The Icelandic singer undertook a lengthy journey in order to find her way out of the darkness and into the light.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Emiliana Torrini believes in Tookah. In fact, she is more confident in her new album than any of the LPs that preceded it. There are many reasons why this idiosyncratic pop singer feels so assured of herself this time out, but you needn’t know any of them to understand the profundity of her belief. All you need is the title.
You see, Torrini also believes in “Tookah,” her deeply held life philosophy, mulled for years and finally ready to be expressed. It is a simple but slippery concept, a positive way of thinking that doesn’t discount the negative. The basic notion involves digging down to the core of what you are, shedding the clutter that life heaps upon you, exposing and accepting the essential elements of your humanity. It’s a weighty idea, and Torrini doesn’t take it lightly.
“It’s the thing that we keep trying to find again and again and again, but we’re always putting it outside of ourselves,” she explains. “It’s what everything has sort of become about in our belief systems, and yet we put it always outside of ourselves. It’s something really, really gentle. Something very there all the time. It’s not so elaborate and humongous. Everybody has felt it: You’re in some situation, and you’re doing something and you feel a gentle kind of happiness and tranquilness and gratefulness. It’s a very strong sense of feeling that everything is fine.’”
As the concept suggests, Torrini’s journey to Tookah has been long and complicated. She released three albums in her native Iceland before debuting on the world scene with 1999’s Love in the Time of Science. But life took a dark turn after that. Her boyfriend died, and she was mugged in broad daylight in the middle of bustling London. For two years, she retreated from music until director Peter Jackson tabbed her to perform “Gollum’s Song.” The eerie lament from 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers bemoans the fall of the titular wretch. She got the job when Björk had to drop out due to pregnancy. Her bright and cutting coo was an elegant substitute, solidifying a parallel that still crops up in almost every review of her work. Torrini was revived.
2005’s Fisherman’s Woman featured raw emotions and pretty acoustics, but it wasn’t until 2008’s sterling Me and Armini that she truly came into her own. She calls it an “in between record,” one that formed out of a series of sound experiments. It’s definitely diverse, ricocheting from searing blues and bubbly reggae to brisk electro-pop and broken-down ballads. But the songs are united by a thread of bruised romanticism, a through line so strong that it often seems like a concept record. It’s hard not to feel that the charmer from the frothy title track and the primal lover who inspires Torrini’s heart to gallop during “Jungle Drum” aren’t the same adulterer who appears on “Gun,” driven to murder and suicide when his affair is discovered.
That narrative might be accidental, but the music’s juxtaposition is telling. Torrini admits that her journey to “Tookah” meant reconciling the darkness of her past with her present bliss. She’s in a loving relationship, and she has a three-year-old son. She says that becoming a mother gave her a new perspective, one that allowed her to accept life’s polarized nature. Tookah’s cover art — mirrored profiles of her face painted with one colorful visage — embodies this spiritual resolution.
“I lost my boyfriend, and I could feel that mental split happening, when you almost feel like two people,” she recalls. “That duality, I was very interested in bringing it back together and then coming back to that core. It’s a bit huge, but that’s it.”
Arriving at a record she felt was worthy of the name Tookah was also a struggle. Following the success of Me and Armini — “Jungle Drum” became a hit internationally — and the birth of her son, she tried to cram songwriting into short sessions with her producer and writing partner, Dan Carey. They’re also best friends and longtime confidants, each a godparent to the other’s children. The compact visits limited their chemistry, and she quickly became frustrated. Carey suggested she chill out and take her time. Slowly, melodies began to emerge, instigated by a newfound love for synthesizers, but the words continued to escape her.
With the process plodding on, Torrini became exacting. If she had to go slowly, she was going to get each sound just the way she wanted it. To that end, she and Carey went to great lengths to create the right atmosphere. “Elísabet” was demoed as a an airy folk song, but Torrini had a different vision. So they set up fog machines and lasers in the studio and recorded it in a single take. The final product decks gothic synth-pop in creepy textures that resemble sci-fi sound effects. It transfixes without becoming a gimmick.
“I didn’t want it to be a more sedated record,” Torrini says. “I wanted to be shaken a little bit. I wanted these songs to make me want to drive really fast, to be a little bit like ‘Ahhhh!’ When I look back at Me and Armini, it has a whole lot of duality in it. There’s the whole love thing, and then there’s the dark side to it. I needed to challenge myself.”
In keeping with her desire, the livelier songs on Tookah are the immediate highlights. “Animal Games” stretches the intensity of “Jungle Drum” with a taut rhythm and bass-heavy synthesizers. It just begs for a rap remix. “Speed of Dark” slams and chugs with the density of dubstep, but its quicker tempo and bold vocal melody keep it catchy and insistent.
Thanks to rich arrangements and powerful words, the album’s softer cuts aren’t weak by comparison. With cool acoustic picking and the gentle caress of far-off synthesizer, “Autumn Sun” enthralls with a heartbroken narrative and a kicker to die for: “How could he resist when her dress let in the autumn sun?” Torrini’s aim is still deadly when it comes to betrayal.
As a whole, Tookah refines the singer’s strengths, and while it doesn’t boast Me and Armini’s thematic bite, its music is more cohesive. She has a family now, and she’s returned to her homeland after 16 years in London. But she has no intention of leaving music behind. She needs it now more than ever.
“For me today, it’s like a burst of life,” Torrini reasons. “One doesn’t work without the other. I have to do what I do because otherwise, my family doesn’t get the best of me.”