Olof Arnalds


Time Out New York once wrote that Ólöf Arnalds possess the kind of voice “that can silence a room, such is its sweetness”, while, elsewhere, that ambrosial yet mysteriously potent instrument has been labelled “otherworldly” (The New York Times), “stunning” (SPIN) and “bewitching” (Rolling Stone). Countrywoman and sometime collaborator, Björk, once described Ólöf’s uniquely compelling vocal sound as “somewhere between a child and an old woman.” 

Over two critically lauded albums, that uncannily beautiful, acrobatic contralto, wedded to Ólöf’s liquid, finger-picked guitar or South American charango, intermittently ornamented by various degrees of chamber orchestration, has won legions of fans around the globe, abetted by a vigorous, peripatetic touring schedule. All of which is good going for a singer who started her musical life fighting chronic stage nerves only to deliver her deeply personal songs in that most magical yet, let’s face it, hardly universally accessible mother tongue, Icelandic.

In fact, while Ólöf’s 2009 debut album, vio og vio (Now and Again), was an all-Icelandic affair, it’s successor, 2010’s internationally acclaimed Innudir Skinni, included three songs sung in English, including the single ‘Surrender’, to which Björk added her distinctive ululations. Moreover, American, Canadian, British, Irish and Australasian witnesses to Ólöf’s disarming live shows have not only been charmed by her ability to convey profound meaning with emotional, if not the actual, language of her songwriting, but also by her beguiling command of English (with any notion of shy, Nordic inscrutability swiftly kicked into touch by a seasoned show-woman’s line in comical non-sequiturs and frolicsome between-song banter), not to mention a judicious roll-call of English language troubadour cover versions – a litany which, on any given night, might include songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Johnny Cash to Hank Williams, or include old standards like Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie’s ‘Lucky Old Sun’ or Jack Davies’ ‘Swansea Town’.

Some of that connoisseur repertoire would find its way onto September 2011’s, between-albums EP release, Ólöf Sings. That record’s pared-to-the-essence, guitar and voice deconstructions of copper-bottomed essays by the likes of Bruce Springsteen (‘I’m On Fire’), Neil Diamond (‘Solitary Man’), Gene Clark (‘With Tomorrow’), Arthur Russell (‘I Close My Eyes’) and Caetano Veloso (‘Maria Bethânia’) underscored Ólöf’s apparently effortless facility for locating the truly affecting essence of a song. “I love taking huge songs and narrowing them down to guitar and voice” Ólöf told Dazed & Confused, with typical understatement, soon after the EP’s release. The by now habitual sheaf of affirmative reviews would bear testament to her interpretative alacrity, with Drowned In Sound exemplifying the general critical tone by observing how Ólöf “adds a minimal and pastoral charm to those old classics” and Uncut noting how the renderings “are deceptively simple, but carry an emotional punch.”

Time will no doubt portray the EP as a tasty hors d’oeuvre for Ólöf’s imminent third full studio album, the leanly produced, melodically opulent, narratively compelling Sudden Elevation – a record whose twelve exquisitely rendered, self-penned songs are conveyed exclusively in English.

Produced by faithful collaborator Skúli Sverrisson and largely recorded in a two-week, partially snowed-in, autumn 2011 stint in a seaside cabin in Hvalfjörður (literally ‘Whale-fjord’), in the west of Iceland, with overdubs and mixing at Ólöf’s house in Reykjavík and at Sigur Rós’s Sundlaugin (Swimming Pool) studio at Álafoss, Sudden Elevation finds Ólöf inhabiting a drier, more stripped-back sound world than was previously the case. But this is no Spartan folk album. While Ólöf’s voice, acoustic guitar and charango are once again the central focus (the latter two instruments often overdubbed into a plangent moiré of arpeggiating strings), there is also subtle but luminous colouring from koto harp, keyboards and electric guitar, all played by Ólöf, as well as the odd, deftly applied swell of a string section. In addition, there are cameos from Ólöf’s two sisters: Klara Arnalds duets sunnily on ‘Bright and Still’ and ‘Numbers and Names’ while Dagný Arnalds essays the devastating piano part in ‘Return Again’. Skúli Sverrisson plays bass and electric guitar (including a high-pitched octave 12-string Shorty instrument) on several tracks, while Magnús Trygvason Eliassen adds gossamer drum parts to ‘German Fields’ and ‘A Little Grim’.

