One of 2013's best discs is Olafur (Oli) Arnalds' new disc For Now I Am Winter. The Icelandic songwriter/producer/composer recently took a few minutes to answer some questions.
For Now I Am Winter is the first album on the Mercury Classics imprint, did that affect any decisions or ideas you made with the album? Did you feel any added pressure in putting it together?
Actually, it was kind of the other way around, I was just finishing up the record when Mercury Classics approached me about the deal. So there was no influence from them at all about how it turned out. I generally don't like labels having any influence on the music I make and want to try to keep it that way.*
Your music has been featured in various TV shows and in film? When you write songs do you ever have moments where you think, 'this would be great in a movie,' or do you just write the songs and let the songs do the rest?
I think I put myself in a different mindset when I'm writing for myself or when I write for a movie. So I end up writing different songs. So this thought rarely enters my mind, but of course yes, when I'm just writing for the sake of it I try to think what would be a good place for that song. And the rest of the writing process can change upon that decision. That is, if I decide it should be for an album I am more likely to have a verse-chorus type structure than if I decide it fits for a film.*
That previous question was sort of a prelude to discussing your work with the Wayne McGregor Random Dance project in 2009. Can you discuss how that came together and what that was like?
He contacted me soon after I played the Barbican Hall in London in 2008 (he was doing a piece there at a similar time). I was of course very honoured that he should ask me so I jumped on the opportunity. The collaboration was very easy, basically I would send him some ideas via email and he'd pick his favorites. We would talk about the structure and arc of the whole piece via phone but the rest was pretty much up to me. He gave me very much freedom.*
In 2009 you released Found Songs, a song a day project that lasted a week. Is that something you would consider doing again? And also, how did the project make you a better songwriter?
I already did it again with Living Room Songs in 2011 and I have some ideas for future similar song-a-day concepts. Setting yourself those kinds of rules, to have to release a song every day no matter what you have, is really good for me to get rid of my perfectionism (which is something I suffer a lot from and isn't necessarily always good). I think it can be very healthy to make music in such a spontaneous way instead of spending months in the studio. The songs may not end up being as 'perfect' but they have this soul to them that you don't get when you polish every single detail in the studio.*
How does Iceland help you as a songwriter? Does the geography or climate help push any creative boundaries or force you to write songs differently than say Los Angeles or Miami?
I think no matter where you are from it's always going to influence who you are and what you do. Iceland is no different in that regard. We have a great scene here though which has helped me learn and grow. *
You made a 2012 EP with Nils Frahm. Would you consider working with him again? Why or why not?
He is one of my best friends and pretty much everytime we meet we make some music together. Hopefully some more of it will get released at some point soon. *
What were the goals for For Now I Am Winter? What were you trying to do or say on this one that you didn't with And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness?
After doing ...and they have escaped, and the 2 EPs/OST that came after, I felt a need to try something different. Do an album where I just experiment and figure out what ELSE I like to do. I don't want to get stuck in a loop where people always know what to expect of me. I wanted to be a bit surprising and even shock my fans who were expecting the same again. I appreciate that people hold my older music close to their heart but I don't want them to expect me to keep doing the same thing over and over again. I have to develop and grow as a musician and as a person, this album was a part of that process for me. *
Why did you make the decision to introduce vocals to your music? Has that been something you've always wanted to do and it just never happened? Or was this just something that came together unexpectedly?
It's something that has always been spoken about a lot.. I always get asked in interviews "would you ever think about adding vocals to your music" and I always used to reply with "no". But then I started thinking why not?? If it works it works. And I've done loads of instrumental music. At the beginning this was just an experiment, I wanted to see how it worked out and Arnór Dan is a good friend so I called him in to collaborate on one song (Old Skin). We both loved it so I decided to include him in a bigger way at the album. So in a way, yes, it just happened. But i also think it was inevitable at some point.*
You have long been a supporter of fan interaction and fan-submitted content. How does interaction with fans and dialogue from fans influence your creative process? Or is not a factor at all?
Maybe not the creative process itself, but it affects what I get out of it. I often say that a piece of music is not complete until it has reached your ears, your brain has processed it and you have felt something from it. Communicating with my fans lets me watch that process live. It's like playing a show, you are reaping the benefits of all that hard work in the studio, seeing the music affect other people in the most wonderful ways. *
What are three words you would use that best describe For Now I Am Winter?
Minimal, Maximal, Emotional?
For Now I Am Winter featured the work of composer Nico Muhly. Do you enjoy collaborating like that as part of the recording process? Or do you enjoy being hands-on with your art, and not collaborating with others on production decisions? Discuss if you can, as well as discuss Nico's influence and how he helped shape the sound of For Now I Am Winter.
I am very hands on with my collaborators, I like to be involved with every step of the way. That being said, at the same time, I don't think I'll learn anything unless I work with other people and can learn new ways, ideas and techniques from them, so their input is hugely important in the long run.*Nico came on very late in the process. I had pretty much finished the album and was in the process of recording it with just my normal setup (string quartet and piano). But I felt like I could still add something. So I got Nico to basically take what I had already done and add an orchestra on top of it. He incorporated many of the melodies that were already in my existing arrangements but made them even bigger by orchestrating them. With Nico, we created this secondary layer to the album, making the sound field even deeper.*
You have long been touted for your live performances as well as your studio work. What are your goals as a live artist? Are you trying to do the album justice, or are you trying to do something totally different?
I don't try to recreate the album at all really. I realise that the live scenario is not the same as being in the studio and often the songs need to be changed to fit into that. Also, for example, with this album, it's recorded with a full blown orchestra but most of the time we will be playing with 5-6 people on stage. That is going to take a lot of re-arranging!* In fact I think my live experience is very different from my album experience. Live it is about intimacy and a light atmosphere, while the albums tend to feel heavier. I love doing both.
You seem to be a fan of minimalism and often times your arrangements are a study in how one can say and do so much with so little. Can you discuss what that is like, how you go about that, why minimalism is so important, basically anything you can shed light on about the less-is-more approach.
Well, I think there are three main things that I try to keep in mind for this:
1. Silence is music. I work with silence a lot and would even call it a part of my melody.
2. Sound is music. What type of microphone and where you place it is a part of the composition. You can say so much with the correct production so you don't need to play as many notes.
3. Context is important. I might have a very simple piano motif, but a more intricate string arrangement over it. With each change in the string arrangement the meaning of the piano motif changes, even though the motif itself never actually changes. You will find this used in most of my songs.