As You Go: Emilíana Torrini And The Improv Of Life

As You Go: Emilíana Torrini And The Improv Of Life

Parker Yamasaki
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published December 6, 2016

Two and a half years ago Emilíana Torrini quit the band. There was no drama, no hard feelings. “I just promised myself if I started to think about other things on stage then it was time to stop. When I was singing, I started thinking about how I needed to wash my car or something…” she says. “I just wanted to feel a firework again.” It was time to stop.

And so it begins

Almost immediately after leaving off her career as one of Iceland’s most in-demand solo singers, Emilíana got a phone call from a guy in Berlin who wanted to arrange her music for a string quintet. “Oh, that’s brilliant,’” she thought. “I was really up for it. I just made up a rule right there: you choose the songs, make the setlist, and I will come and sing.” She showed up in Berlin without any knowledge of or expectations for the gigs. There was no string quintet. “I was like, ‘Where is the band?’ and he just said, ‘Oooh, I did not have the time,’” she recalls, giddy and laughing. “I thought that was just so funny!” Instead he strung together an experimental jazz band.

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“The problem is that your ears are just not as good as theirs—improv’ing artists are really, really fast. The first gig we played this beautiful Alice Coltrane-like journey and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this now.’ Then the next piece we did was completely different, it was totally mental. The next show we had a completely different band. It just kept changing and I thought, ‘What is going on!’ But I completely loved it, I felt the firework and I thought this is how I want to work.”

The era of improv had begun. “I started getting lots of phone calls. I got calls from gypsies in Cordoba, I met a guy in an Icelandic coffee shop who invited me to come to Canada…” Often to the surprise of her suitors, Emilíana always went. She travelled, she sang, she learned, she improvised.

Spinning together

Somewhere in the eye of Emilíana’s whirlwind, the Colorist Orchestra, a duo out of Belgium, got in touch with her. “I think everything was leading to this,” she says. “Three years ago I might have said no or been too shy.” Holding true to her newfound freedom, Emilíana agreed and put forth the same terms she had with the other artists: you pick the songs, choose the setlist, I will come sing. “People know who they are and what they do best, if you interfere with that sound then they are not free,” she explains.

But Belgium was different. “They put a lot of work into it. All their music is scored. Every hit is scored… I was a bit ashamed that I hadn’t prepared at all,” she recalls. “We had this really magical chemistry, both in the music the friendship, I knew we couldn’t just end after five shows.” They continued to play shows and put together a live album, released December 9th by Rough Trade Records.

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Next up, never know

Emilíana is pregnant with her second child. “Nooo!” she exclaims wide-eyed. “We were going to work through the summer and now I am not allowed to fly,” she says. “We’ll keep playing for a short time, then it’s ‘holiday,’ then I don’t know. Maybe back into performance again.” She says ambitiously, then doubles back, “But maybe I’ll just want to be with my baby. I’ll probably just be like, ‘No, I can’t be bothered,” she says, laughing and flicking her wrist. “Who knows?”

Who knows? It’s been the mantra of her music the last two and a half years. And a pretty fruitful one at that: one that’s brought her from Cordoba in the spring to Turkey on Thursday, from house shows in Canada to TV appearances in Belgium. Like a good improv show, what’s next is anybody’s guess.


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