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The Icelander Cometh 

For a few years, Emiliana Torrini wasn't sure she'd ever make music again. Then the phone started ringing.

Wednesday, Jun 8 2005
Fisherman's Woman -- Iceland-born songstress Emiliana Torrini's second album -- begins on a positive enough note: "Home alone and happy/ Nothing brings me down," Torrini coos on the opening track, her warm, dulcet voice draped gently over a comforting bed of folky guitar-picking, piano plinks, and the slightest breaths of percussion and electric guitar hovering in the background.

But as breezy and optimistic a vibe as the song imparts, the events of the past five years brought the 27-year-old singer down so far that the possibility of a follow-up to Love in the Time of Science, her modest gem of a debut (released in 1999 in the U.K. and the next year in the United States), was remote. Sure, there was the usual record company bullshit: Torrini and Virgin severed their ties, amid much legal wrangling, after Love failed to generate big sales. And because of her accent and phrasing -- plus the lush, trip-hoppy nature of Love (produced by Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears) -- persistent and occasionally disparaging media comparisons to Björk overshadowed or discounted Torrini's arresting songs, her magnificently elastic vocals, and her ability to shift across a spectrum of moods, from carefree to spectral, with ease and sincerity. Yet all of that industry-related twaddle paled in comparison to what was going on in her personal life, shortly after Love hit store shelves.

"I don't want to get into too many details, but what happened was that I lost a person that was very, very close to me," Torrini says quietly over the phone in her delicate Reykjavik lilt, not yet diluted from a couple of years living in Brighton, England, which is where she's calling from. "I went into a bit of a ... well, I don't know, really. I don't remember a year and a half of it, to be honest. It was entirely devastating, and my priorities changed. I wasn't listening to any music, and there was no music happening in my head. It was quite bleak."

For a full three years, in fact, she says she had no creative impulses whatsoever. While the fans she garnered from the debut album and a lengthy U.S. tour -- fans who were unaware of the singer's plight -- wondered when they'd get to hear some new material, Torrini simply wondered if the muse had deserted her forever, and how she'd go about piecing her life back together.

"I sort of went, 'What can I do?' I've done music all of my life. I've never done anything else. I've never been able to keep a job! But at that time I was really feeling like I would never do music again. I just wasn't interested; all my thoughts were elsewhere. I was like, 'I have to go and study something. I guess I have to go and make something of myself.' And then, somehow, I got pulled back into it."

Torrini's climb back into the world of musicmaking involved a series of carefully considered baby steps and a bit of luck. It began with a friendship she struck up with Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, aka suave Washington, D.C., electro-groovers Thievery Corporation. Fans of Love, the pair asked Torrini to tour with them as a guest vocalist, then implored her to join them in the studio for their 2002 album, The Richest Man in Babylon (she ended up co-writing and singing on two tracks). Then came an even bigger break: Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson got in touch, asking her to write a song for 2002's The Two Towers, the second film in the trilogy. It was an opportunity too good to pass up, though Torrini was still struggling to find her creative chops again.

"I've never called myself a songwriter," she says. "I'm an accidental writer. I'm one of those people who's always running away from writing, and I can't really come up with a song unless I have to use it. I just need a really specific mood, surrounding, and purpose for it to happen."

While the massive exposure from Torrini's suitably dramatic "Gollum's Song" piqued interest in her solo career, she wasn't quite ready to begin work on another album -- mostly, she says, because she was still dealing with her loss and trying to find the perfect situation, and the perfect people, to work with. And then she met "Mr. Dan" Carey, a British ambient-breakbeat musician and producer who had endured his own tribulations with Virgin in the early '00s, developing a close friendship that soon blossomed into a musical partnership. By the middle of 2003, Torrini's fortunate streak was starting to part her dark clouds.

"It took me a really long time to have that ding! where you wake up from it all and get over it. Good things started happening, and when good things start happening after good things haven't happened for sooo long, you start to come awake again."

Though both Torrini and Carey had established themselves as electronic artists, when they entered the studio together they found themselves coming up with melodies and ideas primarily on acoustic guitars. Rather than transform those tunes into layered, synthetic soundscapes, they stuck with the simple, organic approach for the entirety of the disc.

"It was so tempting to start loading on the strings and the drama," she laughs, "but the songs really didn't need any of that. We tried a few things, but we ended up taking most of that out and leaving them pretty bare, and figured people would either get it or they wouldn't. It was a different way of doing things, but a really lovely method of doing it."

"Lovely," in fact, is the perfect word to describe Fisherman's Woman, released in April on Rough Trade, which refashions those basic instrumental elements from the opening song, "Nothing Brings Me Down," into another 11 captivating tracks. Though Torrini was operatically trained and is able to launch into some serious bombast when she pleases, she plays it small and sweet for the whole record, tapping into the wide-eyed innocence of Rickie Lee Jones and the ethereal sensuality of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval. Tiny moments amplify the enchantment -- the sound of wind and creaking wooden boats just below the arpeggiated surface of "Lifesaver," or the way the stark, tremolo-saturated guitar melody of "Honeymoon Child" (written by Smog's Bill Callahan) nuzzles up against Torrini's voice to impossibly dreamy ends. There's plenty of grief and loneliness present in the lyrics, but the prevailing mood is more one of summer serenity than autumnal gloom.

"I was still dealing with that loss, but while I was writing the record I was thinking, 'When the record is finished, I'm gonna be OK. Everything's gonna be fine.' And that happened, and I am."

There was one more surprise in store for Torrini along the way. While she and Carey were at the beginning of their work on Fisherman's Woman, they got a call from someone in Kylie Minogue's camp asking them to write a song for the pop starlet's next album.

"When I was asked to do it, the first thing I thought was, 'Whaaaa?'" Torrini recalls with a bright laugh. "It seemed ridiculous, like, 'Why are you asking me?' But Dan and I went into the studio for about half an hour, wrote it, got drunk, and thought they would never use it."

Not only did they use it, but the song, "Slow," was both the lead track on last year's Body Language and a chart-topping smash. "I think some people were like, 'Oh my God, what are you doing? People are going to stop taking you seriously,'" Torrini says. "And I was like, 'Nobody's gonna stop taking me seriously writing for Kylie.' There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I listen to dance music and hip hop and everything, so it wasn't that strange. I have about eight personalities, and I was very happy to be able to air out the disco diva."

The mood is sure to be more subdued and intimate on Torrini's current tour, for which she's leading a five-piece band through the delicacies of the new album and folkier arrangements of Love in the Time of Science material. Although she feels in some ways like she's starting over with American audiences, Torrini says she's gratified that there are fans who've stuck with her and are glad to have her back.

"I found that when I wasn't doing records for all those years, I couldn't believe that people still cared, that the Web sites were still going on and the ones running them were holding all of the fans together. It was amazing, literally amazing to me. The fact that some of these people have been with me for all these years is really, really special. Life takes care of you, I guess."

About The Author

Michael Alan Goldberg


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