While on tour to promote her new album, Innundir Skinni, Ólöf Arnalds sat down with Blake Griffin and discussed her music, touring in the US, and her plans for the future.
Ólöf Arnalds hasn’t been a part of the American music scene for long, and as an Icelandic folk singer, she certainly isn’t that well known. But as Jayson Greene of Pitchfork said, “those that do know about her, ‘pass her around like a secret.’”
She burst onto the music scene in Iceland in 2007 with the release of the beautifully serene and precise album titled Við Og Við (Ólöf pronounces it ‘vil a vil’). The album, produced by Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós, sold out it’s initial printing of 4,000 copies, and went on to go platinum (5,000 albums is platinum in Iceland). Despite it’s release in 2007, Við Og Við didn’t find its way to the states until early 2010. And although she sings exclusively in Icelandic on the album, it’s been highly praised by the likes of Vanity Fair who called it ‘impossibly lovely’, The New York Times that praised her voice for ‘humanizing it’s otherworldly purity’, and Spin, who simply called it ‘stunning.’
The benefit of delaying its release in America, is that Ólöf’s fans didn’t have to wait long for a sophomore album, titled Innundir Skinni, which loosely translates to ‘under the skin.’ This album is also produced by Kjartan Sveinsson who is loosely connected to Ms. Arnalds through a childhood friend. On Innundir Skinni, we finally get to hear some of her songs in English. And, as it turns out, it’s just as charming as when she sings in her native language. She even sings a haunting duet with international sensation Björk, called Surrender. The video for Surrender was just released and featured on Pitchfork last week. The video, like the artist herself, is arrestingly beautiful, and feels disarmingly familiar, while seeming totally foreign at the same time.
Ólöf is short, and energetically friendly. When we first met, she asked me to help carry her guitar to her dressing room, where she quickly offered me a beer. She had just spent the day driving from Boise, Idaho, to Salt Lake City after a fairly bad snow storm. She had a few hours before she was to play a forty five minute set, opening for the band Blonde Redhead. A set that was just as lovely as her albums, and even included a Springsteen cover. Her demeanor matched the innocence and simplicity of her music; she seemed genuinely happy to be doing what she’s doing. She’s a bit beguiling, the way she enthusiastically discusses her sisters (of which, she has three), the way she became curiously shy when the subject of her son was broached, and how she described her creativity as an ‘earth connection’. After opening a large tray of vegetables and dip, we began the interview.
We Got This Covered: Is this your first tour in the US
I went on another tour earlier this year to promote my new album.
But you didn’t tour in the US for Við Og Við?
No, not at all.
That was your first solo album, and it went platinum. Are you quite a celebrity there?
[Laughing] I don’t know about celebrity, but yes, I’ve reached some, I don’t know what this word is, notoriety there.
Even though your first album was released in 2007, it only recently became available in North America. How’s its reception since it’s exclusively in Icelandic?
It’s sort of funny with Við Og Við. I think that in some ways, because it’s remained only in Iceland for a couple years, there’s been some sensation around it, like something that has just been discovered. In a way, it’s been helpful, I don’t find that the language causes in problems, I think it just adds to the mystery
So you’re not finding much of a language barrier for your American fans?
I think, you know, when I’m preforming in a concert, there are different ways you can communicate as a singer to the audience. For example, if you’re singing to an audience in a language they dont’ understand, you’re trying to carry through an emotional message. Then you can also tell them what the songs are about before hand, that adds another essence to it. And now that I’m writing in English, you know, it’s another way of creating a relationship with an audience, and that’s what I enjoy exploring.
I wanted to ask you about that. How is it different performing in English? Is it a difficult transition to a second language?
I don’t think so. English isn’t so far away from me, my mother was raised in England. She was born to Icelandic parents there, and didn’t come to Iceland until her teens. A lot of my mother’s family is English speaking, so I’ve been exposed to it since I was a kid, and most people in Iceland speak pretty good English because of television and stuff. I find, of course, English doesn’t resonate in me as a person in the same way as my mother tongue does, because it just doesn’t, maybe, have the same emotional depth. But what I like about writing in English is that because I understand Icelandic so well, I understand when I’m breaking the rules, I know so well what I’m doing, it’s easier to be critical. So when I’m writing in English, it’s more of a naive process and I find it kind of exciting to not know what’s happening and in a way. Also, because all the people I’m working with, they’re mostly English-speaking, even though I live in Iceland, I speak English most of the time. I’m going through a transformation in that way in a sense.
How does your new album, Innundir Skinni, differ from your first album?
