In Conversation: Ólafur Arnalds
Purveyor of fine melancholic ambience Ólafur Arnalds returned last week with his follow up to 2018’s re:member. A starkly intimate affair, some kind of peace feels like one of 2020’s timeliest releases – even if Arnalds himself is adamant that he doesn’t want it to be remembered as his ‘Pandemic Album’.
Bolstered by support from his friends and collaborators Bonobo, JFDR and Josin, Arnalds’ latest sees him stripping things back to basics. Gone are the beats and lush conceptual soundscapes built from the sounds of self-playing pianos that defined his previous album in favour of more personal, reflective and vulnerable pieces that mirror his own personal experiences.
Never one to be pigeonholed, Arnalds’ body of work spans not just his intimate solo work, but also his work composing for the screen. His score for Broadchurch won the 2014 BAFTA TV Craft Award for Best Original Music. Meanwhile, his work with friend and fellow composer Janus Rasmussen on experimental techno project Kiasmos acts as an exciting creative diversion and they remain a must-see live dance acts - when we can eventually return to the dance floor.
Arnalds was on fine form when Paul Weedon caught up with him via Zoom from his studio in Reykjavik last week to discuss the new album, finding creative positives in the face of a global pandemic and potential plans for new Kiasmos activity.
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Hi Ólafur, it’s great to ‘meet’ you, as it were, in these very strange times.
Likewise. This is the way to do interviews these days and I’m loving it.
It’s nice actually. Before the pandemic interviews tended to just be this faceless thing over the phone. You never got to see a real person.
Yeah… Have you done this where you call the major labels and they have to connect that line to the artist so they don’t give you their phone number, or something?
Yeah. You spend about ten minutes not speaking to somebody. Yeah. [Laughs]. Congratulations on the new album, Olafur. It’s a really beautiful piece of work.
And it feels weirdly prescient for these strange times we currently find ourselves in.
Yeah… it became that! It’s this funny thing. No artist wants to be funnelled in to a certain… We don’t want the music to become about what is happening, but it’s also kind of nice that it fits and it works and it’s needed, perhaps? It’s really nice. I hope it doesn’t become ‘The Pandemic Album’.
Don’t worry – I think quite a few albums have ended up going that way this year, whether the artist meant to or not.
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I gather that the genesis of the album was some demos that you’d started on in September last year. Does it feel kind of strange to be releasing that material now?
It actually feels great. I had about half of it written before the pandemic started and then I guess I did the other half after, during the first few months of this, which was a very strange time – still is – but it was extra strange when it was starting. I think what it did to the album was to kind of just confirm the direction it was going in for me. It kind of felt like a premonition of what was going to happen.
Like, I was starting to make an album that I really wanted to be a symbol of really pure human expression without any barriers. And then when this all happened, it kind of reassured me that this was exactly what needs to be done these days. It’s the music that needs to be created. We need these kind of closer communities now and we all need some pure unfiltered human connection these days, so in a way it really just sort of confirmed the direction I was going in.
You’ve talked about this being a much more vulnerable record. You’ve mentioned that re:member felt like you were hiding behind grandiose concepts, like the self-playing piano. Can you expand on that vulnerable aspect of it a little bit more?
Yeah, I think for me that means just not filtering anything, perhaps, in the creative process. And more than that, it means to intentionally tell more of yourself in what you hear on the record. Methodologically, it means putting some samples and field recordings from my life on there to tell a more intimate story of where I am and what I’m going through, what my surroundings sound like.
Of course I’m not telling a very literal story on there, but it’s meant to give you a sense of what is happening. So I think that’s kind of the way I’m doing it. Then, of course, the music is less layered; it’s more sparse, which often brings out more of the intimate sounds. There’s more focus on melodies – simple melodies – rather than huge soundscapes and often the melodies are very lyrical.
