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Emiliana Torrini

Emilíana Torrini

  • musician
  • songwriter

Emilíana Torrini is an Icelandic singer and songwriter whose first album, Love in the Time of Science debuted in 1999. Her sophomore album, Fisherman’s Woman, was released in 2005, followed by Me and Armini (2008), which included the hit single “Jungle Drum.” Her latest album, Tookah (2013), brought her back to the studio with long-time producer and collaborator, Dan Carey.

Tina: Describe your path to becoming a musician.

As a kid, I was quite shy and could never put myself in the spotlight. If there was a play at school, I was not the type to say, “This is what I want to do,” and take part in it. I would be the one cowering in the corner, but dying to do it—and I’m still a bit like that. On the other hand, I was a complete clown, just not in that way. For me, music began at age nine when I started in choir. My choir teacher, Thorunn Björnsdóttir, inspired me to keep doing music. She has a unique way of teaching, and many who come out of her choir become musicians. Then I started singing solo in choir, and I was part of that until I was 13.

When I was about 15, I went to the opera school in Reykjavík, Iceland, and stayed there for a few years. Because I was studying there, a band in Iceland thought, for some reason, that I would be really good at pop music. They hired me for backing vocals, and I ended up singing a few songs of theirs, but it was not my kind of music, so it did not last.

Then I was working in a fish factory and got a part in a musical. Through the musical, I met a music producer who was going to help me record a few songs for my father’s 50th birthday. The producer was into my singing—how I changed my voice and discovered it for myself. He wanted to put out that record, and we did it together. There was one record company in Iceland that sold it. I got myself a job at that record company’s store, so I could move my record forward on the shelf all the time. (laughing)

How old were you at that point?

I was 16 or 17. This record became absolutely massive, and then I just started singing. I laughed about it a little bit because, for me, it was such a discovery of my voice and what I could do with it, but I hadn’t become anything yet. I hadn’t reached any kind of growth in myself as a musician or a person. I was still experimenting.

In Iceland, there weren’t really gigs at the time. We didn’t have concerts; we played music for drunk people who danced, and that’s how it was done. We played around the country, and I had to sing popular songs for entertainment. I’d squeeze one of my own songs in between. We definitely did not have a concert culture like we do now. It’s changed very much; now, people go to concerts and like to see music sitting down or in venues that are nice.

I was doing some experimenting with writing and music, and I was singing in a restaurant in Iceland. Derek Birkett from One Little Indian Records in England heard me. He said his favorite artist was Barbara Streisand, which say’s it all. He convinced me to go to England to write and make my own music. I wasn’t really up for that; I thought I was just going to be a singer.

You hadn’t written any of your own music before that?

I had been writing stories and poetry, but never had the discipline to write music, or even the knowledge that I could. It felt intangible to me, like it was only for the chosen people. I never really thought it was my thing. Opera singers don’t write their own music—why should I have to? But my producer was relentless about it, and, today, it’s my most infuriating and favorite challenge: to write a good song.

I actually discovered your album, Love in the Time of Science at my public library as I was flipping through CDs. I saw the cover for that album, and it intrigued me. Was that your first?

Yeah, that is the oldest one and is maybe 12 years old. After that, there were about five years before the next record, Fisherman’s Woman. Love in the Time of Science was me trying to figure it out; I wanted to do electronic music because I loved groups like Massive Attack and Beth Gibbons from Portishead.

I found writing to be a difficult chore, but I was meeting with a lot of writers because Derek wanted me to meet writers and write. I still find it very hard to meet someone and just start writing. That’s not very organic; for me, organic is when I sit down and am talking and talking and talking with someone, and there’s a spark. It’s two people talking, eating a meal, spending days together, and then, suddenly, there’s this thing. If I do not have that, then writing sessions are quite difficult for me.

