Iceland’s Ólöf Arnalds (cousin to contemporary classical wunderkind Olafur Arnalds) is only in her early 30’s, yet has already charted an impressive career path that is only gaining traction with the release of her latest full-length, Sudden Elevation. Arnalds has already collaborated with Björk, toured with múm, and recorded in Sigur Røs’ studio.
Schooled in classical violin, Arnalds took up guitar after being inspired by Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance and recording. The years since have found her overcoming crippling stage fright to deliver quirky, sweet songs like the title track on Innundir Skinni, a song about her pregnancy. The crowd-funded Sudden Elevation is Arnalds’ first album since becoming a mother, and is also the first album Arnalds recorded straight-through with no breaks in the recording. Additionally, it is Arnalds’ first English-language record. The result of these new factors created a record that earned four stars from The Guardian, who wrote that Sudden Elevation “feels like a quiet ascension to the heights.”
The Rumpus: You’ve talked about your family inspiring your first record and your pregnancy inspiring the next. Were there any dominant inspirations for your most recent album?
Ólöf Arnalds: I think I’m thinking in a much broader context this time. I was very much thinking about aloneness that people everywhere feel. I wanted the record to be a good friend, especially to people who feel isolated or ridiculed by society for being who they are or how they feel. I was also contemplating a lot about Jante Law (an idea that there is a pattern of group behavior towards individuals within Scandinavian communities that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate).
Rumpus: Has being a mother changed your approach to creativity in any way?
Arnalds: Not directly. Children are inspiring because they are open and a lot more intelligent than grown ups. They also have contagious playfulness and joy. For me as an artist the challenge of having a child is having to think ahead a lot more. Which in a way is good, since I sometimes lack self-discipline. The responsibility of caring and providing for a child can both give you strength or be paralyzing at times. Depending on the attitude you choose. Ultimately I think it is very valuable to anyone’s personal growth having to care for someone else than just yourself.
Rumpus: How is the environment for women in music different in Iceland than in America, in your opinion?
Arnalds: I don’t really know if I’m the right person to answer this since I’ve only visited America to tour and do stuff that has been lined up and I am taken to. I guess we are lucky here in Iceland, because we get some support and advice or opportunities from institutions like IMX (Icelandic Music Export). But it can be a double-edged sword, because ultimately you have to work hard and create a sustainable path for your work, independent of governmental support.
Rumpus: Can you tell me a little about the recording process for the new record?
Arnalds: The main body of the recording work was done in a cabin by the sea in two weeks. We were completely isolated, no phone or internet. It was really great, because I could work when I felt like it, take a walk when I needed to and work intensively until early in the morning if an idea had captured my mind. My energy and attention fluctuates a lot when I’m recording, so it works much better for me to create circumstances that allow that, as opposed to being on the clock in a studio. What was also special this time was that it was a uninterrupted period of time to record, which is something I’ve never managed to do before, since I’ve had to rely on mate rates at studios, that you can only get when no one else has locked in a session.
Rumpus: How do you feel about touring?
Arnalds: I really like it. It’s definitely not for everyone, since it can be hectic and trying to be constantly moving from place to place. I’ve spent a lot of time on the road since 2003 when I started working with múm. You get used to it, it starts feeling like home. Now when I’ve been off the road for a while I can’t wait to get back on it. I was feeling very differently about this in December 2011 when I came home from the last leg of the Innundir Skinni tour cycle. I can’t remember the number of gigs I did but for 2 years I had never been home for longer than 2 weeks straight.
Rumpus: I read that Nirvana was the band that actually inspired you to start playing guitar. How do you feel about them now?
Arnalds: It’s a bit funny that I was never a fan of any band or singer and never knew who was who except for guys like Schumann or Schubert, Berlioz or Berio. I first saw Kurt Cobain on the Icelandic National TV news announcing his death and immediately became a devoted fan. Just now, answering this question it popped into my mind that maybe I was conditioned only to like dead composers and Jesus. I could sort of find both in Kurt Cobain. Being sensitive to anything that is loud I guess I found my connection with Nirvana through the MTV Unplugged show. I saw it on TV, bought the CD, decided to learn the record on guitar and did. One song at a time, and then often played with the record all the way through. It’s funny, now when I hear it I know every interlude, every noodle between songs.
Rumpus: In an interview I watched with you, you talk about the American scene being very free. Do you feel restricted musically by Icelandic music and culture?
Arnalds: I’m seldom restricted by anything because I don’t know how to restrict myself. It’s a blessing and a curse. I feel a lot of support from people in Iceland, especially from people that are content with themselves and their life.
Rumpus: Sudden Elevation was a crowd-funded album. Do you think you’ll do that again, or go back to a more traditional model?
Arnalds: I don’t know if there is an existing model that anyone can hold on to right now. Every [piece of] advice about how to go about in the record business you would get 5 years ago is no longer valid. Everything is changing very rapidly and there is an increased sense of anger and despair among artists that are not major-selling megastars. The only thing I know is what I want to create in the next 15 years and I have no other option than to trust that I’ll find a way to do it. It’s impossible to imagine or calculate exactly how.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite writers/favorite books?
Arnalds: Good Soldier Svejk by Janoslav Hasek, Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, Hitch 22 – a memoir by Christopher Hitchens, The Gift – selected poems by Persian Sufi master Hafiz, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, The Creator by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir.