Ólafur Arnalds on the message behind his music

Ólafur Arnalds is the latest Icelandic musician to win acclaim abroad. He tells Charlie Carter about his cosmopolitan approach to recording

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 11:30am

ICELANDIC MUSICIAN Ólafur Arnalds loves contrasts. His latest album For Now I Am Winter is a musical portrayal of seasonal weather changes, while his previous release explored the different emotions inspired by night and day.

So it comes as no surprise that the aspect of Hong Kong he loves the most is - you guessed it - its contrasts. "You have this amazingly beautiful mountain on the island and these huge modern buildings. When you're on top of the mountain looking over the other side, you're looking at a whole different world," the 26-year-old multi-instrumentalist recalls of his first visit to the city in 2010.

Arnalds will be able to relive those emotions when he returns for another show at Grappa's Cellar on September 16. On his previous visit, Arnalds, one of Iceland's best-regarded and most in-demand performers and producers, was promoting his album … And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness.

This time he'll be bringing a smaller ensemble - a trio of piano, violin and cello - to recreate the stirring pieces from For Now I Am Winter.

"I like contrasts and I like matching things that people wouldn't expect to go together," he explains. "With modern buildings and nature, people would think one would intrude on the other. But they can work together in harmony. There's something fascinating about the way that happens in Hong Kong."

Born in Mosfellsbær, just outside Reykjavik, Arnalds is one of a string of acts to emerge from Iceland that have won acclaim overseas. He follows in the footsteps of 1980s indie poppers The Sugarcubes, whose leader singer Björk achieved worldwide success. More recently Sigur Rós have established themselves as ambient behemoths of post-rock.

Arnalds' music is an otherworldly mix of classical, techno and rock, but he began his career in heavy metal bands. "I like all kinds of music. My career has not been a journey from metal to this," he says. "I just like music."

In 2007 he swapped guitars for strings and woodwinds, and put his classical training to work on his first solo album, Eulogy for Evolution. That established his classical credentials and attracted the attention of Sigur Rós, who invited him to record and tour with them in 2008.

Arnalds' music reflects his cerebral view of the world. The light and dark, soft and hard tones of For Now I Am Winter are more polished than his previous recorded material. He attributes that to two things: he's been busy recording film and television soundtracks, and he recently held the second of his unique week-long record-release projects.

That saw him record a song each day, which he would immediately post on his website for fans to download. "I use those projects as a sort of songwriting camp - the structure forces me to be concise in my writing and not spend too much time trying to perfect the songs," he says by phone from Iceland, during a break from his European and US tour. The tour resumes this month, with the Asian concerts and another jaunt around the US.

"Sometimes you can spend too much time perfecting a song, and end up with an inferior track. This way gives me a kick up the backside, and helps put my songwriting back on track," he says.

Some of the music produced for the record-release projects has sold well. The music is available for free, but fans are invited to pay what they think it is worth. "It could be a way of getting around the file-sharers," he says.

While Arnalds' albums are big sellers in their own right, he's probably better known worldwide for his musical contributions to movies and TV shows. He provided music for the Hollywood science-fiction thriller Looper, but the project that won him the most acclaim was his score for the hit British TV crime thriller Broadchurch.

The award-wining whodunnit gave Arnalds with one of his biggest challenges, and took him to him to the rugged and beautiful Dorset coast which provided the imposing backdrop to the series.

"It's important that the music fits the feel of the footage. When you go to the location, you get a different feeling from watching it on film. Going down there gave me a feel for everything," he says.


Ólafur Arnalds, September 16, 8pm, Grappa's Cellar, Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$300. Inquiries: