Ragnar Ólafsson: m.i.s.s. – preview

“Listening to m.i.s.s. and it’s bloody brilliant. Four songs in an I already have tears in my eyes and the biggest smile on my face. Despite knowing most of the songs there is so much to discover here. Loving all the musical choices so far. Just wow. Well done!”

The quote above was my initial reaction to Ragnar Ólafsson’s second album. I had been looking forward t it very much and was happy that I got early access to it during his tour in Poland.  I have to admit though that I wasn’t all that excited about it, mainly because I already knew all but one songs and really didn’t expect any surprises. Boy was I ever wrong!

Each year, my CD collection grows considerably. Whenever an artists I like puts out a new album I’ll buy it and there are always new bands to discover as well. Some of these releases are highly anticipated, others I just get to add them to my collection. No matter where on that spectrum an album falls, it rarely happens these days that a new release blows me completely off of my feet and leaves me smiling for days, while listening to it on repeat. m.i.s.s. is one of those rare albums.

It has been three years in the making and that is a long time for any album. During those three yeas I’d heard countless version of some of the songs, Sometimes evolving from rough sketches to staples played at almost every concert. All the songs on the album came into being in July 2017 while Ragnar and a friend were floating down the Mississippi river on a houseboat. At his concerts he will tell stories about this trip to introduce the songs and put them in context, but on the album they all become stories of their own.

Said stories range from casual observations of life on the river to more personal ones, but all told in a way that they remain easily relatable to the listener. Ragnar succeeds as a storyteller, especially because so much of the story can be heard between the lines. This is where much of the power of this album lies, in everyone being ale to find a piece of themselves in the lyrics. The words alone are only half of the story though and would not be as powerful as they are without the music. Every single song on the album has been beautifully sung, played, arranged, produced, mixed and mastered. Not that I know much about arranging, mixing and mastering, but I know what sounds good and this absolutely does.

At this point I’d like to give a shoutout to all of Ragnar’s collaborators on the album from Sólveigh Asgeirsdóttir and Ida Langthjen Christensen who lent him their voices to Unnur Jónsottir on cello, Sigrun Hardaðardóttir, Viktor Orri Árnason and David-Ra Vedding on violin, Baldvin Freyer Þorsteinsson, Kjartan Baldursson, Óskar Augústsson and Valur Arni Guðmundsson on guitar, Hálfdán Árnason on bass and Skúli Gíslason on drums as well as Axel “Flex” Arnason who mixed and mastered the whole thing, not to mention an entire virtual choir, but ‘ll get to that later. Every instrument, every note these people contribute is the perfect fit for the songs.

Compared to the first album Urges with its sparse production and general lo-fi approach, m.i.s.s. offers a full production and amazing soundscapes that are a joy to listen to. Thematically, Urges is a breakup album whereas m.i.s.s. captures a moment in time on Ragnar’s frequent travels and yet in some way the stories told are universal. Urges shows all the anger, sadness and despair that we feel when a love ends, m.i.s.s. offers a much more positive outlook on life. The narrator of Urges is heartbroken, whereas at the end of m.i.s.s. we hear a man at peace with himself. But let’s start at the beginning…

Southern Nights was written as a positive spell for the journey down the Mississippi river and describes the daily life on the boat, including some unexpected adventures. It is the perfect starting point for this album as well and developed from a straightforward guitar song with a country feel into this ukulele based happy song it is now. The best part of it is the virtual choir in the end that seemed like a silly idea at first when Ragnar asked his fans to contribute vocals according to his instructions, but was mixed into something beautiful that gives the song a special community feel and always makes me smile. “That’s the way that we wanna go!”

Needle & Thread  then builds a bridge to the first album, being the last song about the same woman and gives a post break-up status update with a realistic take on the practical side of things. It is a goodbye song that looks back lovingly but no longer longingly at a past relationship. It’s the closing of a chapter and the upbeat melody is a good fit for that.

With Bald Eagles we are back on the river. It’s a snapshot of a day they were looking for shelter from an oncoming storm. The music is calm but slowly builds up like a storm would and thus matches the lyrics, hinting at the dangers life on the river can bring.

Message is the first duet on the album and a powerful one at that, inducing goosebumps every time I listen to it. The song perfectly captures the excitement as well as the insecurities of a new relationship from just rolling with it at the beginning to the point of realizing that both partners have different goals and trying to figure out what that means. Lyrically as well as musically it has just the right amount of drama with strings building up beautifully and sung with so much passion that I want to believe every word I hear.

The song about hope, Deva, is a personal story told through more general words about life, painful experiences and what helps us get through them. It evokes the power of friendship and tells us how sharing our feelings and caring for those we love can go a long way towards healing. The song came to me at a terrible time in my life and has helped me through much of it. “I feel, when our bodies get broken the love we all share becomes real” is the key line here and the music with guitar, bass and drums building up towards the end drives the point home beautifully.

Minor Scratch is my favorite song on an album full of brilliant pieces of music. It’s another duet, but here it is not so much the powerful singing, but the simple, yet universal message of the song. It is a wonderful ode to friendship, one of those big, indestructible ones they make movies about. “I have no fear when I’m with you.” If you’re lucky enough to have a best friend in your life, this is what it feels like and if you don’t this is what you know it should feel like. The song absolutely hits the nail on the had here and thus appeals to everyone who listens to it. And I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeous instrumentation and singing with a simple guitar motif at the core, supported by a second guitar, a bit of synthesizer and just the right amount of percussion. Perfection!

At this point we get a little break from all the emotions with Seamless, a short spoken poem, with some minimal synthesizers underneath. It a stream of consciousness about the outer and inner world of the narrator, in one long sentence describing one moment in time on one evening, concluding in “We’ll be OK” which speaks for the mood of the entire album. Anyone who likes this piece might want to check out Ragnar’s band Ask the Slave as they play with spoken poetry too (apart from the metal music).

Walls has touched me from the moment I first heard it a a concert a few years ago. I can’t really explain what it is about, but it speaks to me on several levels. On the surface it is just a little song with a lovely melody, but below are many layers that I yet have to get to. A line like “In a crowd full of people we pick out the few ones that hurt” not only rings true for me, it already has two different interpretations – I read it either in a sense that if we care to look closely we can always see who is hurting or in a sense that no matter how many people we meet, we are drawn to the ones that can hurt us. And that’s only the beginning, so I will sure return to this song many times.

The next song, Muddy Waters has “don’t take me seriously” written all over it. It was an experiment of “fuck yeah, let’s have some fun and write a blues song” and that is exactly what it is – a fun song to listen to that chases the darkness of Walls away. Ragnar gets really into it and gets away with it, which is noteworthy in itself.

Paper Crane is kind of the odd one out, but that doesn’t mean it should not be there. The song is very prog and was at one time intended for In Siren, one of Ragnar’s bands. So if you want more of this, you should go and check them out. I honestly have no clue what this song is about, it sounds to me like everyday observations mixed with dream sequences and doomsday thoughts. Either way, it sounds great and I’m enjoying every bit of it.

When I hear Beckon the German word “Fernweh” comes to mind, wich could be translated as “longing for far away places”. The dictionary say it means “wanderlust” but that is an entirely different word in German. Anyway, the song sounds like I feel at the end of a beautiful trip to a place I enjoyed being at, with my heart full of memories and happy about all the adventures I’ve had. The song speaks of a sudden clarity and the peace of mind that comes with having learned something. And there its is, in the end, the longing to come back and the knowledge that when you are someone who loves and gets inspired by travel it will stay with you for life. I can relate.

Photograph continues this theme of learning from your journeys and expands on it. This time it’s about a journey to oneself. The song is deeply spiritual, using a fading summer day as a metaphor for how to approach life and learning from our experiences. To me it’s a plea for learning to let go and opening our minds to new experiences that will help us discover who we are, learn to love ourselves and find peace within us. It’s an appropriate ending to this particular musical journey and a good lesson to take home.

Overall mi.i.s.s. is a masterpiece of an album that is a joy to listen to from start to finish and I guarantee it will leave you in a more positive mood than Urges did. Everything about it is just the way it should be. So all that is left to do is raise my glass (of red wine of course) and say: Enjoy!

You can preorder the album on Ragnar’s Bandcamp page

Make no mistake, I’ll keep running on, running into you

Ragnar Ólafsson – Meskalina, Poznań; September 8th, 2020

So there it was, the last show of the tour, the grand finale, the day I had been dreading, because I knew it would be followed by post tour depression. And yet, I had felt so good all day and the music made me so happy that there was very little time for sad thoughts. I enjoyed it thoroughly, I laughed, I shed a few tears and I felt very lucky to be there.This was a concert how it should be and if tours have to end – as they do – they should always end like this!

