From Iceland — At The Core Of Emiliana Torrini

At The Core Of Emiliana Torrini

Published September 2, 2013

At The Core Of Emiliana Torrini
Haukur S. Magnússon
Photo by
Ari Magg

Emiliana Torrini has just made a wonderful new album, ‘Tookah,’ which will be released on the 9th of September.
We were in the middle of finishing one of our July issues when its first single, “Speed Of Dark,” hit the internet, and upon hearing it we were immediately infatuated. The track on repeat through long nights of layouts and last-minute edits, we became determined that we needed to interview her for the Grapevine, preferably as soon as possible. “Everyone needs to know how wonderful this is,” we thought. “They will thank us,” we thought.

What followed was a frantic calling-up of everyone we know that could possibly get us in touch. Eventually, our efforts paid off, and we even scored an advance copy of ‘Tookah’ (initial review: it’s amazing. Plus).

We met with Emiliana at KEX Hostel on a Friday afternoon. Recently relocated to Iceland with her husband and her three-year-old son, she is rediscovering the groove of island life after spending more than a decade abroad, mostly in Brighton, UK. We share some wine, but only one glass, as she needs to pick up her kid after the talk is over.

We talk and talk, about her music, her lyrics, her life and times.

I’ve been paying some attention to the lyrics of ‘Tookah’ while listening to the album. One theme that feels prevalent throughout—a recurring concept— is metamorphosis, change. For instance, in the song “Autumn Sun,” which you’ve said was one of the first ones written for the album, you speak of “shedding skin”—and then you present an image of this strange woman seducing your husband, except it seems like that could be you… or maybe a new you?

Yes, that one’s really fun. I had a huge internal debate about whether keeping it clear or not—it took me a week of days and nights to finish those lyrics. It’s really funny when you make these mysterious lyrics that are incredibly simple and fun, that then have this multiple meaning behind them.

The words for “Autumn Sun” were in fact a total nightmare to write. Dan [Carey, long-time Emiliana songwriting partner] and I discussed the song back and forth, so much. When we were making [Emiliana’s previous album]‘Me and Armini,’ we went to Iceland and wrote five songs over the course of a few days. It was a wonderful experience; the songs just flowed out of us. There’s something enchanting about my apartment in Reykjavík—writing music there, being creative, is usually a magical process.

We tried for that again, thinking that everything would just fall in place again, that simply going to Iceland would be enough, that we would return from the trip with a bunch of songs. So we go there, all ready to be engulfed by that magic, and it soon becomes apparent that we’ll only be writing that one song. And Dan turns sort of crazy and frustrated upon realising this. I had not slept much after having my son and wasn’t functioning properly—I’d start falling asleep at ten in the evening, and he would just start frowning and yell, “wake up! Write those lyrics!” After years of working with me, he knows that if I don’t finish a song lyric on the spot, it might take me months to get back to it.

You see, the words are really important to me and they sometimes come really slowly, and I find the whole process of writing them hard. And I’ll want to escape.  That’s when having a collaborator or foreman, someone to drive you along, comes in handy.

Anyway, we thought a lot about the story of “Autumn Sun,” discussing and pondering all sorts of things. And I thought about getting older, what kind of experience that was, and entering the next stage in life. Mixed in with that story is fear. What’s my biggest fear today? It’s losing my family. My family and my son, that unit that we’ve built and that I love so much.

The downside of acquiring things is that you now have things to lose.
Exactly. Fear. The story becomes about that woman that’s standing by her kitchen window—me, really—doing the dishes while thinking back to herself as a young woman. She starts experiencing her age, youth is leaving her. At the same time a much younger woman knocks on her door and introduces herself, saying “I love your work.” Our protagonist invites her in and she starts coming over more and more often, eventually becoming part of the household. The woman then starts seeing her life fall apart from out the window. The girl asks her husband if she can try on her wedding ring, while the woman keeps doing the dishes by her window, now watching the sparrows, imagining her life falling apart… it’s a story.

