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Baker's Dozen

Found Songs: Ólafur Arnalds' Favourite Albums
Wyndham Wallace , March 11th, 2013 12:56

The Icelandic neo-classical composer and producer takes a break from producing his cinematic soundscapes to pick out his 13 favourite records, ahead of his set at the Barbican tonight

This may come as a surprise to anyone who’s only familiar with Ólafur Arnalds for the cinematic, solo instrumental records he’s been releasing since 2007: the quietly sardonic 26-year-old Icelander was once the drummer for hardcore acts named Fighting Shit and Celestine. In fact, he only turned to composing after handing demos of a prog-rock project he was working on to Germany’s anti-racist metal act Heaven Shall Burn, with whom he was touring back in 2004. The band asked him to compose incidental music to open and close a handful of songs, and, upon hearing the results, encouraged him to release an album of similar material on their label.

Since then he’s been a prolific writer, lending a newfound dignity to the idea of deeply moving, frequently epic orchestral music. His latest, For Now I Am Winter, is his first for the legendary, classical Deutsche Grammophon label, an indication of the level of respect he’s won in a field that’s notoriously suspicious of progress and crossover. He’s proud, however, that his contract allows him to continue working in some capacity with Erased Tapes Records, with whom he’s become somewhat synonymous, and for whom he released his first two albums, two seven track EPs – written and recorded, one song per day, over the course of a week – as well as music for a ballet, Dyad 1909, and three film scores.

For Now I Am Winter, however, represents a departure of a different kind for Arnalds.

“For my whole career,” he laughs, “people keep asking me, ‘Why is your music instrumental? Why aren’t there any vocals?’ And I always have a very clear answer: it’s because this is how I like it, and this is how I want to do it. But after answering that question about a hundred times, you start thinking about it in a different way. ‘Wait! Why am I so sure? Why can’t I at least try it?’”

So his third ‘proper’ full length is also the first to include vocals, even if they’re in fact provided by “a very good friend of mine in an Icelandic band called Agent Fresco. I asked him to try to write a couple of songs with me, and it turned out great. So there was no reason not to do vocals anymore!”

Despite the fact the record is now available, things don’t seem to be quietening down. “I haven’t had much time to think about that,” he admits. “I’m doing this British TV show, Broadchurch, just finishing that up in the next couple of days, and I also have a meeting with the director of the next film I’m doing. It’s an Icelandic film called Life In A Fishbowl by Baldvin Zophoníasson. He was also the director of Jitters, which I did three years ago.”

Finding the time to select his 13 records has therefore been tough, he concedes. Asked for the criteria by which they were selected, he giggles a little shamefacedly: “Me staying up late doing the fourth press request in a row and trying to actually even think about 13 records!” In fact, it takes him a while to recall what was on the list, and they represent a curious mixture, as unlikely to some, perhaps, as his transformation from hardcore drummer to neo-classical composer.

“Some of them are in my current favourites,” he explains. “Others are things I listened to a lot when I was younger. But they’re definitely records that are amongst my all-time favourites...”

Arnalds plays the Barbican tonight. Click on the image below to start scrolling through his choices

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