When Icelandic singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Ólöf (pronounced Oluff) Arnalds' 2007 debut, Vid Og Vid, sold out its initial pressing of 4,000 copies in Iceland, the spare recording of eclectic folk songs nearly reached "gold" status. (In a country of just over 300,000 people, selling 5,000 or more records is considered a "gold record.") The country's best-known musical exports, such as Björk or Sigur Rós, are taken as "otherworld-like" or ethereal. But on this isolated island traditional and classical are often mixed with the contemporary amongst a tight-knit community of musicians who often float from one group to another in a music scene centered in the capital city, Reykjavik.
"I was a typical Reykjavik musician: in many bands playing with different people," said Arnalds in a recent NPR interview. "Then I started working on my own music, and I'm really happy that I've started finding my own voice."
That voice caught enough ears outside of the country to finally find distribution for Arnalds' debut, just prior to the release of her excellent sophomore offering, Innundir Skinni (which roughly translates as "under the skin"). As a classically trained musician (she was adept at violin, viola, cello and guitar at a young age), Arnalds soon found herself amongst this community of musicians, touring most notably with the Icelandic band, Múm, while honing her compositional skills.
Arnalds' folk-based sensibilities are informed by similar influences that shaped Americana. There are church hymns, Danish, German, Norwegian and Gaelic folk roots, and Western music. Arnalds also plays stringed instruments such as the Japanese koto and the charango, a South American 10-stringed instrument with a body made from an armadillo shell, lending an exotic instrumentation that accompanies her delicate yet sturdy vocals. She's been compared to Joanna Newsome or Kate Bush, however Arnalds' voice never takes the dramatic flurries that Newsome or Bush employ. With the deft assistance of co-producers David Thor Jónsson and Sigur Rós' Kjartan Sveinsson, Innundir Skinni, Arnalds' voice maintains an even keel throughout her songs, regardless of the arrangement.
From the opening cut, "Vinur Minn," which begins a cappella, giving way to a splash of South American beats and percussion, to the Irish reel riff of "Jonothan," to the introspective ode to motherhood in "Surrender" (including a guest backing vocal by Björk), Arnalds displays her ability to intricately weave together varied influences. Under close examination, Innundir Skinni, is comparable to two contemporary Western singer/songwriters who recorded in Iceland: Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy (The Letting Go) and Sam Amidon (All Is Well). Both are folk-based recordings adorned with acoustic accompaniments highlighting the song, not necessarily the vocalist. This is what makes Innundir Skinni so striking; the songs taken as a whole display Arnalds subtle innovation, uniqueness and beauty.