Looking at your body of work, I’ve always imagined ‘Love In The Time of Science’ to be a kind of an introduction to you as a songwriter and musician, a discovery process. ‘Fisherman’s Woman’ is then a document of sorrow, an expression of loss, while ‘Me and Armini’ is sort of a pop album, a reconstruction or admission that it’s OK to have fun again after an extended period of grief. Then this new one comes along and I can’t help feeling, like I said—and without wanting to force a narrative on you—that it’s all about metamorphosis, about moving on to a new level…

That is precisely what I’ve been saying, about moving on. This is my graduation record. I’ve learned a whole lot over these past decades, and now I feel able to start really letting things out. I am really proud of ‘Tookah’— it tied together a lot of loose ends while allowing me to explore new things. All of a sudden I have this new identity that I need to explore and express. I’ve been changing. Just having a baby, that is an incredible experience. It invites such reflection.

I’ve never experienced that, but I understand you’re forced to contend with certain things you can safely ignore whilst only responsible for your own well-being…

Yeah. That’s why I can also totally understand why people feel like they just can’t do it sometimes. At one point, I was going mad. I was so tired. One night when my son wouldn’t stop crying, I just wanted to throw him out the window. The poor baby kept roaring and I got more and more frustrated. I was so tired, all confused and out of it from lack of sleep. Then I held his hand and thought about religion [Emiliana was a Catholic]. I start thinking about baby Jesus. About the story of the Son of God and what that means? And it dawns on me that it’s maybe not about the Son of God or anything so literal, the story is a symbol that signifies bringing a child into your life. Having a child is such an incredible opportunity. It’s like having a guru in your own home. What can I learn? What is this person about to teach me? It is for sure going to hold the mirror up to your face, so you might as well take the opportunity to have a good look. And just being incredibly open to that.

At The Heart Of Emiliana Torrini By Ari Magg 3


The first thing I had to grasp after having a child was patience. And then there were all these theories floating around me, ideas I obsessed about, and a rift. This is reflected in ‘Tookah.’ When my boyfriend died [in the year 2000, Emiliana lost her boyfriend in a car accident—she subsequently stopped making music for over three years], I collapsed. I was a wreck for so many years. I couldn’t get up. I experienced a split, a mental split, which can be really dangerous if I let it continue. And I’m a pretty visual person to begin with…

Wait… and then there’s two of you on the album cover?

Everything I experience, I see it happen. I’m that kind of person, I visualise everything I feel. During my period of grief I saw myself tear up in two, I could see two contrasting profiles that represented a duality, with some sort of light core in the centre that connects the two different sides. And I started realising that I was living as two persons, and that I needed to unite them again, because otherwise I’d go insane. I worked hard at that, and eventually I did.
But this happened again when I gave birth to my son. Not the exact same rift, but a similar occurrence. It was the happiest time of my life, and I’d never been so in love, and at the same time, part of me was just… so low. And then there were two of me again, and I had work cut out.

I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell [US mythologist, known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion] and I was watching one of his documentaries about symbolism around that time. He presents a statue that’s thousands of years old and represents this split, this human duality, and the core. And that got me thinking, it was a realisation. What I had been experiencing is something ancient in us, an old archetype or idea that has followed man from his earliest moments. This is sort of how the idea behind ‘Tookah’ germinated, how the album started finally taking shape.

Working on this record was initially super complicated, until I made this discovery. At first, I wasn’t connecting at all with what we were doing. I felt like we had done it all before. We knew how to do it all. Why were we even doing it? We knew how to write those kinds of songs. I was also panicking that the lyrics just weren’t coming, even though the melodies were. There were no lyrics; there was no idea or image, no core. No story to tell. It is unusual for me that the lyrics do not come at the same time as the melody, at least in parts.

Indeed, I’ve felt that your albums are sort of like novels in a sense; they are very visual and they tell stories. So if the story’s lacking, I can imagine you’d feel lost.

Yes. The only song we had at that time was “When Fever Breaks,” which we wrote after a really horrible tour. My band was great and it was a wonderful time, but the tour was kind of tragic for all of us. We spent two and a half years on the road under the most dire circumstances—everything was very poorly managed. After it ended, I went to see Dan.

We usually ground one another, but at that time we were both in a funny headspace. So we started jamming on this song. We finished it in one night, what you hear on the album is exactly what we made then. As a result, more songs began coming along and we’re all of a sudden writing an album. But when I have to come up with words, I just can’t. Some of the melodies were already there and I could not find the story or the words. I got so frustrated, I just started screeching.

