2018 felt like the year when composer, musician and performer Ólafur Arnalds came into his own and stepped out into the limelight. After years of collaborations, soundtrack work, tours, and a noticeable ever-growing popularity, he dropped his best album to date—the thrillingly melodic and minimal ‘re:member’—which took off vertically, picking up positive attention from Rolling Stone, NPR and KEXP, to name just a few, and selling out shows in some of the world’s finest concert halls.
This stellar year was a long time coming. “It’s my first actual full length album for five years,” says Ólafur. An ever relaxed figure wearing a music note t-shirt, he speaks in an open and relaxed way about his work, and his world. “I’ve done a lot of stuff and been on a really nice trajectory, but I haven’t released something that said ‘This is who I am’ for a while. And that’s why albums are still important in this… whatever world we’re living in. That’s what did it this year, and made things explode a little bit.”
Between the lines
‘Re:member’ feels like the culmination of a lot of work. It’s sensitively written to be instantly appealing and catchy, whilst maintaining a confident sparseness in the sound. The melodies are never crowded or overworked, but rather poised and well-judged.
“That’s actually the hardest part,” smiles Ólafur. “Essentially I’m trying to make pop music… but not actual pop music. There are catchy melodies sometimes, but it’s so important to leave that space. If I don’t, it’s not going to be me any more. To find the space within melodies or concepts that can still be catchy, and grab onto that, is the most challenging part to me—but also the most rewarding.”
Jerking off synthesizers
When it comes to his musical development over the years since his last solo album, Ólafur speaks respectfully of his collaborators. “You learn something from each collaboration,” he says. “Every collaborator brings something to the table. This album is all of that coming together—it’s everything I learned in the last few years coming out.”
Ólafur’s shows have become well known for technical innovation and elaborate staging. He speaks fondly of the collaborators who help it happen. “A lot of the work I’ve done has been to create a team,” says Ólafur. “I’ve come to realise that music is more than music. If you look at your favourite musicians of the last fifty years, they all have something else about them, that’s a little bit more. An obvious example is David Bowie. I can do the music, but I have come to realise that I can’t do that part alone. So the art becomes to create the team.”
“It’s about seeing the good in people, and finding what they can bring to the table,” he says. “This goes for everything from my management, to the label, to the technicians on tour, and the sound and lights. I don’t design the lights, but it’s a huge part of what I’m known for now—this visual experience. So my art is to find these people, and not just sit in my studio and pick my nose whilst jerking off some synthesisers.”
Global cave songs
Ólafur is also highly engaged with his audience via social media, opening up his life and process to his listeners, including alternative versions, live streams of the recording process, and moments from tour.
As a result of this openness and willingness to share and engage, a community has formed around his work. “My social media followers are definitely a community,” he says. “They talk to each other, become friends, share things, create art together. As many faults as social media has—and there are many—it’s a way to change the idea that the musicians have this godlike image, and show that music is about community, connection and expressing things we cannot express with words. Social media has made that aspect global—it’s no longer you sitting playing for your friends in a cave.”
Proving your worth
Such international success has made Ólafur a well known public figure in his homeland—a phenomenon that he’s still negotiating. “Iceland can be so weird that way,” he laughs. “Not everyone listens to your music, but you become a kind of known figure. I often wonder, ‘What is my place here?’ I noticed that people now put my name alongside Björk and Sigur Rós when they’re writing an article about Iceland, and that makes me feel like I need to prove that I’m worth what they’re saying about me. That’s partly why I went all in on the recent shows here, in Harpa, and do it properly. It’s that little ego saying I need to prove that I’m worth what people are saying.”
The shows met with rapturious praise from those in attendance and cemented Ólafur’s reputation as a homegrown star. As he embarks on a long tour of the US and Europe in 2019, our richly deserving Artist of the Year can step out into the world knowing he’s more than earned his stripes at home in Iceland—and from here on out, the sky’s the limit.
Read more about the Grapevine Music Awards 2019 here.