Gabríel Ólafs was only 14 when he wrote the song that landed him his first record deal, which saw his first album, Absent Minded, released on an independent label five years’ later. His tracks have since been streamed tens of millions of times online; his music is, wrote Pop Matters, ‘brimming with beauty’.
Ólafs has a longstanding love of film, and his passion for it shaped his creative process. ‘My approach wasn’t to say this is a record for piano and string quartet, so you know what to expect,’ says Ólafs. ‘I made motifs and melodies, like you might for a film score, and then played around with tonal palette.’ Cello, harp, electronics, and choir all feature in his aural colour palette. It's far from the first time film and music have intertwined for Ólafs. His musical life began when he was five years old and his grandfather, an accordion player, introduced him to the piano. He started to study classical piano, but soon became bored – until, that is, he discovered he could play by ear. ‘That’s all I did as a kid by myself. I would play melodies that I heard on the radio or in movies,’ he recalls. ‘I could play the Lord of the Rings theme on the piano and being able to play what I wanted is what kept me at the instrument.’ Time at the piano paved the way to composing. ‘If you can play by ear, you can make a melody. It’s the same part of the brain, I think,’ says Ólafs. After his first song was played in public as a teenager, he knew he was hooked on writing music: ‘That’s when I kept going and didn’t stop.’ After stints working in studios producing pop music and playing the piano at weddings and funerals, he was able to become a full-time composer. ‘It’s an immense joy,’ he says. ‘It’s what I love.’
‘I’m definitely influenced by the Icelandic sound, which is very quiet and delicate, verging on minimalist,’ says Ólafs, ‘but what I do differently is that I really like melodies. Tchaikovsky, Morricone, John Williams – they can all write a good melody. Nothing really compares.’ Working at his piano, Ólafs always begins with melodies, recording the results with voice memos on his phone – ‘I have maybe 200 of them’.
Now 23, the Icelandic composer has come of age, with a signing to Decca Records US and is working on his eagerly anticipated second album. Gabríel is co-founder of the Reykjavík Orchestra, Iceland’s first dedicated orchestra performing for Film, TV, Music and Games based in Harpa Hall.