So that’s kind of how I do it, but why? It’s a totally different question, I guess. As you said, re:member was very grandiose – and it’s not only about re:member. All of my previous work, even though it sounds very introspective and melancholic, I’ve often been doing it with a concept first. I’ve been writing a lot for film and obviously there you’re telling someone else’s story. Coming from that, when I start making my own records, I’ve always felt like I needed that story to write something to. So with Island Songs it was the concept of travelling around Iceland and meeting musicians and collaborating with them.
With re:member, it was about breaking your habits in creativity by changing the tools that you’re using, by creating technology or using very unexpected collaborators, or whatever it is; that was kind of the main focus there. But here I just wanted to… whatever it is that you’re putting in front of you, just to take it away and see what happens – not to make a concept beforehand, not to have an intention of’ ‘This album is going to be about that’. Just to write how you feel – which is always what I do, but to write how you feel and let that stand. Let that be the concept, not to then add something in front of it to create a world for it to hide within.
So it kind of ended up being a much more free-flowing process, by the sound of things?
Yes. Yeah, it’s a more free-flowing process inspired by actual events of my life and feelings of my life, rather than external events.
As a self-confessed control freak, something that chimed with me was your comment in the press notes around the fact that you were gripped with anxiety at the start of lockdown because of you wanted to take control of something completely uncontrollable. You noted that the pandemic has helped you to let go of that need for control. How has lockdown affected your creative process, if at all?
The biggest thing it changes is that you feel better. And if you feel better, you’re going to create better. It’s a big misconception that creativity in terms of making melancholic music needs to come from bad feelings or sadness. You need to feel okay and your head needs to be clear to be able to write music. You can’t write music during an anxiety attack.
You can write music about the anxiety attack afterwards when you feel better, but people often forget about that part of it. Throughout the ages, people have been writing heartbreak songs, but they don’t write those songs when they’re crying in bed, you know? They write them afterwards when they feel a little better and they reflect, because that’s when your brain is in a state to actually create.
So that’s the big difference it has on my creativity – to let go of always having to be in control of my situation. It’s a process that I started way before the pandemic started. It’s something I’ve been working on consciously for the past year or two. It made me more suitable to be a creator.
I can relate to that. There’s a sense that the more pressure you put on yourself the less effective you are.
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The moment you let go of that, things start to flow.
Yeah, I mean I guess it’s also that part. On one side you feel better and therefore you create better, but also you can be here in a state and let go of what you’re doing and not overthink it and not try to control every aspect of it and just let it flow.
And the end result is obviously a very timely piece of work, but it feels like a natural progression from what’s come before.
Yeah, I mean I’m 33, or something… It feels like the record for my age, kind of [Laughs]… Something changes when you turn 30. You kind of figure out life a bit more.
I feel like you become a bit more introspective.
Yeah, I agree. I feel like it’s just that.
You’ve always been a keen collaborator with your musical peers – you’ve obviously worked extensively with your friend Nils Frahm – and this album is no exception. The emphasis here was very much on working with your friends, right? I understand that the people featured on this album have played an important part in your life throughout the making of this record. Was that specifically during lockdown or beforehand?
I think all of the collaborations were made beforehand. I did finish the song with JFDR during lockdown, but we started that one in January. Yeah, particularly with Simon [Green] – Bonobo – and Josin, they both were with me during transitional periods of my life here, whether they’re my closest friends or not, that’s not really what it’s about.
It’s that they were here during a time when I was going through something and we made music together. But they are part of the story, they are part of that year in my life that this album captures, both in terms of the things we talked about and the things we did, but also the musical story. Making music together as friends is always what my musical collaborations are about.
That’s surely the purest way to do it.
Yeah. It’s no exception with this or in the past with Nils [Frahm]. Our collaborations started as us just hanging out – and we’d hang out a lot, so we made a lot of music!
I was going to ask you specifically about working with Simon. He was in Reykjavik visiting you, right?
Did the track develop quite spontaneously? Did you just happen to be in the studio and start bouncing some ideas around?