Gentle, mellifluous, poignant… Sudden Elevation’s succinct essays inveigle their way into the listener’s pleasure centre with graceful stealth. Along the way there are hints of Vashti Bunyan’s hushed, nursery rhyme folk (‘Call It What You Want’, ‘Numbers and Names’), Bob Dylan’s strummed, ‘60s love ballads (‘Treat Her Kindly’) and even a muted Van Morrison, circa Astral Weeks (‘Backyard’), yet this remains a sound unique to Ólöf Arnalds. Indeed, she is adamant that her songwriting goes beyond a postmodern reassembling of extant song forms or stylistic influences. “I think other music always influences me in a very unconscious way”, she reasons. “I don’t see making music as an act of putting together predefined elements, but as an intuitive process of searching for a sound or feel that I envision. Sometimes I realize the influences afterwards, sometimes not. I haven’t realized them yet with this record.”

Ólöf may have confided to a Manchester audience in 2010 that “writing in English is a very curious place to enter; you don’t know if you’re following rules or breaking them – I like that,” but her lyrics on Sudden Elevation (the title referring to “the feeling of reality changing completely in the presence of someone you are in love with”) are confident, poetic and as ingenuously enigmatic as you would expect from such a remarkably singular, unaffected artist. “Some things remain a mystery” she sings on airily insistent opener ‘German Fields’ (“It’s a song about a wicked schoolteacher” is all Ólöf will vouchsafe, as if staying true to her lyric). Her ability to invest conversational language with absorbing, emotional meaning suggests a screenwriter’s capacity for meaningful yet unforced dialogue. “Let me assure you/Things will turn out better, worse or in some unexpected ways” she sings, sagely, on ‘A Little Grim’ (a song about “understanding, support and serenity”).

Elsewhere, she displays an almost Raymond Craver-like ability to distil a novels-worth of emotional drama into just a few pithy lines. “I reappear with you/I disappear with you/How difficult of me to fall in love with you” goes the chorus of ‘Return Again’, its haunting, hymnal melody winding forever upward like delicious wood smoke. “Return Again is about love and deception”, Ólöf explains. “It was particularly difficult because I had first written that lyric in Icelandic [as ‘Aftur’, a version of which appeared on the Second Language compilation album Vertical Integration, in 2010]. So I had to translate it. I was very content with the poem, so I felt that I had to find a way to do it justice. It wasn’t until I locked myself away from all contact for a day that I found a way around the task.”

Other songs proffer an intriguing epistolary quality. “Whatever others think/You know I care”, she sings on “Bright and Still”, as if signing off a love letter. “This Sudden elevation has swept me off my feet”, goes the title track’s chorus, with Ólöf sounding genuinely transported.

English, it transpires, is hardly an alien tongue for Ólöf.  Her mother was born in London to Icelandic parents – one of six siblings who otherwise remained in Iceland. “The other siblings are living all over the world”, Ólöf elucidates. “So my mother’s family communicates in English. It was simply a challenge [to write the songs in English] that I wanted to take on. I do think I have been able to communicate quite well the emotional essence of my music so far, singing it to audiences that don’t understand Icelandic, and I have taken pride in that, especially since I’m a fan of many non-English speaking singers. At this point I just felt that I wanted my listeners to be able to understand the words, opening up a new possibility for them to experience my work and at the same time creating a new way for me to express myself on stage.”

Sudden Elevation is the first album that Ólöf has recorded from start to finish, with no protracted breaks and this concentrated process helped focus the album. “I was always trying to see the record as a conceptual whole, keeping a certain order of songs in mind as we recorded. I drew different maps of how the record would sound and feel as one complete work, which was something I really felt like doing, given the first opportunity in my life to have a continuous recording process.”

