Emiliana Torrini, St George's Church, Brighton
Morbid, but rather magical
Wednesday 18 March 2009
In a recession-battered industry, it's a smart singer-songwriter who is able to broaden their assets. The part-Italian, part-Icelandic, Brighton-based singer Emiliana Torrini has pulled off what looks to be the ultimate professional balancing-act. On the one hand, she has secured a steady income penning hits for mainstream artists including Kylie Minogue, for whom she co-wrote "Slow". On the other, she continues to nurture a devoted following as a writer and performer of deeply personal and wilfully uncommercial folk songs.
In short, Torrini has had her cake and eaten it, though if that sounds calculated, it's not intended that way. One look at Torrini tells you which side of the fence her heart lies. Dressed tonight in shiny leggings and billowing, patterned smock, she appears small and bird-like, and not altogether comfortable at the sight of several hundred pairs of eyes focused on her. Playing her home town makes her nervous, she confesses later, and it's only when she sings that she appears truly at ease. These are the moments where she closes her eyes, throws her head back and loses herself completely.
Having abandoned the fey trip-hop of her early career, Torrini and her band now specialise in sparsely arranged folk numbers driven by the singer's soft, clear vocals and augmented by subtle shades of organ, glockenspiel and pedal steel. If the opening few numbers, including "Fireheads" and "Lifesaver", suffer by being too similar, the style and pace becomes more varied later on, taking in dub and Sixties-style psychedelic rock.
In between songs, Torrini proves an engaging host prone to curious flights of fantasy. In introducing "Birds", she recalls the "pure happiness" of a song-writing session at an Oxfordshire cottage, during which time her producer disappeared into the woods and returned with trees growing out of his head. Before "Me and Armini", her new album's jaunty, ska-influenced title track, she tells of another session where she was possessed by a spirit hunting a lover after her death. It can, she says, be the only explanation as to why she has no recollection of writing it.
Torrini's banter may be upbeat and whimsical, but her songs reveal a morbid side. "Gun", a brooding, bass-driven tale of romantic longing that ends in violence and tragedy, and "Today Has Been OK", a paean to loneliness and desolation, would suggest a woman given to dark nights of the soul.
The mood brightens with "Sunny Road", in which she confesses not to always being the most reliable girlfriend ("I loved too many, now Heaven's closed its gates"), and "Jungle Drum", a gloriously infectious declaration of love ("Man, you got me burning/ I'm the moment between the striking and the fire"). At the close of the latter, Torrini's nervousness is a distant memory, as excitement gets the better of her. "That was so much fun," she exclaims. "I nearly peed my pants."
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