It’s all music; we’re all human

TEHRAN, Dec. 12 (MNA) – Icelandic BAFTA-winning multi-instrumentalist composer Ólafur Arnalds sat down for a pleasant interview with Mehr News Agency on Dec. 9, talking about his music, his experience in Iran, and his wish to come back to play even bigger venues here.  

Keep it professional, Marjohn, it’s a mantra I keep repeating under my breath as I step inside Andisheh Music Hall for a chance of a lifetime. Here, I am more of a fan than an uninterested journalist just doing her job, and I tell him so and he chuckles softly at that and I am not sure if that makes him feel better about our upcoming talk, but it sure sets the mood as what was originally supposed to be a no-nonsense interview with an iconic musician from Iceland subtly shifts into a leisurely chat between a fan and her music idol.  

He looks at home in here, despite his very different cultural background; maybe because the red seats and the stage and the soft rehearsal music coming from the piano and the violin before the actual show are all too familiar to him – the same elements anywhere he goes for a performance. Or perhaps, because of the easy familiarity that he has obtained during the few days he has been staying in Tehran, in the company of very friendly people who made his presence in Tehran a dream come true.

For many Iranian fans – and there are just too many of us, let me tell you – Ólafur Arnalds’ live performance in Tehran is just too good to be true. The Icelandic composer is going on his first solo tour since 2015 to Europe and North America, and then what…Iran? How did that exactly fit into his schedule?

“We just had this opportunity to come here, since my tour doesn’t start in five months, in May,” he tells me in his perfect English laced with a soft Icelandic accent. “And December was still open for me as I was just working in the studio, so I thought it would be very stupid to say no.”

He chuckles at that, and I come to notice that he does that a lot. He sounds friendly and such a down-to-earth guy that I just forget I am talking to the composer of the music I listen to every day, for numerous times, when I am feeling low or in high spirits, commuting to work on crammed subway trains or sitting at the computer, typing away these words.

“It’s a great opportunity to be here. For many years I wanted to come to Iran, even as a tourist. I wanted to see Iran, and my job means that I get to be lucky to be invited to this sort of places.”

So you’re staying here longer to go sightseeing?

“Just a couple of days. We came here a few days earlier before the shows started and in the daytime, we’d go see the city.”

If his Instagram posts are anything to go by, I’d say he has been having a lot of fun sightseeing in Tehran. From Darband hiking trail in Shemiran, to visiting hookah lounges there, drinking Persian tea sweetened by rock candies, to visiting old bazaars, singing silly Persian nursery rhymes in a van, and even riding a motorcycle in downtown Tehran with two other passengers on board. In short, he could not have looked any less Icelandic, despite the pale hair and bright blue eyes.

I wonder if Tehran is the only city on his sightseeing schedule.

“Yeah, for now. But we may go to other cities, as well. It’s not really confirmed yet, though.”

“We are going. Your flights are booked,” says Raha with finality, a young girl with curly crimson hair, who is a part of the team in charge of making the arrangements for Arnalds’ Tehran visit.

Well, here’s your confirmation.

“Ok, we will go to Shiraz, then.”

With that, I shift the focus of the conversation back to the real reason he is currently in my hometown. I ask him if he was surprised to find out that he had such a huge fan base here in Iran.

“I knew that it was quite big, because I see it in my Instagram, my twitter, stuff like that.” I may or may not have been among one of those passionate fans asking Arnalds on his social media to come to Iran for a live performance. “And still, when I came here, [the reception] was bigger than what I thought.”

He was originally booked for only two shows on December 8, but the tickets were sold out so quickly that it left many fans, who didn’t manage to buy a ticket, completely devastated. So they added three extra shows, again all sold out within eight minutes.  

“I thought maybe we could play this room once, not five times. Well, we could probably play ten times.” He chuckles, but what he says is most likely true. There were still a lot of fans on his Instagram page urging him to do more gigs in Iran.

He says he would like to come back, perhaps even go for a bigger venue this time.

Now it’s time to get serious. Well, no, who am I kidding? He sounds so laidback and I am too awestruck to keep the conversation on the serious track. But I do manage to ask him about his music, and in what ways he thinks the sound of his music represents the “Icelandic mood”.

