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It took decades and other careers before Icelandic musician recorded his songs

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It took more than 30 years for a musician in Iceland to record his first songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALMOST OVER YOU")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) Forty days of love, 40 nights.

FADEL: Along the way, he's been a tech CEO, a philanthropist - even a restaurant owner - but his journey started with loss. NPR's Taylor Haney reports.

TAYLOR HANEY, BYLINE: His full name is Haraldur Ingi Thorleifsson. He goes by Halli. His early memories are of his mother, who was an artist.

HARALDUR INGI THORLEIFSSON: Growing up with her was like growing up in a fairytale. Sorry, my voice usually cracks, and I tear up a little bit every time I talk about her.

HANEY: When Halli was 11, a drunk driver crashed into her.

THORLEIFSSON: When she died, my whole world broke with her, and now I'm trying to find my way back.

HANEY: To rebuild himself by recording music for the first time and taking on his mother's name.

THORLEIFSSON: I use an artist's name, which is Onnu Jonu Son, which means the son of Anna Jona.

HANEY: Halli lives just a few houses away from where he grew up, in Reykjavik, Iceland. At a young age, he had to put up defenses.

THORLEIFSSON: One of the main things that have influenced my life is I have a disease that has made my life very difficult.

HANEY: Muscular dystrophy causes the body to get weaker over time.

THORLEIFSSON: When I was a child, I could walk. I can't walk anymore, but I had a walk that was different from all the other children, and so they would make fun of me.

HANEY: He retreated into music. When he was a teenager, songs would pour out of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALMOST OVER YOU")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) It's comin' on. I'm like a newborn baby, and I'm almost over you.

HANEY: Occasionally, he booked a small club, but he was shy and developed a problem.

THORLEIFSSON: I would have to drink myself into basically a stupor to be able to then go onstage and perform.

HANEY: A fear of failure so overwhelmed him that he stopped making music altogether. Eventually, he quit drinking.

THORLEIFSSON: But all the pain that brought me to that drinking was still there, and so my only way out was to swap alcohol for work.

HANEY: Halli threw himself into a new career. His web design firm, Ueno, had offices in the United States. He was a business leader living in San Francisco, giving talks at industry events.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THORLEIFSSON: My name is Haraldur Ingi Thorleifsson, and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.

(LAUGHTER)

THORLEIFSSON: It's a good joke.

HANEY: But numbing himself with work eventually stopped working.

THORLEIFSSON: It ground me down. There was nothing left of me.

HANEY: After the pandemic and protests of 2020, he felt the social fabric was fraying. He sold his business to Twitter, and hoped to do some good as an employee there. He got laid off last year.

THORLEIFSSON: Twitter felt like a place where we could help unify, or create a place where people could actually talk to each other, hopefully. Obviously, that didn't end up happening, but that was the idea.

HANEY: His time in the United States gave him an idea for his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE THESE BONES")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) I'm lost, away from home.

HANEY: Halli uses a wheelchair, and came to appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

THORLEIFSSON: I got used to living in a city where I didn't have to call ahead and ask if a restaurant was accessible. Then I moved back to Iceland, and I realized how closed my life was when I was living here.

HANEY: He started a project called Ramp Up Iceland to build wheelchair ramps - at first in the capital, then across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THORLEIFSSON: (Speaking Icelandic).

HANEY: In this video at a bus station in Reykjavik, he's announcing a goal to build a thousand ramps when he's heckled...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GUDNI JOHANNESSON: (Speaking Icelandic).

HANEY: ...By the president of Iceland, who ups the ante. He steps onstage with a can of spray paint and - it's now clear this was planned - writes 1,500 on the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHANNESSON: (Speaking Icelandic).

(APPLAUSE)

THORLEIFSSON: The plan was to complete them next year, but we're ahead of schedule.

HANEY: Icelandic media praised him. One magazine called him a benevolent tech titan. His old fears about performing seemed smaller. He wanted to get back to music.

THORLEIFSSON: Hypothetically, I thought, if I get criticized, I can take it. You know, I have these songs that I really like. I want to record them. I want to own them.

HANEY: Now he has his first album, at age 47. Half of the songs were written during his turbulent younger years. Half are more recent, more reflective, like "Take These Bones," a song of surrender to his lifelong disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE THESE BONES")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) Alone in endless night, call darkness light. Come take these bones.

THORLEIFSSON: When I look back on what I could do a year ago, it's always different to what I could do today. But it happens slowly, and so there's never a time to grieve. The only way I found out of this is gratitude.

HANEY: Gratitude for the body he has, for his life and his children. Halli sings to them in the song "Big Boy Boots."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG BOY BOOTS")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) When you go out to the water's edge, where stones and lilies meet, make sure you wear your big boy boots, hard rocks with little feet.

THORLEIFSSON: It's a song about me imagining my mom dying, and, if I was in her position and leaving behind my kids, (crying) what I want to say to them.

HANEY: I wonder if you still feel her presence in your life.

THORLEIFSSON: Yes, very much so. There was a lot of light in her that she managed to pass on to me, and I feel like I want to pass on that same light to my children.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUE LOVE WILL FIND YOU IN THE END")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) True love will find you in the end.

HANEY: Halli says he used to think he could accomplish his way to happiness.

THORLEIFSSON: Right now, happiness to me means every day, I'm available to eat dinner with my children, and I'm available to take a walk with my wife.

HANEY: He's trying to simplify his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUE LOVE WILL FIND YOU IN THE END")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) Don't give up until, true love will find you in the end.

HANEY: The album by Onnu Jonu Son is called "The Radio Won't Let Me Sleep."

Taylor Haney, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUE LOVE WILL FIND YOU IN THE END")

ONNU JONU SON: (Singing) Only if you're looking will it find you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.
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