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Getting To Know: Ólafur Arnalds

By Mike Hilleary; photo by Marino Thorlacius on March 29, 2013


Getting To Know: Ólafur Arnalds


It’s midday and Iceland native Ólafur Arnalds is sitting in his recording studio experiencing a rare reprieve from recording while his “little elves” attempt to solve a malfunction with his computer equipment. 

Currently on deadline, the 26-year-old multi-instrumentalist and composer has been hard at work trying to finish the score for an episode of Broadchurch, a new crime-thriller television series starring former Doctor Who star David Tennant. Just one of several projects that he is presently working on or committed to, Arnalds says the scenery doesn’t change much for him on a day-to-day basis. The couch he’s currently settled himself on might as well have a pullout bed. “I don’t do anything else,” he says. “I’m here 14 hours a day; six, seven days a week.” Fortunately, seeing the sun isn’t such a big deal when “you don’t really see it in Iceland anyway during the winter.”


Bracing oneself against the outside to turn inward is a notion that appropriately resides in what is perhaps Arnalds’ most important work to date, a new album titled For Now I Am Winter. Recorded over the course of several months last year, the LP is immersed in a cross-pollination of the classical and pop genres, where icy piano arrangements blend with orchestral strings and the weightless sensation of ambient electronics.


“It pertains to an acceptance of something bad or something dark that is about to happen or is happening,” says Arnalds of the album title. “We don’t know how long it’s going to last and we don’t know what it is exactly, but we’re accepting it. Life takes us where it takes us.”


Born in the town of Mosfellsbær, located just a few miles outside Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík, Arnalds took to music early in life, learning to play the piano at a young age. By his teens he had picked up the drums, playing in hardcore bands with names like Fighting Shit and I Adapt. On the side, Arnalds secretly indulged in an increasing love of film scores and classical arrangements. 


While playing an opening slot for a German heavy metal band called Heaven Shall Burn, Arnalds passed along a demo of composition work to the group. A few months later the band contacted Arnalds and asked him if he’d be interested in composing a classical intro, outro and interlude for their next album. Turning to the neo-classical genre full-time, Arnalds has since released several EPs, scored films and a ballet, and toured with fellow countrymen Sigur Rós.


Following his 2008 debut Eulogy for Evolution and its 2010 follow-up …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, For Now I Am Winter demonstrates several key growths in Arnalds’ development as a songwriter. In addition to utilizing a full orchestra and a heavier emphasis on electronic beats, the new album showcases the use of vocals for the first time, appearing on four unique tracks. The vocals themselves, however, are not from Arnalds. Turning to the angelic falsetto of Icelandic singer Arnór Dan, Arnalds integrates Dan’s voice as if it were another instrument—a tool that does not push everything else into the background, but complements the entire arrangement. 


Establishing that particular balance in the mix is crucial for Arnalds, whose sonic experimentations range from the subtle to the significantly misshapen, from an engineering standpoint. “A lot of it is just ideas about sound,” says Arnalds. “I’m in the studio and I’m curious about what this wiring would do to my machine and what kind of sounds it would create. Maybe it creates a totally weird sound, but I like it, and I can go from there. I manipulate everything. Every single channel on that album is manipulated 100 times.”


Assuming the role of a modern pop artist, Arnalds’ For Now I Am Winter is a welcome entry into the experimental fold. Under the gaze of Arnalds’ rigid, classical education, its abandonment of established rules is worthy of rebuke—something with which the songwriter is completely comfortable. 


“[Traditional classical music] is very inaccessible,” says Arnalds. “You don’t really like it unless you understand it. I prefer making something people can just hear and feel something.”  F

3 albums that inspired Ólafur Arnalds to make music


Fleetwood Mac


What can you say other than it’s obviously one of the best pop/rock albums of all time. It’s also an album that keeps making me want to go back to analog recording techniques.





Arvo Pärt

Spiegel im spiegel

Not technically an album, but not many things have influenced me as much as Arvo Pärt’s work in general. Particularly his “tintinnabuli” style, which I have incorporated into many of my works.






Kid A

I know I’m probably being a bit predictable now...but this album got me into electronics, inspiring me to experiment with something else than traditional instruments. It’s also just so good!

This article is from FILTER Issue 51