Interview: Emiliana Torrini
The Icelandic musician talks about her new album with The Colorist Orchestra and the exciting journey that led her there
Emiliana Torrini is an Icelandic musician whose eclectic career has rightly earned much acclaim and admiration. On albums such as Fisherman’s Woman, Me And Armini and Tookah she displays a deft touch, playful soul and storytellers heart. Her musical career started in the mid-90s with the Icelandic band Gus Gus and has led her to collaborations with artists like Paul Oakenfold and Steve Mason, as well as her own body of work as a solo artist.
Torrini’s path contains many branches, in 2002 she contributed vocals to Gollum’s Song for the The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers soundtrack and as a writer she has written songs for other artists, such as Kylie Minogue’s 2003 chart-topper, Slow. Her most recent project is a live album and tour with Belgian ensemble The Colorist Orchestra. The record contains eleven live songs, nine of which were picked from her back-catalogue and the remaining two were newly written. It is a cinematic delight, rich in sound and highlighting the quality of Torrini’s vocal delivery.
We recently caught up with Emiliana to discuss how this collaboration came about and the musical equivalent of taking things to the next level…
It sounds like you’ve been on quite a journey between your previous album and the new one?
“It started when I did Tooka, touring was getting to me and I’d always told myself that when I start thinking about something else when I was singing then it’s time to stop. I was completely somewhere else by the end of it, so I stopped. The original band, which I’d been playing with for years, was dispersing, people were starting to produce and the guitarist was moving and getting married in Australia. It was a perfect time for everything to stop because you feel that you have a responsibility towards the band when you have been playing like that.”
How did you feel at that point?
“I really wanted to have this connection with music again that made me feel like a firework, and sparkly. Almost instantly I got a phone call from a man in Berlin called Sebastian Stubnitsky. He wanted to re-work some of my music with a string quintet and I was just very interested by that and loved it, because I have a classical background. I was interested in going there but at the same time he was talking to me about the songs and I just thought that it would be silly to get in the way. He knows how he works and what is best for his work, so I told him to choose the songs and I would just turn up at his show and sing. He was allowed to do exactly what he wanted with the music.
“I showed up a few months later and there was no string quintet and instead it was an experimental jazz band. I was asking him ‘where is the string quintet?’ and he was like ‘I did not have the time,’ so I ended up doing something completely different. It was amazing to work with people who have ears that are way beyond my own and within this culture of improvisation. We had an open rehearsal and the music was like Journey In Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane and I thought, ‘This is great, I’ve got it now, no problem.’ Then when we did the actual club gig it was totally different! After that I did two more gigs with them and every time it was like walking into a room and there was a different band where something completely different was going on. I had to really be on my toes but I really felt that energy and I was completely in love with doing it all again.”
Where did your adventures lead you next?
“Then I just put it out there that I would say yes to anyone who called me, even if I didn’t know them at all. So I ended up going to Cordoba, staying a week with the gypsies and having a very intense and fun time and learning loads and loads. My boyfriend was like ‘you don’t know these people and you’re just going to meet them’ and I’m like ‘yeah!’ What came out of it was that people were expecting me to say no and because I didn’t they put so much work into it. 99 percent was just amazing, and if it wasn’t amazing, if it was terrible. The rule was never to show that or roll my eyes – stick with the programme and make it as fun as possible.
“In the middle of that The Colorist called me. For over three years I’d just been playing with random people who’d called me and I didn’t really realise how intricately and deeply they were going to go into it so but they were always sending me the music they were doing and I didn’t want to listen to it as I get bossy. I just felt that they knew what they’re doing, what they wanted to present and there must be a reason why they had this idea. I just wanted people them have total free reign of what they were doing.
“I showed up for a two-day rehearsal for that I was totally under-prepared for and I was really overwhelmed with how much work they had put into it. We did these five gigs and afterwards I got extremely upset because it was like I had known them forever and it was a really special connection, musically and friendship-wise, on every level, which is so rare and so we just decided to take it further with a record. I thought it would be such a crying shame for people not to hear it if they can’t see the concert, which is of course thousands of times better, but they would at least be welcomed into that world a little bit.”
And you had no influence at all over the tracks that they worked on?
“No, they were trying to get me involved with it but I felt that people just know their own sound and I thought well if you are building your instruments you know what they sound like, you know where they’re best used and you’re going to know best what songs it’s going to be on.”
Were you surprised by any of their choices or what they did with your songs?
“I was just really happy and honoured. I really love the more cinematic tracks like Thinking Out Loud and Today Has Been Okay. They chose songs that others would not have chosen. The record has 11 songs but we actually play 15 or 16 live, so there were a lot of songs that I was really pleasantly surprised about because usually people don’t choose things like Beggar’s Prayer.”
There are also two new tracks on the album. How did they come about?
“It’s like the next stage in a relationship where you go to bed together, but with music we write a song together. You feel that if you can write a song together you’re having musical friendships for life. With Nightfall I actually wrote long distance which was a huge thing for me as I have the focus of a four-year-old and I guess that after having a kid he’s taught me to have a longer focus and work efficiently. It was Kid Koala who contacted me and sent the track over and I worked on it at home on my phone with my computer and it was total madness and a real game changer for me in terms of writing because I really love writing at home but I can normally only do it for ten minutes at a time.
