From Iceland — Hanging out At Café Flóra with Ólöf Arnalds

Hanging out At Café Flóra with Ólöf Arnalds

Published July 10, 2015

Hanging out At Café Flóra with Ólöf Arnalds
Ciarán Daly
Photo by

Café Flóra (Flóran) is an unassuming—but rather beautiful—little place, way out in the wastelands of Reykjavík botanic gardens (in 105 Reykjavík). It’s received a number of accolades from the Grapevine, including Best Kept Secret in 2014, and this year the Best Place To Spend A Rainy Day. It’s great. Ólöf Arnalds is an immensely talented musician, known for her multiinstrumental abilities and singing voice. She’s also great. After hearing that her relationship with Flóran goes way back, it seemed like the perfect place to catch up with her.

I arrive ten minutes late, but so does Ólöf. We grab a seat inside the wonderful white gazebo outside the entrance. She’s brought her son Ari along, who sits at the end of the table drinking Appelsín and playing Minecraft.  “Well, this was meant to be a rainy day,” I said. “but I guess the weather’s actually pretty nice. Maybe we’ll just imagine it’s a rainy day.” “Yeah, we’ll do that,” she laughs.

The joys of touring—and coming home

After doing a headliner tour in Spain and Portugal in May, Ólöf has been rather quiet, as those shows came on the back of a major tour with José Gonzalez. “I played sixteen shows in Europe with him in March and April. Then we played twenty in America too. A lot of concerts! It was a lot of work, but it was fun as well,” she says. “It’s a really good experience to play every night.”

 Ólöf’s Favourite Rainy Day Songs:

1. Nina Simone’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ on the record ‘To love somebody’. “Actually, that whole album is wonderful!”

2. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, especially when performed by Martha Argerich. “A balsam for the soul on a rainy day.”

3. Bruno Mars’ ‘The Lazy Song’. “Nice and silly, and my son Ari loves it.”

While Ólöf has enjoyed many years of success both at home and abroad with múm, her most recent album ‘Palme’ and the tour with José Gonzalez represent major steps for her already prolific solo career. “Of course, it’s a different situation when you’re opening, because while you have some people who already know you, at the same time you’re playing to a lot of new listeners. It makes you a little bit more vulnerable to play every night to people who don’t know who you are. But I really enjoyed it and I think José is a great artist and a really good person as well.”

Touring can be hard work, but Ólöf says she enjoys it immensely. “I love to perform,” she tells me. “I don’t see it as a chore—of course, it can be quite taxing on your energy, but it’s such a privilege to have the opportunity to perform your own music to people. I’m immensely grateful for that.” She’s always happy to come home though. “I love Reykjavík. I enjoy being here so much.” she says. “I think it’s a really good place to live—especially with children—and I can feel it. If you don’t go anywhere for a while it gets a bit claustrophobic because it’s very small, but when I come home I always feel so lucky to be from here and to live here.”

On performing at Café Flóra

Her relationship to Café Flóra is an interesting one. “It’s funny,” she says, taking a sip from her Pepsi. “Before the Secret Solstice festival was started, I used to perform here for at least three summers on what is now the first evening of the festival—doing something on a much smaller scale here in Laugardalur. I sort of took over the solstice concert at Café Flora from Páll Óskar, who used to perform there. Of course, now it’s a little different and probably not possible because of Secret Solstice. But it’s great. I think Secret Solstice is a great festival– haven’t played it yet, though,” she laughs.

In addition to playing here during the summer solstice, Ólöf says she has sometimes played a winter solstice concert. “It’s a completely different vibe though!” she laughs. “It’s completely dark—not completely light—and the weather can be anything. It’s actually very nice, the space is heated, and it feels good. It has a nice Christmas atmosphere!”

Café Flóra isn’t just a venue for Ólöf, though. “I actually meet friends here quite a lot and, in fact, the food is very good. The lady who sort of started the business, she’s a very good chef. Her name is Marentza Poulsen—I think she is originally from the Faroe Islands—she’s just one of those people who just has endless energy and good ideas. She started this off of her own back.”

Looking at the selection of cakes by the counter and the Japanese-style wooden bridge across a stream, I don’t think she’s exaggerating.

Music writing weather

While going to Café Flóra is certainly cosy on a rainy day, Ólöf admits that her perfect rainy day involves not having to do much. “Yeah, I enjoy reading a book and talking on the phone with good friends–not having much to do,” she says. “But if you let a rainy day turn you into a couch potato every time, you would not be able to do much in Iceland because we have a lot of rain.”

It is fortunate then that Ólöf works better on a rainy day than a sunny one. “Well, it’s not that I don’t like sun,” she says, “but only in small portions. I find it hard to work when there’s too much sun, because you just feel like doing nothing. The rain is good that way, it doesn’t really stop you from doing anything.”

Rain or shine this summer, however, Ólöf will be busy. “Well, I actually have a project now where I’m scoring a film.” she says. “I can’t say too much, but the funny thing is that the film is a drama-thriller, and I’m very sensitive—I almost can’t watch any violence. I’ve read the script and it has a lot of violence in it, so I’m thinking, well, what if I can’t watch the film?” she laughs. “What if I’m too sensitive to watch the film—what am I gonna do then? It’s a good opportunity to overcome my fear.”

I ask her if she thinks that could improve the film’s score.

“Maybe it will,” she grins. “Maybe I’m the right person for the job because I’m so sensitive.” Touring isn’t over for her yet though. “After that, I’m gonna be playing some festivals in Scotland, France, and Italy,” she says. “Eventually I just want to work on some new material, and ultimately I want to make another record. I always want to make another record – it’s like I can’t stop that.”

Tools of the trade

I’m always interested to talk to multiinstrumentalists, in part because it’s interesting to see what their favourite instrument is. “I think the guitar is my instrument.” Ólöf says, thoughtfully. “That’s the instrument I use to write music and it’s the instrument I play the most. But I feel a little bit like I want to rekindle my relationship with the violin and viola now because I haven’t really picked that up in while. Maybe I can put some of that into the scary movie.”

That’s what they’re made for, I say. Glissando.

She laughs. “Exactly!”


Cafe Flora won Best Place To Spend A Rainy Day

See the full list of Best Of winners here.

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