Laufey Is Turning Gen Z Back On To Vintage Jazz

Laufey Is Turning Gen Z Back On To Vintage Jazz

She's flipping classic styles into something vivid and new...

In 1960, West Berlin, Ella Fitzgerald stood onstage before thousands of people. She was unlike any singer — not just one of the greatest in jazz, but far beyond most in the American music industry. She captivated the crowd who stared in awe, ready for her infectious energy to bleed out.

Her set came to a playful interlude where she introduced Bobby Darin’s ‘Mack The Knife’. “We haven’t heard a girl sing it,” she said, stringing the audience along with her words as she dallied towards the unrehearsed number. The ease she released was palpable, and everyone cosied into the warmth like children snuggling around a Christmas fire.

Her beginning was strong, soaring through the verse with perfect intonation. As she dabbled halfway through, it dawned on her she didn’t know the lyrics. To anyone, this would be disastrous. But not to Fitzgerald. As she reached the chorus, she didn’t stumble. Her words became a tumbling frenzy of nonsense lyrics — the singular jazz style called scatting. It was a technique known to some, but Fitzgerald made it famous to the whole world.

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But 2021 brings a different era of music. In a world obsessed with Doja Cat, Billie Eilish, pop and hip-hop, jazz is sliding further and further down the slope. But for 22-year-old Laufey, an Icelandic-Chinese musician, jazz isn’t dead. “The sweeping strings and the stories of the jazz standards took me to a different world — a very magical one where time almost didn’t exist.”

In 2020, during lockdown, Laufey released her debut EP ‘Typical Of Me’ after single ‘Like The Movies’ blew up on TikTok. It wasn’t until young people started commenting on her videos, amazed by how vintage her voice sounded, that she realised people weren’t familiar.

“My twin sister spent a lot of time on TikTok and she was like, ‘Get on TikTok! So many people are posting singing videos and they’re going viral and you should try — I’m sure something cool would happen!’ And I was like, ‘No, nothing will ever happen, but I may as well try.’”

After growing a following on Instagram, Laufey posted some of her videos on TikTok. She’d just written her single, ‘Like The Movies’, and a short clip of it got almost two million views. The comments obsessed over how “soothing” her voice sounded, and how it was like if “milk and honey” were a sound. Somehow, in 2021, timeless jazz was back.

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According to a study by Forbes, Gen Z are listening to more diverse music than ever — 97% of females listen to at least five genres on a regular basis. Last year, studies went round exploring the resurgence of disco music — when Dua Lipa released ‘Future Nostalgia’ and Silk Sonic rocked up in flares and beige suit jackets, the world questioned whether it woke up back in the seventies. As TikTok surges up to one of the top trending apps, it’s starting to shape our social trends. Now it’s not just the Bee Gees and ABBA who’re resurfacing — we’re harking back to the forties to rediscover swinging, bebop jazz.

“That was my first taste of getting brand new followers,” said Laufey. “People who maybe had no interest in jazz or that kind of music.

“TikTok is set up really well for that. I really enjoy it — it’s like music discovery. I was getting all these comments from young adults and teens who were like, ‘Oh, this sounds like something my grandma used to play for me!’ or, ‘It sounds like something from an old film!’ Even people saying it sounds like Christmas music, and I was like ‘Yeah, it sounds like Christmas music, but year-round! It’s the best!’”

A small community formed of people who loved nostalgia. Videos went viral for recreating traditional jazz. Creator Rachel Chui set up a series called “mouth trumpeting” — a chain of videos where she flawlessly copies a trumpet as part of swing covers. Ricky Rosen, 22, makes videos covering traditional swing songs like ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘It’s Been A Long, Long Time’. The comments on his videos are largely the same — people swooning — but it confirms one thing: never has jazz had such a revival.

“It’s brought people together,” said Laufey. “It’s given a lot of people a familiar sense of nostalgia for some sort of old time. Especially during COVID, or during the peak of lockdown, people were looking for that escape that jazz had given me.

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“I think, in many ways, some sort of music that didn’t sound like it was from our time was very compelling — it brought you to a new world. One that wasn’t plagued by COVID-19. So, after that I continued posting and it started rolling and it was really cool.

“I love TikTok because I get to introduce people to stuff. My whole goal as a musician is to take classical and jazz music — these kinds of antiquated styles of music that young people don’t know as well — and make them relevant and cool again. Or weave it back into their musical palettes. And TikTok is such a great way to do that. Probably, in recent years, one of the only ways to quickly reach Gen Z.”

TikTok, different to other social media apps, shows videos from people you don’t follow. As hashtags and topics trend, it filters content for each user. The For You Page, known as FYP, brings up videos from across the app and this way creators find it easier to make their content viral.

“The idea of it, as everyone knows, is you’re not only presenting your content to the people who already follow you. You’re presenting it to people who the TikTok algorithm deems may like it. So, I seem to have reached a lot of hopeless romantics — even if they don’t love jazz, they really want to see a song I wrote that is about that topic.”

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During a time where a deadly virus threatens the world, life hasn’t been normal. If nostalgia didn’t exist before, it’s heightened dramatically. We’ve had time to daydream — to play a memory game even if we’re heading to a time we never lived through. Seventies music came back in earnest — the unbridled joy of a disco tune, the popped collars, the blinking kaleidoscope lights — perhaps traditional jazz will return the same way.

“I get a lot of comments saying, ‘Oh, what style of music is this? It’s so cool. I love the sound and I want to listen to more, but I don’t know what it’s like.’ So, right in front of my eyes in the comments and interactions, I’m actually seeing people enjoy it more and more and learning to consume it. And I think that’s just the coolest thing ever.”

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But even though it’s been less obvious, jazz left a trail of breadcrumbs behind. Ella Fitzgerald was legendary — by the end of her performance in West Berlin, people were shocked. Singers weren’t considered musicians the same way instrumentalists were, because they only had lyrics to sing. But Fitzgerald’s mind-bending artistry proved singers were capable of the same technique band members were. From Lady Gaga to Lana Del Rey, she inspired a new generation of singers to push their limits and explore their style.

“The kind of jazz that I’m into is definitely an old tradition,” said Laufey. “A very standard tradition — a lot of vocal jazz and standards taken from musicals because that’s kind of my main love. But then there are all kinds of jazz — I went to Berklee and there were a lot of people experimenting with really technical, instrumental jazz that I’m horrified to approach because it’s so difficult. But I just hope that it can all come together and continue to evolve without rules.

“The only way for these styles to evolve is to allow new influences to come in. It’s my goal to write songs that are my experiences as a 22-year-old in 2021, so it’s simple. We have to allow new stories to be told.

“A lot of people tell me I’m born in the wrong century or the wrong era, and they couldn’t be more wrong. There’s no other era where I’d rather be 22-year-old woman.”

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Words: Sophie McVinnie
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz

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