An Interview with Iceland’s Ólöf Arnalds

Ólöf Arnalds playing at Iceland Airwaves music Festival in the fall of this year.

Ólöf Arnalds playing at Iceland Airwaves music Festival in the fall of this year. | Photo by Neil Mach

Ólöf Arnalds is an Icelandic singer and multi-instrumentalist. She was classically educated on the violin and viola, and later taught herself to play guitar and charango. Her record label describes her music as “instantly captivating and possessed of a magical, otherworldly quality.

After completing her studies in violin and classical singing, Arnalds studied composition and new media at The Iceland Academy of the Arts. In 2007, Arnalds released her début album titled ‘Við Og Við’ (translation: Now and Again). This Icelandic language album featured a set of songs performed by the singer/songwriter in a traditional troubadour style.

Her second album Innundir skinni (translation: Under the Skin) was released in September 2010, featuring three songs in English. Produced by Sigur Ros’s Kjartan Sveinsson and Davíð Þór Jónsson, the album included contributions from the internationally-recognized singer-songwriter Björk, and also from the bass-guitar composer Skúli Sverrisson, among others.

In 2011, Arnalds released an acclaimed mini-album covering classic acts like Bob Dylan, Springsteen, Arthur Russell, Caetano Veloso, and Neil Diamond.

Apart from performing and recording her own music, she has also been an on/off touring member of the experimental Icelandic musical group known as múm since 2003.

Ólöf’s approach to making music remains highly individual; her songs are all playful, intimate, accessible and uplifting.

This year, THE BOMBER JACKET was lucky enough to see Ólöf Arnalds perform at The Idno theater Reykjavik, during the Iceland Airwaves music festival. We were later given the opportunity to question the musician about her life, her work and her upcoming 2013 release.

TBJ: You were born into a large musical family, What was it like growing up in a musical household? Did you feel any pressure to succeed as a musician?

Arnalds:  There was never any pressure. I think it just made me more interested in music.

Is it true that the first song you learned to play was the Nirvana (unplugged) song “Polly”?

Well it is the first song I learned to play on the guitar yes. [Smiles] I had learned violin before and then started teaching myself guitar as a teenager.

Who helped you to get started as a musician?  How were you helped on your way?

I think the most important people in my development as a musician have been Skúli Sverrisson, my closest collaborator, and Björk, who has been very supportive and also sung on one of my tracks.

Video of “Surrender” by Ólöf Arnalds, featuring Björk:

Who encouraged you to perform publicly for the first time?

I think that came from within myself. I’ve always enjoyed performing.

How did it feel when you left Iceland for the first time?

I’m not sure, I was two and we went to London to visit my grandparents.

[Laughs] When you are away from Iceland, on tour, what home comforts do you miss the most?

The water, the swimming pools and the air.

How do you think pregnancy and motherhood has affected your songwriting?

I think the most life-changing thing about having a child is that you have to stop thinking only about yourself. It makes you more humble.

Could you explain your songwriting process? How do the words, ideas and sounds come to you?

I write all my music in my head before I start finding ways to play them on instruments. I write quite compulsively every day. Get new ideas, forget ideas, remember them again, put them together, tear them apart, et cetera…

Do you think you have to “give life” to your songs–perhaps carrying them with you for a while, and carefully nurturing them, before revealing them to the world?

I think this is quite a good description of how it feels. The songs are a bit like your children.

How much do you think that your songs allow you to confess your true or hidden feelings?

My songs are all about my feelings, I don’t really write about anything else… So I guess the answer is…completely.

How important are the traditions of Icelandic folk music for you?

Iceland does not have a large musical heritage. There were very few instruments here until 20th century. The oral tradition is the strongest. I find it very interesting, but I’m not sure if I’m influenced by it or not.

How important is the story telling tradition for you?

I think story telling is the beginning of all art.

Do you think of yourself as a storytelling singer/songwriter?


What music do you buy for your own enjoyment ?

Usually music from exotic cultures, or music traditions I’ve not come across before.

In what format was the last music that you purchased?

MP3 on iTunes.

Do you think that you have mastered social networking services, video sharing platforms and sites streaming music? How important are these aspects of music promotion to you?

I´m just starting to take part in these services. I think I should have done so earlier. These are the mediums that people are using, so it was a bit silly of me to neglect it until now.

How do you approach vanity? How much vanity do you see in yourself?

I used to be afraid of vanity. I didn’t have the sense of humour for it. Now I think it is good to have a bit of it in the mix, just for fun and self confidence.

Has the “Pledge Campaign” been helpful to you?

Well the Pledge Campaign is still running. I haven’t reached the target yet. We’ll see how it goes. Please share:

Ólöf Arnalds' Pledge Campaign for her new album.

Ólöf Arnalds’ Pledge Campaign for her new album (click photo to see campaign).

Your album Við Og Við’ seems to have been focussed, to some extent, on loss.  Would you agree that grievous loss is the greatest incentive for creativity?

I think that suffering is one of the reasons why one has to create, but I think that moving from there to creating from blissful joy could be just as productive.

Your following album Innundir Skinni seems to have been focused on gain. Was that theme planned, perhaps to counter-balance the sentiment of Við Og Við?

I’m not sure. I think Innundir Skinni had really mixed emotions. It was not a very strong record conceptually, but it has some strong musical compositions.

Are you looking forward to releasing your next album? What can fans expect?

I can’t wait!!! It will be titled Sudden Elevation. I think it is my strongest record so far. It has a unified sound and concept like Við og Við. The arrangements are still very various and experimental. Most of the instrumentation is played by myself. The voice is more in the forefront and the songs are in English.

Your most recent recording was a collection of cover songs. Did you meet or collaborate with any of your song-writing heroes during the making of this?  [Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Diamond, Caetano Veloso..]

I wish!  Maybe someday. [Smiles]

Would you like to work with (the band) ‘Múm’ again?

I’m pretty sure that will happen at some point. I’ve just been focusing on my own work for the last years.

In your 2012 Iceland Airwaves performance, Skuli Sverrisson played bass for you, but you told the crowd that you almost always perform alone. How easy is it for you to be alone up on the stage?

It’s very easy for me. It gives me freedom to go randomly between songs depending on the mood. But it is limited what you can do musically only with one guitar. I love playing with Skúli. I prefer the variety that it creates.


–Neil Mach


  1. Love Olof. Beautiful voice, beautiful person.

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