Ólöf Arnalds
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Ólöf Arnalds

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Olof Arnalds

Olof Arnalds knows exactly how much innocence she projects on her debut album, “Vid og Vid”(One Little Indian), which was released in her native Iceland in 2007 and now arrives here as a warm-up for a newer album due in spring. (The title translates as “Every Now and Then,” or “We and We.”) Ms. Arnalds is a music-school graduate whose collaborations in Iceland include a long association with the folksy, whimsical, minimalistic band Mum. On “Vid og Vid” her voice is high and clear, with a gentle quaver that humanizes its otherworldly purity, and she accompanies it with only an instrument or two — picking a lute, a harp, an acoustic guitar — in melodies with the diatonic simplicity of folk songs. The songs are mostly about love, family and friends, and Ms. Arnalds puts them on the intimate scale of lullabies. JON PARELES - The New York Times


The Icelandic singer/songwriter Ólöf Arnalds isn't well-known in America, but the few who warmed themselves to the glow of her quietly spellbinding 2007 album Við Og Við or witnessed one of her charmingly quirky live shows passed her around like a secret. Her snowflake-delicate folk songs are composed of one or two acoustic instruments, her high, trilling voice, and nothing else. She sings almost entirely in Icelandic, which casts its own peculiar spell-- there are no turns of phrase to puzzle over, nothing to separate from the serene whole. Her new album, Innundir Skinni, is fuller-sounding than Við Og Við, but its pleasures are just as elusive and profound. Like Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me, it is a rich and musically complex experience that evaporates into the ether if you let it. It is impossible not be charmed by Arnalds' music, but loving it takes focus.

Við Og Við was structured almost entirely around Arnald's finger-picked acoustic guitar, but Innundir Skinni includes a bustling menagerie of folk instruments, from the South American charango to the stroh violin, a thin, whiny horn-violin hybrid. None of them share the stage all at once, however; they creep in quietly, one by one, from the side, making little pinpricks in the songs' texture before gliding away. Arnalds seems to be freely borrowing what she loves about other cultures (Chinese music on "Vinkonur", fado on "Madrid", Celtic reels on "Jonathan") to create something indigenous only to herself. There are lots of lovely surprises as a result-- the little "too rah loo rah lay" chant on "Jonathan", the spaghetti-western horns that intrude on the group singalong "Vinur Minn"-- even if you have to lean in close to register them.

Innundir Skinni also includes Arnalds' first-ever English-language songs. "Crazy Car" is a disarming plea to a musician friend not to seek her fortunes in America-- "Don't go in the crazy car," Arnalds sings lightly, over and over again, to a melody that twirls like a child's mobile. "Surrender" is the dark inverse-- a hypnotic song that features Björk on moaning background vocals. The lyrics are incantatory and difficult to make out, but the floating phrases that surface ("I carry you/ I nurture you/ Give birth to you") and the circular melody worm their way under your skin nonetheless. Incidentally, this is what the title Innundir Skinni translates to loosely in English-- "under the skin"-- an apt description for Arnalds' gentle, peculiar and powerful music itself.

— Jayson Greene, October 26, 2010
- Pitchfork


At first, this album just feels wrong. Icelander Ólöf Arnalds performs mostly in her native tongue, creating a David Lynchian sense of disorientation, and her sweet trill sounds sped-up, even at leisurely tempos. But once you adjust to the lighter gravity, Innundir Skinni ("Under the Skin") makes lovely sense. Produced by Sigur Rós' Kjartan Sveinsson, Arnalds embellishes her debut's spare guitar-voice template with discreet overdubs, including brass and strings, enhancing breathtaking tunes like "Surrender" (which features Björk adding a swirling countermelody). For those who consider Joanna Newsom too mainstream. - SPIN Magazine


Icelandic artists are prone to being stereotyped as a bunch of otherworldly fantasists, all glacial wonder and fairy tale charm. Ólöf Arnalds risks being guilty by association alone; Innundir Skinni (Under the Skin) is produced by Sigur Rós multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson and features contributions from various Icelandic alternative luminaries, including the first lady of Icelandic pop herself, Björk. She’s also a sometime member of DiS faves Múm and her name is impossibly similar to that of another DiS favourite, (the male) Ólafur Arnalds… at least that’s my excuse for having previously confused the two.

