By Léigh Bartlam
There is a specific quality that is deeply embedded in pretty much all of Iceland’s sonic output. An intangible, mysterious quality that binds its artists together like a strong silver chain barely detectable by the naked ear but enough for the music press to pigeonhole them into the catch-all, if unimaginatively named, box of “Icelandic music”. No matter how tribal, shoegaze, electro, post-rock or plain old avant-garde any of its major stars venture, they’ll forever be “Icelandic music”.
There is one native artist, however, who despite her roots and undeniable patriotism has managed to outrun the confines of the label. Not because her work lacks any of those quintessential Icelandic qualities, but because she has kept herself on her toes and reached outside the “Icelandic music” comfort zone years before the sound ever really travelled overseas. Over her surprisingly colourful 15-year career, Emilíana Torrini’s early, naïve attempts at becoming a recording artist in her teens have inadvertently given her the freedom to have far more of an international appeal than most of her peers.
It’s a freezing but wonderfully sunny day in Brighton and I’m sat by the window of “Emilíana’s favourite coffee shop in the world” (says management) desperately trying to get warm after coming in from the bitter sea air. Emilíana walks in and shakes my cold hand with a big smile. She’s wearing a casual but quirky black hooded poncho and simple jeans, topped off with a delicate looking giant black rosette on a headband that she frequently fiddles with during our chat. She insists on taking my drinks order and heads straight to the counter. A few minutes later she’s back with a cappuccino for herself and a tea and, surprise!, an organic fairy cake with lashings of gooey pink icing on for me. Major brownie points for first impressions and her telepathic ability to cater for my weakness for cake.
Her playful mood, she says, is partly due to the paint fumes she’s been inhaling at her nearby home for the past few days. During a two-week break in her tour schedule, she’s turned her hand to DIY and has been dashing “back and forth to IKEA” for her new kitchen.
Six months ago, Emilíana released her third international solo album, Me & Armini, a delightful collection of bewitching, tender and playful pop songs and folk lullabies that picked up where she left off with 2005’s acoustic reinvention, Fisherman’s Woman. With the initial promotional duties for the album over, and now just keeping journalists happy as and when she has gaps in her tour, it’s a nice chance to ask how she feels about the album now the dust has settled a little.
“I’ve only actually heard the record once in all since I recorded it,” she states. “The first time I listened to it I sat down with Dan [Carey, her longtime friend and producer] and we were just smiling from ear to ear, really proud. Holding each other like ‘awwwww’. But I do get very critical – I’ve always been like that, ever since I was a child. But because I have to play the songs a lot now, I have no need to listen to myself any more than I have to!” She giggles. “It’s just healthy. I’m not at the stage yet where I can sit down and do that.”
One thing Emilíana does regret with the Armini songs is not touring them before she went into the studio, something she had promised to herself she would do. “When you finish writing and start recording, there’s a huge part of the songs that are still a mystery to you,” she says. “You’ve only scratched the surface, and it’s like your unconscious is trying to tell you something. Writing a song is very much like dreaming, like a dream that sits really hard with you all day long afterwards. Like…have you ever fallen in love in a dream?”
Barely ten minutes in and already her charms are seducing out details I’d usually reserve for late night chats with my best friend. But such an honest, direct question deserves an honest answer. I did fall in love in a dream once, and felt utterly dumped when I awoke. “Yeah! And you go through sorrow and loss afterwards, don’t you? I think it’s the same with the songs, but then something shows itself when you start playing and it’s a very liberating feeling.
“I think songs develop on tour. It’d be very raw but you’d start adding to them. And that doesn’t matter as you’ve at least got the feeling of the ‘performance’. I always feel like I’m whispering when I’m in the studio, and that the performance element is not as much as I’d have liked. So, the next one…I will do that!”
Her performance is something she still insists is a bit rusty overall, that is, compared to when she used to do what she sweetly calls “drag”. Back in 1995, at the tender age of 16, Emilíana recorded the first of her “lost” albums, Crouçie D’où Là (”a bullshit phrase that I made up because Céline Dion and all those big divas had French names on their records at the time, and I didn’t know French”), and its swift companion Merman. Listening back to them now, they’re surprising in a number of ways, not least that her voice is so massive and capably handles such camp and ballsy covers as Lulu’s Bond romp ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Today I Sing The Blues’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Blame It On The Sun’.
The albums turned Emilíana into something of a megastar in Iceland, albeit an accidental one. Her first trip into the studio was with the intent of recording just a few songs for her dad’s fiftieth birthday, but the power of her voice shocked her producers into making the whole of Crouçie D’où Là. “I had no idea about making records, so for me it was just like a discovery,” she says.