For the first time ever, I was feeling an urgency to deliver an album. I have this new baby, and I feel like I need to provide, like I need to make a successful product immediately. ‘THE BABY NEEDS TO EAT!’ This became a priority, and I’ve never really thought about money or providing in the context of music, I’ve just made my music and been fortunate enough that I can eke out a living doing that. My priorities were all upside down at the time, and nothing was coming of it.

You’d never thought of music in the context of making a living at that point? Even though it’s been your only job as an adult?

Nope. It’s just been life. And this new anxiety, this feeling that I had to provide, it got heavy. Eventually, Dan just looked at me and said: “Wow. You’re such a mess. You’re not ready for this album. Just accept that.”
It was such a relief, to hear this. The clouds lifted. I took a deep breath. Someone needed to say that. So we decide to ice the project for a while, to just hang out a couple of times a week to see if something interesting would happen.

And it did!

One day we’re looking at YouTube videos and come across a clip about these two cousins in Brooklyn, Brian and Leon Dewan, who had made this amazing instrument called a Swarmatron, which is an amazing synthesizer that creates this wonderful swarming sound. It got sort of famous when Trent Reznor used it a lot on his soundtrack for ‘The Social Network.’

I heard it on the album, in one of the choruses. I thought my headphones were broken!

It’s in all the songs [laughs]. Just this wonderful, noisy drone. We were obsessed with their YouTube videos, these neat inventor types creating these hellish noises. Dan had already ordered a unit and while they were making it to order I came across an eight voice Oberheim. And I got equally fascinated with that.

I don’t know what came over me, really. I just had to have an Oberheim, too. I start hanging out with people like my keyboard player Simon, and Matt Robertson, who are total synth nerds. We started playing around, beginning this journey in electronic music that eventually resulted in “Speed Of Dark.” I recorded that with Dan at a time when I felt like I just needed to go out dancing to blow off steam. Maybe I should have just called up my girlfriends and done that? Instead, I ran to the studio and we made the song.

It wound up sort of tying the album together. It all started falling into place. And everyone was asking me to give “Speed Of Dark” to some other singer. But I wouldn’t hear it. “No, we’re putting it on the album!”

I made the title track that same day. I don’t know what it is about that song, but whenever I sing it, whenever I sing ‘Tookah,’ I see visions and feel blissful. It all turns holy.

That’s also when the album cover became clear to me. It’s symbolized in ‘Tookah.’ I wanted to represent this duality, and this core, which is the Tookah. It is what the Sufis spin for it is possibly the core of all religions. It can be hard to connect with, but then you’re out for a walk and you just feel this gentle gratefulness and happiness. I don’t know. It’s a feeling. I call it Tookah. It’s my birth, my core.

We had a lot of fun making this album when we finally got rolling. We recorded many of the songs with a smoke machine and lasers to give the opposite vibe to the songs we were recording. Atmosphere is important.

We also worked with sound very visually too. I had a lot of things in mind. My mother’s lake at Vatnsendi. The forests in Germany. The cenotes in Mexico. They all meld into one image; I visualise it as a frozen plane. And you don’t see a person, just its breath. Then the song starts and this person is walking over the ice, across the lake, until a giant forest appears. She walks into the forest and this sound explodes, like what happens when you enter a redwood forest. A sound begins, a fear arises and the sky turns black. Then beautiful fireworks start exploding, it becomes bright out, they slowly turn into deep-sea creatures, jellyfish and neon coloured beasts. They guide your way home. These are the visuals for a song.

Was that complicated and weird? Do I sound nuts?


Not really, no.

No [laughs], that sounded crazy.


You’ve certainly created quite a bit by now. Looking back at your body of work as a realised solo artist, how do you view it?

‘Fisherman’s Woman’ is my favourite album of mine aside from ‘Tookah’. I thought of it as an act of sticking a flag in the moon, so to speak, staking my claim. I was still learning there, of course, but I had found a space where I was comfortable and wanted to explore. The first one [‘Love In The Time Of Science’—although Emiliana had two solo records under her belt when she released her international debut, she doesn’t count them as part of her repertoire proper] was a mentor record, where I was learning how to write music. At first, I absolutely did not want to write music, but Derek [Birkett, head of Emiliana’s then-label One Little Indian] was pretty insistent. He told me: ‘You have to write your own music! How else are you going to survive? You just have to do it.” I was all, “no! I’m a singer!”

