Emiliana Torrini – Interview – 2014

We all love Icelanders, don't we? For those who haven't visited (and that includes me) the Nordic country has a population bigger than Brighton but smaller than Bristol, is full of volcanoes, but actually not much ice, is considered one of the most equitable counties in the world, despite the fact it suffered particularly badly from the financial crash, and have some very peculiar laws relating too naming.
Familiar to some Britons for the so-called 'cod wars' of the 70s, Iceland practically fell off the map, as far as we were concerned, until the arrival of The Sugarcubes who featured one Björk Guðmundsdóttir (aka Bjork), who debuted in the UK singles chart with the classic 'Birthday' song in 1987. Ever since then, the most sparsely populated country in Europe has produced a seemingly never ending stream of unique, adventurous and high quality folk, pop and alternative indie sounds from the likes of Bjork herself, Sigur Ros, Asgeir, mum, Of Monsters & Men, GusGus, Hjaltanin, Olafur Arnalds and more recently, Samaris, a three-piece making big waves in Europe.
Emiliana Torrini, being of both Italian and Icelandic parentage, seems to have escaped the strict laws governing names, whereby the vast majority of Icelandic surnames still record the fact that you are your father's (or mother's) son or daughter, i.e. 'son' for a son, 'tir' for a daughter. Emiliana has also enjoyed some of the biggest success of any Icelandic artists, her 'Jungle Drums' single of 2009 reaching number one in several countries. Speaking over Skype, she was preparing to go to Berlin for a Jazz festival. "I'm leaving for Berlin tomorrow; I'm doing a gig that is part of a jazz festival, I've no idea who I'm going to meet although I know I will meet Sebastian Stubnitsky. He has chosen 12 songs of mine, and reproduced them with an ensemble, a five-piece band. We are going to meet for the first time and play a gig! It's great, I love it, I have no idea what it's going to be like, but it's very exciting. I've never sung without a guitar player or a band before, and this will be working with people who work on a tonally different level. We will do a rehearsal gig in the evening in an old radio studio, all wooden inside, one of those classic old German studios which are really beautiful, and people can just walk in off the street and watch us. The next day we have a proper gig, but where mistakes are allowed. It's going to be really educational for me, its nice."
Always intuitive, adventurous and somewhat against the grain of what a pop career should look like, Torrini is first and foremost a singer, who became an artist through persuasion and hard work. "I was doing quite a lot of theatre, music theatre and opera, and when I was 16 or 17. I recorded a few songs for my father's 50th birthday with one of the producers of those music theatres. I had no idea I could sing – I was opera trained – but he really liked the recordings and wanted to put them out as a record, so we did that together but it's like a Karaoke Queen record, it's just songs I really like (including songs by Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin as well as a cover of that old James Bond chestnut 'The Man With The Golden Gun'). The next record I was trying to write music, but it's another record which I don't really count. It was at a time when I was bring curious." The records she refers to are called 'Croucie D'oü Lá' and 'Merman', both released in Iceland only, and next to impossible to find although a fews songs have leaked on to YouTube. Emiliana has practically disowned them, saying about 'Croucie…': I have a funny relationship with that record and I guess I have disowned it in someways. My mum proudly took it of the shelf at Christmas and played it to my boyfriend. I hadn't heard it since I recorded it. It was too painful… I didn't like it. She laughed, and he blushed." With regards to 'Merman', the mix of originals with covers of songs by Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell, was a big step forward, convincing Derek Birkett, label head of One Little Indian, and who was responsible for first signing The Sugarcubes, to sign Emiliana. "I was crazed by music, I loved all of it, and I loved singing; that is what I saw myself as, first and foremost, as a singer. When I was signed to One Little Indian I didn't want to write music, but Derek Birkett kind of made me; He said I would have to write my own songs, that is the only way I would survive in music. I didn't want to do it, I was actually quite pissed off with him! "But I started this journey of writing and then I met Eg White, my mentor, and by the time of 'Fisherman's Woman' (her album of 2005) I came to the point where no one was allowed to (laughs) interfere with the lyrics and melody! I've always said I was an accidental songwriter, but I'm getting a little bit better at controlling it."
'Love in the Time of Science' was her debut album for One Little Indian, released in 1999, and her first to be released outside of Iceland. With Eg White co-writing much of the material, and with Tears For Fear's Roland Orzabel and Alan Griffiths on production duties, the album spawned three minor UK hits ('Easy', 'To be Free' and 'Unemployed in Summertime'), helping to establish her in the UK. To help make this happen Emiliana took a leap of faith, coming here to live, living in London for five years, before heading to Brighton in the early noughties where she lived for the next 11 years.