It’s Wednesday morning, I’m on a train to Berlin and one of Kathia’s songs is replaying in my head on a loop. It’s a good haunting tune to have though, I rather like it. Of course I did not sleep enough last night (see a pattern there?) and of course I can feel the post tour blues heading my way, but hey – I’m not hungover and I have great memories to carry me through until I get to tour again.

Staying in the same city for two nights was perfect, because I really needed a good night’s sleep. Thus, I didn’t mind much that there was no party happening after the first gig and I got back to my hotel at a decent time. After seven solid hours of sleep the world looked a lot brighter than t had the previous day and as a bonus – said brightness did not hurt when it hit my eyes. 😉 Instead of playing tourist, I lounged about in my bed most of the day, went out for a great lunch and spent some time blogging. It’s not like I haven’t been to Poznań before.

Relaxed, I arrived at the venue around six and met N. who saw the first show on this tour. B., the Meskalina’s owner was also outside and said hello. This time the doors opened earlier than the previous day, we sat down and I chatted with M. for a while, who had decided not to bring her camera and just enjoy the show. Good idea! I personally vowed to take less pictures and I did. Pretty soon the room was packed – there seemed to be even more people than the previous day and surprisingly few of them had been there before. What do you mean not everyone goes and sees both concerts if an artist plays in their city twice? Why ever not?

Before the show started I briefly spoke to Kathia, who had barely slept and been to school that day . She didn’t look the part though and was as vibrant as ever. Ah, to have the energy of a teenager again. 😉 Shortly after 7 pm she was on stage, pro as every night and delivered a beautiful set. I loved all of it and even closed my eyes to listen a few times. We all clapped along in the end, her songs perfectly setting the mood for the night. *sigh*

Again we got a break for some air, while all the doors where opened and Bartek reset the stage. I took a deep breath and got ready for the last show of this tour. Considering that a few weeks ago I was convinced I would not get to see any more concerts this year it still feels like a miracle this tour even happened and even more so that I actually got to be there.

I had been hoping for ‘Deva’, but Raggi started with ‘SSDD’ – it didn’t go well though, somehow the guitar cable made distortion sounds. He joked about it, because what else can you do, but it wasn’t great. Bartek rushed to replace the cable and afterwards it worked better for most of the show. When it distorted again towards the end of the show, Raggi decided it was “bad karma”. He talked about the honor it was to be back at Meskalina, thanked B. and then thanked Kathia’s parents for their hospitality, joking that their good food would be responsible if he sang out of tune.

Everything went well from then on. ‘Wine’, being unplugged, was great as always and Bartek changed the cable in the meantime. As every night, people were much impressed with Raggi speaking Polish. Mostly, he stuck with English though and introduced ‘A Prayer’ by telling us that there are many different ways of praying like their before the show ritual of “Who let the dogs out”. I really felt the music that night – it helped that I wasn’t seeing the show through my camera. 🙂

For ‘Minor Scratch’ he changed the beginning to “here I stand, with Kathia my friend” and she replied “I have no fear when I’m with you Ragus” – it was sweet and very fitting after so many shows together. I even teared up a little during the song, wondering how long I’d  be able to go this time. There are a few precious shows on the horizon though, it won’t be as bad again as it was in March. The talk about traveling to find stories, i.e. songs to tell before ‘Mexico’ made me smile, because what I do is similar: travel to collect memories and hear stories so I can then write about it and thus tell my own. 🙂

It was time for some piano songs and the first was of course ‘Water’ – it once again brought tears to my eyes. I can still remember the first time I heard it and it hasn’t lost any of its power since. *deep, happy sigh* Before the second song, Raggi looked at me and as he started playing I knew why – I had suggested playing something different than ‘Shine’ and he opted for ‘Red Wine’. Perfect! <3 Afterwards he added that being a writer is a good outlet to channel negative feelings and have something good come out of it and he urged all of us to do the same – tell stories in whatever medium suits us and found a creative outlet for the bad things we experience.

