Ólafur Arnalds
Photo by Benjamin Hardman

Ólafur Arnalds: “It’s not the end of the journey”

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Short Profile

Name: Ólafur Arnalds
DOB: 3 November 1986
Place of birth: Mosfellsbær, Iceland
Occupation: Pianist, composer, producer

Ólafur, you started out playing drums in a metal band, and since then you’ve made classical and electronic music, and worked on a variety of film and television scores. What kind of changes do you hope to see in your musical path next?

(Laughs) I've actually made a rule never to make any goals in terms of where I'm going because then you're following something that is not real. If I say I want to make this kind of music, it's never going to actually lead me there. It can help, but it's usually like I'm going to find a left turn along the way and go somewhere completely different. So for me, it's always a process through experimentation. At the moment this experimentation is taking me a little bit more inwards and making the music more personal to me.

Has your recent experimentation lead to changes within yourself as well?

Yeah, there's been a lot of growth happening with me in the last year and a half personally. It's hard to describe it because I'm just saying it from my own point of view but what my crew has told me is that at the beginning of the tour, my head was in 20 different places and while we all enjoy working together, I think it was a little bit more difficult for them because I was running around and not really giving everybody in our team my time and full dedication for what they needed. And I was way more stressed about everything. Whereas now, I think I've cleaned up a lot. I threw away a lot of side projects, I quit a bunch of things that I had committed to do because I realized this was not very healthy.

“I always feel like the new thing that I’m being offered is my last big opportunity... But it’s not actually true. My career doesn’t end if I go away for a year.”

Like what?

Well, I was doing a TV score on the side, I was doing a film and all these things while I was touring and I decided to just kind of drop everything and just focus on the Re:member tour. And I think by doing that we have, as a team and me personally as well, really grown in being able to take things to a higher level just by me having the mind space for it really.

It can be really difficult to accept that you can’t do everything — saying no is a challenge in itself.

Yeah, it's hard! I’ve felt like this since the beginning of my career, but I always feel like the new thing that I'm being offered is my last big opportunity. Like, I'm on this upward trajectory, right? And you always feel afraid of losing that, that if you don't take this opportunity, you will lose that upward trajectory. So every offer you get is the biggest offer you've ever had. It's just the nature of things when you feel like you're going up, so it's very difficult to actually turn those down because you feel like you're risking your whole career and work in music if you actually turn this down. I've actually just come to the realization that it's not actually true. My career doesn't end if I go away for a year. My fans can live without me for a year — it's okay.

Is it also fair to say you now have more trust in your value as an artist?

Sure, this is true, too. I’ve realized that I am not that interested at the moment to work for the sake of others, I’m not interested in doing commissions. I'm way more interested in creating art for art's sake and in order to do that I have to believe in myself. And I need to clear everything else off the table in order to find those ideas that I think really matter. This is something that I'm much more interested in at the moment than just making an underscore to a sad scene in a movie.

You’ve previously described yourself as the kind of person who hopes to always be improving, changing, and growing.

Right. So, you know, even though my recent tour of Re:member was actually the second time that we toured this album, there’s still movement, there’s new flow in all of this and it never felt like a repeat of anything because we make new experiments with the show every time. We’ll start the show with a couple of new songs or change the visual aspect of things, we use lights, installations, and really try to push it and see how far we can take it without it being overbearing. Even the songs themselves are constantly developing, it’s kind of funny because you don’t really notice how they change.

Olafur Arnalds and his band playing Ypsilon (2018)

What do you mean?

Let's say we played 140 shows now I think on this tour, and let's say we change three tiny things in the songs every day — after 140 shows you have completely new songs! So that's been really keeping us on our toes. But we don't really notice these changes ourselves because they're so small and just doing them step by step. It's not the end of the journey for these songs, they actually always just continue living and changing and breathing. I think otherwise this would not be fun, to play the same material over and over again…

Where does your desire for experimentation stem from? Your native Iceland, since it’s an island, is still very linked to the cultural practices and traditional music forms. Is that something you were trying to break free from?

No, actually I really do embrace it, I am really drawn to is the traditional ethos of making music in Iceland: how and why people make music. Despite Icelandic music becoming really commercialized in the last couple of years, there's still this sense of community in the music scene that really doesn't escape us. It's like making music for the sake of community, not making music for the sake of a career or for even the expectation of making a living. This stays unique in Iceland because it's pretty hard to make a living from music in Iceland that people don't necessarily expect to. There are people there who work full time as musicians, playing the organ in church or organizing choir practices, but who have never played a concert in their life. That's just how the music scene there is.

You once said that in your earlier days, if you were to try and collaborate with another Icelandic artist who was, like you, using both electronic and classical elements, you’d be working pretty much alone. Has the popularity of sounds like yours affected a change in that respect?

Yes, for sure. For a long time I didn't really believe that we could take this music to this point, to such big audiences, and I think the fact that so many people are doing it now shows that we can. People really want to hear this and they want to make this. This is something that is really interesting to see everywhere these days! There's some kind of an uprising of this music at the moment, to a point it's almost oversaturated. But it's really interesting to see and it's great to see.

“I want to stay doing whatever it is that I’m doing, but I have to try much harder now to stay ahead of the curve.”

Nils Frahm also recognizes the influence of his own music on pop culture — but he also sometimes regrets it because now that there are so many people doing it that he feels like he’ll eventually have to do something else.

Exactly! This is a discussion I have regularly… It's not that I have to do something different, but it's harder to be unique. And it's not that I want to just quit and start doing rock music or something; I want to stay doing whatever it is that I'm doing, but I have to try much harder now to stay ahead of the curve in a way. But this is great, this is such a good kick in the butt to reinvent yourself, to really try to break some boundaries.

Is that what makes projects like your self-playing Stratus pianos that accompany you during performances so crucial to your creativity?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m always asking, how do I break the mold? How do I break my habits of creating? And Stratus in particular is a device where you break your relationship with the piano — what you play on your piano only influences what the Stratus pianos will play next, so often really unexpected sounds can come out. It was just about not filtering anything and just taking everything in. Basically not saying, “This has to be piano music,” but saying, “This can be anything. Let's see what comes to me.” It's just this thing, like, I don't know how this is going to end, I have no idea where it's going to lead me… But it gives you a little surprise and I want to continue breaking all these boundaries.