 2021.

"When I started working on these projects, I just said, I really want to make sure we reach younger audiences," she told TODAY.

Laufey knew her challenge was to refresh jazz and classical to make the genres relevant while preserving what makes them timeless.

"I wanted to really focus on introducing it and reframing it for Gen Z. I hadn't really seen anybody who had done it before me, so I kind of struggled to figure out how to do it, exactly," she said.

Taking the baton from artists like Michael Bublé and Norah Jones, who infused their music with a similar tone of timelessness, Laufey is arguably the first of her generation to succeed in making jazz cool for Gen Z.

So, what's in the secret sauce of Laufey's music? Among many things (see: sweeping arrangements and her delicate yet strong voice), Laufey believes in her relatability factor.

"I was raised in a classical music family, raised listening to jazz, and I want these art forms to survive, but I also recognize that for them to survive, it needs new blood, new life. What Gen Z needs is a hair of relatability. I want to show everyone that I'm just another one of them," she said.

And a child of Gen Z, she is. Laufey is active on her social media accounts, especially TikTok and Instagram, which she runs entirely by herself to ensure her messaging remains authentic.

"I don’t feel like I’m born in the wrong century by any means. I don’t go around dressing like I lived in the thirties or anything. I’m very much a child of 2022,” she said.

From viral TikTok songs to symphonies, Laufey is Gen Z’s ticket to making jazz cool again
Laufey has over 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify.Courtesy Gemma Warren

Leaning into escapism

Laufey has a theory for why her songs resonate: They evoke another era, which is perfect for a generation searching for an escape.

She lamented that the pandemic shut down the world for Gen Z, just as they were hoping to explore it.

“This old, cinematic, jazzy sound or the timeless, classical sound is something that feels like escapism, you know? We were all looking for an escape,” she said.

Gen Z's obsession with nostalgia is echoed elsewhere, like TikTok's “Coastal Grandmother” aesthetic, which calls back to Nancy Meyers rom-coms, or the comeback of analog technology, like film cameras, vinyl records and cassette tapes.

Her music, paying homage to bygone years, fits into the trend. “Gen Z has a palate for this kind of music — and so many people don’t even know it,” she said.

Rewriting the songbook

While her sound is classic, her lyrics aren't: Laufey sings from the perspective of what she called "a young, confused" woman.

"So many of the jazz standards of the olden days, or really, all of them, were written by men. My songs are very, very clearly written from a young, confused female perspective," she said. "So I think it’s giving a voice to young women."

As a result, her lyrics are relatable.

“I’m very, very honest in my songwriting. I’m not cryptic. I’m definitely very self-aware and I think this is a very self-aware generation. We make fun of ourselves a lot. So I think there’s a relatability,” she said.

From viral TikTok songs to symphonies, Laufey is Gen Z’s ticket to making jazz cool again
Laufey! with a rooster!Courtesy Gemma Warren

She's in theoretical conversation with songwriters of yore, though: While writing, she turns to composers and artists of the past and present to inspire her.

She cited Gershwin, Rogers and Irving Berlin as musicians that continue to influence her love of jazz standards — and looks equally to singer-songwriters like Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, Carole King and Taylor Swift.

"I think a lot of people think that because I listen to a lot of classical and jazz that I reject modern or like pop music or something ... and I'm like, I love pop music. I have no interest in erasing it out of our musical soundscape," she said. (P.S.: Her favorite song on Swift's "Midnights" is "Karma.")

'Everything is cool and new and wonderful': What's next for Laufey

Laufey has now completed the U.S. portion of her tour and is now performing in the U.K. When we speak with Laufey, she's on London time, but laughing, admits she never really knows what time it is. "I'm extremely culturally confused and never in one place," she joked.

Having grown up between Iceland and Washington, D.C., moving to Boston for college, and now residing in LA (when she's not touring the globe, of course), Laufey admits she's used to jet lag. "I'm in a constant state of not really knowing what time it is," she said.

"Gen Z has a palate for this kind of music — and so many people don't even know it," she told TODAY.

Laufey for TODAY

She also expressed that, a few years ago, she wrote a list of things she wanted to see herself accomplish. She thought at the time that some of the dreams were a bit lofty.

"I remember when I wrote it, I felt so stupid because so many of them seemed so far-sought," she said.

Now? She told TODAY she's achieved everything on that list — and she's excited to see what the future holds.

"I always say I'm in the best part of my career right now, because everything makes me so excited. Everything is new and cool and wonderful and I hope I can kind of hold onto that," she said with a smile.