I first heard Ólöf Arnalds when her song ‘Surrender’ came on the radio and made my ears prick up. Eerily understated, it quickly gets under the skin. The music video, in which a haunted-looking Ólöf wanders in damp, gloomy forest, exploring the twists of a knotty relationship, might suggest a sombre mood, but her performance at the Vortex Jazz Club is smiley and warm. “I am very happy today,” she chirps. “I am afraid I will run out of happy songs.”
Arnalds has been active on the Icelandic music scene for several years, working with the likes of Sigur Rós, Múm and Björk. Her set balances Icelandic and English, laments and celebrations, her own material and cover versions of Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen and an old British folk song called ‘Swansea Town’ (which gets whoops from the audience). Alone on stage, alternating between guitar and charango, at times she seems shy, almost ducking away from the microphone, but holds the crowd in a respectful hush. Her voice is lovely, capable of husky whispers and high, birdlike trills, creating a fragile atmosphere; a cough could disturb it. She’s a naturally moving performer, with a light touch; when she asks us to sing along, it feels heart-warming rather than heckling.
Her version of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ creates a stone-dropping moment, ripples spreading through the room, and ‘Surrender’ similarly resonates, its darkness contrasting with the humour of ‘Crazy Car’ and the lightness of ‘Innundir Skinni’. The charisma of her performance breaks through any shyness; when she sings “I choose now, I refuse now”, she sounds suddenly strong.
Words: Becky Varley-Winter