Two further events conspired to propel Torrini further into the limelight; first, there was her vocal to 'Gollum's Song' for the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Kylie Minogue's 'Slow', an international hit for the Aussie, and easily one of her best songs which was written by Torrini and Dan Carey, for which they won a Grammy. "It's quite a complicated story, but I had done this track which Kylie had heard (called 'Someday') and her team wanted it, but they worked it with Scritti Politti instead (Green Gartside taking vocal duties with Kylie). Then I heard back from them asking if I wanted to write another one… I thought it was all a little surreal, because I was working on my record with Dan Carey 'Fisherman's Woman' and I was stripping everything down; there was no electronics, just guitar and voice where songs would have to stand totally by themselves and do their thing. "In the middle of that record Dan and I said we needed a holiday from all this, because it was such a challenging record to make. But then I was asked to do a Kylie track and I asked Dan if he wanted to join me and we kind of recorded it in half an hour and went to the pub and said, 'maybe we shouldn't give it to her, we should just do it ourselves'! But we sent it off and before we knew it, we had Kylie in the studio, helping out with the lyrics, and it came out as it was. I do love that song." Did you ever record it yourself? "We never did our own version. I didn't find it very fitting to do straight after her,".
Despite the seemingly knocked off nature of 'Slow' (and the no doubt lovely financial rewards that came with it) it is surprising to hear her admit to finding the process of writing difficult. Although when one thinks about it, it can seem like a job… More often than not those songs you hear day in, day out, aren't knocked up in half an hour, like 'Slow' apparently was. "I find it a very satisfying process, but also a very difficult process," she says. "it can drive me very much to the edge, mentally. I think it can take me too much time to get out of writing a song, that may not be a healthy song for me but, I'm starting to learn to relax with it a little bit more. But, yeah, something mystical and magical happens when you are writing music; when you almost wake up after you have written a song, you almost don't remember that you did it… I don't know how, either… It's possibly the most addictive and amazing feeling ever, and the challenge of lyrics is incredible. It's very difficult to say something huge and large and make sentences in small verses.
"I don't really have a formula… the system I am comfortable with has usually just been plugging in everything in the studio, for it to be ready, for whatever ideas come, to be ready to record it, and start playing the guitar, improvising and recording those improvisations. Sometimes, whole songs come out of it that you need to tweak a bit, sometimes you have to work harder at them, but usually you get the gist and you go from there.. I'm now writing with people who write very differently from me. I like that feeling, it makes me feel on edge, nervous and scared and really uncomfortable. Writing has to be about creating a mood and having a connection and that includes a very strong connection with the people you are writing with. I don't like entering a studio and not knowing someone. 'I don't know you, I've never seen you in my life before', that's a very unnatural approach for me."
With her longtime musical partner Dan Carey, who as well as producing her last three albums ('Fisherman's Woman', 'Me & Armini' and last years's 'Tookah') also co-writes some of the songs, Emiliana has really stamped a musical identity for herself. "I met Dan when we were both in funny places, his career hadn't really blown up like it has now (he has since worked with the likes of Bloc Party, Toy, Steve Mason, Franz Ferdinand and Django Django), and we spent months hanging out before we did one song. "We have this family bond, he's like my best friend. So we work our music like we are in a band. He can interpret ideas that are very obscure, and in a language that is not necessarily straight-forward. We bond over song writing. Usually we just get in a 'cave' and he'll end up playing everything because he is a multi-instrumentalist. We just don't let other people in. But, gradually we do get people in and stop being such moles."
Somewhat dissatisfied with the poppy production of 'Love in the Time of Science', 2005's 'Fisherman's Woman', released on Rough Trade Records, was a stripped back, minimalist folk-pop affair, and featured some of her most beautiful songs, such as 'Heartstopper' and 'Sunny Road'. Often performing live as just a trio, Torrini's graceful and spellbinding performances matched the life-affirming and heart-warming content of the songs. 2008's 'Armini & Me' amalgamated the electronic sounds of 'Love in the Time of Science' with the acoustic flavours of 'Fisherman's Woman' to stunning effect. Her best album, it features a number of classic songs songs such as the slinky-ska groove of the title track, the big hit 'Jungle Drums' as well the gorgeous, folkie balladry of 'Birds' and the gently playful 'Big Jumps', songs with very strong melody at its heart, songs you would remember and whistle unabashed. A commercial as well as critical success, Torrini wasn't able to fully capitalise; soon after she fell pregnant, and it was another five years before last year's 'Tookah' was released. "It was basically having a child that stopped me making music. I got the opportunity after the success of 'Me & Armini' to either go crazy and throw out another record, which would have been very unnatural for me to do, but I got an opportunity to be pregnant, have a child and be home with him for two years. I took that, but after a couple of years I was writing two days and nights a week, in London.
