25/11/2011 | Ólöf Arnalds – St Pancras Old Church, London

Emily Jackett


The early dark of winter descended and I sought refuge in the St Pancras Old Church, lit yellow by flickering candles and warmed with the echoes of respectfully hushed voices. A trestle table at the entrance sold wine from boxes and rows of fold up chairs faced the small stage. The astonishingly intimate venue, housing an audience of 100 or less was warmed by icelandic folk singer Snorri Helgason, whose quiet, smooth vocals fitted the hushed venue perfectly, the small audience listening attentively to the bearded balladeer and his acoustic guitar. A short break and Ólöf  bumbled on stage, like some mad aunt, a little overcome with emotion and maybe sherry. The warmth of her presence and porcelain voice was palpable: void of microphones, her high, clear vocals filled the space with ease.

Olof makes a particularly delicate brand of folk music in both Icelandic and English, with a strong, high voice she delivers a fragile fairy tale sound, both alien and earthbound. The most obvious allusion to make is to Vashti Bunyan, though she is often likened to Joanna Newsom because of her high-pitched freak-folk sound. She is both talented and adventurous as a folk musician, with a quiet charm and shy charisma; accompanied only by borrowed guitar and charango, tuning for every song, with apologies and quoting Gillian Welch from her Hammersmith Apollo show two days before, acquiescing ‘We Tune Because We Care.’

Singing through small smiles, she encouraged the somewhat spellbound audience to fill in refrains on Crazy Car and Innundir Skinni – two of the catchier tunes from her previous album of the same name. With such meagre accompaniment she managed to make a very full yet fragile sound, the intimacy of the space suited the intimacy of her songs, dedications to sisters, friends and fond memories, side by side with sillier cautionary tales of evil icelandic witches, delivered with vaudevillian banter and a curious wit.

The quiet intimacy strayed in to informality, with quaint interruptions by church bells, lost lyrics and retakes on ‘work in progress’ songs. She explained as it was her last tour before going on to play with a band, she wanted to follow whims while she was allowed. The semi written song from her new album really stood out, despite the fumbles of forgotten chords. She sung the string section to let us imagine how her new album, released in Spring, will sound; I look forward with anticipation.

She finished with a traditional British folk song, The Trees They Grow So High, Having to stop half way through, apologising and explaining that sometimes emotion makes songs stick in her throat. Both Sweet and strange, like a particularly talented nursery school teacher, Ólöf Arnalds is worth visiting. An infinitely endearing stage presence, if you’ll forgive informality, combined with wonderful songs, made for a refreshing evening of honest music.

www.olofarnalds.com