"I Really Wanted to Break People's Expectations": An Interview with Olafur Arnalds
He started out as a teenage drummer in punk bands, and is now using his lush sense of symphonic melodies to score films, TV shows, and create haunting music of his own. With his new album drawing raves, the one and only Ólafur Arnalds speaks to PopMatters ...
The small country of Iceland is known for having one of the longest work-weeks in Europe (people work on average between 46-49 hours per week, and most individuals work several jobs). Perhaps that is a way of explaining one of Iceland's most tireless and creative exports, the 26-year-old composer Ólafur Arnalds. Despite his young age, Arnalds already has eight releases (counting his newest, For Now I Am Winter), four full-length film scores, and a television miniseries score under his belt. He has toured with Sigur Ros and performed widely around Europe and Asia. While his time in North America has been limited, he is fresh off a stint at South by Southwest, where he surely garnered plenty of new fans who learned, as Arnalds himself had, that all classical music doesn't sound like Mozart.
Yet For Now I Am Winter both does and doesn't sound like Arnalds. There is that indefatigable, perfectionist work ethic burning through the 12 tracks, which took well over a thousand hours of recording. Arnalds' trademark pristine sounds and clean edges dominate the record, which also continues the theme of hope after darkness that permeated his previous full-length release, 2010's ...And They Have Escaped The Weight Of Darkness. Yet, on this album, Arnalds wanted nothing more than to prove that he could go in a multitude of directions. So he brought in a vocalist -- Arnór Dan Arnársson of Iceland's Agent Fresco -- and even added an orchestra "as an afterthought."
The sum total of these effects is an album just as luscious and pristine as one would expect from Arnalds, only with some surprises throughout. And that balance is an important one, not only for Icelanders who live with only 4-6 hours of sunlight daily in winter, but for everyone who needs some listening for the darker hours.
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Your previous record was over 1,000 hours of recording.
This one was more!
How do you spend over 1,000 hours on a record? What do you do with all that time?
A lot of it is just writing. A lot of it is going in the completely wrong direction. You spend days or even weeks doing things that don't even end up on the record. I think I spent nine months in the studio on this. Everything from arranging strings -- we had an orchestra, so it was three weeks just arranging the orchestra.
Was this the first time you'd worked with a vocalist?
Yes, officially. I've worked with bands who have vocalists before, and I've written for singers before. But under my own name, and on my own record, this is the first time I've worked with a vocalist.
In the past, people would ask me, "Why is your music instrumental? Would you ever think about putting vocals on your record?" I always said no. I can't sing, myself, anyway, so I wasn't really interested in it. One day I just said "Yes, you know what? I could put vocals on my records. Why not?" I like exploring music.
You and I have spoken in the past about your desire to avoid stagnation in your music. Was that part of what made you open to having vocals?
Yes, a lot of the decisions I made on this record were because I did not want to repeat myself. I really wanted to break people's expectations. That tires me a little bit, when I just do what people expect me to do. So in some ways on the record, I went quite far out of my way to not meet people's expectations of me.
What else did you do that was different?
All the electronics, for example. There is an orchestra. That is an afterthought. I had written the whole album and recorded most of the album and I just decided to pull an orchestra in and just put it on top of everything. The person I chose to help me with that is Nico Muhly, whose arrangements are often very different and rather strange. There are some really dark and heavy songs. There's almost a drum-and-bass song on there.
Did you have to audition a lot of musicians to be your vocalist?
No, I just chose from the very beginning. I asked Arnór Dan to sing, and he had a certain sound in mind. I think [the decision to have vocals] came from having him in mind. It was more like a decision to have Arnór Dan on there.
Do you always record in the same place?
This album was recorded in many different places. I have my own studio so I do most of my stuff there. But with an orchestra I have to go somewhere else. The album was actually recorded in four different studios. I was very particular about the instruments and the songs I wanted to use. I chose each place for a very good reason. It wasn't just out of necessity.
Do you see there being a certain concept behind this record?
There is a concept, but it's maybe not as clear as in my other work. I've continued dealing with the idea of hope, that no matter how bad things seem, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. So the album title, For Now I Am Winter is asserting that the winter is never forever. There's spring after winter. That's the general concept. But now we have lyrics, and Arnór Dan wrote the lyrics, and we did the concepts together. They all relate to each other somehow.
The last time we talked, I had meant to ask you more about your upbringing and the role that music played in your childhood.
When I was very young, I started studying piano but I didn't really like it very much. I wanted something more rock and roll! I left piano behind, and I played drums. I played drums for most of my teenaged years. I was in hardcore punk bands. Some of them were relatively successful. Maybe around 15 or 16, I was getting really interested in movie soundtracks, and I realized that classical music didn't all have to be like Mozart. That's how I slowly came to this.
Have you gotten to do any film work yet?
Yes, absolutely. Since we last talked in 2010, I've done four full-length movies, and right now one of the reasons why things are so hectic is that I'm finishing up a score for a television series. I'm working very long days.
How is the process of scoring different from making your own records?
The movies themselves are collaborations, and my records stand alone and I can make all the decisions I want. But with the movie or the television series, you're working with the director, and he has specific ideas of what he wants in his film. He has certain ideas of messages that he wants conveyed in his film by the music. So you have this blueprint set out in front of you. You can do whatever you want; it just has to fit in that blueprint that he has created for you or with you. In a way it's restricting, but I don't think restriction is a negative thing. It can make you more creative, and you can learn a lot from it. I love being restricted and the decisions I can make. If I am only doing movies, I would get tired of it.
On the subject of movies, just yesterday I watched the video for "Old Skin". Can you tell me more about that video?
It is the first time that I [did] a video which is not animated. I always wanted to be very vague with my ideas. I didn't want to tell the audience too much. I met with the video director, and he had this idea to do a video for one of my songs that people would least expect me to do. So we brainstormed and decided a disco would be the last thing that people would expect. I think it's a great video. I'm really proud of it.
It's very lovely, and I love the contrast between the old man and the young people at the disco. On the subject of visuals, are there images that inspire your music in terms of artwork or nature or movies?
Yes and no. Not really any particular movies that I've seen lately, but everything that I've seen is inspiring me in some way. I go to the movies and usually I come home inspired and want to write music.
Do you have a routine when it comes to writing and making music?
It's just a matter of me deciding I'm going to sit down nowand make music. I turn off my phone and I turn off my computer. I sit there until something comes out. I'm writing so much for this television show that for the last four months, I've had to come up with almost half an hour of music every week. So there's no time of writing other than when the creativity comes to me. With time it's gotten easier. I've learned how to turn on and off this creative switch.
The last thing I wanted to mention, since I'm a huge fan of Nils Frahm, is the Stare EP that you released with him and all the work you two do together.
He's one of my very best friends. It's more about the friendship and hanging out than it is about making music. The first time we actually decided to get together, we didn't decide to make Stare; we just decided to get together for a few days and eat pizza and drink beer. We just happened to be hanging out in his studio, and Stare just happened. We've been making some more stuff since then. We don't have a deadline. It's not a job. It's just two friends getting together, and we happen to have the same interests in making music, so we usually end up making music when we get together.
He's talked a little bit about how he likes to produce records, which he says is backwards in terms of how he arranges the mics and the technical aspects like that. Have you learned anything from him about production?
I would love to believe that when we work together we are teaching ourselves quite a lot. He has an amazing piano sound. I keep trying to get a good piano sound. I've learned a lot in that regard from him. I hope it goes both ways.