The Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini is sitting in the Tokyo office of her Japanese record company, talking about an izakaya where she spent an evening. Torrini has a special affection for eateries since she grew up in a restaurant run by her Italian immigrant father in a small town outside Reykjavik. “I wanted to live in that place,” she says about the izakaya, and adds, “I can eat 24 hours a day. In Italy, it’s an expression of love: Here, eat this love. That’s why I think parents in England hate their kids. I can’t believe what they eat.”
Torrini now lives in England, in the southern seaside town of Brighton, which she calls “a mix between Reykjavik and London,” and a very “spontaneous” place. Living for the moment seems to be as important to her emotional well-being as good food and drink are. If anything has characterized her career it’s a lack of determined foresight.
She is here to promote her album, “Fisherman’s Woman,” which is selling well in Europe and has just been released in Japan. The record’s short songs waver somewhere between melancholy and the kind of insouciance produced by an afternoon with a bottle of wine. The singer’s soft, clear soprano is as emotionally contained as the arrangements are spare. Nick Drake comes to mind, but unlike the late English troubadour, Torrini isn’t big on indirectness. All her songs are in the first person. “Nothing brings me down,” she sings repeatedly on the opening cut. It’s the only thing she wants to convey, which, of course, makes you wonder.
Torrini’s previous album, “Love in the Time of Science,” was released in 1999 and sounds nothing like the new one, which makes you wonder even more. Torrini is small and speaks in a high, hoarse voice. She fiddles with her teacup and rarely makes eye contact, but words flow out of her in a rush, augmented by giggles and funny faces. When she talks about working in a fish factory during her 16th summer, she says, “Not just a fish factory, but a caviar factory,” moving her shoulders in a mock swagger. She would hurry from work to rehearsals of a local production of “Hair,” in which she sang “Frank Mills” and danced “stinking of fish.”
“There was a music producer recording it all and I asked him if he would record five songs with me,” she explains. The recording was to be a birthday present for her father. “I screamed when I recorded them because I wanted to be a blues singer,” she continues. “I did some Memphis Minnie, something from ‘The Color Purple.’ I sang so loud I had to stand three meters from the microphone.”
The engineer persuaded her to record more songs. Together they released it commercially, and it was a hit in Iceland. “I don’t sing that way anymore, and my friends are disappointed.”
One of the reasons she doesn’t sing loud any more is that she started writing songs that lend themselves to a quieter presentation. Derek Birkitt, the owner of the British label One Little Indian — which Bjork also records for — saw Torrini singing in a restaurant in Iceland and brought her to England. “He was really adamant about me writing, and I said, ‘I don’t want to write. I just want to sing.’ He said, ‘You can write.’ ”
She collaborated with song doctor Eg White for “Love in the Time of Science,” which was produced by Roland Olzabal of Tears for Fears. Though the album captures a kind of cold, dark atmosphere, it sounds as if everyone except Torrini was thinking of Bjork when they made it.
Then her boyfriend died. “There was about a year-and-a-half in there that I don’t remember at all,” she says. “I also spent two years trying to get out of my contract. They wanted me to be more of a pop singer and I wanted to be a developing artist. After you do a record, you think, ‘What am I going to talk about now? Do I just reword everything I’ve been saying?’ “
Her hiatus was interrupted by a call from New Zealand. “I was friends with the manager of Liz Fraser, who sang in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. He gave Peter Jackson my CD and this guy called me and said do you want to come and try the song out?”
It turned out to be “Gollum’s Song.” “They said they had asked some other Icelandic singers to do it, including Bjork. I guess it was their idea of a Gollum voice.” She didn’t expect to get the job but was curious about recording at thelegendary Abbey Road studios, where the session was held. “I stood in this black void with candles all around me because I wanted to be like Barbra Streisand. At the time I thought they wouldn’t use it.” But they did.
Another lightning bolt arrived after she met producer Dan Carey and they started writing the songs that would form “Fisherman’s Woman.”
“Kylie Minogue’s people asked me if I wanted to write a song for her,” Torrini recalls. “At first I thought they dialed the wrong number, that they were trying to call Jamelia, the R&B artist. I had no idea how to do something like that, but I said yes. The worst that could happen is you don’t come up with a song. I have about eight characters locked up inside me so when we went into the studio I just let the disco monster out through the cobwebs with his shiny shoes.”
The song was called “Slow.” “Me and Dan wrote and recorded it in less than an hour and then went to the pub and got drunk, convinced they’d never use it. But they did and it went to No. 1. We were like, ‘Oh my God, we’re one-hit wonders. Woo-hoo!”‘
“Fisherman’s Woman” is as minimal as the Minogue song, which is little more than a drum track, a bass line and a vocal, but there seems to be an older, richer musical tradition backing it up. Nick Drake comparisons are mostly evoked by Carey’s precise acoustic guitar, while Torrini’s input — the prosaic lyrics and the plaintive voice — is archetypal in the way classic folk music is, except that her songs are so personal that you wonder if anyone would dare cover them. The title cut, for instance, is adapted from a letter she wrote to her boyfriend after his death. She imagines him a fisherman and herself “waiting . . . by the window with the brightest red lipstick on my lips.”
Torrini, who writes in English because she says “it’s easier to express myself,” doesn’t see herself as belonging to a tradition. “It’s funny, because you start with the music you love — for me, Melanie Safka, and all this jazz and blues — and then you go through the electronics phase and the whole thing with bands, and then suddenly you’re back where you started. You fall in love with the things that you belong to — what you fit in with and how you think.”
For that reason, she doesn’t identify with any trends, though she admires Devendra Banhart, whose similarly spare acoustic songs “you have to live with a little longer to appreciate.” Her cover of British trad goddess Sandy Denny’s “Next Time Around” isn’t meant to acknowledge roots. In an article about Torrini that appeared in The New Yorker, critic Sasha Frere-Jones quoted the singer as saying that the song was “forced” upon her by her record company. Apparently, he misunderstood.
“I heard that song in my friend’s car,” she relates, “and I just fell in love with it. One day in the studio we were being lazy so we recorded it, and Dan fell in love with it, too. He wanted to put it on the album and I said no because the original was perfect just as it was. It was our first fight and he won, but it was never forced on me. He [Frere-Jones] was just drunk. We were having a drinking competition.”
In a restaurant?