On the title track of her new album, “Me and Armini,” Emiliana Torrini takes the concept of drinking “spirits” to a whole new level.
“I was introducing (songwriting partner) Dan (Carey) to my favorite whiskey, and I made a story that this woman who’d stalked someone called Armini died and went into my whiskey and came into my body and stalked him through a song,” she says.
Torrini then went on to sober up and forget all about the song — which deviates from the album’s subdued folk flavor by introducing a reggae influence — until Carey reminded her of it some weeks later. If all this sounds a little unconventional, well, welcome to Torrini’s world.
After breaking through in 1999 with the breezy electronic pop single “Unemployed in Summertime” and the album “Love in the Time of Science,” success for the Icelandic singer (born Emiliana Torrini Davidsdottir) seemed guaranteed. But when her boyfriend died in a reported hit- and-run accident in 2000, she became a recluse, quitting her label, One Little Indian, and dropping off the radar.
When she finally resurfaced, the playful innocence of her debut album was replaced by the darker acoustic-folk stylings of 2005’s masterpiece “Fisherman’s Woman.” Here Torrini, by now based in Brighton, England, earned wide acclaim for her lucid and crushingly personal lyrics, conveyed deftly by a cracked, lilting voice set to a bare acoustic backing to evoke the melancholy of a bottle of red for one. The album was born, she says, “from grief. I was definitely very raw at the time.”
“Me and Armini” is another folk album, although a few songs buck the formula to make for an uneasy and thrilling set. ” ‘Jungle Drum,’ ‘Big Jumps’ and ‘Me and Armini’ confused the whole balance of the record, and I really like that,” says Torrini. Of these, the standout is “Jungle Drum,” an irresistible two-minute rush of giddy guitar and runga-dung percussive onomatopoeia.
“I had heard this Frank Sinatra song that said ‘jungle drum’ in it, and it was stuck in my head, that my heart was beating like a jungle drum,” says Torrini, referring to the Sinatra song “Forget Domani.” “When it was written, Dan was going mental, because he just wanted to play it again and again and again and again and again. For days he was hanging over me when I was cooking with a guitar around him, smiling at me like, ‘Sing it again! Sing it again!’ So I had to sing it like 500 times a day.”
The more laid-back “Big Jumps” offers warm advice about seizing the moment. And despite such long gaps between records, Torrini insists she is doing just that.
“You need a lot of subjects, a lot of things to seep into your unconscious to write music,” she says. “It’s not like I’m just hanging around; when I finish the record I do two more years on tour. So I allowed myself a year just to get my life in order and then let myself get creative again, when my brain was bursting.”
Torrini says that she has learned a lot from her extracurricular activity. In 2002, she collaborated with U.S. DJ duo Thievery Corporation, who taught her the value of instinct over premeditation. Then in 2003, while recording “Fisherman’s Woman,” she was invited to write a song for Australia’s pint-size pop princess Kylie Minogue; the result was the U.K. No. 1 hit “Slow,” which she wrote and coproduced with Carey as The Sunnyroads.
“It was just such a nice holiday for us,” says Torrini of the break from her own introspective music. “It did take a bit of time to let (the song) go. But if anybody could perform this song and make it into the spectacle it needed to be, it’s Kylie. Instead of handing it to a trollop like me, it could be what it should be — glamorous and fun.”
Torrini later provided vocals on “Gollum’s Song” for the soundtrack of the 2002 movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” — reportedly after fellow Icelander and former label mate Bjork had turned it down.
Torrini was a “big music-head” as a child, and at the age of 10 was the first in her town to get MTV, which she’d stay up all night to watch. Although she went on to study at a dedicated opera school, she also played in local bands and sang in a production of the musical “Hair,” while her tastes “went from thrash metal to opera and everything in between.”
And yet despite her long experience of standing in front of an audience, she still struggles with nosebleed-inducing stage fright. She does tour in spite of this, and has even played large shows supporting Sting and Elvis Costello. However, one place she has never toured is Japan.
“I would looooove to come,” she coos. “It’s my favorite country in the world. I went there only once for a week, and I just had the best time of my life. I didn’t sleep; I was just running around the streets like a mad woman and eating till I dropped. The food is just out of this world. I still dream of it. Somebody ordered this whole fish for me and it was full of roe; I was in heaven. And I said to my (Italian) dad that they make better pasta there than they do in Italy. I remember loving Pizzicato 5; that was one of my favorite bands. And have you heard any of the old psychedelic Japanese music? That is amazing. I really want to travel around there. Tell somebody to bring me over!”
Torrini is currently planning a “party record” and a fourth solo album in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, “Me and Armini” is reaping the plaudits. Take a dip into it; it’s luscious. Unfortunately, you’ll have to provide your own whiskey.
“Me and Armini” is out now.