Yeah, absolutely. We did a few things here. We wanted to just do a little holiday together. We went to the Highlands with another friend of ours and camped and hiked and then, since we were both here we decided to do a very small kind of secret DJ set with Kiasmos and Bonobo together for just 200 people, which was really, really fun.
And then, just in the last couple of days, it was like, ‘What should we do? Should we try a day in the studio?’ And I think we just went there to have coffee, really – we didn’t go there with the intention of making music. We just went there to show him the studio and hang out and by the end of the day Loom was, I would say about 90% ready. We did a little bit of polishing remotely afterwards, but it was mostly done in one day.
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How does that kind of compare to an average track? What does the kind of production schedule tend to be per track? I guess it kind of varies.
It does vary, but one day is very unusual. There are tracks on the album that I spent weeks on – like, everyday for weeks. I think that track with Josin, we did like five versions of that track. There’s an electronic version that no one will probably ever hear, but in the end on the album it’s almost only strings. But the original was a piano song, then it was an electronic song with no piano and no strings and then it was just a string song. So we wrote that song three times and spent weeks on it, actually. So yeah, that was kind of the opposite of what I did with Bonobo.
That sets your mind racing around how many different versions of songs that we know from your albums must exist out there.
Many. I’m someone who always like to go away from the studio to listen to my stuff so I always like to take it home, which is a really bad idea because I never leave work. I always take my songs home and I keep listening to them because I feel like when I listen to them sitting on my balcony, in another environment I see a new perspective on them. So after each night I tend to make a render of the song to take home, so I will usually have 10-20 versions from these times where I’ve decided to take them home to listen to them.
Have you ever been tempted to put that stuff out there to see what people make of it?
No… because it’s not even supposed to be listened to. It’s often a version of a song with a piano melody but it doesn’t fit in properly. It’s usually just ideas or sketches… I did look through a couple of them the other day. There are a couple of alternative versions of one or two songs that I would like to do something with, but I would actually re-record them.
I wouldn’t release these versions. I love going back to them and listening to them. Like, when I mastered the album – I did it with one track and I decided to go back through all the different versions of it just to hear the development of the song through the months and it’s just a nice way for me to confirm to myself that I haven’t made the song worse. [Laughs]. If you made some changes to the song, it’s always nice to go back and listen and make sure that you’re still heading in the right direction.
That makes sense.
Because it can happen when you spend too much time on a song. You can make it worse.
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I was going to say, there’s that fine line isn’t there? I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of when a track or an album is actually ‘done’. I guess it’s the kind of thing you could just keep tinkering with.
Yeah, it’s never done. I’ve said this about re:member – because we did alternative versions of the re:member album for a special edition release and in the press text for that I talked about the fact that I really think that albums are like photographs. They’re a photograph of the songs in the state that they were in when you finished the album, but then you go on tour and you’ll keep playing the songs and each time you play it you’ll change a tiny thing.
And after a hundred shows, the song has changed quite a lot, especially if you change one tiny thing per day. So I think that they just continuously develop and grow and change and that’s always the case… The trick is like, when do you take that photograph?
Is that something that you’ve missed to some extent during the pandemic? I guess playing live does give you a much greater opportunity to road test those ideas and build on them, like you said.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the things I miss most about touring. It’s just to see what life these songs have. I would say half the time the songs get better with time. Like, often you’re rushing albums, you have a deadline and you finish everything and then you go on tour and you realise, “Oh! Actually I can make it like this.” And you make a better song. You make it constantly better and I think that that’s important to the songs, so I do miss that. Definitely.
I know it’s probably difficult to plan at this stage, but you had ambitions to tour some kind of peace didn’t you?
Yeah, so we did have a tour scheduled now. I think I should have been starting in America right now, which got postponed for a year, so currently it’s scheduled for next fall. I have no idea whether that will happen or not but we just wanted to have the venues booked and have everything ready in case we can go… A miracle happens and suddenly the touring industry is alive and we have the venues booked and people still have the tickets that they bought. So yeah, we do have plans, but I’m not that confident that they will happen.
