Emiliana Torrini‘s over Bjork. That is, she’s over being likened to the femme face of contemporary Icelandic pop. Of course, a loose description of Torrini could easily fit Bjork Gumundsdottir: Icelandic, petite, emitting a childish, delicate voice tinged with an accent best described as precious, while packing a warble capable of knock-you-down might. In the flesh, however, Torrini resembles a young Tracy Ullman more than perpetually elfin Bjorskimo (Torrini is half Italian). And her music bears more melodic semblance to the Portishead-lite school‘s Esthero than to operatic-pop Bjorclectica. Thankfully, back at home and across Europe the B-word comparisons have diminished as Torrini’s own hits continue to chart. But here in America, the ride‘s just beginning.
”She’s great, of course!“ Torrini admits while snuggled up in a chair at Virgin‘s New York office.
”No. I’m always answering so many questions about her all the time.“
Sorry, but it should be pointed out that Bjork and her ex-Sugarcubes put Iceland on the world‘s pop map. ”Iceland wasn’t even on the weather map until they came,“ Torrini acknowledges. ”The first thing people say to me in interviews is, ‘Oh, you speak like Bjork.’ But there‘s a whole country that speaks like that.“
A land of wondrous natural sights — active volcanoes, steaming springs, lava fields and Europe’s largest glacier — Iceland was first settled by Irish monks and Norwegians. Frightening traditional dishes include hakarl (putrefied shark meat that has been buried for up to six months to ensure sufficient decomposition) and the ram‘s-testicle cake hrutspungur. Ancient tradition dictates that a child adopt the father’s first name as last, suffixing a ”dottir“ or ”son,“ depending on the child‘s gender. And modern tradition sees Reykjavik fast becoming ”the new Seattle,“ what with its proliferation of coffeehouses and danceelectronic music. In Iceland, they like to hoist a few, too. ”I’m a drinker,“ she nods. ”Sometimes I can drink tons of things forever.“
Not while she was younger, though. While Iceland is a society where doors remain unlocked and 13-year-olds party freely in clubs all weekend, Torrini‘s overprotective father hailed from Napoli. ”Culture clash from the start, very different cultures, so it was a very lively family — spaghetti and cod,“ she says. And barring a jazz-pianist grandfather who ”had this thing about giving everybody a piano,“ Torrini didn’t grow up with much music until circumstances landed her in Germany for two years. ”I heard acid house, and it completely blew me away,“ she recalls. Torrini‘s first attempt as a pop singer came at 15, when she joined a band ”and got fired because I was so crap! I didn’t know I could sing except like choir or opera sorts of things. We‘d just go ’bwwaaahhh,‘ just barfing things out.“
Following a role in a summer musical, Torrini learned that her voice was ”much bigger“ and recorded songs for her father’s birthdays, which impressed friends and landed her a gig as a ”dinner singer.“ During one such performance, a fellow from the One Little Indian label was suitably impressed, and now here we are with sufficient exposition to discuss Emiliana Torrini, sans likening to anyone.
Love in the Time of Science (One Little IndianVirgin) is a sublime cloud of beauteous pop perfection — synthy, drama-queeny tales of love and other tragedies produced by Alan Griffith and Tears for Fears‘ Roland Orzabel. Reportedly, Orzabel demanded to work with Torrini after hearing her demo, and was even scheduled to co-pen a number of songs. However, Torrini’s social awkwardness got in the way.
”He was great,“ Torrini says, ”but it took me six months just to get used to Eg [White], my friend with whom I was writing, because I wouldn‘t make a peep! I would just start getting sick the night before, being really stressed. Then I met Roland, and he’s so quick, he can write the song and lyrics in five minutes — I was on the first note when he was finished. So that didn‘t work out, and they asked me, ’What about him just producing the album?‘“ Orzabel did just that (two of his songs, including the stunning ”Wednesday’s Child,“ which he co-wrote with Griffith, appear as well), promising to simply decorate her vocal demos.
”I think this album was a complete accident,“ Torrini says. ”Music confuses me. We went into the studio and I was, like, ‘Ooh — sounds!’ It was like a playground, and we approached it so innocently and sincerely that it was just magic. It‘s a very honest album.“
And it could well play a role in placing a second distinct female face on Icelandic pop. ”I think we have our own style completely,“ Torrini nods, agreeing with a sharp remark Bjork (argh!) once made regarding how Icelandic pop acts take Western pop and misinterpret it beautifully.
”We always have a different way of expressing ourselves. It’s a very small country, so our environment has a lot to do with our music. But I think we will finally one day be ‘normal,’ and people will stop thinking of us as volcanic eruptions and elves, and get into what we‘re bringing.“