Siobhan Kane spoke with Iceland’s Ólöf Arnalds ahead of her performance in The Grand Social on Friday 24th September as part of the Absolut Dublin Fringe Festival.
Ólöf Arnalds‘ two records, 2007’s Við og við (Now and Then) and this year’s Innundir skinni (Within Skin) express something that goes beyond neat explanation, they document an almost otherworldly talent. After studying violin and classical singing, Arnalds started collaborating with the Múm collective, as well as several other artists (such as Stórsveit Nix Noltes) and later studied Composition and New Media at the Iceland Academy of Arts; all of these experiences framed her solo work which walks between old and new ways of seeing, sharing and creating. Part of Arnalds mesmerising talent is captured by Björk who has described her voice as “somewhere between a child and an old woman”, perhaps she is referencing the lived wisdom that radiates from Arnalds vocal. Both of her records have been produced by Kjartan Sveinsson (Sigur Rós) and you sense a true kinship at work; his sensitive production helps create a landscape where something like the simple guitar and koto based ‘Orfeus Og Evridís’ and the grander, more lavish-sounding ‘Náttsöngur’ (from her first record) can thrive and bob along in sympathy.
Her second record finds her experimenting further, collaborating with more people (Davið Þór Jónsson, Shahzad Ismaily among others), duetting (Björk on the heartbreaking ‘Surrender’), sometimes singing in English, and introducing other instruments she has taught herself to play. The three 7″ singles she has released along with her second record also have b-sides of artists she appreciates, such as Arthur Russell, and her work shares a common ground with Russell’s deeply emotional and intellectual approach to music, and a discipline, but also a bloody, messy, contorted heart. Her music acknowledges that winter is coming, but leaves a candle in the window, so you know that warmth and nurture are never too far away. Siobhán Kane talks to her.
Iceland has been going through severe crises over the last number of years such as the issues surrounding Magma Industries, what do you think are consistent characteristics of Icelandic culture, and do you think that the various issues have impacted the Icelandic community very much? Iceland is going through very turbulent times, where everything is changing very fast, the crash of the economy has brought up a lot of things that were under the table, unbelievable corruption has been brought out into daylight and people are angry and confused. The history of Iceland as a civil society is quite short and the 20th century was a time of very fast change from farmers society to a civil society. Just in my lifetime, I think the capital, Reykjavík, has changed very much. From being any other fishing village to this place that´s pretending to be a cosmopolitan city, with an identity that has more to do with attracting tourists than knowing who we are. I sometimes call Reykjavík the smallest capital of the world with the biggest ego. Icelanders are very good at fixing things last minute and not afraid of taking on any assignment which is a fabulous quality – sort of carefree ´let´s do it´ gusto, but our culture is immature and seriously lacks infrastructure and foresight.
Community is hugely important to the Icelandic musical tradition. How did you become involved in that community initially? The community of musicians in Iceland is a very tight one, where people from different musical backgrounds can easily get involved in projects together. I find that most collaborations that I see around me happen in a very organic way. People get involved in each others projects more through friendship and similar artistic interests, rather than people getting chosen for projects with a fixed idea of what the final outcome should be. That´s at least how I´ve been working and getting work since I became an active member of the music scene.
You are both classically trained in some instruments and self-taught in others- is there a tension there that keeps you pushing the boundaries, that in order to break the rules, you have to have mastered them to some extent already? All through my classical training I had a hard time reading and following notes, which made me have to do a lot of following by ear. So I was basically always finding ways of surviving through it. My first instrument was the violin which of course is a pretty brutal beginners instrument and I was always in agony when I had to play student concerts because I’d literally see red if I played a flat note and my knees would shake and the bow would jump on the string. I switched from violin to voice because I felt that I could trust my voice better to be in tune. When I started practicing the guitar in my teens it was very important for me not to have lessons on it because I wanted to have an instrument that was untouched by any of the training or knowledge I was getting, or not getting, at music school. So actually it’s only recently that I’ve been learning about what the notes and the chords are called on the guitar.
To me music is a very mysterious thing that I don’t really understand, so don’t really feel that I have mastered any rules. I have my own internal vocabulary for music which is completely detached from written theory. It’s like a strange, visual system that I’ve invented throughout my life to memorise melodies and chord structures. I like working with people who are up for working just by ear because that’s easiest for me but I also have the privilege of being able to speak in educated terms about music and I can write notes if I have to. Actually now I’d like to strengthen my theoretical understanding because I’m often tormented by not being able to communicate or execute the music that I hear in my head.
Philip Glass has often talked about the value of a musical education early on in life, that a musical education is a great foundation for everything else, whether science, gardening, or further into music, what are your views? I had the privilege of starting music school when I was 6. The music education within the elementary schools in Iceland at the time was not the same level as it is now. It was mostly singing patriotic songs to piano, so I was lucky to go to a music school. I’m very passionate about music education and taught music to children for some time a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I think there is definitely something in learning and playing music for everybody. It sharpens ones understanding of so many different things like proportion, time, emotions and structure.
