Hanging Gardens, Figures in the Fire

There is something about Emilíana Torrini’s voice that invites the listener to explore her inner world, a place where visions become songs. It could be the casual honesty with which she speaks of her life and dreams, or perhaps it’s the melodious sound of her Icelandic accent.

The petite musician made an impression on the British indie populace back in 2008 with the record Me and Armini. Since then, she has given birth to a son, carved lyrics out of nothing and moved back to Iceland after almost twenty years in the UK. I met Emilíana in the corner of a Scandinavian café. Slumped over coffee and a cinnamon bun, we talked about the intangible sides of life, like homecomings and creative flow.

What characterises your new album, Tookah?

Very abstract and full of feeling. It has a definite landscape for me. I see mountains that grow bigger and bigger, like mountain gardens. The record is also about joining two sides of myself, because in extreme situations I can split myself in two.

I don’t think the self can ever be described as an entity.

I agree. Even if you’re with someone for fifteen years, you never really know them because the inner world is so strong and such a big part of you. You only know the outer. I can’t even explain the overwhelming love I felt when my son was born. There’s this spell you put on yourself, where everything is about your child and the only thing you want to do is wrap them in safety. But even though I was at the most joyous point of my life, there was another side of me that was deeply down. I almost became two people, but one was silent and invisible. There’s a core self, before life endows you with decorations. That’s what I call Tookah. You have to join the two together. You can’t have one without the other or you will go mad.

Has becoming a mother influenced you musically?

Definitely. It’s possibly the only thing I’ve done in life that really matters. It’s incredible what babies teach you, like having your own little guru in the house if you just listen. Nothing shows you who you are in the same way. It’s a mirror and a journey.

Was it because of your son that you decided to move back to Iceland?

No. My partner got his dream job in Iceland, so he said, ”Pack your bags, we’re going!”

How does it feel to be back home?

The words ’going home’ feel so final. The fact is, though, that you have to start again, just like you would anywhere else. The song Home was written when I found out that I was going back. I was very confused at the time, but as I wrote the song I became calm. I realised that I’ve finally found home, right here with my baby and partner, and it doesn’t matter where we are in the world.

What happens when you write music?

Usually, I collect material subconsciously and when I improvise, it comes out. I’m very visual. In my mind, I walk into a room with a big screen and I become the narrator of the story. The difference with this album was that the screen was completely blank. I was really frightened. Melodies are never a problem, but I’m very passionate about the lyrics. This time, I had nothing. I was having a baby, I wasn’t sleeping, I was just having a magical time and I didn’t give a shit about my thoughts. At first, it was literally about trying to fill sentences. Then something clicked and I knew what I had to do. That was amazing, knowing that I have a trigger.

What do you think changed?

When you have to do something, you just get on with it. I’ve always wanted to be a craftswoman and this record pushed me there: I had to craft every lyric out of nowhere. The middle section of Blood Red took me three months to write. It was really hard to find the imagery, until at last I saw these naked bodies entwining in a fire, like snakes in an Egyptian world, very mystical and beautiful.

How has growing up in Iceland shaped you as a musician?

I guess I have a healthy dose of Icelandic arrogance. I’m very uncompromising with what I do. Since Iceland is so small, it has always been easy to make your dreams come true. 

This interview was originally published in issue 18 of Oh Comely.