Feature Interview :: Ólafur Arnalds
March 14th 2014
Olafur Arnalds by Hedinn Eiriksson/Mercury Classics
Ólafur Arnalds’ trajectory as a musician baffles. Simply put, he aims to make ‘classical music for people who don’t really listen to classical music’.
His most recent album, For Now I Am Winter, achieves this; obliterating that fortress of tradition that can make approaching classical music seem more like sneaking, squeaky-shoed, through a sandstone library than getting cozy in a bookshop.
So stumbling upon his Eulogy for Evolution six years ago was a stroke of luck for 16 year old me. A Shire kid. Bumpkin in the face of culture that didn’t revolve around community hall hardcore gigs. So it tickled this teenybopper pink to find that Ólafur Arnalds started out drumming in hardcore bands. His relatability opened up a whole world of sound I felt was exclusively the domain of the English and their tea times.
Arnalds has since been crossing and combining genres recklessly – leading us to the present day, where 2013′s For Now I Am Winter comfortably sits in the eclectic ears of the Internet Generation. It’s at times austere, at times ardently emotive – with its orchestral arrangements peppered by restrained electronica and punctuated by appearances from an alt-rock vocalist.
Given a chance to speak with Arnalds, I asked him; is his motley discography representative of his music tastes?
“Absolutely. My music career is basically whatever I’m into at that moment.
“Now I’m doing a lot more electronica because I’m simply listening to a lot more electronica these days – in a couple of years it might be something completely different.”
Speaking of ‘something completely different’, Ólafur Arnalds has a collaboration worth scoping out with Janus Rasmussen of staple Icelandic band, Bloodgroup. Together they are Kiasmos. And they’ve remixed the title track from For Now I Am Winter, injected it with some electro throb and unleashed it on iTunes. Release they did, but perhaps they didn’t really intend to…
“We started doing music together in 2009 just as friends, and it’s been a kind of ritual for us.
“The first Friday of every month we meet in the studio and make some techno with a bottle of whisky [laughs]. It’s a beautiful instrument that’s involved.
“So we didn’t get into this project for the purpose of releasing music, we were only doing this because we wanted to hang out, and our favourite thing is to make music, and when we hang out we make music!”
Imagine if your drunken jam sessions sounded this good. I can’t either.
Collaboration pretty much characterises the last couple of years of Arnalds’ craft. From Arnór Dan Arnarsson of Icelandic band Agent Fresco, who lent his voice to four tracks on For Now I Am Winter, to Nico Muhly, who Arnalds brought aboard to produce the record. On top of this, he’s sporadically releasing electronic tunes with Erased Tapes labelmate Nils Frahm – who also reworked the title track on For Now I Am Winter. Not even going to mention that he produced Ben Hammersley‘s pop EP, which featured vocals from Harry Potter’s Emma Watson. He says collaborating isn’t a matter of preference for him, but necessity.
“That’s the way you can grow as a musician, when you can learn something from someone else.”
“While I do most of the stuff on my own I need to bring in someone else every now and then just so I can feel inspired, like I’m heading somewhere. So I am getting something new out of it each time.”
These relentless collaborations have lent some unexpected flavours to the veritable gelataria of Arnalds’ discography, leaving fans wondering what the hell is going to happen next. The string quartet releases that typified his emergence seem to be a thing of the past. Are they?
“This year I am definitely gonna concentrate on collaborations.
“I have a few things lined up – not only musical collaborations but also collaborating with a dance company and some directors and films, so I don’t think I’ll really get back to a new solo album until next year.”
Arnalds’ evolution-by-collaboration might just be the mark of the incestuous (in the nice way) Icelandic music community. Iceland is the country with the world’s most professional musicians per capita (oh yeah, not forgetting the most poets, screenwriters, directors, playwrights and authors per capita to boot). It also has a mere 300,000 or so inhabitants. So going down to your local pub means you might just leave with a drunken collaborator – and this is pretty much what happened with vocalist Arnór Dan (pictured below).
