Ólafur Arnalds On His New Film, When We Are Born

The success story of hardcore-metal drummer turned neoclassical composer and pianist Ólafur Arnalds is perhaps an unlikely one, yet it takes another fascinating turn as the BAFTA-winning musician releases his new film on Amazon Prime, When We Are Born. Headliner catches up with Arnalds to discuss the creation of his stunning live performance film, how his influence is being heard in the strangest of places, and his thoughts on fake Icelandic composers in Spotify playlists.

Beyond his BAFTA win for his music for ITV’s Broadchurch and his significant discography making him one of the neoclassical music scene’s main pioneers and luminary figures (his breakthrough was parallel with the likes of Nils Frahm and Dustin O’Halloran), recent years have seen his success extend to headlining The Royal Albert Hall in London, a curated-takeover festival at the Southbank Center, and the release of his fifth full LP (amongst a myriad of soundtracks and shorter collections), the as-ever beautiful some kind of peace.

Headliner mentions a recent conversation with O’Halloran, who recently moved to Iceland and found it a relatively lovely place to be in the midst of a global lockdown. Has Arnalds’ experience been the same in his native Reykjavík, the country’s capital?

“It [the pandemic] goes by ‘the plague’ here,” he says with a laugh. “I would say it's been a relatively nice place to be. Dustin is actually in my old studio. I passed my old studio to him as he was moving to Iceland, which is on the floor above me. 

"So he's probably sitting above my head right now. We haven't had too many Covid cases, but then Iceland is an island. It's quite easy to isolate from the rest of the world. But we’ve vaccinated about 98 per cent of the country!

“There's very little political polarisation here, so very few conflicting ideas of how to handle all this. It's actually not in the hands of politicians. It’s down to a committee they created to distance politics from it. It's been handled in a very common sense way.”

Headliner can’t resist asking Arnalds for a little retrospective on how this tiny community of neoclassical composers have become among the most imitated musicians in the world, and the unlikelihood of everything from bank adverts, to Katy Perry songs, to films taking on elements of the neoclassical sound.

“It's definitely been a really interesting trajectory,” he says. “It's somehow exploded. I think it's largely thanks to people’s different ways of listening to music these days. We kind of got rid of the radio jockey. So we don't need approval from someone who works at the national radio for anyone to hear my music, because it's on Spotify. 

"And if your algorithm knows that you like piano music, you're gonna find more of it. I really think this changed everything for us because we would never have been played on the radio. This new way of listening to music has allowed us to become a genre that is not just some really niche thing, but actually semi-mainstream.”

We're always remixing old ideas. And you see this in every form of art

But, like with any musical scene exponentially growing, with the good comes the bad. Once it was just a solitary group of Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Peter Broderick and others crafting this sound. Now, as more and more playlists take up internet space such as ‘Peaceful Piano’ and ‘Classical Sleep’ on Spotify, more and more pale imitations make this once ethereal space feel a lot more crowded. 

Headliner asks Arnalds if he’s aware of rumors that the streaming giants have even got composers to write music for these playlists under a fake alias, in exchange for a buyout instead of royalties.

“I would love to comment on this,” he says with a hearty laugh. “They've never admitted to it. If you go through these playlists, like ‘Peaceful Piano’, you can find a lot of names, most of them Icelandic names; I guess that's a total coincidence! You'll find names like ‘Grímar Dittósson’ or something super Icelandic like that. And as an Icelander who knows every single person in the music scene here, I'm going through this playlist and thinking, ‘who is this?’ I would know this person if this was real. So you start googling and nothing comes up except their Spotify profile, with only one song – and it has 20 million plays.

“Someone researched this and wrote a big article about it a couple of years ago. It turns out Spotify is paying starving composers a sum of money to buy out a song from them to put in the playlist under a fake name. It saves them money because they need to pay out less money to the composers. It's kind of shitty, isn't it? [laughs]”

Indeed, a quick scroll through the example playlist (‘Peaceful Piano’) and a click-through on a couple of the names — ‘Jenny Lange’ and ‘Zdenek Lemelin’ as two quickly picked-out examples, and there are one or two songs with millions of streams, yet no biography, and no social media or even internet presence to speak of (whereas usually artists have to spend years building up to get on these ‘editorial’ playlists). It certainly seems fishy, to put it mildly.

When We Are Born is available to stream now on Amazon Prime, and is truly worthy of your time at a mere 25 minutes. Directed by the visionary Vincent Moon, it’s a wonderfully shot film in an intimate one-take style, and we get to follow Arnalds around for a day in Iceland. 

Although it’s no run of the mill day; self-playing pianos suddenly start performing around him, he passes a violinist in a suit and tie playing in the street, and Arnalds soundtracks a shamanic dance ritual in the stark Icelandic countryside, to name just a few of the film’s sumptuous moments.