The general consensus these days is that Icelanders don’t really give a shit about fame because they all know each other, but Emilíana’s experience as a teenager was very different. “People went mental!” she says, describing how both albums topped the Icelandic album charts and how she hated the personal intrusion of her newfound celebrity status. So it’s not true about Icelanders being detached from fame? “Hmmm, no…It depends how in awe of you they are, I suppose. It’s changed a bit now though.”
While Emilíana says she hasn’t technically disowned her early albums, don’t expect a reissue any time…well, ever. “They don’t mean anything or say anything about me anymore,” she says. “In my world, I was just in a box, singing, and discovering something mind-blowing. It is what it is, but they are nothing to really hoo-ha about, you know? Afterwards people just wanted me to use that power voice all the time, and I just really wasn’t that into it. It was all so theatrical, total Queen! I should have been a transvestite.”
With every sweeping comment she makes about herself there’s an adorable giggle, wacky face or extravagant hand gesture to accompany it. If times really were as pressured as she’s saying back then, her cracking sense of humour and ability to poke fun at herself have carried her through. Maybe it’s the cocktail of caffeine and paint fumes, but there’s much comedy faux nose-picking, rabbit-in-headlight faces, and the funniest of all…the “Icelandic cutie pie”, Emilíana’s comedic creation who says such stereotypical things as “ooh, ze ELLLLVVES!” with the biggest cartoon pout and 100mph fluttering lashes when we talk about the clichés the country is associated with. (Incidentally, the Icelandic word for cutie pie is krúsídúlla. Sound familiar?)
“I think Icelandic music fell into to the trap of believing our own hype about 10 years ago, and we all started taking part in the elves stuff and the ‘Ooh, I live on a glacier,’ and it just became a bit of a monster. We were consumed with it,” she laughs. “Now it is actually more about the music itself. It’s not all cutie pies and sweeping shots of glaciers. That was all fair enough, and it was time for that then, but now it’s time for what it’s really about.”
Around 1998, Emilíana was ‘discovered’ playing an intimate gig in Iceland by Derek Birkett of One Little Indian and was convinced to head toward London to produce something even more alien than drag for her: writing and co-producing her own album. “I was just expecting to do another karaoke queen record,” she says, but Derek assured her that the five self-written songs from Merman showed real promise. “We had a bit of a fight, but it was the best thing that could ever happen to me. If it wasn’t for him making me do it, I may still not be writing now”
The resulting album, Love In The Time Of Science, was released in 1999 to a wave of critical acclaim for her mildly eccentric take on brooding electro-tinged trip-pop engineered by Tears For Fears oddball Roland Orzabal. “When I came to England, I said I wanted to be a developing artist and wanted to make records, but I didn’t want to be any kind of ’superstar’,” says Emilíana, but various miscommunications fostered other ideas. There was a fine distinction between helping Emilíana become the developing artist she wanted to be and pushing her to become Iceland’s next big alternative female export. “That was the line we were fighting all the time,” she giggles, clawing and hissing like a cat. “Mmmwwreeeeee!“
“It was all on good terms though,” she continues diplomatically. “But the UK market is a difficult one, that was the problem. It’s a very closed circle that’s hard for an outsider to get in to. At the end of the day it’s very much about working together and finding your ‘family’, a base where you’re not disposable. For you to be loyal to those people, and for them to be loyal to you.”
As our chat moves on to yet another round of drinks, Emilíana’s coffees and two-day emulsion bender start to take a slightly more obvious effect. At one point, during a crucial part of how she signed to Rough Trade Records, she interrupts herself with an ecstatic “Oh my god! Mushy mushy moo, look at that!” as a local leather-daddy strolls past the window walking a tiny purse-sized fuzzy dog on a lead. She breaks down into a gush of doggy banter and we compare sad and all-too-recent tales of losing our own pets.
In case you hadn’t gathered by now, behind the charm and talent Emilíana Torrini is simply a sweet and bloody lovely person. She’s got the best of both worlds when it comes to genetics too, bashfully owning a face that contains everything classically beautiful about Icelandic and Italian women. Strangely, her Italian roots have rarely been mentioned over the years. With her mother a native Icelander and her father an Italian city boy, there must be some tales to tell with two such opposing cultures coming together? “I found it difficult sometimes,” she admits. “I didn’t understand why I’d been raised very strictly in such a liberal environment.
