Breaching the Invisible Wall: Inside the Mind of Olafur Arnalds
  • THURSDAY, APRIL 25, 2013

  • Posted by: Dorit Finkel

Listening to Olafur Arnalds' sweeping orchestral electronica, you'd never guess that the Icelandic native got his start drumming for metal bands, or that he was never classically trained in music, or that he might want to make Clint Mansell "disappear." It turns out, though, that Arnalds is full of little surprises. Since 2007, the 25-year-old multi-instrumentalist songwriter has released three full-length albums, toured with Sigur Ros, scored films, TV shows, and modern ballets, and always makes sure to include his fans in his artistic process.

One such fan-centric project was Found Sounds, during which he wrote, recorded, and released a song a day for a week, and requested that his listeners post artwork inspired by the music. Arnalds then included his favorite fan-made works as the official album artwork of his next record, ...And They Have Escaped The Weight of Darkness. The official video for "Ljosio", his most popular YouTube video yet, was made by an enthusiastic fan who felt inspired, and his most recent album For Now I Am Winter includes lyrical and vocal contributions from Arnor Dan, who is now touring with him (and an orchestra) in support of the record.

Olafur might be a "solo" artist, but he is seemingly always involved in artistic conversation of one sort or another. Speaking with him on a sunny April afternoon on Bleecker Street, it wasn't hard to see why his open yet intense, intelligent yet humble personality would inspire people to make art. He views genres as fluid, he takes inspiration from everything, he would love to ditch his phone for a week, and he arranges Miley Cyrus covers for sound checks. Needless to say, we were enchanted.

You've said that you want to see the gap between classical and pop genres bridged. Do you have any classical influences?

Yeah, absolutely, actually. I have nothing against classical music; I love classical music. Some of my biggest influences are the old great composers like Bach or Chopin, but I feel that classical music today is often considered both by the classical people and non-classical people as a different world, when it's not really. Pop, indie, and electronica are all in the same scene, but classical is on the other side of that wall. And I don't see a reason for that. It's just music. If you really break it down, it's frequencies coming out of a speaker. That's it. So it kind of annoys me that people are not willing to open their eyes to something just because there's some invisible wall between them and classical music.

Is there anybody else that you feel is currently bridging that gap?

Yeah, there are a few. There are many film composers that bridge the gap, because the classical music that is film music is usually a little more mainstream: it has simpler melodies and resembles pop a little bit more, so there are a lot of film composers that I think really help with this "mission" of ours. [Laughs.] To mention names: I'm a big fan of the German pianist Nils Frahm, who does really cool things with piano recordings, and Dustin O'Halloran is an American composer who does both recordings and films. He did Like Crazy.

Do you have any favorite film scores?

Pan's Labyrinth is one of my favorites.

Yeah, I hear some similarities between your music and that score.

Yeah, I've totally ripped that off! (Laughs.] Honestly. Especially when that film came out a few years ago, the music was a huge influence on me and on the music that I was doing at that time.

Have you scored films? What would be your dream film scoring project?

I've scored three - no, four films and one TV series. So I've actually done quite a lot of scoring. And my dream You're not the first one to ask me this, and I never have an answer. [Laughs.] It's hard to say, you know? I can't really come up with a film on the spot. But maybe for some director. Like, Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors, but he has Clint Mansell, and like, he's never going to not have Clint Mansell. So that's never going to happen.

Aw, I'm sorry.

We could like, get rid of Clint Mansell. We could conspire to make him "disappear."

And then Darren Aronofsky could write a movie about it!

And I could score it! [Laughs.]

So what is your songwriting process like?

I usually start on the piano, just improvising and playing around, really. Until I come down on a melody that I like, or a chord progression that I like, or whatever motif, just anything that I can use as a theme or something to build a song on. And at that point, it's more organized from then on. I usually just take it into the computer, I record the melody, and I cut it up. I work very digitally in a way. I sequence and edit things when I'm composing. Even when I'm writing parts for an orchestra, I'm doing it on a computer, in a way, 'cause I really like to see what I'm doing, visually.

That reminds me of the video for "Ljosio." What was it like seeing your music come to life in that way?

Well, people say that my music is cinematic, or that it brings images to their minds. So I actually get a lot of these fan videos sent to me or just uploaded to YouTube without asking me. I check them out, usually, but not all of them. Some of them are great, some of them are, you know...not so great. [Laughs]. So this one I actually just stumbled upon. He didn't send it to me, he just did it and put it on Vimeo and I saw it, and that was one of the really good ones. He really translated the feeling of that song onto a video without a plot, without anything. It's just one thing throughout the whole song, and it just really works. So I got in touch with him through Vimeo, I just messaged him on there.

He must have freaked out.

I think he did, maybe a little bit. [Laughs.] And I just asked him, "Hey, your video's really nice. Can we use it as our official video?" And we uploaded it, and it got really popular, not only because of the song, but because the video was so well done.

