Ólöf Arnalds: Old-Fashionable Icelandic Songbird Finds a Timeless Tune

Music Features Olof Arnalds
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Folksinger Ólöf Arnalds is perched in a back room of Sandholt Bakery, a sleepy café located along Reykjavík’s busiest shopping street, wearing traffic-stopping pink lipstick and a sparkly butterfly brooch. She fidgets compulsively with her hair, refashioning her pile of blonde curls. It’s hardly an austere look, and yet, she laughs, “My girlfriends always joke about me being ‘old Amish Ólöf.’”

The taunt originated in response to Arnalds’ excitability during movies. She likens herself to filmgoers in the early days of cinema who fled from theaters when a projected locomotive came hurtling toward the camera. Arnalds’ fiction-reality filter can’t sustain her through violent movies, so her older sister recounted the details of Schindler’s List—every character, every plot point—to her after the film was released. Arnalds, 30, was so taken with the story that she in turn recounted it to her younger sister, as though it were a secret recipe or family heirloom.

Arnalds’ reputation for being old-fashioned extends to her music. Her songs invite deep breaths and introspection. She plays a host of stringed instruments including guitar and violin, and her favorite is the 10-stringed charango, which hails from South America and belongs to the lute family. She fingerpicks it with rhythmic harp-like plucks, topping off the plinking cascade with a voice like an intimate lullaby. The cyclical, charango-picked melody of “Surrender”—a haunting duet with longtime friend Björk, featured on Arnalds’ latest album, Innundir Skinni—weaves a trance-inducing loop, highlighting the interplay of two of Iceland’s most unforgettable voices.

When I ask her what most moved her about Björk’s contribution to the track, Arnalds gently touches her throat: “Her voice is so generous. She gives listeners so much of herself when she sings.”
Arnalds is captivated by the human voice. She spent years studying it at university, training in classical singing. After college, she worked as a classical-music journalist for Morgunblai, one of Iceland’s biggest newspapers.

In context with Iceland’s experimental pop scene, Arnalds’ acoustic folk is subversive in its simplicity. It’s heartfelt and precious, delivered like an old, dear secret.