On a lighter note, could you tell me a little bit about your studio? It’s been a bit of a sanctuary for you during the pandemic, hasn’t it?
Absolutely. So the larger context of the place is that it’s an old kind of fish factory building that me and two others have and we have 25 studios in here. People rent spaces and create studios here. I have a record label here. There’s also some painters, so it’s like a huge art space with 25 rooms.
My studio is the bottom floor of that building and upstairs are all these studios that we rent out. But yeah, this space that I’m in now is new because we just expanded earlier this year. I created the new studio here, so we finished construction here a week before the lockdown. And in Iceland we would have been okay.
We would have done more construction and we did do some additional work, but my studio designer – the person who does all of the technical work, wiring and everything that the studio needs to function – he’s from Germany and like a week later he couldn’t have entered the country because the border was closed. And he’s still not been back. So we got quite lucky to get it up and running. And then, actually, it’s only 90% finished because he was supposed to come back two weeks later to finish and we never managed it. So that was very lucky. It’s a beautiful space – very cosy, warm, lots of wood. It’s where I’ve spent most of my time.
I feel like you could do a whole feature on musicians’ studios.
Yeah, that’s my YouTube binges. I just go on YouTube channels of other people’s studios.
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I’ve got to ask you about Kiasmos. I’ve seen you guys play live a couple of times and it’s like nothing else. Obviously you guys have both been very busy with your own solo projects. Is it still an important focus for both of you to have another outlet that’s very different to your solo work?
Yeah! We’ve been planning to get back on it. It was, at least in the last run after the last album, it was a really important outlet to me to do something completely different before I came back to my own music and I’m hoping that we’ll do that again - after this release I can focus on Kiasmos again. But it’s a bit funny or weird to focus on a dance project at the moment, because it’s really made to be played live.
It’s really made for dancing. So I don’t know. We are making music, but it feels a bit unfocused. It’s like, what should we make music for? Should we just make an album for people to listen to at home? Should we still make an album?
I hadn’t really thought about that, but it makes complete sense.
[Laughs]. Of course, we don’t make music based on who is going to listen to it or how, but it does affect your ambitions. You don’t want to make an album designed for clubs if you know you’re not going to play it in a club. It just doesn’t make sense. So we are starting on something on something and we have a couple of songs that we’ve done this year, but we’re still figuring out the direction that we want to go in to.
It’s interesting though – that idea of the impetus for a particular genre not really being there right now.
Yeah. If we’re just going to make an ambient album then I don’t really need Kiasmos. [Laughs]. That’s kind of the predicament that we’re in, but we’ll see. It’s something that I really love. I love Janus and he’s one of my best friends, so we will always make more music because we’ll always be hanging out in the studio.
Speaking of playing live, I saw you in Bath on the re:member tour. That show was really something.
Ah, man. I miss that tour now. That was like the best tour I’d been on. That whole re:member run. It was also the first chance that I’d had to create something like that with those lights and everything that we had on that tour – that crazy stage setup. It was the first time in my life that I’d had the opportunities to work in that way. It had just been a dream of mine. Yeah, I really hope we can go back on tour eventually... I do remember Bath. I went to a spa in Bath.
You can’t not.
I took a Bath in Bath on a street named Bath Street. This is a fact that I remember.
So are you guys in a state of lockdown right now in Reykjavik?
No, we never have been. I don’t think we will. I don’t think it makes sense for our society. Like, it’s not so populated like a place like London. I get it - you need to just lockdown if you want people off the street, but here we’ve got space, but we are currently under restrictions – the harshest restrictions we have had so far right now, but they just mean that it’s like a ten person maximum at any place.
Places can still be open, but it’s a maximum of ten people and the bars are closed. Restaurants are open, but you don’t keep a restaurant open for ten people, so most of them are automatically closed.
Well, fingers crossed things will return to some kind of normal soon.
Something… some kind of peace.
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‘some kind of peace’ is out now on digital download, CD and vinyl via Mercury Classics.
Words: Paul Weedon / @Twotafkap
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