Interview by Ian Morales.
Ólöf Arnalds is an indie singer-songwriter from Iceland. Once a member of the experimental Icelandic group Múm, Arnalds now has two solo albums to speak of. Her latest release, Innudir Skinni, has been praised by indie taste-makers here in the U.S. and also by many international media outlets. Currently Arnalds is wrapping up a U.S. tour with indie favorites, Blonde Redhead, before heading to play a few dates in Australia.
Red River Noise recently spoke with the classically trained musician before her Austin concert at La Zona Rosa. We asked Arnalds about what it was like to open or such a big indie band, her early musical beginnings, her new album Innudir Skinni, and even how she feels about turning thirty years old. After all, thirty is the new twenty…isn’t it?
At what point did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?
Arnalds: I made the decision to stop doing any other kind of work in 2006. It wasn’t an easy decision to just focus all your energy into doing it (music) to make a living. It meant taking a big risk.
What was the turning point that made you really believe playing music for a living was a realistic option for you?
Arnalds: No, it was more like I was just unable to picture myself doing anything else. I had to put my full energy towards it to see what would happen. I am completely aware of the fact that even if I am making a living off of music now, I might not be able to do it my whole life. I consider this a privilege. That’s how I see it. There’s no guarantee that you can keep making a living off of music or art. I have been passionately living off music since I was fifteen. I have always been playing and even used to sing at funerals. Even while I was studying music in school, music was my main occupation.
You have more of a formal music education than most as I understand, so I would assume you could play any genre or style of music you wish. Given that, what made you decide to play the kind of music that you do?
Arnalds: I don’t think I would be able to play any type of music that I wanted. I am not very good with reading notes. I have never really been interested in sitting down and practicing, or acquiring the technique you would have to have in order to play many kinds of music. I think I have a strong internal language for music and I understand it in my own way. Even though I was always in music school, I found it hard to understand it the way it was being taught. I think my musical output now is of course a result of all my experience of playing and learning what I have so far. It’s also a result of my limitations as a musician. Those limitations are what made me focus on doing music my own way.
What instruments do you play besides the guitar?
Arnalds: I play the violin, viola, charango, different string instruments and a little bit of piano.
Given that most of us here in the U.S. do not speak Icelandic, I was wondering what you write about in your music? Any particular themes, personal experiences, etc?
Arnalds: You are hearing personal experiences, but I mean it is poetry. I see poetry as art. It has to do with the relationships with the people around them. I wouldn’t say it is a romantic album. There is one love element in a song called “Madrid.” It’s a song about expecting a child. There is also a song about my best friend. It is all kind of close and personal, based on my interaction with people who I am close to.
Do you think that being a member of Múm , even if for a short stint, helped you or gave you the break you needed to make it this far as a solo artist?
Arnalds: Of course when I was playing with Múm it was my first full time paid job as a musician. I am not completely aware of how I’ve been pitched in the media. Of course I get a lot of questions about Múm, but since it has been a while since I worked with them that I almost don’t know how to answer Múm questions. Of course I think the association that I have with Múm and some other strong acts from Iceland have helped put my name out there. I just hope people are interested in my music because it is my music.
Who are some of your musical influences?
Arnalds: That is hard for me to pinpoint because I have been exposed to such a variety of music. I don’t really see the process of creating music as a process of putting together influences. It is a very intuitive process when I am writing and recording. I am sure that there is an influence from classical music and all the vocal music I listen to from different parts of the world.
What is different about Innudir Skinni from your previous album?
Arnalds: Innudir Skinni has more elaborate arrangements and more instrumentation. The songs are more varied. My first album, which was Við og við, was more like a concept album in which the album had a more unified sound. On Innudir Skinni, the songs seem to come from different directions to create a more colorful piece.
While I understand you are touring as a solo artist, do you perform with other musicians? Who are they and how did you choose who tours with you?
Arnalds: I’m playing alone on this tour. I mostly have one other musician who has gone on tour with me, who is also one of the producers of Innudir Skinni. We’ve been working closely now for two years. I mostly perform alone. The essence of my songs lies in my voice and an instrument I play myself.
Austin marks the last date listed for this current tour with Blonde Redhead. What was this tour like given the fact that Blonde Redhead has such a large following?
Arnalds: I think it really nice, but there is a big contrast between my act and their act. They produce a big and diverse group of sounds. It is loud and powerful. I open for them and it is just one person on the stage with an acoustic guitar and a voice. I like it though.
How would you describe the year you had in 2010? What are some of the highlights?
Arnalds: I turned thirty in January. I waited for that for a long time because I hated being twenty-something. I’ve been working a lot. My summer vacation was twenty-four hours. That was my year so far.