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Meet Emiliana Torrini: The Icelandic Singer Talks About Her New Album, Combating Stage Fright, and California

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When Emiliana Torrini made her first record she was all of sixteen years old. Recorded as a present for her dad's 50th birthday, it's not an album she's particularly proud of, but the album sold 15,000 copies in her native Iceland. Which in a country of 300,000 people, turned it into a number one hit. Torrini has been making melodic, thoughtful pop ever since. She moved to England when she was twenty-one and launched her music career from there.

When her boyfriend died suddenly in 2000 she stopped making music all together. It wasn't until Peter Jackson, who had gotten a copy of her debut album, called her up to sing “Gollum’s Song” in the Lord of the Rings that Torrini started writing again. Two albums later, and Torrini is headlining at the Troubadour this evening. She was kind enough to speak to us on Saturday about her new album, Me and Armini.

I know the record you made for dad is what launched your career, but how did that record get out in the first place?
I was singing in a choir and I asked the music director to help me record five songs for my dad. He really liked them and wanted to make a record out of them. That's how it happened. I like to call it my drag queen record.

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What inspired Jungle Drum? It sounds so unlike most of your other stuff.
You know you have to leave yourself open to whatever comes. You can't think, "Oh no, this is not what people perceive as me, so I can't do it." I have to make what comes out. And that’s just a song that happened. I fell in love. And that’s exactly how I felt.

That video looked like a lot of fun to make. Those feathers are fantastic. Where was it shot?
We shot it in a studio in west London. It was really funny. I came into this office and everyone was making paper leaves. I thought they must be working on a really big movie, but it was for me! They all had blisters. I felt so bad.

What inspired Gun? It’s so dark and ominous. I think the bass line is just terrific.
That song came out in the five day writing session. Dan and I were locked in a studio writing day and night. We wrote the song and we all went, "Oh my God! What was that?" We turned around and the tape recorder wasn’t on. We both started panicking. We were freaking out. Finally we said, "Ok it will come again. If it wants to be born it will." And it did. It just took much longer than it did the first time."

What song are you most proud of on your new album, Me and Armini?
Gun and Birds. Yeah, I am proud of those.

Who is Armini?
I don’t know. I don’t remember writing the song. It was in the late evening, and we were drinking a lot of whiskey. A week later and Dan (Carey, producer) showed me this song, and I was like, "What? I didn't write this." We just thought that that song fit the picture on the album cover. It's this really creepy picture of me. We pretended that she was this woman who was stalking Armini. She must have crept into the whiskey that night.

Do you like England after living in Iceland for so long?
Brighton for me is something of everything that I missed. There is loads happening all the time. It ‘s by the sea. I really don't want to be rooted, though you know? I like writing music because I get to travel so much. So I'm only home around two months a year. I like feeling the vibe of a new city. Usually I can’t really go out to do a lot, but I love being on a tour bus.

What is your favorite thing to do in LA?
I love to meet my old friends. They always take me around to some really good places. There's a lot of good eating in Los Angeles. I love going to Joshua tree and desert. California is magical. I did the Big sur and the redwoods on a road trip once. We drove from Mexico all the way up to Portland. It took two months. We met some unbelievably crazy people on the way. It was a lot of fun.

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What was the worst show you ever played?
(laughs) I think I’ve done a few. It can happen when I'm booked at the a venue with the wrong vibe for my music. I hate all venues that are L shaped. People can't see you at all! Or when I'm booked at a heavy metal club. It just ruins a show. Oh I remember. I once did this show when I was on really strong steroids for lung infection. I took something else for my cold, and I guess you weren't supposed to mix them. All of a sudden I started hallucinating on stage when I was singing. I started hearing saxophone solos during the song. I thought the keyboard player was playing a joke on me. It really freaked me out.

Did you realize you were hallucinating at the time?
No, I had no idea until after the gig. It was a really difficult gig. I was almost falling asleep between the songs as well, but people loved it apparently. It was really weird.

What is the weirdest thing you've ever seen in the audience?
I rarely see the audience. I have the light pointed at my eyes, so I can't see them.

Why?
I have really bad stage fright.

Really, even after fifteen years?
(laughs) Yeah, still. I’m much better now then I was. I think that if you see people too much, you can’t lend yourself into the song. I remember now. The weirdest thing I ever saw was in Italy. There was a guy in the audience holding a giant yellow arrow that pointed at himself and he was wearing a shirt that said, "Mr.Torrini" on it.

Was he good looking?
Yeah, he was kind of sweet.

If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?
I wish the business and the music could work better together. You know, if you sign a contract with a manager and you walk away he can still take 20% of your future earnings. But if he walks he goes free. Contracts are designed to protect record companies, not the artists. There should be more working together with the artists. The work around making a record is hardcore, and we need to be supported.

Do you have any strange promoter stories?
In the beginning most of my career was paid in beer. (laughs) In Iceland you just played and didn't really care about being paid.

If you could sing with anyone in the world who would it be?
Leonard Cohen. He was my pinup as a teenager.

Finish this sentence: If you are in Iceland you simply must…
Give them some money! Buy something! (laughs) We’re broke. But seriously everybody should go there once before they die.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Thank you!

Be sure and catch Emiliana Torrini tonight at the Troubadour with Lay Low and Island Line.