From Iceland — Breaking Out Of His Old Skin - The Ólafur Arnalds Interview

Breaking Out Of His Old Skin – The Ólafur Arnalds Interview

Published September 22, 2012

Breaking Out Of His Old Skin – The Ólafur Arnalds Interview

“What happened was a table attacked me! We were being filmed pretending to fight each other in a scene, but the director didn’t think that we were being realistic enough. So he pushed us, and we fell, except I literally fell on a nearby table, breaking my rib. The thing is that it didn’t actually hurt at the time, so we just kept going, which was a very bad idea as we had to re-shoot it the next day. This all happened two days before I went on a trekking holiday in Landmannalaugar with a 15-kilo backpack. A lot of painkillers were consumed.”

I’m sitting in a local coffee house while Iceland’s foremost contemporary composer Ólafur Arnalds recounts how he a bust a rib whilst shooting a sketch for the song “Ekki gefast upp” (”Don’t Give Up”) with comedian Steindi Jr. for the popular Icelandic TV comedy show ‘Steindinn Okkar.’ If it seems amusing that one of Iceland’s foremost neo-classical composers is taking part in a TV sketch show, you’d be surprised to know that he also wrote the music for the song and recorded it his studio with well-known Icelandic metal singer Eiríkur Hauksson (“He did it all in ONE take! I’ve never had that in my studio before.”).

It’s been a very busy 12 months for Ólafur Arnalds. On top of breaking his body in the name of comedy gold, and meeting up with Hollywood stars such as Emma Watson, there has been an album of free music, numerous collaborative releases, film scores, as well as being busy in the studio composing and producing a new album for release in 2013. Even as we meet, he’s rather breathless, saying he’s just come from a photo shoot where he’s been standing in the cold weather for the last 2 hours. But it’s all just part of the fun challenge of it all.

Back in October 2011, Ólafur made ‘Living Room Songs,’ which continued the concept he introduced in 2009 with ‘Found Songs.’ Over a single week, he composed and, recorded a single track for each day, which was accompanied with a video shot and recorded in the living room of his Reykjavík apartment. “It worked well last time and I wanted to do it again,” Ólafur explains. “The idea behind both ‘Found Songs’ and ‘Living Room Songs’ was something to do in-between making albums. They’re just really short songs and ideas that I had that wouldn’t fit in the albums, but still wanted to release them so they weren’t just stuck in my head. In a way, ‘Living Room Songs’ is almost like b-sides, not songs that weren’t good enough, but songs that didn’t fit in to those concepts. And because I’m just getting them out there, I didn’t feel like charging for it.”

As with the ‘Found Songs,’ the music from ‘Living Room Songs’ was released for free via Ólafur’s Twitter account. The idea of releasing music for free and having an open profile on social media such as Twitter is still very much the exception rather the rule amongst Icelandic musicians. Although this is something that Ólafur is comfortable with, he understands why some musicians are not so quick to take up on it. “It’s really exposing yourself in a certain way that people didn’t do before,” says Ólafur. “It’s not like they didn’t expose themselves before in different ways, but there was always this barrier between the artist and the listener. All you got to see of the artist was these perfect things, a finished album, a scripted interview, promo shots with makeup. Now people can get very close to you, and it can be difficult at times.”

In terms of collaborative work, 2012 saw Ólafur venture into new sounds and challenges. Such an example was ‘Stare,’ an EP he released with fellow composer Nils Frahm on the Erased Tapes label in April 2012. Although its three tracks contained classically composed lines and the occasional drawing on cello strings, the music created is entirely electronic in its sound. But it was anything but a planned journey says Ólafur. “The thing I did with Nils is almost a different band, a whole different project. We didn’t really decide on anything. One day I met Nils in Berlin and it so happened that he had this old synth plugged in and I just started playing it. It wasn’t a planned “let’s play some electronic music” type of idea. But that’s the beauty of it. There was no pressure, no deadline was involved. We didn’t even tell anyone that we were going to do this project. Not even Erased Tapes knew about it until they got the final master with completed artwork!”