Despite the wealth of talented associates, Arnalds is very much her own artist and Innundir Skinni is for the most part a spare acoustic-based folk record, equal parts bare intimacy and serene mysticism. Yet album opener ‘Vinur Minn’(sung, like the majority of the album, in Icelandic) is quite the red herring. Starting with the sound of Arnalds' voice alone, it doesn’t conjure up fairytale imagery at all, in fact quite the opposite; in isolation the overall singy-ness, guttural vowels and rolled Rs of her voice have an earthy quality that, without wishing to refute the idea that the Icelandic language possesses unique qualities, doesn’t sound dissimilar to the Gaelic languages of Ireland and Scotland. Indeed, the beginning of ‘Vinur Minn’ sounds like an excerpt from the Icelandic field songs library that legendary folk collector Alan Lomax never made, but then Arnalds changes to the international language of “La-la-la”s ushering in the effusively warm backing of guitar, drums, backing harmonies, brass and sweeping strings which are more evocative of the Mexican plains than glacial Iceland.

Innundir Skinni benefits greatly from its backing instrumentation, which sees the melodies picked out by Arnalds on guitar and charango (a South American lute-like instrument) fleshed out with woodwinds, piano and subtle string arrangements. ‘Svif Birki’ would be pretty stirring stripped back to its urgent acoustic fingerpicking and hiccup-like shift in the vocal melody, but the transition from sombre to transcendental is rendered all the more effectively for the lurking depths of the string section preceding the choral majesty of the vocal harmonies.

For non-Icelandic speakers (presumably the majority of those reading this) the expressiveness of Arnalds' voice and musical backing is paramount to the enjoyment of this record. Aside from its title I have no clue what ‘Madrid’ is about, but the sense of foreboding is pretty tangible in the disharmonious violins which swoop intermittently upon the consistent downward plod of the guitar and bass, while Arnalds puts in her most anguished sounding vocal performance, yet it is a restrained performance nonetheless. The fact that the vocals are left untreated throughout the record allows the singer to maintain the sense of intimacy throughout and enables greater expression as it captures every quiver and cadence in her voice. Credit is due to Kjartan Sveinsson’s production for that.

Arnalds doesn’t lose any of her vocal prowess on the album’s three English language songs, but they do raise doubts as to her lyrical talents. It’s undoubtedly a little harsh to expect poetry of somebody writing in a language other than their native tongue, never mind making it scan well in song form, but I can’t help but find clunky lines like “Climbing the cemetery walls/water in the sea/fire is fire that is all/don’t go in the crazy car” (’Crazy Car’) a little irritating. The fact that they are sung in harmony with Ragnar Kjartansson to the record’s least captivating musical arrangement only serves to draw greater attention to them. Singing in English on her own, ‘Jonathan’ has none of those problems, boasting the record’s most infectiously joyous tune in its folky lilt which is bolstered by brushed drums. Along with the Icelandic sung title-track, ‘Jonathan’ recalls both the wide-eyed innocence of Vashti Bunyan and the vocal peculiarities of Joanna Newsom; both tracks are guaranteed to melt all but the stoniest of hearts.

The English sung penultimate track, ’Surrender’ is the song that is most likely to spike the interest of newcomers. Björk contributes her inimitable wail as backing to Arnalds’ gentle assurances “I carry you, I nurture you, I give birth to you” and the results are heartbreakingly beautiful and if Björk‘s presence ignites interest in Arnalds, then all the better. At just over half an hour long Innundir Skinni is a modest little record compared to the self-indulgence of Joanna Newsom’s latest or grandiose ambitions of countrymen like Sigur Rós, but its charms are plentiful and in her own humble, but distinct, way Ólöf Arnalds confounds expectations.

- Drowned in Sound


After a year that included an avalanche of critical praise as well as performances with Björk, Blonde Redhead and Dirty Projectors, Ólöf Arnalds would have been forgiven for taking a few months off. In a relatively short period of time, the Icelandic singer and multi-instrumentalist had won over audiences with the spellbinding vocals and delicate arrangements on her debut, Vid og Vid. Instead she returned to the studio and brought a new batch of songs to Austin for her first appearance at South by Southwest.

eMusic's Ben Keene caught up with the busy musician to talk about the collaborators on her new album, the loneliness of touring, and the joys of cheese.



