Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds is creating visuals on his new show, which you can see in The Netherlands and Belgium on 8th May in Eindhoven, 9th May in Brussels, 10th May in Groningen and 11th May in Amsterdam. His new album ‘For Now I Am Winter’ promises vocals and a bigger symphonic sound during his live shows. I asked Ólafur a few questions about all of this.
When you compose a song, where do you start – with the piano or the beat?
Usually I start on the piano but sometimes, when I feel stuck, I create some ambient beats first, just to create an atmosphere for my piano. Then I create a little loop on the computer with some nice tones; I put them in my headphones while I’m improvising on the piano, but those might even end up in a song. I always start with the piano and take it from there into the computer, where I start to program beats and incorporate some strings.
What set-up do you need around you for this process?
Nothing special really – the place where I write in my studio is already quite cosy and nice.
How do you approach your shows? I heard you like to engage with the audience? How does that work out?
I usually start my show with a little improvisation, just to give a good introduction to the whole performance. I ask the audience to sing one or two notes. I try to use tones that give me the most freedom, so I can play most everything on top of that tone. When I ask people to sing, I record them and loop them back with some effects on, so they can end up sounding like a full choir.
Does this improvisation help to trigger ideas for making new songs?
When I start, the atmosphere might help to create new ideas. So if we try a different note tomorrow, instead of singing, the audience can clap and we make a little beat that could then inspire me to create something new.
Your new album For Now I Am Winter was released in March. I hear differences compared to your previous albums: for starters, there are the vocals of Arnór Dan Arnársson (Agent Fresco), plus the songs are shorter than before and the sound is more big, more mainstream. Are you taking risks?
Yeah, basically I just try out new things. I don’t want people to get used to hearing something from me and just expect that automatically. I prefer to surprise people, and to learn something new in the process. If I just keep doing what people expect me to do, I won’t learn anything and I would get stuck as a musician. I think it’s really important to stay fresh, not only for the fans but also for myself so I can still enjoy what I do.
It seems to me that you cannot use one word to sum up Icelandic music. For example, a lot of Icelandic musicians play in different bands and genres. Do you have an explanation for why Icelandic musicians play different music styles?
In Iceland, it’s really important to explore different things because the music scene is very small – it’s not so fun to be alone in your own corner because there’s no one else there. If I would make a decision to play with only other modern classical composers, there would not be anyone else. I’m pretty much the only one… there’s perhaps two in the whole of Iceland. I’m forced to work with different genres because there are not enough people here. That’s the only way to work with other people.
What can we expect at the show in Holland?
We’re going to come with a string quartet. I will come with the piano and I mostly have a musician who plays the electronics. Because of my new album I’m going to play a mixture of electronics and classical sounds. We have a new vision show and it’s looking really good. Hopefully it would be a very good audio-visual experiment!