When I met Eg White, everything changed for me. He’s very eccentric, messy, and a total genius. He taught me so much, and things began to flow. Being a multi-instrumentalist and being able to produce became intriguing to me because it meant I could keep the flow going. He sparked it for me, and I still write with him today. I write with everyone who I have that spark with—it becomes a lengthy writing relationship.

From the release of your first album until now, how has your life as a musician evolved?

I guess I have a very unusual career. I’ve been very stubborn and relentless about doing what I want to do, and I don’t waver. Music is about learning and, for me, it’s very interlinked with where I’m at at the time. It hasn’t been very popular to do records every five years, especially when one record does very well and I’m like, “Bye, see you in five years!” The momentum always slows after every record; we work and tour and then I stop, so we have to start over with every record. But there’s been a very strong core of fans who have stuck with me. This is the way I have to do it. I don’t want to be consumed with being in the industry. I want to have a life and have something to write about—and I want to get away with it. For me, it’s always about getting away with things. (laughing)

Are you based in Iceland now?

I was in London for 16 years, but moved back to Iceland about a year ago.

Are you working on any new projects?

Right now, I’m less interested in doing my own records and maybe more interested in coming back to working with people in a band sense; that intrigues me. I’m interested in working faster and learning instruments and things like that.

I’m also at a time now where I’m 37 and have a kid. Everything is going to change—it just does. I’m not going to shlep the kid around with me on tour. I’m figuring out how that works. This is when you really start feeling what it’s like to be a women in the industry—when you hit this line. It’s a fact. So there is a lot going on, but it’s really exciting.

You talked about your childhood and singing in choir. Did you have an “Aha!” moment when you knew that music was what you wanted to pursue?

No. Music is the biggest part of me and it has been my savior. It’s a way of life for me. I wouldn’t know anything else. But I never consciously decided to be an artist or musician.

Have you had any mentors or influential people in your life?

Yeah, a lot of the people I’ve met and written with, and who I still write with. My choir teacher is also still a close friend; she’s 60 now, and I’ve known her most of my life. We hang out and she still inspires me. Then there’s Eg White, my cowriter, and Dan Carey and my band, too. I’m so lucky because there are so many people in my life that inspire me. The most important people have been the ones I’m around. Musically, the list is endless.

Has there been a point when you’ve decided to take a big risk to move forward?

Every single record has been a massive risk.

Also, you have to be a much harder working now than 10 years ago. I don’t know how artists do it with all the Internet work every day. Then, when records come out, there are interviews and gigging. It’s really exciting because you don’t know where it’ll go, but the work is becoming more relentless.

Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?

Yeah, they always have been. They don’t know me as anything else. I have the “artistic license” in the family, as I call it. (laughing) When they don’t understand me, they just give me the “artistic license,” which is a really good license to have. I think there are two of us—my Auntie Elizabeth and me—who get to be a little kooky. But I don’t think anyone is really that interested in what I do.

Yeah, family and friends don’t seem to care about that. It’s nice and grounding.

Yeah, and all my friends could not imagine doing what I do. Some of them have come on tour with me and gotten to see what it’s like—after three days, they had enough and wanted to go home. As with everything, it takes a certain type.

What’s the longest tour you’ve done?

Two and a half years.

Wow!

It was amazing! Everyone gets a little mad. You reach that line where you are your own republic, and you have your own set of rules. It’s like being stuck on an island. You have no responsibilities, except the music. It’s brilliant, although the madness can get a little out of control.

Now that I’m back in Iceland, I have to get out for a long weekend once a month. I think my family knows this: they only get the best of me if I can continue being a bit of a gypsy.

“I had been writing stories and poetry, but never had the discipline to write music, or even the knowledge that I could. It felt intangible to me, like it was only for the chosen people…today, it’s my most infuriating and favorite challenge: to write a good song.”

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Oh, yeah, I think I do it all the time in different ways. Maybe not in a loud way, but in my own way.