Were you surprised that your first album got so much attention? Has your career taken off suddenly, or do you see it as more of an evolution?

I feel that the way that we have been approaching this — me and the people that I'm working with — is that we're in no hurry. I was coming to New York and playing in these really small places, having small, intimate shows. I feel in no hurry to extend my career. This summer I'm going to start working on a third record, and hopefully in the summer or the fall my second record is coming out. The only thing I find difficult is that if I would only be focusing on albums, I could record an album, have it ready and just put it out there and immediately find out if people like it or not. But now I have to wait, even a whole year in between. But it's not only the business side that's been delaying the process; it's also that everyone involved on the new record is really busy.

Who or what inspired you and encouraged your development as a musician?

I would say that one strong influence is Skúli Sverrisson. I met him when I was playing in New York with Múm, and we got along really well. He moved to Iceland for a period of time and I worked really closely with him on his record. Seria is absolutely a very, very beautiful record. His music is very rare. And then he said one of his songs needed a lyric — a voice — so that's the first serious lyric I wrote. Well, I've written all sorts of lyrics for family parties and stuff like that but that doesn't really count. But he borrowed me the guitar that I play the most and he also borrowed me a charango. So I would say that he really sort of saw me as a musician and he also sort of let me write my own music.

And then, of course, Kjartan Sveinsson from Sigur Rós, who took the time to help me record my first album. It was pretty much just me and him in one room and, you know, I could bounce off ideas. For some reason, when you're making music, it's not only work, it's also how people connect and it's very fragile and personal. It's something that comes from a very holy place within. And it's something that you have to choose carefully who you work with, that they understand where you're coming from. Because I'm not interested in making music that's a combination of elements you can put together. You know, you want it to sound a bit like that and a bit like this and that's not where I'm coming from. It's more out of a sheer need to express something simple. From inside.

Does Iceland have qualities — silence, or a sense of solitude, for instance — that find their way into your music? Are there things about it that you're trying to express?

I'm trying to express my universe and I would say that my universe is a combination of so many elements. Of course, I'm born and raised in Iceland and I grow up with a lot of classical music, which is of course another kind of life. For me I think that maybe sometime later I'll be able to understand what it is about Iceland. One thing that I could mention is that Icelandic culture — the same as American culture — is young. It doesn't have this burden of cultural heritage. Also there are so few people that everyone is like a king. We even have this term in Icelandic: "world-known in Iceland." And storytelling. Icelanders are really strong storytellers. So even though I'm singing in Icelandic, I'm trying to transcend the language.

What was it like the first time you sang to an entire audience of people that didn't speak Icelandic? Do you think language creates a barrier when you're performing?

I think that English is not so foreign to me because my mother was raised in England and my whole mother's family communicates, mostly, in English. In terms of Icelandic, if I say "blóm," which is "flower" in Icelandic, what I visualize is a flower somewhere on a mountain in Iceland. I can smell it, I can see it; it has a reference. But when I say the word "flower" in English, I can maybe picture a drawing. Your first language resonates with your life experience. When I am onstage, singing in Icelandic, if I put my emotions into that, it's still true, you know? If you visualize everything that you say, it doesn't matter in what language you're singing. The reason I wanted to have songs in English on the new record is I just found i - eMusic.com


On a recent Monday night here, the crowd at Rockwood Music Hall, still enjoying a few drinks and conversation after work, buzzed inattentively as Ólöf Arnalds and her guitar took the stage. A few moments of her singing, however, brought them to silence as they witnessed the American debut of a singer who seems destined to make her mark on the international music scene.

Listeners familiar with Björk and Sigur Rós will be happy to see a new Icelandic artist on the radar. But they will also find her music refreshingly folk-driven, especially when compared to the futuristic tendencies of her compatriots. She frames her light but earthy voice with the gentle strumming of a guitar or bass in a way that creates a natural, uninhibited sound.

