Interview: A Conversation With Ólafur Arnalds

Musician-composer-producer Ólafur Arnalds is currently on a huge worldwide tour, beginning in the northern powerhouse of Manchester at the prestigious Albert Hall. Arnalds is a powerhouse in his own right, having won a BAFTA for his score for ITV drama Broadchurch, amassing nearly three million followers on Spotify and boasting eight studio albums. The Iceland-native’s latest project, re:member, showcases what Arnalds does best, tranquil yet soul-unravelling masterpieces that both calm and stimulate the senses. The artist has kindly taken a moment out of his busy rehearsal schedule to talk to Too Many Blogs about his latest venture, his workaholic tendencies and how a broken hand became the inspiration for expanding his creative horizons.

 

You’ve described this album as your ‘breaking out-of-a-shell’ album, by manipulating the ‘circle of expectations and habits’. When in your life have you had to break out of your shell, and what expectations have you found yourself fulfilling or subverting?

The short answer? All the time! [laughing] The long answer? I’d been touring quite intensely since my last album, and felt like the live shows were always the same. They were always intimate, but I had played 400 shows at that point, and by the end of it I was tired. I then decided not to play any shows until made a new project. In between I played a lot of festivals, which were just full of people having fun on stage, and that in itself inspired me to make something new. If we were never stuck, we would never feel the need change and improve, and I want to be someone who is constantly trying better themselves. 

You’ve stated that you “want to inspire a community of creators with my music.”  Who, what, where and when inspires you in life and your music?

A lot of inspiration comes from other artists and traditions, but also films, museums and internet culture. I get my ideas from anything really, because to me art represents the world, so it’s hard to name specific things. I think limitations are also important and inspiring, as sometimes keeping myself within a certain frame forces you to be creative within it. For example, this idea started with a joke between me and a friend about how I was going to create and play music, as I had hurt my hand and couldn’t play the piano properly. I would go to bed unable to stop thinking about what he had said, and thought maybe he had a point.

What’s the typical composition process like?

Usually ideas will be collected all over the place and time, and when I’m at the piano anything I come up with I record on my phone. Whenever I’m in Iceland and have the time, I’ll go to the studio and work on them. I’ll then work mostly on my computer, making ambient or synth sounds. It can take anything between a day to a month to create something, but funnily my favourite pieces are always the ones that appear out of nowhere. If I have a creative block, I’ll try and find something that will lead me back to a new place; I’ll play the pianos to find something completely different, and this usually always leads me back into creative mode.

Although you don’t describe yourself as a classical musician, there seems to be a perception that instrumental music is inherently linked to classical music, a genre often ignored by younger generations. However, in the video for unfold, the song is soundtracked to a rave, a place in which this music would perhaps be least expected to be found. Do you feel your music could break this perception and and appeal to a younger generation?

I don’t think my music is classical but more so just uses classical instrumentation like piano and strings; there’s not much in the actual music, sounds, perception or its approach and structure that is classical. Therefore I don’t want to say that I am hoping to change the course of classical music, but I’m happy if it opens doors for people to enjoy instrumental music, and makes it more relatable for my generation.

Your latest project, the ‘Stratus’ pianos, is an incredibly interesting and unique invention. What sparked the idea? What would you say to people who are perhaps sceptical of combining a traditional classical instrument with modern technology?

Player pianos have actually been around for hundreds of years, with the digital form being around since the eighties. I first saw the pianos in 2011 when touring with musician Ryuichi Sakamoto who used them in his shows, and I would also see them in airports playing Beatles songs [laughs]. I thought this was a cool gimmick, but it also made me think that there was something more to this technology and set out to look for ways to manipulate it. I then applied this concept to a synthesiser, looking at what synths can do and why pianos could not do the same, and set out to combine it. As for people who are skeptical? It doesn’t concern me, and I don’t think there are many people who are against new ways of using technology. The early piano was constantly evolving, but this then stopped and and nothing much has changed in the past two hundred years. I personally love seeing movements of people infusing electronics and pick-ups to make them sound different.

You’re about to embark on an international tour. How important is the audience/performer relationship to you, and what are some of your pre-show rituals?

The relationship with the audience is incredibly important, as it’s the only place where you’re in front of the people that listen to your music. The live show is the only place where you get to see the immediate reaction of the listener, which has much more of a personal impact than a like on Facebook or Instagram. I don’t really have any pre-show rituals, I’m not superstitious like that – I believe if you put in the work, you’ll have a good show. However, before each show, my band and I will gather for a group hug to connect and make sure we’re all in the same zone.  

How do you wind down from it all?

[Laughs] It’s not my style to wind down, but off tour I like to travel. When you’re touring, even though you’re visiting so many places you don’t have a chance to experience the country or its culture in full, as all you see is the inside of airports and auditoriums. The latest place I visited was Indonesia, which gave me a chance to visit friends I have there and to explore rich musical cultures I hadn’t seen before.

Describe in 3 words how you feel when writing music.

I’m bad at this kind of question! I’d say creative (that’s a feeling right?), home, and joyful.