Comforting, salve-like, even ‘maternal’ sentiments permeate the album. “I wanted the album to have a comforting quality”, Ólöf confirms. “Like something that people feel good listening to when they are alone at home, enjoying solitude. Actually, the majority of the songs are based around the note G, which is the humming frequency in a lot of home electric equipment, like refrigerators and washing machines…”

While soothing, domestic inviolability may be the album’s creative sine qua non, Sudden Elevation actually opens Ólöf’s intimate musical gifts to the world, thanks as much to the emotional Esperanto of its sublime melodies and dextrous arrangements as to its English language lyrics. For all that, it is undeniably an album which demonstrates its author’s trajectory curving away from charming Icelandic novelty and moving inexorably toward the global singer-songwriter pantheon.

Ólöf Arnalds was born in Reykjavik in 1980, and spent much of her childhood with her grandparents. A student of violin from the age of eight, classical music was her preoccupation for many years before she gravitated towards the guitar during her later teens and began to explore ‘popular music’ forms (“…there was less of a Beatles versus Stones debate and more Bach versus Bartók”, remembered Ólöf, of her musical home life, in a 2010 interview in The Guardian). Despite battling with persistent performance nerves, which caused her to temporarily abandon the violin, her formal musical studies carried on with classical singing lessons under the tutelage of a highly influential teacher, Ruth Little Magnússon, who schooled her in folk song and how to use the voice as an instrument. By her own admission, however, Ólöf’s instinctual autodidact’s ear for melody would always out-gun her patience for learning the intricacies of musical notation.

To complete her education, Ólöf took a degree in composition and new media at Reykjavik’s Icelandic Academy Of The Arts where one of her lecturers (and latterly the man who looks after her graphic design needs), Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon, remembers her standing out from the crowd. “You always sense these people who have natural talents – it’s difficult to hide them,” he says. “It’s not that Ólöf mastered any specific skills; it’s more about feeling the honesty in her expression…. I never heard her troubadour voice until after her graduation. It was like seeing and hearing an angel from above when you heard that for the first time.”

Ólöf was, almost inevitably, soon enmeshed in Reykjavik’s integrated, self-contained music scene – a protracted tenure singing and playing guitar and violin in the second incarnation of cultish electronic pop collective múm being her most high-profile affiliation, although she would also dally, as is the Icelandic way, with all manner of other artists, from Slowblow and Mugison to Stórsveit Nix Noltes and the Kitchen Motors collective. A singer-songwriting career would inexorably beckon, however, and her springboard to solo prominence would come courtesy of  a  collaboration with renowned Icelandic bassist/composer Skúli Sverrisson on his award-winning 2006 album, Seria, for which Ólöf wrote lyrics and sang lead on three tracks, in addition to contributing guitar, viola, charango and koto.

Her solo debut would swiftly follow. Originally released by Reykjavik’s 12 Tónar label in 2007 (and issued internationally by One Little Indian in 2009), Við Og Við was an Icelandic cause célèbre which would go on to reverberate discretely but decisively around the globe. Recorded by Sigur Rós’s Kjartan Sveinsson directly to tape, it was an album of ingeniously arranged whole take performances whose charged minimalism created an ineffably magical world of its own. Captured at Sigur Rós’s Sundlaugin studio, with an intimate cast of sensitive Icelandic musicians, including Skúli Sverrisson, baritone guitarist Robert Sturla Reynisson, orchestral composer Daníel Bjarnason and Sveinsson himself, the songs on Við Og Við saw Ólöf’s guitar, charango and koto discretely adorned with a rumble of double bass here, a daub of vibraphone, piano, violin, viola or harmonium there (with a more lavish, semi-orchestral arrangement on the bewitching ‘Náttsöngur’ [Night Song’]). The overall effect, observed novelist Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir in the album’s liner notes, was similar to that of candlelight. “These are songs”, she wrote, that “fine-tune the atmosphere and make the air vibrate”.

Each of the self-penned essays (alongside one cover of a song by Icelandic artist Megas) was about one or other of Ólöf’s dearest friends or family members. The lyrics to the album’s closing track, ‘Ævagömul Orkuþula’ (‘An Archaic Chant To Summon Energy’), were penned by Ólöf’s late father, Einar, “to be used as a mantra to quiet the mind”. Ólöf has spoken of her father’s loss being central to the songwriting on Við Og Við and the poignant, universal theme of “someone staying with you even though he has departed” pervades the lyrics while somehow also transcending them, implanting itself even in non-Icelandic speakers.