Ms. Arnalds opened with "Innundir Skinni," the title track on her album scheduled to be released on Sept. 14 (a vinyl version has been available since early July). She wrote the song, whose title means "under the skin," about her first pregnancy, but saw its lyrics take on a larger meaning in the context of the album. "Innundir Skinni," she told me, represents "expecting someone or something and the feeling that you know it, but you don't really." Even with Icelandic lyrics, the balance between a lightly strummed guitar and Ms. Arnalds's vocal control communicated hopeful uncertainty to a New York audience.

As if to reinforce the universality of her music, she transitioned quickly to a thoughtful cover in English of Arthur Russell's "Close My Eyes," the deeper warble in her voice adding emotional maturity. When she forgot the words for a moment, Ms. Arnalds laughed comfortably and reached out to the audience for help. It was her one mistake of the evening and seemed more like a comedic interlude than an error.

Ms. Arnalds focuses on audience feedback in the recording studio as well, often inviting friends and family to the studio. "I see it as storytelling," she said. "I'm so curious to investigate what kind of relationship you can establish with an audience."

Born and raised in Reykjavik, Ms. Arnalds began her music education at 6, first studying violin and then voice, and graduated from the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 2006. She had already spent some time working with other artists in Iceland's active music arena, such as the group Sigur Rós, múm and bass player Skúli Sverrisson, but felt a need to go solo "to create music that would be specific and clear" to herself. In 2007, she released her first album, "Við Og Við," which translates to "we and we." It's a testament to her family—each song, she said, written with love to people like her mother, her sister and especially her recently departed father.

"'Innundir Skinni' was more celebrative," Ms. Arnalds said of the album she wrote and recorded following her son Ari's birth. "I was working when I could, basically when the baby was asleep"—which may in part explain why many of the songs have the reassuring calm of a lullaby.

As the performance at Rockwood continued, Ms. Arnalds traded her guitar for a charango, a small stringed instrument from South America with a back formed from the shell of an armadillo. "Surrender," the song she plucked from its strings, is "an emotional essence," she said, of "how women are sometimes very strong without it being measurable." On the album, the song features a chorus of women behind Ms. Arnalds and a striking contribution from Björk, her distinct voice evoking joy and pain. The contrast of Ms. Arnalds's soft chant with Björk's wrenching wail perfectly complements that thematic dissonance, and solidifies "Surrender" as a core piece of the album.

The solo performance of "Surrender" hovered in the room for a moment until Ms. Arnalds, upbeat once more, announced, "OK, now back to cheerful" and plunged into "Vinkonur," a song of gratitude for four friends and another nod to the inspiration she finds in relationships. Both songs illustrate her talent for storytelling in any language, communicating familiarity and comfort through upbeat rhythms and her own expressive voice.

Halfway through the set, Mr. Sverrisson and his bass quietly joined Ms. Arnalds onstage. He seemed happy enough to leave the spotlight on Ms. Arnalds, but she was quick to acknowledge his friendship, mentoring and instruments—the guitar and charango she used both belong to him. The bass added depth to her songs and rounded out the performance.

After the show, Ms. Arnalds left New York for San Francisco and then the United Kingdom, touring briefly across Continental Europe before returning home to Iceland, where she's already at work on a third album. "I really want to investigate the voice," she said, "to open my ears to sound more." - The Wall Street Journal


As Iceland stumbles towards reinvention after its currency went into freefall in 2008, Ólöf Arnalds is considering the position the country's artists and writers will have in the new social order. She is thinking specifically about Reykjavik's new mayor Jón Gnarr, a former anarchist, actor and standup comedian, who admits that he knows little about politics and recently turned up to the city's gay pride march in full drag.

"I think it's interesting that our mayor and his party come from an artistic background," says Arnalds, a slight, gamine woman who is fast becoming the country's most compelling and original singer since Björk. "When you are an artist you have to make something out of nothing. Right now the financial situation in Iceland is really bad, so I am thinking that artists will be clever in using the few resources available as well as possible. I have a good feeling about it."

However serious Iceland's problems are, the people of Reykjavik have not resorted to barricading themselves in their homes with a stockpile of water bottles and a rifle just yet. It's a Tuesday night and Arnalds is in her favourite haunt, a traditional – and expensive – Icelandic restaurant with a homely but elegant feel in the heart of the city. Later on we'll go to a packed bar, where everyone seems to be working in music, art or fashion. In this most stylish of cities, Arnalds claims even the economic meltdown has been turned into a fashion statement, of which more later.

