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Olof Arnalds: Timeless Folk And Nursery Rhymes

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Olof Arnalds: Timeless Folk And Nursery Rhymes

Olof Arnalds: Timeless Folk And Nursery Rhymes

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We turn now to a musician from Iceland. You may be familiar with Bjork or the band Sigur Ros. Well, prepare yourself for a new name: Olof Arnalds. She just made her South by Southwest debut last week, and her first CD is now out in the U.S., with another one on the way. Christian Bordal has this profile.

CHRISTIAN BORDAL: Icelandic musicians are a small, tight-knit, supportive community. They play in each other's bands, they borrow each other's instruments and equipment, and singer Olof Arnalds says she was no different.

Ms. OLOF ARNALDS (Singer): I was a typical Reykjavik musician in really, really many bands. But then I started working on my own music, and I'm really happy that I've started finding my own voice and making my own music. But I think I went around and I quit like, six bands in one day to start working on my own stuff.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARNALDS: (Singing in foreign language)

BORDAL: When you think of singers from Iceland, of course you think of Bjork -or Bjork, as they say it - a huge international star. Olof Arnalds, by contrast, is still only really known in her homeland. But one American who has heard of Olof, and become a big fan, is Jonathan Richman, who first came across her on a tour stop in Reykjavik.

Mr. JONATHAN RICHMAN (Musician): The promoters put a woman on to sing as the support act, and we were just not expecting to hear anything special. But after 10 minutes, me and my drummer found each other and said, are we're hearing what we think we're hearing? And we kept listening, and we were very much hypnotized. And we said, she really is great.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARNALDS: (Singing in foreign language)

BORDAL: Olof Arnalds' debut CD, " Vid Og Vid," was produced by Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboardist for the well-known Icelandic band Sigur Ros. His own band's music features lush arrangements. But on " Vid Og Vid," Sveinsson kept everything stripped down.

Mr. KJARTAN SVEINSSON (Producer, Keyboardist, Sigur Ros): Olof had all her parts worked out. She knows what she wants, you know, even though she pretends she doesn't. She, you know, she's just one of those characters. I didn't do any arranging or anything like that, you know. It may be hard to call it producing, really, because we just kept everything quite minimal.

(Soundbite of music)

BORDAL: Olof Arnalds is a classically trained violinist and singer who taught herself to play guitar by accompanying other performers. On " Vid Og Vid," she also plays a Japanese koto and the charango, a South American, 10-stringed instrument with a body made from an armadillo shell. She plays it on a song she wrote for her sister Klara.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARNALDS: (Singing in foreign language)

It's like an encouragement song for her birthday. It was her 18th birthday, and I'm encouraging her to do creative things with her life, and asking her if she wants to come over and have a good time at my place, and telling her how beautiful her drawings are, and that she should make music and enjoy doing creative things.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARNALDS: (Singing in foreign language)

BORDAL: Olof's charango chops, and the popularity of this song, may have launched a brand-new Northern market for the little instrument.

Ms. ARNALDS: It's so funny because now, they're selling charangos in a music store in Iceland. And the people in the music store, they tune it the way I tune it, which is kind of funny because it's not a traditional way of tuning it.

BORDAL: Aside from all the instruments she plays, however, it's the sound of Olof's voice that really makes heads turn. There's something mesmerizing about the quality of that otherworldly warble and the precision of her little folk songs, as Jonathan Richman will tell you.

Mr. RICHMAN: When you hear one of her songs and it sounds like she's casually tossing it off: (singing) la, la, la, la, la - her pitch is really good, and she's dead serious about those little, tossed-off things. Each one, she knows what melody she's hitting, and she's doing it on purpose.

BORDAL: " Vid Og Vid" came out in Iceland in 2007, where it has since sold out its initial pressing of 4,000 copies - 5,000 counts as a gold album there. It's being released in the U.S. now for the first time in preparation for Olof's second album, "Innundir Skinni," or "Under the Skin," which will be coming out this spring. The new record has three tunes in English, including one with a guest vocal by Bjork.

(Soundbite of music)

BORDAL: Olof Arnalds says understanding her lyrics helps, but it may not be essential.

Ms. ARNALDS: I'm very much into the storytelling aspect of music. And even though singing in Icelandic, I always felt that I was still sort of carrying through some sort of story or giving some sort of impression of a story. But it's a different kind of listening that you get when people understand the lyrics. It opens up new possibilities in interacting with the audience.

BORDAL: For NPR News, I'm Christian Bordal.

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