Interview: Ólafur Arnalds

Interview: Ólafur Arnalds

When living in an audio and image saturated culture that bombards us with mind-numbing tracks and kitsch commercial imagery, it is hard to find something that is naturally beautiful and pure to its core. Whilst the music industry continues to become increasingly corporate and music itself has become more of a commodity of than an art form, there are very few musicians that are rebelling against this. One such artist is Icelandic Ólafur Arnalds.

Arnalds is a lot like his music. Humble and honest, there is a fascinating intricacy echoed amongst his fellow Icelanders such as Jónsi and Johan Johansson. He is a man of few words, but what these sparse vocals do possess is a depth and ethereality that is truly tranquilising to hear. Yet still there is a brutal beauty in his music, cold and refreshing like the climate of his homeland that permeates his work. At the age of 28, Arnalds has already achieved more than most of us do in our lifetime. In spite of his relative youth, he has won a BAFTA for his work on popular ITV series Broadchurch, released three studio albums and explored his electronic talents with German instrumentalist Nils Frahm as well as with Janus Rasmussen in a collaborative experimental techno project, Kiasmos.

But in the middle of all this hype, what is actually going on inside Ólafur Arnalds’ head? “I’m trying to think about what I want to do for my next album. I’ve been to so many musical places within the past couple of years that I’m finding it hard to pick one for the next album. Thankfully I’m not in any rush!”, he explains and adds that in spite of being a person with clear goals, he, surprisingly, doesn’t think that far ahead when it comes to his career.

In spite of just releasing his debut album as Kiasmos and finishing the challenging quest of composing a soundtrack for the second season of Broadchurch, Arnalds has had no time to sit back and relax. In March 2015, Arnalds is releasing a collaborative album  The Chopin Project which he has been working on with German-Japanese classical pianist Alice Sara Ott. “After that, I plan to start pondering about my next solo album”, Arnalds reveals.

His latest solo album, For Now I Am Winter, garnered massive success and was praised by critics internationally. Released in 2013, the enigmatic and harmonious feel of this album was hailed for its uniqueness, causing the listener to get lost inside beautiful tracks like ‘Old Skin’ or ‘A Stutter’. This album, like many of Arnalds’ projects, was also made in collaboration with many other incredibly talented musicians.


Working with Arnor Dan and combining Dan’s emotional vocals with Arnalds’ gorgeous piano and strings, For Now I Am Winter turned out to be one of the most beautiful albums released in 2013. According to Arnalds, it is the other people who are the driving force when it comes to his creative process. “Each album and each project I have tried to collaborate with a different person. That’s how you learn the most, by seeing how other people can influence your music. For example, I did all the string and piano arrangements on the Kiasmos album, I don’t think any of them would have been the way they are if Janus wasn’t there next to me the whole time. It is these lessons that I take back into my own solo work.”, he explains.

But how does he start his composition process? Within past ten years or so, Arnalds has rapidly progressed from a drummer of a metal band into an award winning prestigious composer.  Arnalds reveals the composition process to be a somewhat lonely job in spite of his interest towards collaborative work with other musicians: “There are moments when I feel like I could write a whole album in one night and that usually happens when I am feeling highly sensitive. It’s hard to reach that mindset and it doesn’t happen often. My only trick is just to try to remove myself from the outside world. Be completely alone with my thoughts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, I guess that’s the nature of it”, he admits, yet continues to insist that he isn’t really a romantic even though his music might suggest otherwise: “I can’t really remember having big dreams when I was a kid, I was a bit of an introvert.  Just thinking a lot and wondering about nerdy stuff like how the keys on the piano relate to each other or something. Not much of a talker”, he adds jokingly.

When Arnalds got commissioned to compose the soundtrack for the first season of the Broadchurch, he was only 26 years old. There are very few soundtracks that have become one of the main characteristics of their TV show yet Arnalds’ gloomy and painfully beautiful scores possess a fascinating vitality that create new dimensions to the storyline of the show. Did Arnalds ever anticipate this kind of reaction to his work? Maybe not. But was it deserved? Definitely. “Funnily enough lots of my initial ideas for Broadchurch were taken from songs that I had been making for a totally different film project which didn’t go through in the end. I didn’t watch any other TV shows to look for ‘lessons’ or inspiration but went into this completely blindfolded”.

He admits that there are a lot of complexities included in entwining these two very different art forms together. Combining visual narrative with suitable musical structure is a time consuming process due to the different needs embedded within the two very different mediums of film and music. “The biggest challenge is probably finding a structure to a song that works musically but still hits all the right marks on the screen. But there is always a way, and my view is that if you can’t find a way then the piece of music is wrong so I start over.”

Arnalds is keen to point out that he doesn’t always practice minimalism consciously but believes that “it is a bigger achievement to make something big with few tools than with many.”  There is certain humbleness in Arnalds’ minimalism and it is this kind of simplicity that empowers his work. He isn’t the kind of artist who draws boundaries between classical and popular music nor does he believe in the hierarchy of the genres. By mixing electronic elements with classical piano and strings, Arnalds creates something unique that speaks volumes of his individualistic talent.

Ólafur is currently on his Broadchurch tour around Europe and his collaborative release, The Chopin Project, is due to come out in March. 

Kasimiira Kontio