Your relationship with your fans is really unique, and you seem very dedicated to having an artistic relationship with your audience. Do you think this has influenced your music or music process?

It's hard to say. I don't know if it's influencing the songwriting itself, but it influences me as a person, which probably indirectly makes an influence on the music. But to see the effect my music has on people and to interact with the people who are listening to my music kind of closes the circle for me in a way. It stops being a one-way conversation: I'm not just talking to people, I'm actually having a conversation with people. You get feedback, which really helps you understand what you're doing and get a clear picture of what it is you've delivered. Because, you know, as a songwriter, you completely lose the perspective on your own songs. You work on them for months and you don't know what they are anymore. But if you talk to the people who listen to them, you get that perspective back, and I think it's very helpful and very fulfilling to speak to these people.

How do you feel about putting lyrics in your songs? Are you going to keep doing it? How does it affect the meaning?

That was actually the biggest challenge when I decided to have vocals on the album. I always enjoyed the fact that previously my music has been very open for interpretation. I don't tell people what they should feel when they listen to the music. It's a personal thing and they can make up their own stories or images for these songs, which comes back to all these videos that we get and the artwork that people submit. So when writing the lyrics - I didn't write them myself, the vocalist wrote the lyrics but we went through it together and decided on the concept - we consciously decided to try to keep the lyrics as vague as possible. We have our own concept and we have our story, but we don't want to tell people our version of the story. We just give them some moods and some hints that they can take and go from, but we don't want to tell them exactly what this song is about.

What inspired you to have the vocal element on this album?

Nothing particular, really, I just wanted to try it out and see if it worked. I've always wanted to try it out. I've been doing instrumental music for a long time and there have been quite a few albums. I wanted to change it up a little, try something new.

You probably get this question a lot, but here goes: you used to be a drummer for a hardcore metal band - how has that experience translated into this genre that you're in right now?

Well it's hard to say direct influences, but being a drummer, I'm mostly trained in rhythms, and I think my music very subtly has a lot of rhythmic elements. It's not very rhythmical music, but it's very much built on the drummer way of thinking. So that's maybe one example. But another thing is just being in the punk scene, we were touring, in this really DIY world, I just learned that mentality of doing things yourself and not waiting for someone else to promote your music for you. For example, right now! [Laughs.]

Aw, we don't mind!

No, but when I was starting this, I didn't have a label behind me, I didn't have anyone, I just went out there and I played shows and did it on my own. And I think that's what really got me to the place where I am today. If I had just been sitting on my ass waiting for someone to discover me, I wouldn't be here today.

Now for some fun questions: do you ever play covers?

I've done string orchestra arrangements of a Justin Timberlake song.

What?! Which one?

"Cry Me A River." I've done Ace of Base. [Laughs.] "All That She Wants." You know, 90s horrible pop. We did that on tour once. It's just like, when you tour for a while and you play the same set list every night... We didn't really do these at shows, these are just some things we did at sound checks. Oh, and Miley Cyrus.


Yeah! [Laughs.] "Seven Things." We did that.

You know, out of all the things that I expected you to say, I have to admit that Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake did not come to mind.

That one's on YouTube!

[We found it, by the way]

If you could spend a week anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

Oh, what's it called? Maldives. Currently I really want to go to the Maldive Islands in Asia. It's a really warm place, sunny with clear oceans. That's my current obsession, to go to a really warm place and not even bring my phone with me, not be connected to the world. Just sit on the porch and drink wine for a week. [Laughs.] Unfortunately, there's no time until next year. Something for next year.

If you could learn a new instrument, what would you learn and why?

I really want to play the violin because I work with violins a lot, and I think I would compose better if I could know how to play it. So I've been trying, but it's not going very well. Apparently, it takes, like, years of training...? That's bullshit. I never trained anything for that long.

You never had classical training for the piano?


Interesting. Are there any challenges when you compose for violin, without playing?

Yeah, fingerings and the way it's tuned, you have to learn all that, and what's possible and what's not, and what things sound good. For example, recently I've been getting into actually marking on my music sheets on what strings this melody should be played, and not just play it in the easiest place, maybe play something on the G string that you would usually play on the A string.

It sounds different?

Yeah, it's a completely different sound. So I'm starting to learn how to use the sounds of the violin in that way, but at the beginning it was more like, "Oh no, this is not possible." I would give something to the violin players and they would say, "The violin doesn't work like that." So I'm in the learning curve.

We had the pleasure of seeing Olafur perform at Le Poisson Rouge on April 18th and were swept away by the trembling sincerity of the strings and the thumping intensity of the trip-hop flourishes. Before that, we filmed his searing set at Baeble's SXSW showcase, so make sure to keep an eye out for our upcoming video!

Olafur Arnalds' For Now I Am Winter is out now.


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