Part of Iceland's alternative music scene since 2003, Arnalds is now becoming the centre of a lot of attention in her own right. Her debut, 2007's Við Og Við, was a pretty collection of melodic songs that were striking for being so fully realised. And on her sophomore album Innundir Skinni, she uses the sparsest of ingredients, like a few chords played on a South American instrument called a charango or a simple melody sung by a chorus of friends and family, to fashion songs that sound as if they have always existed.

"I write everything in my mind before I give it an instrument," says Arnalds, as she finishes off a plate of guillemot. "It's Darwinian selection. The songs that survive without being written down are the ones I record, and it can take quite a lot of time. I came up with Vinnur Minn [from Innundir Skinni] when I was 19, as a four-line poem. It was only this year that I thought up the second half of it, so that one took 10 years."

Luckily, she started young. Arnalds studied violin from eight to 16, had classical voice training from 16 to 22 and has since played in a variety of bands, the most famous being the avant-garde outfit Múm. And given that Iceland's population is only around 300,000, the country's professional musicians tend to help each other out: Björk sings backing vocals on Arnalds's song Surrender, while Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós produced the new album. Add to this the fact that Arnalds's high singing voice has an otherworldly quality and you could be mistaken for thinking that she is the epitome of the mysterious Icelandic chanteuse, both folksy and artistic. She refutes this.

"It can make you creatively lazy if you think of yourself as an Icelandic musician," she says. "Björk and Sigur Rós have gone through years of hard work to find their style, and then the first thing they get asked is: 'Is this typical Icelandic music?' There is no such thing as typical Icelandic music, because we have no folk tradition due to our history being so short. But it's easy to use an Icelandic aesthetic to your advantage, which a lot of people do. My songs are about the kind of human connections we all have, not culture and geography. I don't want geysers in my videos."

How about some volcanic ash?

"I don't want that either."

It must be tempting, since Iceland is so strikingly different from anywhere else on the planet, to fall back on the land itself for inspiration. Flat swaths of black volcanic rock dominate the journey from the airport to the city. This moon-like, ragged horizon has encouraged a strong belief in elves and "hidden people" – similar to humans but more powerful and better looking. This belief is so strong, in fact, that no new roads can be built until the country's elf experts have confirmed with the Icelandic roads authority that there are no mythical creatures whose homes might be damaged along the way.

"Recently there was a construction planned, but an elf family lived in a stone that had to be removed," says Arnalds, solemnly. "The builders got into endless trouble with machines breaking down and so on. It's better to check with an elf expert before building anything.

"We believe in elves because it's safer to do so, in case they put a curse on us, but it's a bit of a glossy picture to think that Iceland is a super-creative, imaginative place," she says. "One of the problems about becoming a public figure here is that people remember you when you were 12, and you're not allowed to chan - The Guardian


In the frigid North Atlantic Ocean between Norway and Greenland lies Iceland, an island nation of only about 300,000 souls. Two-thirds of Icelanders live in and around the capital city of Reykjavik, including singer-songwriter and guitarist Olof Arnalds. Her debut CD has recently been released in the U.S. It's called Vi? og Vi?, which translates to "every now and then."

Icelandic musicians are a small, tight-knit, supportive community. They play in each other's bands and borrow each other's instruments and equipment. Arnalds says she was no different.

"I was a typical Reykjavik musician: in really many bands playing with different people," she says. "Then I started working on my own music, and I'm really happy that I've started finding my own voice."

When you think of singers from Iceland, of course you think of Bjork — a huge international star. Arnalds, by contrast, is still only really known in her homeland.

Arnalds' debut CD is a mixture of innocent nursery rhyme and timeless folk. It was produced by Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboardist for the well-known Icelandic band Sigur Ros. His wife is an old-school friend of Arnalds'. His own band's music features lush arrangements, but on Vi? og Vi?, Sveinsson kept everything stripped down.

"It was the voice and the guitars, the basic stuff," Sveinsson says. "I didn't do any arranging or anything like that. It's maybe hard to call it producing, really, on that record. We just kept everything quite minimal.