I eventually relented and agreed to try it out, but it wasn’t really working out. I was meeting songwriters that I had nothing on. There I was, all blue-eyed and wet behind the ears, being paired up with some really big, experienced people from the world of music. I only knew how to work on instinct, I couldn’t find the chords that are needed for songwriting, I plainly didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I met up with Eg [White, respected UK pop songwriter, works with people such as Pink, Kylie Minogue and Florence + The Machine] that I really started learning. He was messy and instinctual and worked in a tiny dirty studio full of instruments in derelict units. It felt more natural to me than the sterile studios.

When it came to ‘Fisherman’s Woman,’ I had finally found my own way to write music, I was able to enter this flow…

It’s very concise and to the point record, very integral.
And it has an ongoing theme, too. Meanwhile, with ‘Me And Armini,’ we sort of wanted let it all out, whatever came to us. We decided that it was going to be an in-between record. I call it “the washing machine record.”

At The Heart Of Emiliana Torrini By Ari Magg 4

And then it spawns this monster hit, “Jungle Drum,” and you wind up having to tour like a motherfucker…

That song is such an animal, too! It’s like the Honey Monster song or something. That this was the one to break through was interesting for me, it taught me a lesson. I was more invested in, say, a song like “Beggar’s Prayer,” one of those songs that’s a bit more crafted and laboured over. We churned out “Jungle Drum” in like ten minutes.

That was kind of good for me. I had this stick up my ass that needed removing. I was maybe taking the music too seriously and not having enough fun with it. And then this tune that I had thought of as sort of a joke becomes a hit, that’s the universe playing a brilliant joke on me. Having laboured and strived and lost sleep over lyrics and composition and the like, and then the simplistic “fun” song is the one that people connect with. That was a great lesson.

It’s kind of catchy though. You really didn’t expect it to become popular?

No, I didn’t expect that at all. Especially by the time it did. The album was kind of getting lost, we weren’t getting a lot of press and I had sort of resigned myself to just start work on the next one when some German TV model competition or something—I haven’t watched TV since I was eighteen—used it for a catwalk scene. All of the sudden, the phone lines exploded, everyone wanted to know what song it is and where they can could buy it. I went to Germany, and of course no one recognised me. But they all knew the song. I’d be sitting at Oktoberfest, drinking a beer, and the entire crowd would be singing ‘Jungle Drum,’ waving their huge beer mugs around. That was surreal.

In the end, the song’s success proved to be a great blessing for me, as the resulting income enabled me to stay home with my son for two years and get to know him.

You’ve said that you wrote “Jungle Drum” as a present for your son’s father while the two of you were courting—and then it turns out to make a big difference when he gets born. It’s clearly a meaningful song for you, despite how quickly it came about. And then it becomes the theme song for a promotional campaign about Iceland…

Yeah, the economic collapse happened, and then Eyjafjallajökull wreaked its havoc. Things were starting to seem pretty bad to the outside world, there was a lot of hype and friends were constantly calling me up to see if I was OK. I was actually more than OK, I felt the time of the eruption was magical, there were no planes flying above the Brighton sky, the peace that brought was just beautiful.

So anyway, I’m in the UK and I get this call asking if I want to give my song to this ‘Inspired by Iceland’ campaign. I really liked the idea, I thought it was kind of classic Iceland. A catastrophe of sorts happens, and people just pull up their sleeves and try to get things in order. There’s not an ounce of passivity. So I was all for it.
They also wanted me to star in the video, actually, but I thought that would be a bit much, so I declined. But it was a really fun and beautiful campaign, that had a positive effect on a lot of people. And of course appearing in Áramótaskaupið [Iceland’s annual end-of-year comedy revue] was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, my proudest moment ever.

Speaking of the collapse, how did you experience that while living abroad?