“I’M EXTREMELY SHY WHEN WRITING WITH NEW PEOPLE”
For When We Dance, The Colorist are very doer people and I’m an ideas person. I have lots of ideas but I find it hard to make them happen and I said to them that I would really like to have a new song on the record because I think it would be a nice next step and also just a nice gift on the record. So, of course, they booked the studio for the next day and we had this place out in the countryside in Belgium that was absolutely magical and we had this electric storm for about a week while we were there. That humidity and electricity sucked into the song.
“They had these three backing tracks that they had worked on and I picked the one that they were most surprised that I chose, because they had done the other two more intricately. I like writing on extremely simple songs because then you can make things more complicated. I just improvised on it and then we worked on it from there but the lyric almost stopped us from putting out the song because I’m super slow. I was really lucky that before I went to Belgium me and my son were dancing in the living room and he said the sentence to me: ‘Mummy, when we dance together our mind shines’ and I just thought it was such a killer line that I wrote the whole song around it and I kept the wrong grammar in it as well, just to keep his voice in there.”
What’s remarkable is how well that song fits in with all the others…
“We were really surprised because I’m extremely shy when writing with new people, I always need to have some kind of a communication beforehand, some kind of relationship, because it can be a really complicated process for me as it’s so personal. That is why I always say the next stage is like going to bed together, it’s a really intimate and very vulnerable place and I have to feel really safe. With The Colorist it was just a very natural thing and after it we were like: ‘Damn! We should have written a whole record together!’ We were all really elated by it. I also think that instead of this album being my songs and then The Colorist reproducing them it became more like a solid bond that we owned together.
“We have a sound man in Belgium, Jo Franken, who is one of the best sound men that I have ever worked with. He’s extremely passionate about this project and he follows it all the way through and when we were in the studio he closed the door and just asked ‘how do you imagine it sounding and where do you want this track to go?’ We sat there for half an hour and I thought that was amazing because when you’re in the studio male energy is usually very strong. I really appreciate it when people make time for me, especially the people at the desk, and he had a really nice way of communicating and to make space for it, I really cared for that.”
Do you notice that same male energy when you’re touring with The Colorist Orchestra?
“We make fun because I’m travelling with 11 guys and there’s a lot of male hormones but now it will be even because I’m pregnant and there will be mega-female hormones taking over. But no, it’s not like that at all, they’re an incredibly brilliant band to be with.”
Do you have more shows planned together?
“Yes, I’m going to be working like a crazy person now. We just came back from Turkey and Belgium and on Saturday I’m going back to do some television promo and a gig. Then I have three weeks off before going on tour in February, we come to London on 8 February, and then I’m not allowed to fly so I’m going to have to work from Iceland. We’re going to do that and then I’m going to have to take a few months off and then we’ll come back, probably in October.”
Do you write on the road on keep it separate?
“I do it separately. I have written on tour but I don’t know how I’m going to be now because I’m probably going to be rolling around like a ball. I have no idea how it’s going to be on tour being eight months pregnant.”
Do you find it easier when you’re writing for other people or do you need still need to establish that relationship?
“No I find it much easier, which I guess is why I make less of it. I think when I write for other people it’s much more playful. We laugh much more and it’s like putting on a costume and I’m much more free. I do quite little of it, I tend to write something and go ‘mine’ and I guess also because sometimes I would have to have somebody in mind to write for because I have a funny way of phrasing things and the songs are often quite subtle but they can be very hard to sing and I really love that. I tend to just own things for myself but if I get asked to write I’ll do it!”
How was the experience of writing Slow for Kylie?
“That’s a long time ago now. I think it was a bit of a messy soup how I came to write that song. My joke is that they meant to call Jamelia and they just got the names wrong. I was off somewhere writing a folk record, so when I got the phone call I got into a giggle fit and we were in the studio and instantly started to do it and it took us about half an hour. I love writing music like that, but I do it way too little. Then when we heard that they were going to use it, we got to produce it and it got to No 1. I don’t know how long we celebrated for; I think we took months off work. It was just very interesting to enter that world, it’s very different to my world. In that process you know where you belong and what you want and what you don’t what. It was an amazing time and an amazing learning curve, it was really fun.
“I have not written for other for years, because I just don’t get asked. I used to get these sheets from Warners about who needs songs but I’m not very good in these impersonal situations, it doesn’t motivate me. I think if someone did ask me I would say, ‘Great.’ Until then, I just don’t do it because I don’t like running after things that are not meant for me. It would have to be a big carrot for me to do it – something that I know will be fun and a nice experience for me.”
Any final thoughts about the album?
“I’m very ambitious for it. I have huge passion for it because I have such a belief in those guys, they’re quite magical. Aarich [Jespers] was brought up in a toy shop and now he’s making instruments and these unbelievably funny toys and he’s a very magical guy, I’ve never met anyone like him. Kobe [Proesmans] is a farmer’s boy that ended up in Cuba learning percussion, and he also plays the violin and has been in symphony orchestras. Their road to here is amazing, they’re very different but their story is really beautiful.”
The live album Emiliana Torrini & The Colorist Orchestra is out now. For more information about the record and tour, check out emilianatorrini.com