Við Og Við would duly accrue a pile of accolades at home, including Best Alternative Album at the Iceland Music Awards and a Record of the Year gong from Iceland’s principal daily newspaper, Morgunblaðið. Further afield, it would elicit gushing notices from the likes of The New York Times, Vanity Fair, NME and SPIN and prompt MOJO to herald Ólöf as “Reykjavik’s answer to Kate Bush.” Rolling Stone described her songs being “fragile as tiny china swans”. Meanwhile, Paste magazine would dub Við Og Við “impossibly lovely” and vote it Number 38 in its Top 100 album list. Not to be outdone, eMusic named it among the 100 best albums of the decade.

Ólöf would tour the globe in support of the album through much of 2008 and into 2009, building a fanbase (especially in the US) by enchanting audiences at venues large and small and in countless ad hoc radio sessions, armed only with her guitar, charango and bottomless reserves of charisma. She quickly proved herself a magnetic, utterly self-assured stage performer, reliant as much on screwball humour, vaudevillian charm and even outright bawdiness as much as the contrasting delicacy of her song delivery. Bigger shows would duly follow, including sharing a dream three-way bill (and a raucous encore stage) with Björk and Sigur Rós at Iceland's Náttúra concert, and opening for Björk in Athens, Greece.

New York City seemed to take to Ólöf especially keenly and she would go on to play shows there alongside Björk, Dirty Projectors, Blonde Redhead, and John Vanderslice, and appear at showcases for Brooklyn Vegan and ‘Celebrate Brooklyn!’ In 2009, she wowed the city’s Whitney Museum, playing a brace of much-celebrated shows alongside Kjartan Sveinsson and the poet Ann Carson in a special program presented in conjunction with the exhibition Roni Horn aka Roni Horn.

The birth of her first child inevitably signalled a shift in emphasis. “Being a mother has changed me a lot”, Ólöf confided in 2010. “It sharpened my will and forced me to use my time well.” Her pregnancy would inspire the title track of her next album, Innundir Skinni (Under The Skin). Produced once again at Sundlaugin by Kjartan Sveinsson and co-produced by Davíð Þór Jónsson, Innundir Skinni was recorded throughout 2009. The album would boast more extensive instrumentation and additional players than on Við Og Við, while retaining Ólöf’s preferred studio modus operandi. “The basic track is always live voice and guitar/charango recorded at the same time, in one take. This time, more often than not, it was with one or more musicians in the room contributing their parts at the same time.”

For all the hard work and auxiliary assistance, the resulting album felt effortless; the additional musicians’ performances woven into the body of the songs, never overpowering them, with Ólöf’s typically empyrean vocals upfront and proud.

Press notices for Innundir Skinni were full of approbation. “Arnalds’ vocals swoop off with the show, navigating melody, melancholy and joy like Joanna Newsom’s kid sister. A fine find”, opined The Independent; “In choosing to sing primarily in her native tongue, much of ‘Innundir Skinni’ is elevated to an almost unearthly incantation. Magical, ethereal and a beacon of simple beauty”, waxed Clash magazine; “Arnalds might well be Iceland’s next major musical export”, trumpeted MOJO, not unreasonably.

A further bout of touring in support of the album would occupy late 2010 and much of 2011, pretty much up to and beyond the release of the Ólöf Sings EP, with gigs and festivals around the globe from Australia to the UK via much of mainland Europe and tracts of the USA. Highlights include all-conquering October 2011 Iceland Airwaves Festival homecoming shows, alongside Björk; some equally triumphant appearances at Austin’s SXSW hootenanny; a mini-tour supporting Air in northern France, a lengthier US perambulation with Blonde Redhead and a memorable date with CocoRosie at the Sydney Opera House.

The Guardian caught up with Ólöf during her solo residency at London’s bijou Vortex jazz venue in March 2011, concluding in its highly complimentary review that “Arnalds is unlikely to be playing venues this intimate for too much longer.” With the irresistible Sudden Elevation set to send Ólöf’s stock sky high, they were surely right.

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