When he talked about being in the city Tequila it turned out that someone else in the audience was there as well. Small world. 🙂 After ‘Time’ Raggi said he was going to play a request for me and asked how many shows I’d seen. I had to clarify he meant on this tour, because depending how you look at it the answer is 8 (on this tour) or 68 ( solos shows in total). Anyway, he played ‘Vegetate’ for me. I had actually requested it for my friend K., who loves it and could not make it to any of the shows this tour. Only I never got around to telling him that. What I did though is record the song and send her the video. It was a fun version too and the entire time the images from the song’s video were playing in my head. 😀

An equally great version of ‘Bravery’ was next before Kathia joined him again and they talked about the tour ans how the worst thing was that they end. Oh yes, I feel that. Kathia had been at school that day and Raggi told us how he’d planned to surprise her at school and serenade her with Enrique Inglesias’ Hero. Someone in the audience wanted to hear the song and he just said “Be careful what you wish for”. I could hardly keep myself from laughing out loud. First we got a goose-bump inducing version of ‘Message’ though. They played and sang as if their lives depended on it. <3 He spoke about how he’d sung his duets without 40 different singers before meeting Kathia and I remembered how different they all were. ‘Petals’ was lovely too.

It was time for ‘Dragonfly’ so Borow-cow joined them on stage after the first verse. They had so much fun with this and at one point Raggi leaned back across Bartek’s back while both were still playing guitar and piano respectively. 😀 The bowed, said goodbye and walked off steg so we could let them know with loud cheers that we wanted more.

Now he came back to “be careful what you wish for” and the woman, who had requested ‘Hero’ could hardly believe it. He totally screwed up the lyrics though, singing the same bits twice. It made me laugh even harder than the song usually does. Everyone sang along with a passion too. 😀 Last song of the night was ‘Southern Nights’ with one last sing along and the Kathia/Bartek choir on stage. They decided to go full country and when they started, Kathia had to laugh and they needed to start again. There was even a “yeehaa!” in there somewhere. 😀 At the end of the song Raggi even jumped up in the air. Then they all hugged for some time, happy with the night and the tour. For a moment I thought we’d manage to cheer them back to the stage, but people gave up too early. 😉

It had been a lovely evening and a perfect end to a wonderful tour. There were after gig hugs and me being too overwhelmed and speechless to say anything much but “thank you” which was all that needed to be said anyway. We hung out and chatted a little bit until they had to start packing because they were going back to Łódź that night. So we all said goodbye and hugged some more.

I was just going to grab my stuff and leave when Raggi’s friends, J. and W., discovered my ukulele and asked me to play. So I did. Then they invited me to come along with them for a drink. Why not? N., who was still hanging out as well, got the invitation too. We had to wait a while, because Raggi was doing a photoshoot backstage, but eventually he got there. Bartek and Kathia both decided they’d rather get some sleep and so did B..Thus, there was a lot of hugging going on and long goodbyes. Of course, they had been on tour together for 18 days so it was hard to let go. I said goodbye to all of  them with hugs too – see you next tour.

At the bar, which was located at a theater, we proceeded to have shots, drinking to a successful tour. Raggi and M. still had to go to Lodz the same night, but what was supposed to be one drink turned into some wine, four rounds of shots and a spontaneous photoshoot for the cover of ‘Lost Creek’ at the bar’s kitchen with a photographer who’d come with us. He showed us the resulting pictures and they were stunning. More happy chatting ensued before finally it was time to say goodbye for the last time. Safe travels, see you next tour! Some of us stayed a bit longer, but soon I felt the tiredness creep up on me, drank some water and finally decided to go. This tour has been great, I really hope we get to repeat it soon.

So this was it. I’m almost home, feeling restored in hart and soul and ready to face some more weeks or months of living mostly like a hermit. This tour was exactly what I needed for my mental health and I can’t even express how happy it has made me. A big thank you and a bigger hug goes to everyone who shared this tour with me.
For me, saying “thank you for everything” sometimes feels a bit like an excuse when you don’t really know what to say, but in this case it is the only way to express how grateful I am without turning this into a never-ending blog post. So, Raggi, thank you for everything. I love you and I owe you more than I will ever be able to give back. Cheers to many more tours!

pictures of this concert


A Prayer
Minor Scratch
Red Wine

Southern Nights

Ragnar Ólafsson – m.i.s.s. is in town tour – eight gigs down, none to go. Last stop: home