Iceland has a talented folk singer in Ólöf Arnalds. She has ties to Sigur Rós and Björk in terms of production and guest appearances on her recordings. She also has a peculiarity that defines her as something set apart and unique from both of them. In some ways, she almost recalls an Icelandic Joni Mitchell with a swooning wholesome voice that is rich with a sense of personality and strength as a female singer/songwriter.
Arnalds has created something delicate with her two albums: Við Og Við (2007) and her most recent Innundir skinni (2009). Unlike quite a few international songwriters from non-English speaking countries, she sings the majority of her songs in her home language and one senses this perhaps helps her lyrics remain true to their intended meaning. In addition, her melodies, though superficially quite traditional, are subtly hair-raising in their strangeness and infectious melancholia. It could just be that American audiences are unaccustomed to such a rare experience, but seeing Arnalds feels vitally unique. Her memorable live set was both reassuring and unsettling at the same time.
Arnalds may not have the fame in North America that she does in her home country yet, but you could tell she was appreciated by her fans at Schubas Tavern who were respectful and gazed upwards with a sense of wonder and curiosity, not sure of what to expect from her next. Arnalds was rather friendly in the little banter she provided in English, mentioning her sore throat and her stringed instrument made from a shell of an armadillo (known as a charango). She seemed very appreciative for the audience and referred to herself and her own talents quite modestly. Mainly, however, she just spoke in Icelandic to the guitarist beside her who also played thumb piano.
Though it was a treasured experience to see Arnalds play for 80 minutes, one should acknowledge that there were instruments she couldn’t possibly play due to size and fragility in terms of travel. She is reportedly an apt koto harp player, for instance. It would have been a real treat to hear her play violin or viola, which she is classically trained in playing. Still, in some ways, her lovely voice is its own instrument. At one point towards the end of the set, she reported that she had lost track of time and asked the audience how much time she had left to play. It was clear she might be comfortable playing all night and entertained us all with not only many of her own great tracks but those by Caetano Veloso (“Maria Bethania”), Townes Van Zandt (“I’ll Be Here in the Morning”), Gene Clark (“With Tomorrow”), and Bruce Springsteen (“I’m on Fire”). In many ways, her accent singing in English helped make these songs personalized to her own Icelandic femininity.
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