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Laufey brings new generation of fans to Ottawa jazzfest

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Gen Z darling Laufey returns to the Ottawa Jazz Festival for a sold-out headlining show on June 28. Here’s what that means for Ottawa.

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When the programming director of the Ottawa Jazz Festival had the chance to book a solo performance by jazz singer Laufey for last year’s festival, it was no big deal.

“I saw she had 100,000 Instagram followers so I thought we can’t really go wrong with 300 seats,” recalled Petr Cancura in an interview. “We thought, ‘Let’s do it.’ It wasn’t a big risk.”

To his surprise, tickets to the concert in the National Arts Centre’s Azrieli Studio sold out so quickly he went back to her team and asked for a second show.

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Again, it sold out within a couple of days, and both shows were filled with the kind of swooning energy more often associated with a boy-band concert. Breathless young fans showed up early, hung on every note and weren’t shy about declaring their love for the Icelandic-Chinese singer-songwriter with the rich, warm soprano.

“It was unexpected, to say the least,” said Cancura, who’s also the festival’s executive director this year. “What struck me were the young people who came out. They were head over heels for her in a way we don’t often see at the festival.”

Almost a year later, Laufey (pronounced lay-vay) now has almost four million Instagram followers, a global publishing deal, a Grammy Award and has graduated to headliner status. On Spotify, her numbers are spectacular: More than 13 million monthly listeners and a top song, From the Start, that’s been played more than 372 million times.

Peter Cancura, executive and artistic director of the Ottawa Jazz Festival
Petr Cancura, programming and executive director of the Ottawa Jazz Festival, jokes around in front of the main stage being set up in Confederation Park on Monday. The festival, which will feature the likes of Norah Jones, Laufey, George Clinton and Kathleen Edwards, kicks off Friday and runs through June 30. Photo by JULIE OLIVER /Postmedia

Laufey was also the first act booked for this year’s jazz festival, which starts Friday and runs to June 30, with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Norah Jones, Kathleen Edwards, Lake Street Dive and many more artists also on the program.

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This time accompanied by her band, Laufey plays the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s main stage in Confederation Park on June 28 and, you guessed it, single tickets sold out months ago. The only way to see Laufey at this point is to buy a full-festival pass.

In fact, Cancura says the concert is shaping up to be a landmark occasion. While other headliners, including legends like Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson, had sold out their jazzfest appearances in the past, it was usually on the day of the show. This is the first time an artist has sold out so far in advance, leaving no doubts the park will be full to its 10,000 capacity. Another rarity is the fact that about 75 per cent of Laufey’s sales consist of youth passes, designed for fans aged 13-25.

“Traditionally, we get a lot of last-minute walkups,” Cancura said. “Because we so rarely sell out, I think people are used to waiting and going, ‘It’s a nice day today, I think I’ll go to the jazz festival.’ And they’ll buy the ticket that morning.

“But I feel with Laufey, if we had twice the size of the park, we could probably fill it.”

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In a year when festivals of all stripes are coping with decreased government funding, higher costs and trying to rebuild corporate sponsorships post-pandemic, a hot ticket is a valuable asset. “Yeah, Laufey has definitely helped us,” Cancura said, noting the festival did not receive a major provincial grant this year.

So who is Laufey?

The 25-year-old Laufey Lin Jónsdóttir (and her identical twin sister) were born in Reykjavík to an Icelandic father who was a jazz fan and a Chinese mother who played classical violin. A Berklee College of Music grad, she started music lessons as a child, and is proficient on piano, guitar and cello. 

Early in her career, she decided she wanted to be the one to introduce the golden oldies of the Great American Songbook to her peers. “I definitely set out to specifically make sure that Gen Z heard my music,” she told Variety magazine late last year, explaining how she used TikTok and Instagram to find her audience. “My whole goal as an artist is to introduce this music to a new generation of listeners.” 

Laufey performs during the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles.
Laufey performs during the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. Photo by Chris Pizzello /Invision/AP

On social media, they loved her cover versions of jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and when she started writing her own songs in a similar style, they loved them, too. Inflected with elements of pop, classical and bossa nova, she made them sound like they could have been written decades ago, except with a lyrical perspective reminiscent of another super-popular female artist. 

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Yes, Laufey gets called the Taylor Swift of jazz, and she’s apparently OK with that. After all, her latest full-length recording, Bewitched, earned this year’s Grammy Award for best traditional pop vocal album. 

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Cancura, who’s an accomplished jazz musician himself, believes Laufey is partly responsible for the “amazing” moment that jazz is experiencing.

“Here’s somebody who’s referencing the history of jazz but reinventing it in a contemporary way and writing lyrics that relate to people today,” he said. “Jazz has always had its niche audience and been this cool underground thing, but now it’s getting out to the mainstream.

“She’s helping make jazz relevant again.”

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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