How open is the access to music in Iceland, and do you feel that people are very aware of Iceland’s traditional music? As Iceland was both very isolated and very poor for centuries, instruments were not commonly owned by people until quite recently in our history. Outside the churches the only folk music was an oral form called Rímur which consists of different forms of poetic structure which is kind of half sung, half recited. In the last years there has been an increased interest in this almost extinct musical form and old recordings have been released. In some ways I think that the absence of a strong musical heritage gives composers and songwriters kind of a free card to do whatever they want and perhaps an opportunity to find out for themselves what Icelandic music is.
Was your course in the Iceland Academy of Arts in Composition and New Media interesting? It seemed to set you off on a slightly different path. I went to the Art Academy to get time, student loans, space and facilities to work on my art. I got exposed to many things there but more importantly, outside of school I was playing a lot with different musicians of the Icelandic music scene. I don´t see my music as traditional and I don´t really consider myself a folk musician. I´m just writing songs as they come to me, and at the moment mostly playing them on acoustic instruments. What I got the most out of at the Art Academy were the music history courses with Árni Heimir Ingólfsson, a brilliant scholar of Musicology, who is now the artistic director of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Recently Árni Heimir put together a list of notated music from Icelandic manuscripts for me that is the basis of my collaboration with Högni Egilsson from Hjaltalín, who will be joining Davíð and I onstage at the Dublin Fringe Festival, where we will be performing some of the arrangements that we are working on from Árni Heimir´s collection.
Your records were produced by Kjartan Sveinsson, and on your second record you incorporated Davið Þór Jónsson who you perform with live – these collaborations seem very organic, is it more that you respond to someone as a person and know instinctively that you can work with them, rather than hearing their work first, or did it all kind of come at the same time? The community of musicians in Iceland is very small so both Kjartan and Davíð were people I had known for a while before starting to work with them. I think in choosing collaborators the most important thing for me is to have people around that are open and up for bouncing ideas back and forth, and there is also a lot of trust involved also, as my music is quite personal and fragile. Another thing that my closest collaborators have in common is patience, because my relationship with the recording studio is quite a chaotic and sometimes turbulent one, as I´m quite relentless in looking for a feel or a sound that I maybe don´t have the technical vocabulary to communicate.
How did you find singing in English on your second record? Did it access a different side of you that you hadn’t even known was there? My first ideas about experimenting with writing in English were sparked by my interaction on stage with English speaking audiences. It made me curious how I would get different kinds of listening, depending on whether I would explain the stories behind the Icelandic lyrics or not, and yet another kind of listening if I sung covers in English. My performance has a lot to do with storytelling, so I got interested in trying out how it would be to communicate my own writing in English. I quite like the ambivalence of it, as I am so rooted in Icelandic that I´m always aware of right or wrong language. With English I feel more like I´m feeling my way through, which is challenging and fun.
Also, in terms of duets, how did you find the process? Your collaboration with Björk seems so timely, both such inventive minds – how did that collaboration come about? There must be so much common ground there. Like my other collaborators I was friends with Björk before we started working together. I had opened some shows for her and played on a track with her for a national television program in Iceland. We met up to have a listen through the first mixes of my album and Björk became interested in this particular track – ‘Surrender’ and got an idea for a counter melody which she didn´t tell me about then. Next time around playing her some updated mixes she said that she wanted to try out recording these lines and I could use them if I wanted. Then she was off to Puerto Rico, so quite late in the final stages of the mixing she sent me her voice recordings ,from there which we mixed to my track with an outcome that I´m very happy with. The emotional channeling of her voice added a new level to my feelings behind the song and brought it exactly to the place where I wanted it to go.
Something I have always associated with Björk is a very humorous streak as well as great artistry – and you share that with her also, and that translates to your performances, how important is humour to you as a performer? And who have you admired over the years in terms of translating their sound to a live context and performance generally? I admire good humour and I think in many ways that it is the highest form of intelligence. In my case I have in some ways used humour to make my being onstage easier if I´m nervous and not to forget if I make mistakes, which I frequently do. Humour helps me to take things as they come and make the best out of anything that happens on stage. I like putting myself in a bit of risk when I´m on stage, so most often I don´t have a set order of songs and constantly change how I play and sing them. That kind of vulnerability I find very interesting for me as a performer. And of course the whole thing of getting up there playing music is hilarious. It´s such a funny job to be a musician, especially in the big picture. Davíð Þór is brilliant with this and we have endless fun on stage. He always keeps a good perspective on not taking yourself too seriously. We try to take our art seriously, just not ourselves. I would also like to mention Jonathan Richman in this respect, as I’ve opened a few shows for him and seen his live performances which are both highly emotional and full of wit and humour at the same time.
Innundir skinni is out now on One Little Indian.
Ólöf Arnalds plays as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival on Friday 24th September in the Absolut Fringe Factory at The Grand Social.