To me it seemed that Icelanders maybe felt like their safety net had evaporated. I felt rage and insecurity in the air, and confusion. Getting a handle on what was actually happening was difficult, especially since I lived in Brighton at the time. Still, I was very aware that some of the people around me were losing everything; there was a lot of fear and uncertainty in the air.

My experience of the collapse was coloured by this. One way it affected me personally, that struck me as really odd, is that all of the sudden I became like the rest of the people in England. Icelanders have always had permission to be so incredibly brave, because at the end of the day we have such a tight security net, we can always just go home if our efforts fail. This allows for a certain arrogance, an uncompromising stance. As an Icelandic musician, I have never felt the need to compromise—if things don’t work out then I can just return home and go to school or something. There’s no pressing need to “make it,” it’s never a life or death situation. So I can just play around making music if that strikes my fancy, and if those efforts fail I’m in a pretty good place regardless.

So you’re saying, as an internationally successful recording artist that just released her fourth ‘proper’ album, that you’re just “playing around?”

Yeah, that’s the heart of the matter. Like I mentioned earlier, I felt now for the first time a need to create an income, because of my family and maybe because it seemed for a while like the safety net had vanished. But, yeah. I’m playing around.

This is interesting. People often ask me, “why does tiny Iceland have so many great bands and musicians?” And I usually tell them something along the lines of: “For most people in Iceland, music is not a job. And this allows for a certain freedom and flexibility…”

Yes, I take this freedom really seriously and protect it. That’s how I’ve approached my work. But this freedom also makes us judgmental towards other musicians and bands, claiming they “sold out” and whatnot. We’re not taking into account that these people are just one of maybe sixty million in their country, and they just have to take every opportunity that presents itself, there is a real threat of poverty and falling through the cracks. Whereas we can just sort of record a tape in our living room and take it over to Ási at Smekkleysa.

There’s a hunger and a resulting discipline that we maybe haven’t known here in Iceland. We are spoiled, and we feel we have the right to all kinds of things. In the global context, being born in Iceland is probably the luckiest you can get. After travelling the world, I am convinced of this.

At the dawn of your career in Iceland in the mid-‘90s, you sang all over the place. Aside from your album with grunge-rock band Spoon and the two solo cover LPs, you were also part of GusGus’ first iteration…

I was part of the band for the first album. Then, when they wanted to go abroad, I didn’t feel ready to leave Iceland, so I left the band instead. At the time, I was sort of discovering that I had a voice and that I could sing, so I basically said yes to everything. Every request. I sang at restaurants and bars and in musicals and with bands. I was young and innocent, just seventeen, and was having the best time ever. One time, after a fun show with my rock band, Spoon [note: not the US band of the same name], this guy in a suit comes up and offers me a multi-million ISK contract. He wants to bring me to the States and groom me into a pop star. I seriously considered, and we negotiated for a while but eventually I just bailed on the whole thing. I didn’t want to be caged. I just wanted to sing.
So I did.

At The Heart Of Emiliana Torrini By Ari Magg 1

Casual fans of music will know Emiliana Torrini from the track “Jungle Drum,” which was an unexpected hit in 2009 (and was subsequently drafted in for the Inspired by Iceland campaign—it’s the one everyone dances to while prancing around in Iceland’s nature). Others might have heard Emiliana—without even knowing it—in songs she has co-written for other artists, like Kylie Minogue’s number one hit “Slow.” While those songs are good and well, they are hardly representative of the singer/songwriter’s body of work, which bears close examination.

She became a star in Iceland in the mid-‘90s, singing everywhere she could, from performing covers at hotel bars to starring in musicals like “Hair” and “Stone Free.” She fronted a successful rock band, and independently released two albums of cover songs (currently out of print, with no plans to reissue) that were bona fide hits, shifting thousands of copies and winning her legions of rabid fans.

Leaving a fruitful career behind, she relocated to London in the late ‘90s, learned how to write songs and started building what is now an extremely successful solo career. Her first ‘proper’ album, 1999’s ‘Love In The Time Of Science,’ set the stage, while the follow-up, the haunting ‘Fisherman’s Woman,’ was widely hailed as a masterpiece (one that has absolutely withstood the test of time). ‘Me And Armini,’ with its infectious “Jungle Drum,” brought mainstream success and a taxing world tour.

And now we have ‘Tookah.’

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