The Icelandic music community is a tightly knit group of comrades where everyone seems to know and look out for each other. “It’s so easy to put something together. Everyone knows someone who has gear to use or a place to play at,” Olof Arnalds explains over the phone in a charming accent. Arnalds is a rising singer/songwriter hailing from Iceland and rapidly gaining international renown. “I think a lot of music transcends language barriers,.” says Arnalds, regarding the growing popularity of Icelandic music in America. “But I think it represents something interesting because it’s new, and Icelandic music is very young. People are curious.”
Arnalds was recently ranked at #87 in eMusic’s 100 best albums of the decade with her debut album Vio Og Vio. Her launch to fame took many by surprise, including herself. “It was a pleasant surprise. I only found out about it when someone else told me. It’s a very big honor.” The album title roughly translates to “Then and Now” and features Arnalds’s light-hearted Icelandic lyrics in a cheerful demeanor. When asked what she believes makes her different from the plethora of other female vocalists, Arnalds replies after some deliberation, “Maybe I am and maybe I’m not [different]. I’m just doing my thing and it comes from the heart.”
Arnalds’s affinity for music began at a young age with violin lessons. It is there that she met Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboardist of Sigur Ros, who does Arnalds’s music production. “He’s an old friend; I’ve known him for over 10 years and am childhood friends with his wife, Maria. She and I played violin together when we were kids and we got to know each other better. It’s really good to work with Kjartan, he is really, really clever,” says Arnalds when recalling her early music production and the duo’s first gig together in May 2009 at Vatnasafnið, the Library of Water, in Stykkishólmur, Iceland. “Kjartan heard a version of a song I did and liked it so he decided to record it.”
Joining Mum as a touring member in 2002, five years before her debut album released, Arnalds was always toying with melodies and lyrics in her head while on the road. Arnalds says she is “currently too preoccupied with her own projects to work with them” but remains good friends and would be happy to play with them if new projects were to arise in the future. “In the small community of Icelandic musicians we are always working together, so to say there won’t be further collaborations isn’t a foresight I have,” she says.
Recently completing a new album slated for an early Spring release, Arnalds now enjoys some well deserved R&R at her home in Iceland with her two-year-old son, Ari. In her second album, Ókídóki, Arnalds takes a different path then the first. “While the first album was simply me playing guitar and singing, the new one is a similar approach, but we did all individual live one takes for each song because the instruments flows together better.” Says Arnalds, “There is one song, the first one off the new album, which is free for download on our website. We must have done 50 takes of it. It was very demanding but I am pleased with the result.” A very rough mix of the first song from Olof’s new album can be found at Stereogum. Arnalds comments that the late release of Ókídóki is partly due to the long editing process of doing one takes, in addition to preparation for an international release.
Another first for Arnalds is the inclusion of English tracks on her new album. She explains, “I’ve been told while on tour in non-Icelandic speaking countries that even though I’m singing in Icelandic, I can get some sort of message through, but because I enjoy the storytelling aspect of music I think it [the English songs] takes the music to a new place. It’s mostly for performances. I noticed while singing cover songs in English I would really capture the attention of the audience. Plus my mother was raised in England and speaks English.” She continues to explain that she didn’t feel any difficulty or apprehension while putting Ókídóki together, but instead focused on the content.
Critics of Arnalds’ performances say that they are engagingly unique and that no two shows are alike. “I like to have an element of danger on stage. It keeps me on my toes. We go into it with just a set list and a lot of it is ad-libbed,” shes elaborates. “It’s just Kjartan and I doing performances, in America at least.” None of the chaos of performing and touring seems to affect Arnalds, however. Having recently finished a tour she remarks that, “I’m pretty mellow when I’m touring. If I am stressed out, it’s from the everyday stuff, not from the music.” She concludes that after singing her heart out at a sell-out show in a small, intimate venue, she enjoys cool a glass of sparkling wine at the bar.
Discussing the process in which she creates songs, Arnalds explains, “It depends on if the words or melody comes first. But I’m constantly working on songs in the back of my mind.” She goes on to elaborate on the direction in which she would like to take her music. “I’d like to explore my voice a bit more, but I’m not sure if I can detach myself from the guitar,” she laughs adorably. “I’m curious to see where it goes though. I’m still writing new content when I have time, but I’m not sure how much of it will make it into songs.”
In her down time between writing and touring, Arnalds enjoys Iceland’s hot springs. “I love swimming,” She says. “Also getting popular in my group of friends is a soiree where we meet and have some wine and play music and read poetry. I really like that. It’s the only thing that intrigues me when it comes to partying or anything like that.” Arnalds goes on to tell me that “I need to find something to do for my birthday in January, too. Maybe a big soiree.”
Arnalds also holds a BA from the Iceland Academy of Arts, “In composition of new media, whatever that means.” Arnalds laughs.