At Colby Shelley Wollert ’98 was Ophelia in Hamlet and the slave Lucky in Waiting for Godot. While challenging, neither part required the complete transformation demanded by her latest role: Elska in the children’s musical CD and performance Middle of Nowhere.
Elska is a fantastical furry-costumed character who lives on a recently formed volcanic island of the same name, located somewhere in the vicinity of Iceland. When she isn’t hiking and watching the northern lights, Elska sings synthesized pop songs like “The Land of Lost Socks” and “Frozen in Time.” And Wollert, who with CD, videos, and live shows hopes to create the next children’s classic, is Elska.
“I have little kids coming up to me after the show and saying, ‘Elska, Elska,’” Wollert said, at home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It’s a lot of pressure. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s surprise, like them not knowing that Santa Claus isn’t real.”
The project is a high-tech effort that includes Wollert’s partner, producer Allen Farmelo (Graph Rabbit), stop-motion animator Andy Biddle (Wallace & Gromit), Icelandic videographers and costume designers, and others. “A lot of the high-profile people who are drawn to this project are taking off a couple of zeros,” Wollert said. “We’re really lucky.”
Elska’s origins are serendipitous. An indie singer-songwriter, Wollert was recording a CD with Farmelo when they decided to take a break with a trip to Iceland. Driving across the surreal volcanic landscape outside of Reykjavik, the pair was overwhelmed, she said. “The most bizarre landscape you’ve ever seen. Black lava rock in these strange formations, coming out of the ocean, waterfalls, mossy lava fields. It puts you in a really creative, dreamy space.”
From that dreamy landscape Elska (the Icelandic word for love) emerged. “We were completely derailed by Iceland,” Wollert said. “I never finished the adult record, because Elska took over.”
Children’s music and performing weren’t entirely new to her, she said. In Los Angeles, after Colby, the performing arts and English-creative writing double major taught theater to children and formed a live sketch comedy show for kids called Sunday Pickle Brunch. “In our show we were doing skits about snakes and squirrels—all sorts of things that toddlers would find funny,” she said.
But children’s music and entertainment, Wollert said, is a very competitive market, filled with folk music and something called “kindie rock.”
“We knew we had to do something unique,” she said.
She and Farmelo came up with a modern pop sound combining Wollert’s vocals with synthesizers through sophisticated recording techniques, with live shows including musicians on synthesizer and vibraphone. Elska was selected to perform at Kindiefest in New York, which Wollert describes as the “South By Southwest of family music.” The response from the industry was overwhelmingly positive,” (one critic called Elska the “kiddie Bjork”), she said. “We’ve gotten really early buzz about airplay on Sirius XM and airplay on local markets. We’re feeling jazzed.”
The CD was scheduled for release in September. In July Wollert and a crew made their second trip to Iceland to film music videos. Live shows were scheduled for venues like 92Y Tribeca and Symphony Space in New York City (details at islandofelska.com).
Wollert said the performances blend theater, storytelling, and music as Elska gives the audience a tour of the island and introduces her friends. “We sort of walk through the album and she weaves this story to all of the songs,” she said.
After the shows, Elska mingles with her young friends. Wollert is nowhere to be found, and her name won’t be found on the website or CD jacket. Said Elska of her new persona, “We knew we’d have to keep Shelley behind the curtain.”