April 18th, 2011
I get to the Tractor just before 10:00 when Ólöf Arnalds is supposed to go on. I order a Mannys and settle at the corner of the bar where there’s a light. I jot down a few preliminary notes and glance about the room. Over by the door there’s a woman who looks very much to be the Icelandic singer/song writer. I’ve only seen pictures of her on Facebook and My Space and in her video for “Surrender” so I’m hesitant to think it’s her, that the woman over there is the woman in the video I’ve watched about a hundred times being so captivated by its dark beauty. She comes over to the bar to order a drink.
“Olof?” No, I’m not on a first name basis with her, but it just comes out that way.
“Yes,” she says looking over. I introduce myself and tell her I’m writing about the show for some website she’s never heard of and that I hope I can get a set list after the show. “Oh, uh…I don’t use a set list, but I will take care of this. Just a moment.” She goes over to where the merchandise is, speaks to a guy there, motions for me to come over. There are introductions and she continues, “He will write down the songs for you as I play them.”
“Thanks.” We all shake hands, and I tell her I loved the video for “Surrender” and how circumstance a few weeks ago lead to me playing that song in Guitar Center with a woman I did not know. I mimic playing guitar and speak the lyrics (I’m not foolish enough to sing them to her with my voice).
I choose now
I refuse now
I ignore you now
Claim my power…
“Wow, that sounds like a nice moment! I have to get ready now so we can catch up after the show.”
“I’ll be here.”
She goes up on stage. Those in attendance clap. “Give me two minutes please while I … uh … do some tuning. I didn’t have a chance to earlier. Thank you.” The audience is quiet then, respectful of her wish. It was opposite when I saw Cobirds Unite. They weren’t a loud band, and there was a constant chatter all throughout the show. It made me wonder why people didn’t just stay home and listen to the CD if they couldn’t shut up for a few minutes to listen to the music. While Arnalds is tuning, I take out my phone and try to “check in” on Facebook. Such things are important, of course, but my phone is having none of it and displays a message saying that it can’t find my location. So I’m no where then but where the music will take me. I turn off the phone, and Arnalds speaks, “This is a song about girlfriends. Each verse is about a past girlfriend” It is “Vinkonur” from the Innundir Skinni CD. As she plays and sings, just her and her charango, the only word that comes to mind is beauty, beauty in the sense that life is, music is, people are, moments and evening such as this are.
Before the second song she says, “This one is about a simple place and a simple state of mind … and a good time.” She plays then a few notes and chords on the guitar, stops, leans into the microphone. I think she is going to sing about that simple place, but she says, “That’s it.” There are laughs. The song was twenty seconds tops. She goes on into songs from her CDs, a few covers. Before one song, she takes out her charango, an instrument with ten strings, and begins to fuss with the tuning. “This is a beautiful instrument, but it’s such a bitch to tune.” More laughs from the audience. She is easy up there, like it’s a rehearsal, and as the show continues it feels like she is sharing things with us, divulging little secrets, rather than simply playing a show, like for each song she is saying, “See this cool thing I found? Come here and check it out.”
Her set has only a few songs with English lyrics, but that doesn’t matter. It makes her voice more of an instrument. We listen to the melody, the tone, the blending of voice and guitar/charango, and again, the beauty of it. All the while the audience sits quietly listening, floating, singing when Arnalds bids them to. They’re here to see and hear the music, not talk. Arnalds notes this, “You seem like a receptive audience so I decided to trust you,” whereupon she plays a new song with no lyrics. She simply hums the melody. After a few measures, she stops and speaks, “What do you think? Should I keep working on that one?” The response is an overwhelming, “Yeah!”
She ends the set with “Crazy Car” then leaves the stage. I keep thinking she has to come back to play “Surrender”, and she does come back. She steps up on the stage for the encore but is without instrument. Instead, she sings an Irish folk song called “The Tree that Grows too High”. She just sings. Just her voice. And it’s beautiful, a perfect ending for the music.
She finds me afterward, “I’m sorry, but I forgot to play Surrender.” Who would ever have thought that Olof Arnalds would apologize to me? But it happend. I buy her a beer, and we talk for a while. I ask her how it was recording with Björk, “She just sent us her parts, and we first attempted to do some edits but then we realized you don’t edit Björk.” Listening to the blend of Arnalds and Björk on “Surrender” one can’t argue with that. Eventually the beers are empty, and it’s time to go. “I’ll play the song next time,” she says before leaving.
“I’ll be here next time.”
Photos from Ólöf Arnalds’ performance of “Surrender” at KEXP in November 22, 2010