“I’m not really sure if my music represents Iceland in particular, apart from the fact that I am Icelandic. The subject matter and my music are not usually about Iceland necessarily. More like universal things, like the universal human feelings. We all feel the same feelings like joy and sadness and melancholy no matter where we’re from. That’s why I think Icelandic musicians can communicate with Iranian people with such ease, because what they compose is not about Iceland but about that thing that we all have in common.”

He raises an interesting point, something that I had been wondering about for a while. I was always amazed at how popular someone like Ólafur Arnalds was with the Iranians. I mean, Iran and Iceland are just as different from each other as two countries could possibly get. And yet, we get their music. We love it. Arnalds saw the proof of it when all his five shows in Tehran, which amounted to 3,000 tickets, were all sold out within minutes. I ask him if there is any secret to the music he creates that connects all these people from different countries together, that brings them here to share the same experience.

“I don’t know. This is still a mystery to me.” He evades with a chuckle. Maybe I needed to get him tipsy first in order for him to spill all his secrets, but here he can only be served coffee or juice.

Well, it is true that the best kind of secrets are the ones that you keep from yourself.

You haven’t wondered about that?, I prod and he obliges.

“Yeah, I have. I think it’s partly because my music is not usually accompanied with lyrics, so you don’t have to translate anything. It’s just the melody and melody is a universal language in a way. So I think without the barrier of lyrics, it’s easier to go to various countries that are very different in terms of language and culture.”

Something he said about how his music doesn’t necessarily represent the Icelandic music scene is still an unresolved issue for me. So, I ask him if it is a misconception we have here in Iran that Icelandic music is supposed to be all about dark, melancholic and brooding melodies. Isn’t his music community dominated by this somber mood?

“No, not really. I mean right now in Iceland everything is about hip-hop.”

“I can’t picture that,” I voice out my honest opinion almost unconsciously and he gives me one of his trademark laughs.

“Yeah, it’s not always what people think. It’s not just a misconception of Iranian people. It’s everywhere around the world, everywhere I go, people think that in Iceland every musician sounds like me. But in Iceland, I’m the strange one. I’m much different from most of the musicians there.”

My knowledge of Icelandic musicians extends to Sigur Rós, Björk, Múm, Kaleo, and Low Roar (thanks to the trailer for Hideo Kojima's video game ‘Death Stranding’ which featured the song ‘I’ll Keep Coming’.) And although I have seen the rising international popularity of ‘Of Monsters and Men’ whose songs sound more upbeat than what I’m generally used to associate with Iceland, my mind still likes to describe Icelandic music as dark, melancholic and bleeding melodies which pierce my soul and dug inside my heart in a way that I am much grateful for. 

So quite a misconception, then…

“Well, you know, there is still a lot of bands that sound melancholic, but it’s not the most popular music there.”

This reminds me of Arnalds’ music background. He started his music career as a drummer in a hardcore band and then suddenly shifted into classical and electronics. How did that transition come about?

“Actually, it wasn’t all that sudden. I always liked so many different kinds of music. For me, it’s just whatever I’m interested in at the moment. Even when I was playing drums, I was also playing the piano. And even now I’m still doing techno. For me, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. It’s all music.”

Which might as well sum up Ólafur Arnalds’ sound of music into one word: Free.

Yes, it is brooding, and melancholic, and sometimes dark and lonely, but at the core of it all, it bespeaks of a free spirit. Liberating. At the same time as it is soul-consuming.

“What is your most favorite track that you’ve ever created?” As a fan, I just had to know.

“My favorite hasn’t yet been released yet; It’s a new track,” he laughs, leaving me with a burning curiosity to know more about it. But he doesn’t look particularly interested to leak any information about it. “Hmm, of the tracks that I have released…maybe ‘Song for Grandma (‘Lag fyriri Ommu’), because of the personal connection it has for me. And of course, every time we play it at a concert, something special happens.”

