Ólafur Arnalds: Winter is Coming

source: Marino Thorlacious/Mercury Classics

While classically trained, Ólafur Arnalds initially disliked playing the piano as a child and went through a rock’n’roll phase in his teens that eventually led to his becoming a drummer for a few metal bands. Lulled back into classical music by his love for film scores, he initially got noticed as a modern classical composer again after his intro and two outro pieces for German metal band Heaven Shall Burn’s album Antigone received acclaim. Quickly signed and asked to do a full album of classical music, Ólafur has since become a staple in the modern classical music canon. With third album For Now I Am Winter – released early this year – he’s risen to maximise his sound with full orchestration and added a more electronic sound to what was otherwise a minimal record, all in the name of keeping his creativity afloat. JUICE managed to speak to him and we were expertly enlightened by more than a few revelations: Ólafur dispelled the myth of Iceland as the land of ambient and the need for a live performance to imitate its recorded version.

How are you doing, Oli?
I’m okay. Still waking up (laughs), time difference and all.

All this while, you’ve been asked “Why don’t you use vocals on your music?” But then lo and behold, For Now I Am Winter features exactly that, so we’re going to ask the opposite of that question, why use vocals for this album?
The answer to that question is the other question (laughs). Because people always ask me why my music always is instrumental, and I’d sometimes say “Why not?” Now [my answer is] “Why not have some vocals?” Really, it was that simple. I just want to try it out because I’ve never really done it and actually, I do a lot of other works – I work as a producer, I’ve produced other people’s albums, I’ve been producing some great vocalists in the last couple of years. I just started getting a craving for using some vocals in my own music – to try it out to see if it’d work – it was really an experiment. It worked out nicely and I decided to keep it…

… Are having vocals on your music going to be a constant after this?
I think whatever I do, I’m just trying new things out, and now that I know this works, next time I’ll just have to see if something else works. I might have some vocals, but I don’t think it’s going to be a main thing. I might try to figure out a new way of using vocals, for example working with a choir or something else. I just want to something new with each album.

Another thing about the current album is that your music has a more electronic sound to it. You weren’t that deep into synthesisers a few years back…
It’s the same thing. I’ve been working with a lot of synthesisers in the other projects that I had worked on. The soundtracks that I’ve been doing sometimes require a lot of electronics, but also I’ve been working on some electronic projects as a producer. So I just started to get really inspired by all these electronic machines – not only inspired, but obsessed with them in a way. I think they are great tools because you can create exactly what you want to get from nothing. It’s like a blank sheet and you can just draw the sounds that you want on it. It’s just my fascination with whatever tools that I had that led to the album.

Interesting. We read that the album was originally full-on electronic and the classical instruments were an afterthought? Any veracity to this?
That’s not true actually. The additional orchestration was an afterthought. From the very beginning the album was mostly strings and piano, it has always been like that, and I love it like that. But at the end [of making the album], I had already written most of the songs and when I started to record them, I felt like I wanted something extra, so I decided to add a layer of full orchestra on top of everything, which is mostly texture and stuff like that, while only the original arrangements are still playing the melody.

You spent a thousand hours on the previous record and more than that with this one. How do you keep your creativity from being burnt out?
By doing something new every time – just doing something that can keep me excited. If I started repeating myself and doing the same thing over and over again, then my creativity disappears. It’s the reason behind many of the decisions I made on the album as well, I’ve been spending so much time on it that maybe it was starting to get boring to me, that was why I decided to add vocals here or add an orchestra here. I really needed to hear something new.

You did a lot of scoring works while simultaneously working on the current album. Seeing as how your music is already cinematic to begin with, do they ever get blurred into each other?
Yeah. It always does because I’m always juggling multiple projects and multiple songs, so sometimes songs that I might have written for the album ended up on a soundtrack and vice versa. In the end I’m just writing a bunch of music, and then I decide where it goes (laughs). It definitely influences each other. Also, working with a director, the creators of movies I scored for, those people can really inspire me and give me ideas, which would end up not only being useful for those projects, but my own album too.

Speaking on this subject, we read that you were inspired by film scores before getting back to doing classical music years ago. That got us curious, what were some of your favourite scores?
When I was younger, what really got me into film scores was Thomas Newman’s works like A Beautiful Mind and The Green Mile, but then later also Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass and Clint Mansell’s stuff like The Fountain. Yeah, those were some of my favourites… I have a lot (laughs).

Again on the same subject of cinema, when you compose your music, do you imagine any storytelling to it? Like are there moving images and narratives in your head when you’re composing writing your songs?
Usually not before, often it comes in the middle of it. I actually prefer starting from a blank sheet and just create the music for the sake of the music itself, and not try to tell a predetermined story. I think, at least with my personal creativity, I just need to let it flow in a way that I’m not restricted in any way. Often when I’m writing and something started coming together – like a melody – that starts giving me images. So it’s more like my concepts are inspired by the music rather than my music being inspired by my concepts.