Longtime Múm collaborator finds her singular voice on debut solo record
The first time I saw Ólöf Arnalds perform was in the spring of 2007 at an indoor swimming pool in Bolungarvík (pop. 900), the most northerly village in Iceland’s Westfjords. The sound system fed her signal to special underwater speakers that transmitted at a frequency you could only hear fully if you were in the pool with ears submerged. Arnalds was perched cross-legged in a chair on the pool deck, wearing a modest one-piece bathing suit and rubber swim cap, cradling a small nylon-string acoustic in her lap. (Don't believe me? Keep scrolling down to see a rare photo my wife snapped at the event.)
Though she played mostly upbeat crowd-pleasing tunes that afternoon (traditional Icelandic favorites and a boisterous rendition of “The Hokey Pokey”), I remember her performing at least one self-penned ballad. The song bristled with quiet intensity as her delicate bird-trilling voice danced agilely around each Icelandic syllable. Bobbing there on my back in the pool, eyes closed, I felt like an embryo in the womb again, straining to listen, with more than my still-forming ears, to a mother’s lullaby as it filtered gently into my hiding place in the watery dark.
Arnalds released her solo debut Við og Við in Iceland to great acclaim: The country’s main newspaper Morgunblaðið voted it Record of the Year in 2007. Then it was named Best Alternative Album at the Icelandic Music Awards. Now that the record is finally being released in the United States, Iceland’s most talented female troubadour is poised to win over a legion of new fans. Though the entire record is sung in Icelandic, Arnalds conveys her intimate musings on friendship and family with such tenderness that the lyrical meaning and the brittle beauty of her delivery function seamlessly. To appreciate one is to intuitively sense the other.
Arnalds wrote “Vittu Af Mér (Know I’m There)” for older sister Dagný about her earliest childhood memory—receiving a drink of water scooped from a stream by her sister’s own hand. “Klara” was written for her younger sister’s 18th birthday, and in the lyrics Arnalds asks to visit her soon, and encourages her to keep on drawing and making music. She wrote “Í Nýju Húsi” for her mother, wishing her restful sleep in her new house. Við og Við’s earnest, heartfelt declarations are a welcome change from the too-cool posturing of so much of today’s popular music. Familial affection will never go out of style; neither will deftly plucked stringed instruments, subtle orchestral swells and a songbird lilt this impossibly lovely.