“Is Laufey jazz?”
This was a recent topic among the armchair musicologists of Reddit’s r/Jazz thread, who spend much of their time debating the genre. It’s also the title of a 33-minute deep dive by YouTuber and musician Adam Neely where he dissects the 24-year-old cellist, singer and songwriter’s harmonic and chordal choices on a granular, theoretical level in an attempt to answer the question too.
Trying to neatly categorize whether Laufey (pronounced LAY’-vay) makes music that is jazz or something else misses the point of what she is doing. Laufey is building a modern and surprisingly lucrative musical world out of old-school building blocks — ii-V-I jazz chords, classical music motifs, bebop ad-libs — plus more than a pinch of Taylor Swift-ian storytelling.
But it’s Laufey’s wider aesthetic world — “Laufey Land,” as she calls it — that a remarkable number of Gen Z fans are flocking to. While traditional jazz can feel esoteric, Laufey makes it accessible by inviting followers into Laufey Land on social media — a place where her best days involve sipping lattes, reading Joan Didion and wearing the latest styles from Sandy Liang, and where listening to Chet Baker and playing the cello are the absolute coolest, hippest things to do. “It’s all kind of illustrative of my life and my music,” she says, and she shares both online generously.
Laufey Land (which has also become the name of her official fan HQ Instagram account) has also captured the imagination of the music business: sources say she sparked a multimillion-dollar bidding war last year among record labels that have rarely seen so much commercial potential in a jazz-adjacent act, though she remains independent for now. Perhaps that’s because her music renders a wistful, romantic portrait of young adulthood that can feel fantastical yet still within reach. And even if you’re not quite familiar with her own lofty influences — Chopin, Liszt, Baker, Fitzgerald, Holiday — Laufey invites you to sit with her, listen along and get lost in a magical place where, sure, the music is jazz-y, but is also so much more than that.
Raised between Iceland and the Washington, D.C., area, Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir grew up surrounded by classical musicians. Her Chinese mother is a violinist, and her grandparents were violin and piano professors; it was her Icelandic father who introduced her to jazz. “There was just so much music in the house growing up,” she recalls today. “It was a sonic blend of those two.”
Laufey and her identical twin sister, Junia — who now acts as Laufey’s creative director and is a frequent guest star in her TikToks — started playing young. Eventually Junia landed on violin and Laufey on cello (though she also plays piano and guitar). Until college, she saw herself more as a performer and practitioner of music than as a writer of it. But at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, she found many of her new friends were penning their own songs.
This digital cover story is part of Billboard’s Genre Now package, highlighting the artists pushing their musical genres forward — and even creating their own new ones.
Though Laufey says she always listened to pop music as well — she especially loved the storybook tales of early Swift songs — she felt that “oftentimes the lyrics and the storytelling resonated, but the sound [of pop music] wasn’t completely there. I didn’t feel like it was something I could make, and I wanted to make something that sounded more like me.” A self-described “sheltered orchestra kid,” she also didn’t yet have much life experience to expound upon lyrically.
Like so many artists before her, Laufey says she was finally propelled into songwriting when she had her heart broken. Borrowing chords closely related to the Great American Songbook that she had spent so much time studying already, she created “Street by Street,” which eventually became her first single. She was 20 years old. “The way I wanted to write was to find this middle ground between the very old and the very new,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you can do this. You can write something new in the style of George Gershwin or Irving Berlin — something older.’ ”
When COVID-19 hit and forced everyone into lockdown, school ended, and to stay in vocal shape, Laufey began posting her takes on jazz standards online, her smooth alto accompanied by either cello arrangements or acoustic guitar. “The day I got back from school and started isolating, I told myself, ‘OK, I’m just going to write and post as many videos online of me singing jazz standards as I can,’ ” she recalls. “I’ll just see where it takes me.” An early video of her singing “It Could Happen to You” “hit some sort of algorithm,” as she puts it, and quickly, her following grew, attracting interest from a number of record labels, though she opted to sign to AWAL instead.
Today — one EP, two studio albums and one live album with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra later — Laufey is quite possibly the most popular artist making jazz or jazz-adjacent music, according to metrics like Spotify monthly listeners (24 million) and Instagram and TikTok followers (2.2 million and 3.6 million, respectively). Her breakout single, the bossa nova-inspired “From the Start,” is a massive hit, with 313.1 million on-demand official global streams, according to Luminate. And she’s now a Grammy nominee: Her second album, Bewitched, released in September 2023, is up for best traditional pop vocal album, an eclectic category this year where she’s the one new talent alongside veterans Bruce Springsteen and Liz Callaway and the late Stephen Sondheim. “It feels very, very validating, especially in the category I’m in,” Laufey says.
The debate about what genre signifiers define Laufey may still matter at the Grammys (and on the Billboard charts, which categorize her as “jazz”), but there is far less need to label music than there once was, benefiting artists like Laufey who bridge disparate sonic worlds. “I think people’s desire to categorize things into genres was so rooted in radio, where they were trying to fit into a certain format to succeed,” says Max Gredinger, Laufey’s manager and a partner at Foundations Artist Management. “I think that is kind of ingrained in us, but now that terrestrial radio has certainly diminished in impact, I think people are still wrapping their heads around this new world.”
