Life has traditionally been tough for Icelandic musicians; no matter what direction they want to take, people have always had ideas about their sound before they’ve even opened their mouth or fingers have hovered over the ‘play’ button. “Scenic”, “haunting”, landscapes” – all words we’re guilty of throwing in their direction, thanks to the country’s big players like Björk, Sigur Rós and Gus Gus. But in recent years, a new breed of Icelandic musician has been gently waving their arms, vying for our attention.
From Teitur’s brand of Ed Harcourt-inspired folk pop to Reykjavik resident John Grant’s jaw-dropping electro, our preconceptions are slowly being ebbed away; there’s more to music coming out of Iceland than wide-eyed singers in swan dresses and videos of mountains. The Arnalds family are acting as ambassadors this week, then. Perhaps confusingly, Ólafur Arnalds – the more famous Arnalds, who’s fast carving a name as a stand out ambient, neo-classical composer – played down the road the night before, at Hackney’s St John’s church.
Tonight is the turn of his younger cousin Ólöf Arnalds, who’s playing at a different St John’s, about a mile or so down the road. This St John’s has a slightly masonic feel to it; a more laid back atmosphere than many church shows inspire. Imposing wooden beams reflect shadows onto the ceiling as the first warm sun of the year sets, and as Olof wanders on stage, she does nothing to dispel the relaxed hum that’s settled, with the small gathering (the church is half full, with a crowd of 100 or so at best) supping wine from the paste-table bar at the back.
Despite releasing her third album, Sudden Elevation, just a few months ago, Arnalds looks to her back catalogue for the bulk of tonight’s hour-long set, and the crowd seem pleased with that. With church acoustics, her voice is in fine form, and the mainly Icelandic lyrics of her earlier work soar, where some of the English songs fall slightly more flat and whimsical.
Her attempts at chatting with her audience are endearing; towards the back of the church she’s barely audible as she shyly explains: “This song is about love affairs that aren’t very serious,” and occasionally bursts into fits of nervous giggles. Her personality is sprinkled throughout her work, too. She studiously tunes her guitar between songs, which have an understated elegance, while her voice is just the right side of kooky.
Highlights include her gorgeous cover of Caetano Veloso’s Maria Bethania, the unsettling guitar melodies and “la las” of Innundir Skinni and Crazy Car (which she rather magnificently manages to rhyme with “America”).
As we highlighted when reviewing Sudden Elevation, there are times when Arnalds’ songs almost blend into one; the newer material being particularly heavy on ’60s finger-plucking guitar, but as she purrs out her heavily accented folk songs, with just acoustic guitars for company, it’s impossible not to get lost in her world. The hour flies by and, after a one-song encore, she looks as surprised as the crowd that her time is up.