Music Interviews
4:02 pm
Fri December 2, 2011

Olof Arnalds: An Icelandic Take On Heartland Rock

Originally published on Sat December 3, 2011 2:43 pm

Ólöf Arnalds was born and raised in Iceland, and has been part of its experimental rock scene for years. That's what makes her new EP, Ólöf Sings, so surprising: It's a collection of English-language covers — songs originally performed by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond.

Arnalds tells Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon that she got interested in rock and pop during her childhood, after some unsatisfying years training as a classical violinist.

"I had a really hard time learning notation," Arnalds says. "I had been learning violin for three years when they discovered that I didn't read notes — I was just very good at following. And then I started teaching myself guitar as a teenager, which was a little bit to make up for all those horrible years of learning violin.

"That was very important for me, because nobody could tell me how to approach the instrument or how to understand what I was doing," she adds. "I could just go from my own inner understanding of music."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We're going to talk about a singer from Iceland now with a distinctive voice. Not the one you're thinking of. This one is Olof Arnalds, whose new collection of five EPs includes some surprising covers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLITARY MAN")

OLOF ARNALDS: (Singing) Melinda was mine till the time that I found her holding Jim and loving him. Then Sue came along, loved me strong, and that's what I thought. Me and Sue. But that died too. Don't know that I will, but until life can find me a girl who will stay and won't play games behind me, I'll be what I am. A solitary man.

SIMON: First, that's "Solitary Man" an old Neil Diamond song off the new collection "Olof Sings." Ms. Arnalds and her distinctive voice have been a part of Iceland's experimental rock scene for a good number of years. She joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARNALDS: Thank you. It's an honor.

SIMON: I've got to ask – Neil Diamond? What did you like about the two?

ARNALDS: I think sort of maybe the loneliness and I also thought that it was a little bit, you know, humorous for a girl to be singing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARNALDS: So I was always singing it in parties when I was younger.

SIMON: I've read you're a classically-trained violinist.

ARNALDS: That's correct.

SIMON: So how did you get from that to rock?

ARNALDS: Well, I had a really hard time learning notation when I was in classical music school.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

ARNALDS: So I had been learning violin for three years when I discovered that I didn't read notes and that I was just very good at following. And then I started teaching myself guitar as a teenager, which was a little bit sort of to make up for, you know, all these horrible years of learning violin because it's such a horrible, terrible beginner's instrument, you know, so painful.

And so I taught myself guitar and that was very important for me because nobody could tell me how to approach the instrument or how to understand what I was doing. I could just go from my own inner understanding of music.

SIMON: When did you find out you had that voice?

ARNALDS: My voice?

SIMON: Yeah. Your singing voice.

ARNALDS: I think that I found out about it when I was very young. I think I remember sort of I had this fantasy about being a famous singer when I would grow up when I was a kid. And so I would walk around my neighborhood and be singing and didn't understand why I wasn't just being picked up by someone and put on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Let's listen, and this is a song, your interpretation of one of the great names in musical history, of course. Here's your version of "She Belongs to Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE BELONGS TO ME")

ARNALDS: (Singing) She's got everything she needs. She's an artist. She don't look back. She's got everything she needs. She's an artist. She don't look back.

SIMON: Of course, that's a Bob Dylan song, "She Belongs to Me." What drew you to this song?

ARNALDS: Actually, one very funny thing. In my family car there was a cassette that was sort of stuck in the player, in the cassette player, that was Bob Dylan, Best of. And so for many, many years that is the only thing...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARNALDS: ...that would play in the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE BELONGS TO ME")

ARNALDS: (Singing) She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks. She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks. She's a hypnotist collector. You are a walking antique.

When I learned it, I learned it to sing it to a friend of mine. It was her birthday and I sang it for her because we were in high school and I thought that she was a great artist.

SIMON: Another song we want to talk to you about. You sing it here in English but its origins are Portuguese, by the great Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, a song about his sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIA BETHANIA")

ARNALDS: (Singing) Everybody knows that cities were built to be destroyed. Everybody knows that cities were built to be destroyed. You get annoyed. You buy a flat. You hide behind your mat. But I know she was born to do everything wrong with all of that. But I know she was born to do everything wrong with all of that. Maria Bethania.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, getting rarer to hear just a voice and a guitar these days.

ARNALDS: I wouldn't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Because that's what you do. Yeah.

ARNALDS: That's what I do. But I guess that, you know, I think that – yeah, I'm really glad that I sort of stuck to that for this EP and all of it is recorded in two days. And it's all just whole takes of voice and guitar. So it's very, you know, stripped down. So I like it. It's sort of like a snapshot.

SIMON: You know what's very big in music now are collaborations.

ARNALDS: That's sort of interesting that you mention that because I feel very strongly about collaborations and I think that collaboration has to come from a mutual ground that is friendship or similar passion for certain things in music to be organic. Collaborations are being fabricated too much. You know, there's something in me that just sort of really gets offended by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH TOMORROW")

ARNALDS: (Singing) It was more like a dream than reality. I must have thought it was a dream while he was here with me. When he was near I didn't think he would leave. When he was gone it was too much to believe.

SIMON: We want to listen to one more of your songs if we could. This is a medley with "Tomorrow" by the late Gene Clark who's a founding member of The Birds and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M ON FIRE")

ARNALDS: (Singing) Hey, little girl is your daddy home? Did he go and leave you all alone? A-ha. Got a bad desire. Oh, I'm on fire.

SIMON: What do you think we might get to know about you with this selection of songs?

ARNALDS: What I wanted to express there was some sort of weird combination of fragility and strength because that's a little bit how I play. You know, it's sort of shifts between being fragile and strong.

SIMON: Well, Ms. Arnalds, very nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

ARNALDS: Thank you too. Thank you. It was very lovely.

SIMON: Speaking with us from New York, Olof Arnalds. Her new collection of covers is called "Olof Sings."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND "I'M ON FIRE")

ARNALDS: (Singing) Sometimes it feels like you took a knife... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.