I think it’s hard to know how your work is affecting people, although it’s easier to tell with the Internet. I used to only get letters, which was great. It’s amazing because, suddenly, I can see people’s reactions. It’s a surprise because you don’t really know if anybody is listening to you. But I also think the Internet is very misleading. Artists can “Google” themselves and it looks like the world is about them when they’re actually just a tiny glitch in the matrix.

This is a tough question. I think you just do something and have your reasons for doing it—for me, music is an integral part of life; it keeps me sane. Then, you put it out there and say, “Maybe, someone will connect with it.” I’m still quite old-school like that, and I like it when things are organic.

Are you creatively satisfied?

At the moment, no, I’m not. I’m too far away from my co-writers and friends in the UK and am still adjusting to being away from them. It’s now months between being able to see them and write with them. It will take time to get things going here with writing, because it takes me time to get used to writing with new people.

Do you have any plans for the next 5 to 10 years?

I might do a project with Kid Koala this year, and I might start a little band.

I’m trying not to take too much on, because I’m slowly figuring out how I’m going to do everything from here. Maybe I’ll do some stuff through Skype. I don’t know how that will turn out (laughing), but these are exciting times for sure.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Practice. Get the hours in. Through those hours, find out who you are musically. In the beginning, you meet a lot of managers and industry people who will never give you good advice; they will give you the worst advice. Get super strong and be well practiced before you start talking to people, because then you’ll have a better sense of yourself.

It would be difficult having people tell you what to do or be. It’s hard enough growing up and trying to discover your sense of self doing a regular job, but there’s so much pressure in entertainment.

Yeah, I also think it’s better if something doesn’t happen at all versus it happening and you being stuck doing something you don’t like or will regret. To be stuck in a contract with people and not be happy will destroy you. It’s about being very, very strong in your convictions of what you’re doing and what you want, and then building a family around that—having people on your team who are working with you, and not against you. I have been really lucky because my music life has been full of people who look out for me and my interests, who are good friends outside of work, and who want the best for me.

How does where you live impact your creativity or work?

I put a new record out called Tookah, and there was a big challenge with having an English band, because I couldn’t bring them over to Iceland. I’m now going to have an Icelandic band, and I’m meeting them this month. I’m excited to start traveling with them and playing festivals here. My music spirit is still over the ocean, so I’m excited to get settled. When you move somewhere, you have to wait a bit for your spirit to catch up.

I have been playing and learning a lot of instruments and doing things that I’ve not had the time to do. It’s been really nice. I’ve been buying lots of music, and I have my record player—I have to show you. It was my great granddad’s, and it works perfectly. (Emilíana walks over to her record player and shows it off)

Oh, it’s awesome!

And I’ve got my new amp, so I’m starting to listen to music for the first time in absolute years. I’ve been in silent church mode until now.

What instruments have you been playing?

I’m trying to learn the guitar a bit, and I’ve been playing with a baritone ukelele and a ukelele—just easy stuff. I have ukelele nights with my friend. (laughing)

You mentioned you’re going on tour. Where will you be traveling?

I’m going around Iceland, then Europe and England, and then I’ll be playing at Glastonbury.

Cool. This question is related to location. Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?

For me, it’s more about having friends. When I lived in Brighton, England, I had a strong creative community and friends. My house was constantly open; people were there all the time, sharing meals, talking. It was nice. Here, there are so many beautiful, creative people. I’m a mixture of two things: I’m like a mole in that I can be by myself for months, but I’m also quite social. I need both.

I agree with that. It’d be easy to go out with friends every night, but I need alone time, too, which can be difficult to find here.

New York is busier than where you’re from. Michigan is quite open, right?

Much more open. I grew up near a lake and could go there to be alone, which I miss.

Did you ever do any paddle boarding?

No, people were more into boating there.

Whoa, a big lake! Since I moved back to Iceland, I’m trying to get a stand-up paddle board, but nobody sells them here.

You’ll have to order one. I’ve watched people do it, but I’m not very coordinated, so I haven’t tried it yet.

It’s so amazing. I love it! Have you ever gone around America on a road trip?