Headliner puts forward the notion that, with the fact that streaming has, in some ways, helped new music and ideas come through, that perhaps the same is true for films such as this. In other words, had someone gone to Warner Brothers 20 years ago to pitch an arthouse film about an Icelandic pianist, they may have had a harder time getting a green light than today. 

“I mean, I wouldn’t say convincing Universal to finance this way is an easy task,” he says. “But it definitely feeds into this conversation about the devaluing of music.

“Because on top of all these fake artists on playlists, music created by an AI, we also lost the ability to play shows a year and a half ago. We lost the value of going to record stores and going through the albums, we couldn’t look forward to seeing our favorite artists live. 

"I had to do something in this pandemic, to help my album and help my music. To enhance that aspect of this being something larger than just 10 songs from Spotify that you can click on. This is someone's life story. This is someone's heart and soul. I needed a way to communicate that in some proper way. So that's where the film came from for me.”

This is someone's life story. This is someone's heart and soul. I needed a way to communicate that in some proper way

It’s not Arnalds’ first foray into films where he is the star, rather than the many films he has scored as a composer. There was the 2009 tour documentary, The Sky May Be Falling, which follows him on his tour bus as he tours the UK (spoiler: it probably isn’t his favorite tour he’s been on). 

The album Living Room Songs in 2011 saw each performance filmed in Arnalds’ living room (as the name suggests), eventually compiled into a full film. But he tells Headliner the main film project that left him wanting more was Island Songs.

“It was kind of a live film, but also a documentary. And ever since I did that, I always wanted to see if I could take the concept further with these one-shot live takes but give it a narrative and a cinematic feel to it.”

And in terms of working with Moon as director, “he was on the top of my list. I made a list of a few directors who it would be my dream to work with. Dennis (Villeneuve) would also be on this list for sure. [laughs] But Vincent Moon was my top choice because of his work with one-shot live takes which he's been doing for around 20 years now. And the challenge was that neither of us had ever done a narrative film. We both had to step very far out of our comfort zones and try something completely new. He was literally the first person we called, he said ‘yes’, and we just went for it.”

Headliner then asks Arnalds if there were any films that particularly inspired this project, with another great example being Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaboration for Netflix on ANIMA. In fact, both films use wonderful contemporary dance and stunning locations, although the key difference is that almost all the music in When We Are Born is performed completely live.

“That’s a wonderful, beautiful film,” he says of Yorke’s film. “I should note that I was already writing my film before that one came out, because I know there are similarities! [laughs] I find it so interesting how ideas are kind of just in the ether. And people tend to come up with the same things at the same time. I also made a 25 minute video counterpoint to my album the same year Thom Yorke did that. 

"I thought that was amazing. And as we were preparing for our film, we definitely looked at the final scene in ANIMA, which I thought was so beautiful. We were totally inspired by it, I’m definitely not denying that.”

Then follows an expansion on Arnald’s notions about where ideas come from, as he says “there's a YouTube documentary which was called Everything Is A Remix. The guy who made the documentary puts this really well. He made this hypothesis: you can see throughout history, people are having the same ideas at the same time, which means we are building them on something that is existing. We're always remixing old ideas. And you see this in every form of art. You see this in every technology. There's that famous story about two people inventing the telephone at the same time, on separate sides of the world.”

On top of this wonderful film collaboration, and all the featured guests on the accompanying album some kind of peace such as Bonobo, Arnalds also has a very special and ongoing relationship with UK orchestral sample merchants Spitfire Audio. They now offer four products from their Ólafur Arnalds collection: Ólafur Arnalds Composer Toolkit, Evolutions, Chamber Evolutions and Stratus.

“It's been a great collaboration,” he says. “We tend to make things together that are quite selfish for me! I make them with Spitfire because these are sounds that I need in my toolkit and I’ve ended up using them quite a lot. I use my string stuff all the time. I'm scoring two TV shows right now and the strings and textural stuff that I've done with Spitfire can be heard all over these projects.”

It’s mentioned that Headliner has interviewed quite the array of people who’ve used these sample packs, including Dutch techno producers. Arnalds laughs and says “it's quite a versatile group of people buying them! Almost every time I watch Netflix I hear these strings, but I do also hear them in techno songs. So it's really awesome and an honor to hear my sounds in other people's music. If it's inspiring someone to create something, that's great!”

And, knowing Arnalds also has a big fanbase for his own techno side-project Kiasmos alongside Janus Rasmussen, the final question is if we should get excited for that hugely anticipated follow-up to their 2014 debut self-titled record.

“We're having this typical issue of the second album,” he says. “The longer it takes, the harder it becomes to make. The first album did so well, even though it was never meant to do well, and it's still doing really well! And, of course, we don't want to copy it. We have around 15 songs which we could release right now, only it wouldn’t be the album that I want to release yet.”

The wait is almost unbearable, as are those tantalisingly secret TV shows Arnalds mentioned he is scoring, but at least we have the blissful 25 minutes of When We Are Born to watch in the meantime.

Spotify is paying starving composers a sum of money to buy out a song from them to put in the playlist under a fake name