He did play ‘Song for Grandma’ for the Iranian audience, telling them a short anecdote about its conception. “I wrote it after my grandma passed away,” he said before playing the piece, to which the audience expressed their sympathies in a soft murmur. “I was into punk rock back in the day, but my grandma tried to pique my interest in classical music, mainly Chopin. So I wrote this for her.”

I asked him what he thinks to be the audience’s most favorite track of his; “Near Light,” he says with certainty. “Well, at least here in Iran it is.”

‘Near Light’ from his ‘Living Room Songs’ album (2011), which was also included in his setlist for the Tehran gigs, starts with somber, plaintive notes of piano and violin, and gradually soars, propelled on the proverbial wings of techno beats. It is indeed a beautiful piece to listen to.

I let him know that I personally like his collaboration with Arnór Dan in tracks such as ‘So Close’, ‘For Now I Am Winter’, ‘Say My Name’, and ‘Old Skin’.

“Maybe I’ll bring him next time.” Yes, please do. “He would like to come, I know.”

I know that, too. I once asked him on Instagram two years ago if he was interested in coming to Iran with Arnalds for a live performance. He said, and I quote, “I would absolutely love to perform in Iran.”

For me, it took two years for that to happen (although I am still holding my breath for a joint performance of Arnalds and Dan on the Iranian stage), but according to Arnalds, the plans for coming to Iran were five years in the making.

I ask if he would also recommend Iran to other musicians he knows or has collaborated with, such as Sigur Rós or the German composer Nils Frahm.

“Yes, of course. Although it is easier for a musician like me to scale down, to perform with only two other guys on the stage. But with musicians performing with more people, it is not as easy to go to places like Iran. But Nils could probably come. He’s always playing alone.”

Arnalds tells me that Nils happens to be his most favorite musician, too, at least as far as their own kind of music is concerned. “He’s my friend, and I think he’s the best.”

I kind of want to ask him about his experience and exposure to the Iranian music scene, but I guess I already know the answer to that. It can’t be much, right?

“No, I don’t know a lot,” he admits. “I’ve heard a few songs, though…well, I always forget the names because they are very difficult for me to pronounce (I tell him not to worry, since Icelandic words are also pretty difficult for us Iranians to pronounce, at which we both laugh). But my friends Hooman and Raha have shown me some cool Iranian music and taught me a few songs.”

He actually did post a short video of Hooman’s singing on his Instagram and another one in which he played the accompanied pianist to a Persian traditional song Hooman was singing. 

So, what do you think of it?

“I think that you have a really beautiful music culture. Especially, the special modal scales that you use, it’s very interesting to me.”

You think people in Iceland can connect to it the way we connect to yours?

“Most people probably not. It’s very complicated to listen to Iranian music. If you don’t have an ear for it, if you’re not used to hearing it, it’s very difficult to grasp. I mean, usually I can learn any songs very quickly, but I found it a challenge to learn Iranian songs. Because your music doesn’t abide with the standard rules of what my music connects with. So I can’t easily grab onto these things.”

So, how do you describe your whole experience in Iran?

“Just amazing. Mind-blowing. And eye-opening. I’m quite well-educated, but still I don’t know everything. We always have misconceptions about a country. So it’s great to come here and see that ‘oh everybody here is just like me.’ People are just relaxed and having fun. They’re not so conservative, at least in Tehran they’re not. In Tehran, from what I’ve seen, people seem to be relaxed and always having fun. Everybody is always singing and having fun.”

If I want to cram the whole spirit of the Iranian nation into one word, that would be ‘hopeful’. “Hope is von in Icelandic, right?”


“Well, that’s what we have.” A lot. We are a very hopeful nation, overcoming obstacles and limitations in our own creative ways.  

“Yeah, absolutely, me too. I have hope for you. For your future.”

Well, any last comments for your Iranian fans?

He pauses for a second, as if gathering his thoughts or trying to recall something. And then, in his soft, Icelandic accent he says in Persian, “Tehran, dooset daram.” (Tehran, I love you.)

Having you here in Iran was like magic, Mr. Arnalds.

“It was like magic for me, too.”

Interview by: Marjohn Sheikhi

Photo by: Ali Zamani

News Code 130162


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