"I wasn't annoyed, it was something that I wanted (her child). I was more relaxed, I didn't have to worry for two years, and so I gave myself completely to it. I was really lucky in that way. When I did start writing I guess I found the process very difficult in the beginning; you don't know what you are doing, and nothing solid is coming out. You don't know what you are saying, and everything that you're saying seems so lame compared to what has just what happened…"
However, eventually 'Tookah' took shape, and although she had lost a little momentum, commercially speaking, it's still a very fine record, full of her trademark acoustic ballads and laments such as 'Autumn Song' and 'Caterpillar', and mixed in with a little electro-pop and experimental detours. "With this record, its much more about the exploration of sonics and visual landscaping in order to find my own sound," she says and with regards to the album's name, which doesn't seem to exist in any language, she has said: "I was interested in splits, when you go through a character split, a duality. When that happens, you still have that core, which is constant, the core you have when you are born. The splits are where creativity, contentment, happiness occurs… maybe like an inner god…I call that part of me Tookah, it's what came out when I was singing and I connected with it."
Gigging though is still a problem and she is not able to fully commit to full on touring just yet, although she is playing here and there including recent performances in Brighton and Glastonbury. "I have a partner that needs to work away too (she laughs); it's more complicated now with a kid… but it's nice," she says. "My child is three and a half. I don't travel with him, it's a boring life for a little child… he has his own social life, but I will take him to the Brighton gig because we have so much family there. I'll make him learn the trumpet or something, and make him pay his way!"
Her love affair with Brighton began while she was living in London. "I went for a drive to Brighton with my manager, and I instantly fell in love with it and I said I want to be here, it's where I want to be. My record label said: 'No, you can't do that, you have to be in London for work'. I love London, but it's not my city, I felt quite alone there… Then I met a boy who lived in Brighton, and I followed him. It's been funny, because the minute I moved to Brighton I felt at home… I love that city. I find it adventurous, there's so much going on, arts of any kind, university art people, people working from home… it's a very creative and exciting place. I still call it home. Brighton Festival (which has just started as we speak), that is my favourite! I have a mourning time when the Brighton Festival comes on because it is my favourite time of year."
However, Emiliana is now back in Iceland, with her young son and partner. "I moved back to Iceland a year ago, my partner got a job here, but my work mainly goes through England still. We are trying, see how it goes, but the east is where my Icelandic heart beats." she says. Still, she can't help but enthuse about her surroundings. "Its very different now, not so much activity there anymore. But it's very lush and has got very very dark mountains. It's hard to explain, but it's my favourite part of Iceland, besides the north west maybe. There is a very artsy town, which used to be a fishermens town, but now all the boats have gone. We don't have the quota anymore, they haven't been very kind to us. The town I lived in maybe had 500/600 people, now there are only about 20 people there. We don't have a very healthy system in keeping people living in towns here, to sustain a living and stuff. But, yeah, it's an amazing place with amazing people."
I ask her what it is about Iceland that seems so capable of producing all this high quality music? "We have such strong support," she says. "In Brighton it's much harder. We have such easy access to radio, people coming out to see each other play. There is much more openness… you have to work extremely hard in England, whereas we have more breathing space, and have fun. It' can be so grinding and negative in England, people start talking to you from a very negative point of view about everything, too many opinions at too early a stage. We have a set up that gets Icelandic bands to play abroad, and play the festival scenes, before they hit management… And we have a very collective mindfulness here, people play together, most people are in other bands, nothing is ever a problem; everyone is lending each other their instruments…”
"What I was also really amazed about when I came back to live in Iceland is that the older musicians here, who have been in the business for many years, are played on the radio alongside a new band… there is no judgement against the older, no ageism. Here, artists have three children and no one even thinks about it. Its not an issue, with the record labels. Its unconscious, but you feel it…”
"Assumption is the mother of all fuck ups!" proclaims Emiliana with a laugh
As well as performing at Rauda Sandur festival, she'll be making an appearance at a little festival she helped to start many years ago in the East of Iceland, at Braeoslan, in late July. "We started the first one and its been growing year by year. Belle & Sebastien and Damien Rice have played there. It's really mellow and magical, where the kingdom of the elves live" she says. “And you have to believe…”
As for the future, she's hoping to continue working with American alt-indie folk artist Willy Mason and Mara Carlyle, who currently performs with Emiliana on stage and is a recent addition to the presenting team on Radio 3's Late Junction programme. "We are experimenting, we did a little gig here in Iceland and went to the summer house to write for a few days.. We are having a lot of fun; whatever comes out of it, comes out… it's definitely a good crowd" she says, before adding: "I know it's quite hard to work for someone like me, they can't keep up that momentum.. they have to start over again, every time, fresh, and it gets harder every record… Its been good for me to be with a company (Rough Trade) that lets me do what I want, even though I am very erratic. It must be very frustrating for them when things go really well, and I go 'bye, I'm going to stop now'. I feel that I have to learn something new, to be challenged, and it takes a long time… as least for me.”
Jeff Hemmings