Born in Reykjavík in 1980, Ólöf Arnalds began her musical education with the violin in 1986, followed by classical voice training in her teens. A self trained guitarist and master of a variety of instruments, Ólöf has been a prominent figure in the Icelandic music scene for a number of years.
Between 2003 and 2007, she was an active member of múm, contributing violin, viola, guitar, and vocals both live and on record. She also played an important role on Skúli Sverrisson's critically acclaimed 2006 release Sería, singing her own lyrics on three songs as well as playing guitar, viola, charango, koto, and glass.
Other collaborations include Mugison, Slowblow, Kitchen Motors and Nix Noltes. Ólöf has also been active in mixing aural and visuals arts, scoring the music for Iceland's contribution to the 2007 Venice Biennial, an exhibition of works by artist Steingrímur Eyfjörð.
In February 2007, Ólöf released her debut solo album, Við og við. Produced by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós, it won Best Alternative Album at the 2007 Iceland Music Awards as well as Record of the Year at Iceland's biggest daily newspaper, Morgunblaðið, beating off competition from Björk and múm.
In June 2008 Ólöf played with Björk and Sigur Rós at Reykjavík's Náttúra concert. In July she opened for Björk in Athens, Greece.
On September 9, Skúli and Ólöf will debut their respective albums, Sería and Við og Við in full at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. Joining them on stage for this historic show will be a glittering array of guests including Laurie Anderson, Nico Muhly, Amedeo Pace, Peter Scherer, and Shahzad Ismaily. While in New York City, Ólöf will be augmenting her East Village Radio Festival and Le Poisson Rouge shows with live radio performances and a 3-way bill with Sam Amidon and Kría Brekkan.
In October, Ólöf will become the first Icelandic musician to play a prestigious showcase slot at WOMEX, the world music expo. She is currently working on songs for her second album.
I’m curious about how many musicians - Icelanders especially - seem to study for a long time in the classical realm, and then depart completely and throw themselves into the worlds of pop, rock, electronica, folk etc.
My story is that I had a big problem with reading notes. I had a very dominating ear, and always seemed to put all my trust there. After learning violin for three years my teachers found out I couldn’t read music. In the 80s, when I was studying, conventional music training was way more focused on notes and there wasn’t much room for improvisation, but I got through it.
Was your classical training in any way useful in terms of what you do now as a musician?
Well for one thing studying music at a young age means you don’t put your focus on something else outside school - you have to be thinking about music, so that’s one major factor. Plus I remember I would play concerts and if I played a flat note I would see red and leave the stage in a crying fit. That occurred a lot between 14 and 16 so I went through this extreme catharsis. I think during that time I overcame about 60% of my stage fright.
After studying violin and voice, you taught yourself to play guitar – what motivated that?
It was something I wanted to learn completely by myself and not let anyone else even close to it [laughs]. I was 14 at the time, and I liked it when people were playing guitar at parties. In my family there was a lot of playing and singing at family gatherings. I wanted to be that fun person that was singing all the songs that people liked.
So your guitar skills were developed through being a “party animal”…
I don’t have a big attention span so I’ve never been good at practicing at home. I’m constantly asking people what songs they want to hear, and if they want to hear something I haven’t played before I am quite good at picking it out. I still don’t know the names of many chords yet, though obviously I know the main ones. I still base my knowledge of guitar playing in my inner musical language.
So in fact the guitar was a way of getting away from all that stuffy academic stuff…
Music writing is taught in such an abstract way. It was only later that I discovered they are not separate worlds, that there was an organic logic to these abstract worlds. At school it felt more like this monster thing that you had to learn, but later I found way to connect these two worlds and get a better understanding. I think I am very lucky and privileged because I can stand in the middle and listen to both languages. I can hear notes and explain them to someone that doesn’t have a ‘musical language’, and I can also talk to educated musicians.
What was your role with múm and what did you get out of the experience?
I played viola with them and guitar, and some small ‘dingly danglies’, and I did some singing also. It was great. múm gave me a fantastic opportunity. I just basically picked up a viola and went on tour. It’s great fun to play with them, this great energy of just ‘doing’. It was my first experience of touring and it definitely added to my music vocabulary somewhere in the subconscious. Nothing that I am doing now is strongly related to the múm experience or anything, but all these collaborative projects provide different ways of dealing with the aesthetics of music. What I particularly liked about múm was that even though it could seem like very simple music sometimes, they were always dealing with very refined aesthetics
You then met Skúli Sverrisson, who seems to have been something of a mentor for your solo work…
I met Skúli when I was playing with múm in New York. It was immediately very inspiring to work with him. I first started writing lyrics with him and that gave me a certain self-confidence. I could show him music and he would give me feedback. Although it had been great working with other people, I got maybe a bit tired of this great atmosphere that comes from people getting together and playing what they want to and building a song, creating a sound together. I wanted to do something more determined, that went from A to Z. I wanted to make an album that was very simple, that didn’t pile all these elements on top of each other, something very clean and very straight, just to indulge the way my mind works with regard to musical aesthetics. I can be a total pain in the ass in a collaborative environment, always debating ‘why this note and why not this one’. I can be really irritating so I wanted to just try something my way.
The other significant person involved in your debut, Við og Við was Kjartan from Sigur Rós, who produced your record. How did you two get together?
There’s a song on the record, an older recording from 2005, which is an old song by [legendary Icelandic singer] Megas. When Benni Hemm Hemm got married, I had just come back from Japan with múm and he gave me a call and asked me to sing the song at his wedding on a [Japanese] koto-harp! It sounded impossible and I like to try and do things that are impossible to I took up the challenge. Kjartan was at the wedding and invited me to his studio to record it. We found we had a dynamic and two years later I began showing him my songs and we went from there. He and Skúli are the two godfathers of my album for sure.
The album garnered accolades and awards in Iceland last year, but seems to have gotten a second wind now internationally. How are you feeling about that?
I’m happy that the album is getting more possibilities for recognition. I’ve played the songs a lot in Iceland so it’s interesting to play them for audiences abroad and to see how it feels. Even though I am working on new material, I am very fond of this record, it’s really my first baby.
You’re playing some prestigious shows next week in New York. Are you interested in seeking a label or distribution in the States?
Yes I am definitely interested in working with a US label and also a distributor.
What can you tell us about your new stuff?
Well there’s going to be more musicians, the arrangements are going to be more complex…it’s a bigger project in a way than the first album. The first record was me and a guitar and whole takes, with some really soft instrumentation added as background. But this time I am working with Skúli, [Pakistani-born, American artist] Shahzad Ismaily and also Nico Muhly on string and orchestral arrangements. I will also be working with an Icelandic chamber orchestra, Ísafold, in November, great young players of my generation. I think it will still have a strong folkish element to it, but it will be very varied.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’m playing Womex, actually the first Icelandic act to do so, which is very exciting. There’s a festival in Paris and I recently played in Brussels. But my boyfriend has moved to Finland so I want to enjoy Helsinki and the time with our new baby. I want to start recording but I’ll maybe delay it until next year now as there are more opportunities opening up from the last record too.
Finally, do you want to strangle people who call you a ‘folk’ artist or are you cool with the term?
I don’t mind the word. I even use it to explain my music sometimes. But I never felt conscious of working within any certain genre. I let other people label it.
For more info check Ólöf''s MySpace: www.myspace.com/olofarnalds