British music magazine MOJO referred to Ólöf Arnalds (due tonight at the Ogden Theatre with Blonde Redhead) as "Reykjavic's answer to Kate Bush," which is fair enough considering Arnalds' gorgeously otherworldly singing and penchant for writing songs that cannot be linked directly to any particular musical genre other than the all encompassing "popular music."
Arnalds grew up learning to perform classical music, but in the small community of musicians in a small country like Iceland, she unintentionally became friends with most of the luminaries of Icelandic popular music: She joined Múm in 2003 and has since toured widely with that band. In 2007 she released her first solo album, Viõ Og Viõ to critical acclaim.
In September 2010, Arnalds released the follow up, Innundir Skinni. While some might call Arnalds' music "experimental," it seems so by default and the combination of innocence and artistic sophistication heard on both her albums is what sets her apart from many artists, who, at least superficially, are using similar elements in their songwriting. In advance of her show this evening with Blonde Redhead, we spoke with the vivacious and friendly Arnalds about her background in music, the new record and how television around the world is a constant source of amusement.
Westword: You have extensive classical training. How did you get interested and involved in making the kind of music you've been known for since you joined Múm?
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Ólöf Arnalds: I'm self-taught on guitar, so that sort of brought me into playing a lot of popular music, even though I'm classically trained. I was also not very connected with recent music, so I was always very much relying on my ears. So I got a lot of ear training and following music through that. That's partly the reason for me to go in that direction. It's also because I was always involved in creative projects and making music myself. I don't make that much of a distinction between popular music and classical -- for me, music is just music.
How did you join Múm, and what was it like working with Kristin Anna Valtysdottir?
I loved working with Kristin Anna. We really connected on stage, and we're really dear friends, and we have a great relationship. There were not tryouts to join that band. All my collaborations have come through friendships and shared enthusiasms in seeing music, and that's how I started playing with Múm. They were my friends, and I could play instruments, and they needed someone to play.
Why did you go with a more traditional style of music for your first solo album?
When I go into writing music or recording it, I don't really go in with any pre-decided idea for styles, because I don't really see making music as an act of putting together elements. It's a very intuitive process for me. So I think it's hard for me to answer that question because these songs came to me as they are and were recorded as I wrote them. That was sort of the idea -- to keep it close to how it came out of me.
What instrument do you feel most comfortable playing?
I sort of consider my voice my main instrument because I feel I'm most connected to my voice, and I feel like I have more control over it than I do over any instrument that I play. When I get asked that question, I say my voice is my favorite instrument, and that it's the most important to me.
How did you get interested in playing the charango?
It's kind of funny: My friend Skúli Sverisson, I was playing in his music, and in one of his songs, I was playing a koto harp. Then we had to travel to play, and it was kind of hard to bring the koto harp also. So he brought a charango to a concert that we played in Belgium. I just tuned it and started playing it, and then I started playing songs on it, and I still haven't returned it.
What is the significance of the title Innundir skinni?
It means "within skin" or "under the skin" or "inside the skin." When I was first working on the record I had a working title, and I didn't like the title anymore, so I chose from one of the song titles, and I thought that title had a pretty sound to it, and it can be understood in English, in a way, because "skin" is the same word and "in" has the same meaning in both languages.
Being from Iceland, is there anything resembling a music scene or a musical community as we might know it in the USA, and if so, what is it like?
I'd say that the Icelandic community of musicians is very small, so that people that come from different backgrounds easily get into collaborations. People help each other out with gear and recording and stuff like that. It's a very open scene in that way. But at the same time, it's also protected in many ways. When you go out on your own two feet in the rest of the world, it's not as easy as it seems.
How did you get Bjork to contribute to your album, and what was it like working with her?
Basically, what happened was that I, because we are friends, I took my record to her during the mixing process just to ask her what she thought about the mixes. Then she got an idea for a part for a song and said, "Look, I can record it and send it to you, and you can use it any way you want. You can edit it, and you can do what you want with it." So I said, "Yeah! Let's hear it." She recorded it, sent it to me and I decided to leave it as she did it and didn't edit it in any way. That was very generous of her to offer that to me.
What kind of role did Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós play in the production of your latest album, and why did you want to work with him as a producer instead of someone else?
He produced my first record. So I was used to having him around in the studio, and we had a good working relationship on that record. We've been friends for many years, and his wife has become a very good friend of mine -- Maria from Amina. For my first record, he offered to come and record it, and he liked it, so it was pretty normal to continue working in that same space. There's no strategy behind what's going on -- it's all a very organic creative process, and I've just been blessed with the collaborators I've had.
Why did you sing "Crazy Car" in English, and what can you tell me about the story going on in that video with that red-haired singer, the road footage and why it seems to be a sad song?
I wrote the song with Ragnar Kjartansson, who sings it with me and is in the video. We wrote it about a friend of ours. It's really tongue in cheek. It's like a big joke. It's like a bit of tongue in cheek advice to our friend that she should come back to Iceland and relax a little bit because we felt she was losing all connection from living in New York. It's all in good humor.
When you're on tour in the U.S., what do you like the most about it, and what do you find most curious or frustrating?
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I like playing to people in America because I feel that the people I've played for so far are open and receptive to new things. They're not as analytical as people in Europe can be, when it comes to music. They're open and ready to embrace whatever's going on. I don't know what to say what I don't like, but I think that generally, what I don't like about touring is spending so much time in vehicles.
There's a lot of things I find really strange in America. The television in America, I find remarkable. In general, I don't watch too much TV, but watching the commercials and stuff is alien to me, and I find it really funny -- all the products and all the needs that people are being told they have. My favorite TV is German, my second favorite is Japanese and my third favorite is America. I find all three completely ridiculous [laughs].