Although the journey into a more electronic style of music with ‘Stare’ may not have been planned, with Kiasmos, a side project he runs with Janus Rasmussen from the electronic group Bloodgroup, the main intent was to explore their shared interest and appreciation for minimal techno. September this year saw the release of ‘Thrown,’ a follow up EP to their 2009 debut ’65.’  While ‘65’ contained the hard pressured rhythms associated with hard techno, ‘Thrown’ sees Kiasmos go for a softer, more expansive sound. Asked about this change of music direction with Kiasmos, Ólafur explains “We didn’t do anything for over a year, but when we went back to the studio, we found that our ideas and interests in music had changed a bit and we were more interested in making something different and more organic instead of making a club track. I don’t care so much if people can actually dance to it or not. We bring very different qualities to Kiasmos. Janus is very electronic in his approach, while I’m more melodic. But there are no barriers in what we were trying to do. If we wanted strings with our music, then that’s what goes in.”

Over the last couple of years, Ólafur has experienced increased exposure as a composer in the US. Songs such as “3326” and “Brotsjór” have been used on TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, while his song “Allt Varð Hljótt” was used in the soundtrack to the film ‘The Hunger Games.’ This year also saw the release of his composed score for the film ‘Another Happy Day.’ Today, Ólafur mentions he’s currently writing the music for two more films while conducting talks about writing music for a TV show. While scoring music for films and TV is enjoyable and represents a new challenge says Ólafur, for someone who works by intuition, it’s creates a new level of pressure.

‘I’ve definitely had my panic attack moments for sure as I’m very much thrown into the pool with the big fish a lot with this. With most composers, they start with a lot of small things, some short films for the film school for example, so they learn gradually how to write and score. But with ‘Another Happy Day,’ that was only the second film I’ve done. I actually told the producers “I don’t know what I’m doing, just so you know,” but they simply said ‘oh don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.’

“So I wrote a score and everybody was happy with it, they thought it was great. But then you have to do it again, for another film, except now it’s more stressful because whatever I did the first time worked, but I don’t know what it was that I did that actually worked. I always find myself calling friends such as Clint Mansell and asking him things like, “How do you start? How do you actually do this? What are the rules to writing a film score?” and he says is, “I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years, and I have no idea what I’m doing either!” But I’m thinking, “that’s not helping!”

Despite the increased workload across the board, Ólafur has been busy in the studio in 2012 producing his latest album. Titled ‘For Now I Am Winter,’ it’s scheduled for release in February next year. It seeks to expand on his original sound and the increasingly electronic nature of his music and will sound rather different previous efforts, says Ólafur. “Along with electronic sounds, the album takes another turn in that we’re using a full orchestra, so it’s far from being a minimal sound using a string quartet. I wrote the album with the same set up that I’ve always had, but after I finished writing it, I decided that it was missing something. I spoke with Nico Muhly and said that the music needed a second layer that we would put on top of the music. So I’ve been working with Nico on the orchestra arrangement, using the orchestra to add texture and character instead of arranging individual lines. Most of the actual melodies are still worked out on the piano, while the orchestra was performing more rhythmically. I’ve often been very restrained, but this album will be very maximal.”

As well as being a more maximal sounding album, ‘For Now I Am Winter’ will, for the first time, contain vocals with Agent Fresco singer Arnór Dan singing on four of the tracks. “I was essentially looking to try something new,” explains Ólafur. “I always wanted to try with a singer and Arnór and I worked together last year on a song called “Old Skin.” I think that his voice fits the music perfectly. He has a very strong high range voice, very classical but still poppy. It just felt really right.”

With the release of ‘For Now I Am Winter’ in 2013, it’s very likely we’re going to see and hear a lot more from Ólafur Arnalds. If we’re very lucky, we may even be treated to him being thrown around a lot more on our TV shows as well.

Ólafur Arnalds is performing on Friday November 2nd, 21:40, at Harpa Nórðurljós.

You can visit and listen to more of Ólafur’s music at


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