Around the time Laufey started to build her audience, TikTok’s reign over music discovery had just taken hold. It’s a place where personality and catchiness count but genre is of no consequence — the perfect platform for an artist like Laufey where she could define her jazz-inflected pop as not just a sound but as an aesthetic, a feeling, a lifestyle both timeless and very much of the moment.
Gredinger calls Laufey and her sister “the 2024 version of what you think of as a marketing executive. I would bet on them to do that job best a trillion times over.” Beyond music and slice-of-life videos, Laufey invites her fans into her process in other ways. She has posted sheet music versions of her songs before releasing them, asking her musician fans (of which there are many) to try to learn the song without hearing any reference and post the results, which she’ll then repost in the lead-up to release day.
She also hosts a book club, with selections — from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted — that feel akin to her music and her personal style, somewhere between darkly academic and coquettishly feminine. On the release day for Bewitched, she hosted A Very Laufey Day, a sort-of scavenger hunt around Los Angeles, involving everything she likes to do in a day. It included special Laufey Lattes, a display of her book club selections at a local shop and a merchandise pop-up at the Melrose Trading Post; at the end, she treated participants to a secret performance in West Hollywood’s Pan Pacific Park.
“It was like a normal Saturday for me,” Laufey says with a laugh. “I would’ve done all those things either way. I drove around West Hollywood and saw girls in white shirts, jeans and ballet flats carrying lattes and I would roll down the window and say hey and surprise them.” Her fans range from ultra-online teens to nerdy music majors to nostalgic grandparents, but her core base is Gen Z, many of whom do not listen to jazz or classical otherwise.
When she was younger, Laufey says, she never anticipated the mainstream popularity she has now. “If anything, I thought I would go the conservatory route, practice cello and try to get into the best orchestra I could, like my mother did,” she says. “I was so focused on being realistic that I almost didn’t allow myself to dream so big.”
She remembers one of her first shows after pandemic lockdowns eased up, at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall, where she heard there was a line of fans outside waiting to be let in. “I was really confused,” she says. “I grew up going to symphony concerts primarily, and nobody lines up like that, you just walk in. I was like, ‘Oh, no. Let them in! What is happening?’” It was the first time she realized that her fans weren’t just a number on her screen: They would show up for her in real life, learn all the words to her songs and were shockingly young.
Norah Jones, a hero of Laufey’s and one of the few modern artists to, like her, bridge the jazz-pop divide, says she sees “a lot of similarities” between herself and Laufey. “We both come from a background steeped in jazz and have formed our own paths from there,” Jones says. “[But] because social media and streaming have changed the music industry so much, her journey is also so different from mine.” (The two recently collaborated on a set of holiday songs, Christmas With You.)
Unlike Jones, who has a long-standing relationship with Blue Note Records/Capitol Records, Laufey has opted to stay independent — a clear sign of the times. Industry sources say she recently sparked a multimillion-dollar bidding war among major labels, but she finally decided to keep her business among herself, Gredinger and AWAL (which handles label services and distribution) instead.
“With the kind of music I make,” she says, “I make very individualistic choices. I’m very confident in my music. I know what I want, and my current team at AWAL has let me make those creative decisions. I’ve had a great time being independent, so I haven’t felt like I’ve been lacking anything. Making independent decisions is my main focus.”
In the future, Laufey Land’s borders are likely to only expand further. She envisions her sweeping love songs soundtracking musicals and films someday, like Harry Connick Jr., Jon Batiste and Sara Bareilles have done. The ultimate dream? A James Bond theme. “I’ll just keep on repeating that I want that, so it manifests itself maybe,” she says, smiling.
Batiste, who also knows what it’s like to move between jazz and pop music spaces, thinks she’s on the right track. “Laufey approaches all of these many facets [of a music career] with a great deal of prowess, deftness of craft and insight into how to connect with her community,” he says. “That will only continue to attract more curious listeners.”
“I think there are a lot of barriers to entry to listening to jazz… [It] can be very daunting,” Laufey says. “I’m lucky I was born into that world, but I’m aware of how scary it can seem. It seems like something that’s reserved for maybe older or more educated audiences. I think that’s so sad, because both jazz and classical music were genres that were the popular music of one time. It was for everyone. That’s one of the reasons I want to fuse jazz and classical into my own music: I want to make a more accessible space.”
She points to artists like DOMi & JD BECK and Samara Joy, young jazz talents she admires who are actively evolving the genre today. “Jazz hasn’t gone anywhere — it’s actually, I think, gone into music more,” Laufey says, pointing to its influence on hip-hop, R&B and pop. “The amount of times I hear a pop song really hitting the charts and everyone’s like, ‘It’s so good’ — in my head, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s because of this jazz harmony that really draws you in.’”
Her own sound borrows primarily from that of the jazz greats of the 1940s and ’50s — one reason, perhaps, why her songs connect so well. As tracks featuring sizable samples or interpolations of older hits continue to rise on the Billboard charts, experts posit that the pandemic led to an increasing interest in songs that feel nostalgic.
Though Laufey’s work sounds quite different from, say, “First Class” by Jack Harlow, the same primal desire for familiarity and comfort is at the root of its appeal. “I think a lot of the sounds that she pulls from, every person has some connection to,” Gredinger says. “You would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have some memory or relationship with jazz or classical. It’s a foundational experience most everyone has had, combined with modern, honest songwriting.”
And it’s the combination of those elements that create the foundation of Laufey’s own brave new world. One where true love is possible, every day is romanticized, major sevenths are essential — and all kinds of listeners are welcome.