Icelandic, With International Instrumentation

Olof Arnalds is a classically trained violinist and singer who taught herself to play guitar by accompanying other performers. On Vi? og Vi?, she also plays a Japanese koto and the charango, a South American 10-stringed instrument with a body made from an armadillo shell. She plays it on a song she wrote for her sister, Klara.

"It's a song where I'm encouraging her to do creative things with her life. It's for her 18th birthday," Arnalds says.

Arnalds' charango chops, and the popularity of this song, may have launched a new northern market for the little instrument.

"It's so funny," Arnalds says, "because now they're selling charangos in the music store in Iceland, and the people in the music store tune it the way I tune it, which is kind of funny, because that's not the traditional way of tuning it."

A Voice That Makes Heads Turn

Aside from all the instruments she plays, however, it's the sound of Arnalds' voice that makes heads turn. There's something mesmerizing about the quality of that otherworldly warble and the precision of her little folk songs.

Vi? og Vi? came out in Iceland in 2007, where it has since sold out its initial pressing of 4,000 copies (5,000 counts as a gold album there). It's being released in the U.S. now for the first time in preparation for Arnalds' second album, which comes out this spring. The new record will feature three tunes in English, including one with guest vocals by Bjork.

"I'm very much into the storytelling aspect of music," Arnalds says. "And even though singing in Icelandic, I always felt I was still carrying through some kind of story or giving some sort of impression of the story." - NPR Music


Discography

Við Og Við - 2007
Innundir skinni 7" - 2010
Crazy Car 7" - 2010
Innundir skinni (album) - 2010

Photos

Bio

Ólöf Arnalds is an Icelandic singer and multi-instrumentalist. Classically educated on the violin, viola and self-taught on guitar and charango, Ólöf’s most distinctive asset is, nonetheless, her voice. A voice of instantly captivating, spring water chasteness possessed of a magical, otherworldly quality that is simultaneously innocent yet ancient (“somewhere between a child and an old woman” according to no less an authority than Björk).

While she has been favourably compared with the likes of Vashti Bunyan, Judee Sill and Kate Bush, Ólöf’s approach to making music remains highly individual: playful but intimate; accessible and uplifting, yet deeply personal and suffused with a timeless mystique that goes beyond the puckish inscrutability of her native tongue. Ólöf has also quickly proved herself as a magnetic, utterly self-assured stage performer, reliant as much on screwball humour, vaudevillian charm and even outright bawdiness, as much as the contrasting delicacy of her song delivery.

Recorded by Sigur Rós’s Kjartan Sveinsson, directly to tape, Ólöf’s 2007 debut, Við Og Við is an album of ingeniously adorned whole take performances, whose charged minimalism creates an inimitable world of its own. The album would duly accrue a sheaf of accolades at home, including Best Alternative Album at the Iceland Music Awards and a Record of the Year gong from Iceland’s principal daily newspaper, Morgunblaðið.

Upon it’s international release in 2009, it would elicit gushing notices from the likes of The New York Times, Vanity Fair, NME and SPIN and prompt MOJO to herald Ólöf as “Reykjavik’s answer to Kate Bush.” Time Out New York described her having “… the kind of voice that can silence a room, such is its sweetness”, while Rolling Stone described her songs being “fragile as tiny china swans”. Meanwhile, Paste magazine would dub Við Og Við “impossibly lovely” and vote it Number 38 in its Top 100 album list. Not to be outdone, eMusic named it among the 100 best albums of the decade.

Recorded throughout 2009, Ólöf’s sophomore album, Innundir skinni was produced once again at Sundlaugin by Kjartan Sveinsson and co-produced by Davíð Þór Jónsson. The album boasts more extensive instrumentation and additional players than on Við Og Við but feels effortless; the additional musicians’ performances woven into the body of the songs, never overpowering them, with Ólöf’s typically empyrean vocals upfront and proud. The album includes both Ólöf’s first recorded songs delivered in English and her first duets - with Ragnar Kjartansson (Crazy Car) and Björk (Surrender).

It’s her spontaneity and charm, as much as two albums of sublime song craft and ineffable, unforced Icelandic charisma, which make Ólöf Arnalds such a uniquely appealing musician into whose confidence we listeners can’t help but want to be taken.