With the addition of vocals on For Now I Am Winter, Ólafur has created something more recognisably pop than anything he has made before. A huge leap. And the lyrics are not in Icelandic. Is… Is he selling out?
“Although there’s definitely a couple of the vocal songs on the album that have this kind of verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, most of the songs were actually written first as instrumentals and then we added the vocals on top later, so the arrangement or the structure isn’t necessarily affected that much by the vocals.
“In fact we tried to use the vocals as just another instrument, you know.
“I don’t like thinking about vocals as the lead instrument or something like that, to me it’s just like adding another clarinet.”
Arnór Dan, the human clarinet on For Now I Am Winter, accompanied Ólafur to Australia this time – unlike last September, when Arnalds performed barebones arrangements in Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane, bringing only a cellist and a violinist to our shores. His most recent visit in late February saw him miss Sydney completely, visiting only Perth and Melbourne. Speaking with Óli over the phone hours prior to the concert at the Melbourne Recital Hall, he filled me in on the drawbacks of taking the full orchestral and electronic extravaganza on the road… Especially to Perth in summer.
“We played outside, which can be very problematic for me, especially when it’s 38 degrees outside.
“There were a few technical problems, like computers literally melting – my computer crashed because of the heat.
There was an hour delay, but it worked in the end. We used a few water bottles and a fan as a cooler.”
On top of this, his piano tuner was involved in a car accident on the way to the venue. But Ólafur just can’t take a hint, and is keen to come back to our shores – much sooner than is strictly customary. And if you were wondering why Sydneysiders missed out this time…
“I believe it’s because we are looking at something great in Sydney later this year or early next year. And if I would’ve come over to Sydney now and just played another show at the Basement or whatever we probably would have lost that opportunity that we’re working on.
“When we come back to Sydney, we want to make it worth it – and not just so I can do the same thing we did a few months ago anyway.”
Before a gig, Ólafur and his accompaniment sometimes only manage to sneak in one rehearsal together – yet his music is phenomenally moving. So it’s hard to imagine that it can be performed precisely, sincerely, off a piece of paper – just like it’s hard to imagine moshing to a band reading off guitar tabs. I’m curious, if the orchestra isn’t particularly ‘getting’ the music, can he tell?
“Yeah, I can tell, totally.
“Actually, when we do these shows with the full orchestra, we’re working with a lot of different orchestras, and you can always see just from the first rehearsal whether people are getting the music or not – whether people are understanding the atmosphere that should be in the music, cause a lot of that you can’t write down in their music sheets, you can’t explain that, people just have to understand it.
“It has actually happened that it hasn’t really come together until the night of the concert itself, when the people are in the room and we have the lights and the visuals and everything, then finally, suddenly people get it – they’re like – ‘oh, this is how it’s supposed to sound!’ [laughs]. And they do it perfectly.”
In the first bit of press I can remember reading about Ólafur Arnalds six years ago, someone wrote he was ‘breaking classical music out of the tweed jacket and loafers and putting it into a t-shirt and trainers’. Does he think he’s been successful in completing this mission assigned to him by the Elders of the Internet?
“I think so, yeah! I think we can say that I’ve been at least partly successful.
“When I started, the classical world was really not very open to what I was doing, 5 or 6 years ago. But today I find, all of a sudden orchestras want to work with us and there’s all these more classical venues I’m playing… It’s not only thanks to me, of course [laughs] but there’s been a kind of movement within the classical scene of breaking it, a little bit, out of the whole elitist classical attitude that, for the past 100 years at least, has been a little bit overwhelming.
If you want some classical without the elitist attitude, check out Ólafur’s Destiny’s Child cover with Arnór Dan and Douglas Dare.
Ólafur Arnalds’ Official | ‘For Now I Am Winter’ on Itunes
Read :: Album Review: ‘For Now I Am Winter’