“My father had a completely different attitude and where he should have just shook people’s hands, he was very loud and it looked quite aggressive. But that’s just the Italian way. He’d teach people how to cook pasta correctly, and be stern because he heard they’d been putting ketchup on their pasta instead. So, it was a bit of a culture clash sometimes.” She describes how her father arrived in Iceland at a time when it was just countryside and there wasn’t even tarmac on the streets. “It’s incredible,” she grins. “I love that though. I’m very well connected with it.”
Getting back on track, we talk more about the five years between Love In The Time Of Science and Fisherman’s Woman, though it’s fairly common knowledge that this was not a carefree time. Shortly after her international success, Emilíana’s boyfriend was tragically killed in a car accident, and the effects were understandably huge. “It was just a nightmare than went on and on,” she remembers. “It wasn’t like in the movies where it’s like, ‘After a year she moved on and met someone else and now they’re married with a dog and three children’! I didn’t know what was up and what was down.”
Feeling understandably fragile, and having lost all motivation to get out there and perform or to make a new album, she just let it all go and walked away from her contract. “I don’t really remember a lot of the first half of those five years,” she says. “A lot of legal stuff happened but Derek treated me so well and helped me through, but it all took its toll. I was just trying to keep myself mentally busy. You just have to deal with it exactly how you have to deal with it, and be who you are until all your emotions have evened out.”
Thankfully, the latter half of those five years proved a lot brighter thanks to a few very random creative encounters. During her self-imposed hiatus, Emilíana ended up working on a song of Dan Carey’s that somehow, through a complicated journey through the industry grapevine, eventually caught the ears of Ms Kylie Minogue. That song was ‘Slow’, which eventually became Kylie’s seventh UK #1 single, and was joined on her 2003 album Body Language by another Emilíana co-write, ‘Someday’. Her invitation to perform the haunting ‘Gollum’s Song’ for the soundtrack to the second ‘Lord Of The Rings’ film was similarly surreal.
“Both of those, I don’t know what they were all about really,” she grins. “It was like I had just accidentally walked into the line of fire with, ‘HEY! YOU THERE!’” She pretends to walk, freezes, and fires that well-honed rabbit-in-headlights face. “It was all quite surreal. I still think Kylie’s people were trying to call Jamelia, and they just got the wrong number. It’d be much more funny if that is how it actually happened. Go with that one,” she laughs as she taps my notepad.
Three years on from the heartbreakingly tender Fisherman’s Woman, Me & Armini was a complex mishmash of styles that built upon her surprise acoustic reinvention. After a slow-burning start there’s a stunning moment about halfway through the third song, ‘Birds’, where the guitar breaks to near silence then rises again to beautiful heights with added atmospheric piano and synth and she joyfully sings, “Lend me your wings and teach me how to fly!” It’s as if whatever emotional baggage she may have been carrying these last few years has finally lifted and set her free. The rest of the album after this is an utter breeze.
“I really love that you read into it like that. But the reality is that you have to put a record together, you know? For me it’s just one song at a time. But there are three different periods in the record. One of them is Oxford, which was the first time I spent five days solid just writing, day and night. The second is Iceland, then back to Dan’s studio. But I think there is definitely a mood there. We go into a certain mood when we’re working and it was more like, ‘What do we want to hear? How would we want this album to build for us?’ You almost go back into, like [sings] memmmmmories…”
The practicalities aside, Me & Armini is an album that Emilíana is rightfully proud of and boasts some of her most personally provoking songs. “‘Gun’, I love that song! It just gets me. When I perform it I just feel fury,” she says, shaking her fist. “It really releases a flame, and I feel like I’ve just finished a boxing match after. I guess I’m most proud of that one and ‘Birds’. ‘Jungle Drum’, too. I’m completely in love with that. It’s just completely honest, and that’s really nice when songs are just born with a big smile on their face and two horns growing out of their head.”
Handy then, that the highly infectious ‘Jungle Drum’ is the latest single to be lifted from the album, complete with a ridiculously cute video of Emilíana bouncing around a plastic jungle while chasing a dragonfly. Just thinking about it is enough to make us crave the open air, so after two hours and three rounds of coffees – not to mention my pink cupcake – we peel ourselves off the leather sofa for a quick stroll along Brighton’s famous seafront. As we mooch around taking pictures, she talks about wanting to do a disco or dance-type project with Dan and one of their mutual friends, quickly adding that they plan to take their time over it. “I just want to party, you know? Do a proper party record side project and go back in to my drag queen mode and get the fake eyelashes on again!”
Of course, we know from experience not to expect the next album anytime soon, but at least we’ll have another tour before it – provided she keeps her own promise this time. In the meantime, there’s a flat that still needs painting and a few shelves to fit in the kitchen.