Search The Line of Best Fit
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Best Fit meets Ólafur Arnalds

Best Fit meets Ólafur Arnalds

29 July 2010, 22:15

In classical music, there are people who dedicate whole lifetimes to their art and don’t come close to making an impact on the culture. Then there are the likes of Ólafur Arnalds.

At only 20 years of age he released his debut album, Eulogy for Evolution in 2007. Met with critical approval, he’s followed on prodigiously ever since with a series of EPs and this year has finally seen his sophomore longplayer given a release. The three years that have passed between releases have only seen his acclaim grow, and it’s fair to say that the Icelandic prodigy is now somewhat of an international star.

“Sometimes I think I would rather be just chilling – I am so busy”, he admits with a sigh, “but in the end, this is more satisfying than whatever I would be doing otherwise.” Just as in his music, he is reserved and nuanced in his speech. Indeed, throughout the entire interview he barely seems aware of the camera crew that bob around the room, documenting his movements for an upcoming documentary. Dressed almost entirely in black or variants thereof, he is polite and unassuming – belying the fact that in just a few days time he will be commanding an Orchestra through a recital of his new record, ‘…and they have escaped the weight of darkness’.

The resulting performance was undeniably a success, and on stage, surrounded by tens of highly trained musicians playing his own composition, he looks genuinely humbled by the experience. Supremely talented, charming and remarkably grounded, it’s frightening to think of the possibilities that lay in front of this young man. In the midst of rehearsals for his landmark performance at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, we caught up with him to chat about his new album, Iceland, and his past as a drummer in a hardcore band.

It’s been a couple of years since the last time you visited Manchester – since then, you’ve put out a few EPs, and you’ve put out a new album.. how would you say that the record has moved on from your first album?
I don’t know, it’s a bit…. I think this record takes a step back to the first album from the EPs where I was doing more electronic stuff, and I’ve got the live drums again. There’s definitely still a big evolution from the first record, and the maturity of everything, and the sound has definitely change… I think for this one we have more of a character that you can pick up in the sound that wasn’t really there before, I would like to say it’s a bit more positive, even.

You said that the first album is a collection of songs….
I wouldn’t say it’s exactly a collection of songs but yeah, they were put together in a way, and yeah, it was… I didn’t have a very clear idea from the beginning of what I was doing; with this one I was much more… I could put it together in a much more easy way, I think

What would you say the emotions are behind the piece? What’s inspired it?
I look it as a journey from a state of being normal to more depressive, and the most significant part being the end, where things go positive again, it’s kind of that there’s always light after the darkness, that things always end well.

How would you say the process of releasing a record compares to your Found Songs project (in which Ólafur wrote, recorded and gave away 7 songs in consecutive days)?
Found songs was a pure collection of songs that didn’t relate to each other in any way – they were done in a week, whereas this was done in a year, over thousands of hours, you know, this is really a studio album, I mean, we spent hours and hours editing, so the work process was very much… it was very produced.

Which method do you prefer?
I like being in the studio, I like working fast, but… I don’t know, I don’t think either one really suits me better, it’s just, the outcome is just different, and in both cases the outcome was good for me.

How would you describe your sound? I’ve read lots of labels being applied to it.
I try not to get involved in that, it’s so irrelevant to me I think, it doesn’t really matter

You’ve said that classical music in itself is quite closed up to anyone who hasn’t had lifelong training. Are you purposeful in trying to open that up?
Yeah, and one of the things that I am doing here on Thursday is a significant part of that process, where I am working in a purely classical school, with a classical orchestra. I am trying to get to meet the people in the orchestra. Some people are really hyper about everything, and just want to play something really classical, but others are really excited about it, about doing something different. If I can bring those few people over the next couple of days to my side then I think that will be a success.

What level of training have you got yourself?
Quite a bit. I have done one year of university composition, and the rest I did myself, I dropped because I was too busy with touring. I wouldn’t be doing the music I am doing if I didn’t have any classical education, because I need it to be able to arrange for a classical orchestra

The reason that you’re in the city is for your gig at the Bridgewater Hall – how long has it taken you to adapt your pieces for an orchestra. When we saw you, you were only a four piece.
I don’t know, it didn’t take me as long as I thought it would – two weeks? As you will hear, it has changed quite a bit, I tried to approach it in the way that nothing is sacred, do whatever sounds good. Because I approach it like that, it wasn’t such a long process. It was almost like making new songs; I didn’t even know what I was doing. If it sounded good, you know, but sometimes if it didn’t sound good, we had to change it in rehearsal. It’s a very hippy approach to everything!

You’ve played Manchester’s Night and Day Café (a small, dingy venue); the Bridgewater Hall is a lot nicer – which are you more comfortable in?
I think my favourite places to play are not theatres – though those are the best places to present my music, but for the atmosphere and the fun you can have with the audience, it’s much better when you’re at a normal club. In the gig at the Night and Day there were lots of people talking at the bar.

It was bizarre seeing you in such a small place. Is working with an orchestra something you could imagine moving into on a more fulltime basis for other releases?
No, I am not sure if I would like to work with them too much on the albums, I like to intimate feel of four strings and keeping everything minimal, but in a concert setting, yeah, I would like to work more, not fulltime, but do the odd special, one off thing.

In the past you’ve scored a dance, and you’re in the process of scoring a film – any plans to further diversify?
I like collaborating, so far dance is my favourite – I have done two dance works, I think that is one of the most satisfying collaborations so far. I’ve done one short film and I’m just about to start my first full length film when I get home from this. I’m still not totally in to the film bit; I’m still feeling my way around to see if that’s something I would like to get into this.

You come from Iceland, there’s obviously a strong sense of what music should be when it comes from there. Do you think it helps or hinders?
It helps, definitely. I remember when I was first touring and doing stuff, all the press was about me was about the Icelandic – you don’t hear this about everyone else, the country where you’re from doesn’t always matter this much, but somehow for Iceland that seems really significant for everyone and, I think that people are more likely to check it out – so I think it really helps. Wherever you are from, it helps create who you are, whether that’s Iceland or somewhere else.

Your cousin, Olof, is also a renowned musician in her own right. Would you say your family has been a big influence in your music?
Yeah, my whole family is very musical. We always had Christmas and stuff… big family gatherings where we would just play music and sing. Since I was born I remember – yeah music is a big part of our family. Everyone in our family, if they’re not professional musicians, at least they play and instrument, or do some music.

What can we expect from in the future? You used to drum in a hardcore band… How did that happen?
I don’t know, it’s just two different types of music – I don’t see it as a change in personality. I like this music and I like that music – what I like I try to create. I do whatever makes sense at that time. I don’t decide like, next year I’m doing to do this kind of music.

Ólafur Arnalds latest album, ‘…and they have escaped the weight of darkness’ is available now through Erased Tapes.
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