Exclusive Q&A: Icelandic Singer Ólöf Arnalds

Ever since opening for Bjork at Housing Works in May, Icelandic singer Ólöf Arnalds has been the talk of the blogosphere. And with good reason: her debut album, Vid og Vid, is an indie-folk gem consisting of ten perfectly crafted songs. Her voice evokes her classical training while hinting at a more modern sound. We sat with Ólöf — who plays at the Whitney Museum tonight and Rockwood Music Hall on Monday — to chat about her work with Sigur Ros’ Kjartan Sveinsson, crazy cars, and her second album. Read all about it after the jump.

Flavorpill: There’s a lot of great stage banter in your set. Is that rehearsed at all?

Ólöf Arnalds: It’s spontaneous. We never do the same show twice. When I’m performing with David [ Johansson], we go onstage and we really don’t know what’s going to happen. For example, in Portland, our show turned into this Icelandic soap opera. We were acting like we were an angry couple on stage like he was going to go, and I was like, “please don’t go.” It was really funny because the audience was like “what’s happening?” It’s exciting because so many shows are predetermined. People play their songs in the same order. I like to mix things. I like the danger of having everything so open on stage.

FP: How long have you two been playing together?

OA: David came into my music early this year, and he was my closest co-worker on the record that I just made.

FP: When is that coming out?

OA: I think March of next year.

FP: Are there more English songs on this record?

OA: Yeah, it’s half English and half Icelandic.

FP: Do you have a different process writing in English as opposed to Icelandic?

OA: Not really. Of course you always connect to your mother tongue in a very special way, but I am also very attached to English because my mother was raised in England, although she’s Icelandic. I have many relatives who I only speak English with, and that’s the way it has been since I was a kid.

FP: Where did you get the idea for “Crazy Car”?

OA: I needed to buy a car when I was going to record, so I could drive the musicians. I didn’t have much money, and I saw an ad for a really cheap car. I was really excited and told my friend Asdis (who’s making the cover for my record) about this car. When I went to see it, it was crazy crappy. I called her, and we started laughing. Then this “crazy car” became a term for going insane. “Going in the crazy car” would be like losing your mind. The song is about my friend Kristin Anna. We were trying to encourage her to move back to Iceland because we thought that she was “going in the crazy car” by living in New York.

FP: And how did that work out?

OA: It didn’t work well. I’m going to try reverse psychology next time.

FP: So you don’t have any plans to move Stateside?

OA: Not now. Maybe in a few years it would be great. I have a son who’s one and a half years old, and there’s so much life quality in Iceland when it comes to having children because it’s so safe. It’s such a good environment for kids to have the freedom to play. I have a big family, and I wouldn’t want to raise my kids anywhere else than Iceland.

FP: Can you talk a little bit about the music scene in Iceland?

OA: It’s a very tight scene. Everyone’s friends and help each other out. It’s really vibrant because you can make things happen really quickly. It doesn’t take a long time to make it happen. It’s a gutsy environment. People just do things.

FP: In terms of recording or touring?

OA: More like in preparing events of any sort. It’s always like, “I know this guy who knows this guy who owns this gear.” You know, you just make it work. That’s what I like about living in a small community, but then of course, it can be suffocating and privacy is difficult. Everybody knows everyone.

FP: How did you meet Kjartan Sveinsson from Sigur Ros, who produced your first album?

OA: His wife, Maria. We’re friends from youth. She’s from the quartet Amiina that played with Sigur Ros for many years. It’s just a small scene of musicians. It’s friendship. Sigur Ros and Mum, who I used to play with, are good friends.

FP: How was touring with Mum? Did it influence the way you write songs?

OA: I hadn’t started writing songs when I was touring with them. Of course, it was a great experience to travel so much. When I started touring with them, I didn’t have a clue about anything. I didn’t even know what the word “venue” meant. I learned about the self-sufficiency you need to have when you’re traveling a lot. Survival stuff. I also collected instruments when I was traveling and got exposed to a lot of music and great people.

FP: Can you talk a little bit about the process of working with your producer?

OA: Kjartan recorded and produced my first album, and that was a lovely process because we decided to record on tape. A lot of it was just the two of us in the studio just working in the same room. He’s really exact and has strong ideas of how he wants the microphone to sound. It’’s really interesting how much he’s into it.  I don’t know what’s up and what’s down on microphones.

FP: Do the limitations of recording on tape enhance the creative process?

OA: I like to use the technology a little bit against you. It was fun to record on tape because you don’t have limitless tracks. I always work from whole takes, recording the voice and guitar at the same time. It’s usually all live takes. On the new record, the basic track that we add to is always me playing guitar and singing while other musicians are playing. It can be kind of difficult because of the miking — the voice going into the guitar mic and vice versa — but it’s worth it because I really believe in the live take and the danger of it.

FP: Is there more experimentation with technology on your new album?

OA: It’s recorded digitally, but there’s still the same principle of the whole takes. Sometimes it took ten to fifteen takes to get it right, and tape is really expensive for Icelanders.

FP: Can you give us a preview of what to expect on the new album?

OA: It’s going to be a little more explosive. A little bit more gutsy. More instruments and a more divided style.

FP: Which styles of music?

OA: I can’t talk about styles when I talk about my music because I don’t experience them as styles. The first album was the same color, but this one has different colors.

Check out a couple of tracks from her debut album, will be released in the US by One Little Indian on January 12th, below.

DOWNLOAD: Olof Arnalds – “Englar og darer” [via Brooklyn Vegan]