No, I haven’t.

It’s the most amazing country. I’ve done it twice, and it’s possibly the most magical place. It’s so beautiful. You must do it. Just get a car and a tent. You can take a road trip and turn it into work where you meet artists and interview them.

Ryan and I have talked about that. We quit our day jobs back in January and just made our first printed magazine. Now that it’s out, we’re revisiting some of the ideas we’ve had over the years, one of which is taking a road trip.

It’s incredible. I still dream about it. I took one trip during a tour. My record company hardly knew we were there because everything went haywire with Virgin America at that time, and they forgot about us while we were in the middle of tour. It was amazing. We stayed on tour for four months. I also went on a road trip to Cuba, Mexico, and California, and drove all the way up to Seattle.

You have to do it. Take advantage of having your own company now. You could get great, interesting things for your magazine.

For sure! So, what does a typical day look like for you?

I just arrived home after being gone for almost a month. I was playing with an experimental jazz band in Berlin. One of the guys had contacted me and asked if I wanted to come out. When I arrived, I thought I was going to be with a quintet with strings and stuff. I met the band for the first time, we had a two-hour rehearsal, and then we had an open rehearsal facing into this garden in Berlin. They chose the songs and each one turned into a 15-minute piece. It was this mystical, magical thing because I didn’t know what would happen. The next day we played the show at a club, and it was this dangerous, mayhem-like craziness—a totally different gig. I was so inspired by it that I questioned whether or not I wanted to do gigs with a traditional band anymore. I wish that would be a normal day for me now.

But my normal day is pretty nice. I get my son up and we have a little play before I take him to nursery. I come back home, usually exercise, and then I work.

Do you work from home?

I work from my house, but everything I own is still in England with the band. I don’t have a lot to play with other than my computer and iPhone, but I don’t need a lot. I’m going to focus on writing lyrics and poems. The last record was the first time I’ve written lyrics first and then sang them. I usually do both at the same time and improvise. Now, I want to make poems and lyrics and make music to them.

What music are you listening to right now?

I’m listening to the Chilly Gonzales record, Solo Piano II. I also listen to Jonathan Wilson, Kimya Dawson, Lhasa de Sela, Kate Tempest, and Chris & Cosey’s Exotica record.

Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?

I find it hard to focus on movies and TV. The only TV show I stuck with and watched all of was Breaking Bad.

I do love action, sci-fi, and superhero movies, so this might sound a little high brow, but Wings of Desire had such an impact on me when I first saw it—the words, how it was filmed, how poetic it is, how it switches from black and white to color to play with time perceptions.

Do you have a favorite book?

I like so many books, but maybe it’s In Watermelon Sugar by cult writer Richard Brautigan. I also really love The Magus by John Fowl and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; her poetry is beautiful.

Your favorite food?

My favorite? Hmm, my boyfriend’s food. He cooks the best food. He does this chicken in the oven on Chinese pancakes with some kind of pickled red onions and fresh basil.

That sounds so good!

It is. I used to be a good cook, but he loves cooking so much that he doesn’t let me do it anymore. It’s a very sensual, relaxing thing for him. Now, I buy all the cooking books and read them and buy ingredients for the things I want him to cook.

That’s a nice arrangement.

Yes. I love buying the ingredients. Ooh, I guess my favorite food is Persian food.

That sounds good, too. Alright, I have one last question: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Oh, man. I have no idea. Maybe my legacy is getting away with doing it my way, showing people that you can do the things you want to do in music and live successfully off of them.

With my family, it’s a completely different thing. I hope my music is something that my son will be able to listen to, like, and be proud of. On a human level, I hope to be mindful and never lose empathy—it is sacred. I hope I do people right: my family and myself. Nothing crazy and wild, just a little drop in the water.interview close

“I have been really lucky because my music life has been full of people who look out for me and my interests, who are good friends outside of work, and who want the best for me.”

Emiliana with a block of ice
Photo provided by Emilíana