The Icelandic musician talks about her new mini-album of unique covers
You only have to set foot in Reykjavik's premier music emporium, Bad Taste Records, to realise that Ólöf Arnalds is adored in her native country. Posters of her gamine face peer out over the racks, and the neon pinks and blues of the artwork to her 2010 album 'Innundir Skinni' shimmer enticingly from the walls. In this arbiter of Icelandic taste, only Björk commands more wall space.
"But I don't feel that my art has anything to do with where I'm from", Ólöf says over a beer the afternoon after her rapturously-recieved Iceland Airwaves set.
The singer is refining her artistic palette. While 'Innundir Skinni' was an ambitious, layered folk record with shades of Joanna Newsom and 'Vespertine'-era Bjork, she is now releasing a mini-album of covers simply entitled 'Ólöf Sings.' It includes her take on Arthur Russell's 'Close My Eyes', Springsteen's 'I'm On Fire' and an extraordinary and subversive version of Neil Diamond's macho hymn 'Solitary Man.' Think of The Raincoats doing 'Lola' and you're not a million miles off. As she says, "I love to work within limitations".
Dazed Digital: What made you want to release a covers EP?
Ólöf Arnalds: I'd been touring extensively for a year, and playing other people's songs had just been part of what I did. I wanted to document them in the state that they were, and the heart of the record just lies in me playing and singing. And also I thought it would be a nice introduction to me as someone who is singing in English, because the next record will be fully in English.
DD: Have you always been an Arthur Russell fan?
Ólöf Arnalds: A friend sent me that song 'Close My Eyes' and I remember saying 'God, this is such a beautiful song, I want to sing this song.' Then shortly after it was my birthday, and without knowing about it, Kristín Anna, who I used to play with in múm, gave me his album 'Love Is Overtaking Me.' So it was really funny. You know how sometimes things are just around you?
DD: The Icelandic music scene seems pretty tight-knit, then?
Ólöf Arnalds: Yeah, people are very respectful and helpful to each other. But I feel a little bit disconnected from it with all the touring I do, and I'm actually planning to move to New York next year. My producer and manager live there, and now I have a work residency it's an opportunity I can't really escape.
DD: One of my favourites on the covers EP is 'Maria Bethânia' - but I don't know the original! Who's it by?
Ólöf Arnalds: It's a Brazilian singer called Caetano Veloso, who I completely idolise. I was listening to him a lot when I made my first record 'Við og Við,' and the arrangements on it were influenced by Brazilian singers where you just have a singer and guitar. And then maybe a whole symphony orchestra comes in! But it's so slight that it's just like icing.
DD: Covering songs is a big part of the folk tradition, with artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez bringing traditional songs to new audiences in this way. Is that something you're tapping into?
Ólöf Arnalds: Yeah, I've been fascinated with that since I was a teenager, and I'm extremely influenced by that genre. But you know the first song I learned on guitar? 'Polly' by Nirvana! I was 14 when 'Nirvana Unplugged' came out, and I just learned the whole record.
DD: What's your favourite cover version of all time?
Ólöf Arnalds: I love Michael Jackson singing the 'Thank You For The Music' by ABBA when he's little. There's something so remarkable in the way he sings it - the song's so much about having a voice. It's absolutely heartbreaking when it's just performed by one person. I love taking huge songs and narrowing it down to one guitar and one voice.
'Ólöf Sings' is released on 7 November on One Little Indian
Text by Owen Myers