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Chartbreaker: How Laufey Created a Blueprint For Modern Jazz Success

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At the height of the pandemic, singer-songwriter Laufey spent her free time outside of classes at the Berklee College of Music taking hours-long meetings with industry executives. With only two self-released singles out at the time, the modern jazz artist was already fielding emails from managers, labels and publishers interested in signing her — but for Laufey (pronounced Lay-vay), the conversations were about understanding the inner workings of the music business.

“I had a second education talking to so many people,” she says. “I would take meetings on my own and say, ‘I’m not signing anything, but tell me everything you know about the music industry.’”

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Three years later, Laufey has taken that information and built a team to help bring her pop-infused style of jazz to the top of her genre. In September, her second album, Bewitched, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums and Traditional Jazz Albums charts, fueled by the success of catchy bossa nova-inspired lead single “From The Start.” Her prior releases have subsequently soared up the rankings, prominently stamping the 24-year-old’s name across charts otherwise filled with legacy acts including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Miles Davis. Thanks to her confident and dreamy voice and social media savvy, she’s now crossing into the mainstream as one of the biggest jazz stars of the streaming era. And following a year in which fellow jazz artist Samara Joy won best new artist, appetite for the genre seems at its hungriest in decades.

Long before she dedicated herself to learning the industry, Laufey understood life as a musician. Her maternal grandparents were both professors of music in China, and her mother is a classical violinist. (She has appeared on a few of her daughter’s songs, such as the titular track from 2022 debut album, Everything I Know About Love). Born in Reykjavík, Laufey began playing piano at four years old, picked up cello at eight, and started singing jazz a few years after that, all while moving between Iceland and Washington, D.C., and spending her summers at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. “My mom could tell that I had a natural inclination for music,” Laufey says.

While studying as a cello student at Berklee, Laufey knew she wanted to mix her jazz and classical background with her own contemporary voice. As she grew into her own at school in Boston, she gained confidence and began writing her own songs. She recorded her first track, “Street By Street,” on the last day before campus shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions. A few weeks later, she uploaded it on DistroKid. “It got some attention,” she remembers. “I started growing a social media following online and it all snowballed from there.”

Laufey photographed October 29, 2023 at The Wilbur in Boston.

She continued to hone her songwriting skills amid her virtual college experience, challenging herself to pick up her guitar, create catchy hooks and pen “cheeky” lyrics every time a Zoom class ended (“Listening to you harp on ’bout some new soulmate/ ‘She’s so perfect,’ blah, blah, blah,” she sings on “From The Start”). She began posting videos of her singing jazz standards by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and more on Instagram and TikTok. The clips quickly became a refuge for people seeking levity during the pandemic. “I was freaking out,” she acknowledges. “I was like, ‘OK. I have a duty to fulfill.’ It was such good practice for me.”

Later in 2020, her social media success led to inquiries from top music executives. Following months of meetings, she signed a global recording deal with AWAL and added a manager in Max Gredinger from Foundations Artist Management. “I saw her building this insane online audience on her own and thought, ‘We could build on that,’” says Gredinger. He acknowledges that there wasn’t much precedent for breaking jazz artists into the mainstream today — but if anything, he notes, they used it to their advantage.

“I hear a lot of artists talk about other artists like, ‘What’s the blueprint?’ Laufey doesn’t really do that. Of course, there are artists that are massively inspiring to her. Norah Jones, Adele, Chet Baker, all the jazz greats [and] a lot of classical composers. But she always knew that what she was doing was one of one and something that hadn’t been done before.”

Max Gredinger and Laufey photographed October 29, 2023 at The Wilbur in Boston.

Without a definitive outline to follow, Laufey primarily focused on further developing her social media presence, specifically on Instagram and TikTok. In addition to teasing music and responding to fans’ comments and DMs, she livestreamed weekly sessions of her performing lullabies. “If you gave me all the money in the world, I don’t think I could come up with a better social strategy than Laufey,” Gredinger says.

Following the August 2022 release Everything I Know About Love, she toured 250-to-500 capacity rooms in the U.S. — a crucial component to Laufey’s development, stresses Gredinger, and a way for her to build buzz amid her growing fan base. By the middle of 2023, she was ready to start the rollout of her follow-up album, beginning with her biggest hit to date, “From The Start.” After writing the entirety of the song in half an hour, she released the charmingly upbeat song last May, and it immediately took off on TikTok, though she initially brushed aside the numbers.

“Sometimes you put a song on TikTok and it does well because it’s visually stimulating or it has a hooky lyric, but it won’t go past that,” Laufey says. However, once it eclipsed a million streams in a 24-hour period and tripled her previous record, she knew that she had something special.

Laufey continued to grow momentum with new singles throughout the summer — and expanded her team as well, signing a global publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music in August. The following month, Bewitched arrived through AWAL and has since spent eight weeks atop both Jazz Albums and Traditional Jazz Albums. Following its first tracking week, “From The Start” also hit No. 1 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart. Through Nov. 2, the song has 3.5 million official on-demand streams, according to Luminate.

Amid her current 30-date sold-out North American tour, Laufey earned her first chart entry on Hot Alternative Songs and Hot Rock & Alternative Songs with her seductive beabadoobee team-up, “A Night To Remember.” On Friday (Nov. 10), she’ll drop two holiday tracks: Her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and an original titled “Better Than Snow,” both with jazz-pop icon Norah Jones. And as she continues to carve her own path and expand her audience across genres, Laufey is more confident in her future than ever before.

“When I started out, people were always asking me, ‘Who do you want to be like?’” Laufey reflects. “I had no idea what to say. I still have no clue what to say. The difference is, now I don’t need to. I’m just going to keep making the music I want and hope that it reaches as many ears as possible.”

Laufey photographed October 29, 2023 at The Wilbur in Boston.

A version of this story will appear in the Nov. 18, 2023, issue of Billboard.

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