The first album was sort of one concept, very unified in its sound. But this one is, the sounds are more variable, and it’s got more elaborate instrumentation. But maybe what sort of combines these two records is that the recording process is very light, it’s made up of whole takes. I’m always singing and playing one instrument on the first album, but on the second record, I have up to five people playing with me at one time. It’s a very exciting way to record. It takes a lot of patience too.
So you played all the instruments on your first album yourself?
No, I played most of them. But there are some string quartets there, and some wood winds, and brass not played by me. But on the new album, I play some of the string instruments, and one of them is played by a professional quartet.
How many instruments do you actually play?
Whoa, I’ve never counted them. If you play a string instrument, you can so easily switch between string instruments, they’re all sort of the same.
And you’re trained classically in violin?
Your video for Surrender, which featured vocals by Björk, was just recently showcased on Pitchfork. I wondered if you could talk a bit about the concept of the video.
I did the video with directors Arni and Kinski (Kjartansson and Árni Þorgeirsson). Kjartansson, he’s a good friend of mine, we met up while talking about creating a video for the song, I knew he wanted to do it. We started exchanging ideas, and we both had the idea that we wanted to have a dance that showed some kind of struggle. And we both had the same dance in mind. I was just really lucky because he was in Iceland working with a dance company. So we met up basically every day for almost two weeks, and rehearsed for two hours a day. I had to throw myself into it.
Are you trained in dancing?
No, I had never done it before. It was a very exciting, thrilling, risky process
It was filmed in Iceland?
Yes, we filmed it there, in Super 8. And it was really a rainy day, it was quite a challenge because it was so rainy and cold.
The result is beautiful. How did Bjork end up taking part in the track?
That came about in a very organic way–just through my friendship with her. I met up with her while I was making the album, it was in its mixing stage. I had her listen to it to get a second opinion. She had a particular interest in this song, and had an idea of something to do. But she didn’t tell me about it at first. So, when I had her listen to it a second time, she told me, ‘Look, I have this idea.’
So she came to you?
That’s quite a compliment.
Yes, it was. She told me she had recorded vocals for the track, and said ‘You can edit it in any way you like, you can use it or not use it.’ I decided to use it just as she recorded it.
Earlier in your career, you worked with the Icelandic band múm. Do you plan on collaborating with them again?
I’m sure that we’re gonna have to collaborate again some time in the future because we’re such good friends and it wouldn’t make sense not to work together. But now I’m very busy with my own music, and they’re doing they’re thing, and they’ve got a great group going right now.
So you haven’t worked with them in quite a while?
Not since late 2007.
Can you tell me a bit about the song titled Madrid on Innundir Skinni?
It’s sort of a love lament. Yeah, like a heartbreak song. It’s quite melancholic.
Is it based on personal experience?
What about the titled track, Innundir Skinni?
That one is about being pregnant, about expecting a child.
Do you have children of your own?
Yes, I have one son.
I have to ask you about the song titled Klara off Við Og Við, since it’s one of my personal favorites.
It’s a song written to my sister on her 18th birthday, that was my gift to her. It’s just a song encouraging her to be creative. And I think it’s working, she’s becoming a graphic designer.
Do you have any collaborations planned, or new albums in the works?
Yes, I think I’ll start recording a new album in the end of January. I’m just touring so much. I’m going to Australia in January, and then I’m going to be touring in US and Europe again in February and March. But I’m going to try and record when I’m home because I’ve got 20 or so songs ready that I want to do something with.
So it won’t be long before we hear another album from you?
Hopefully not, as long as I get some time off the road.
You have a track called Crazy Car that’s written to one of your friends, and it seems like a warning about taking a music career to America, can you comment on that?
Yeah, it’s like a tongue-in-cheek thing. The ‘crazy car’ is a pseudonym for losing your ‘earth connection.’ It’s just a warning to my friend, or to any one, and myself, not to lose their earth connection, their creativity when leaving home to persue what could possibly be a more commercial path.
What’s the best way for fans to follow you?
I just started a Twitter account, at www.twitter.com/olofarnalds. I’ve got a MySpace page where you can listen to some of my music, as well as a personal website at www.olofarnalds.com, as well as a Facebook fan page somewhere.
A huge thanks to One Little Indian records for setting up this interview. And to Ólöf Arnalds for taking the time to talk to We Got This Covered. Ólöf’s albums are available in well stocked music stores everywhere, as well as from iTunes and other online outlets. Check out her MySpace page for concert dates.
Blake Griffin is an editor for We Got This Covered. He also runs his own site, at www.bitchinfilmreviews.com.