Emilíana Torrini and Kobe Proesmans of the Colorist Orchestra on the joy of collaboration, navigating extreme weather events, documenting human relationships and creating visual music
Earlier this year Icelandic-Italian singer-songwriter Emilíana Torrini and The Colorist Orchestra released Racing The Storm, an album several years in the making that combined their respective musical talents to striking effect. It’s an album which shines light on the value of collaboration, perfectly encapsulating how the process of coming together can help artists evolve and grow while challenging themselves to find newness in content and approach.
Torrini might be a more familiar name than that of The Colorist Orchestra, an ensemble based in Belgium and led by key members Aarich Jespers and Kobe Proesmans, however they are very much equal partners on this album. They first came together back in 2015 to work on a project that involved providing new arrangements for certain songs from Torrini’s back catalogue in a live setting. This led to a recorded album of newly arranged tracks and eventually to Racing The Storm.
When we catch up with Torrini and Proesmans over Zoom to talk about the album they are in Belgium, just about to head out on their European tour, having just played a couple of practice gigs. “People told me it is not so common in England to do practice gigs but here in Benelux it’s quite normal. You can work on the order, you can work on the lights, you can see if things work or not. To do it with an audience is good. People know they have come to watch a show that is still in rehearsal mode” explains Proesmans. There’s clearly a lot of value in these preparatory shows as when the tour reaches London a few weeks later, those inside Union Chapel are treated to something of a magical spectacle, the performers confident yet relaxed and the songs fully relocated to the live environment, validating the old adage of practice making perfect.
Over the course of our conversation it’s clear that playing live has been an important factor in the project’s development. “The Colorist Orchestra is all about collaboration. It’s in our DNA to invite someone to play with us and play a few concerts and see where it takes us. With Emilíana, the plan was to play five gigs but there was this common ground we wanted to explore. We really enjoyed playing together and wanted to continue to do that. Writing songs and releasing an album together was an ideal excuse to do that and that’s where this album came from. It’s been a funny and unpredictable journey!” explains Proesmans.
This brief introduction from Proesmans gives the impression that the project flowed naturally but Torrini adds some context to show the work and effort that went into it, as each party eased into their roles. “I think that when we were writing the music in the beginning it was very complicated because Kobe and Aarich are primarily orchestrators but now they were also doing songwriting. They came with amazing music and I was asking myself where I fit in. There are a few different ways to write in terms of fitting in vocals into orchestrations and we needed to find one that would work to get as much out of the process as possible. I’m not a big fan of working remotely. I need a kind of body doubling when I’m working on music. Even when I’m writing lyrics, I have to have my husband sitting there with me. For this album the whole dynamic was about being together and making connections.
“When working with The Colorist Orchestra you can bring the most obscure ideas and they always have a positive attitude, there are no buts” – Emilíana Torrini
When they start working on a new album do they tend to set out with preconceived ideas or allow themselves to respond to circumstances and be inspired along the way? “Definitely the second” confirms Torrini. She goes on to explain how inspiration was found in the everyday. “We would be sitting down eating, drinking and talking and every time we would hear a song that we would dance to we would think ‘let’s make a song like this, let’s make a dance record’. It started off like that, as a dance record and then it took us somewhere else. When working with Kobe and Aarich you can bring the most obscure ideas and they always have a positive attitude. There are no buts. There was always a sense of ‘how can we take this further’ rather than ‘that’s not going to be possible’ or ‘that’s too difficult’ and that really benefitted me”.
Did she have ideas for lyrics and songs partially formed? “Lyrics for me are always related to how I respond to melody. I think in pictures so when I get triggered by a melody that I like it starts a projector in my head and I try to narrate what comes.” In terms of lyrical themes, the album’s focus seems to rest on universal subjects like relationships and the environment.
“I keep coming to relationships and connections because that is something that I have not always found that easy,” she explains. “I guess I’m older now and have a different kind of interest in what love is and what long term relationships mean. The pandemic had an effect also, during that time I was thinking nostalgically and it became kind of romantic as well. The record became much more of a cinematic whole. There’s definitely a kind of movie going on in my head. We were even going to go further, to maybe have monologues between the songs.”
Proesmans takes it up further. “There was a certain point where we thought of having a song followed by an instrumental followed by a song then an instrumental and so on. Every time we were listening to tracks and thinking about where a song should go we always ended up talking about movies and visuals and scenery.” “We were listening to monologues from the film Paris, Texas,” adds Torrini. “Instead of music we were listening to dialogue from movies. If it wasn’t for covid maybe we could have gone further in that direction with the album.”
“There is so much friendship and humour when we are together and the album is a reflection of that” – Kobe Proesmans
The Colorist Orchestra have worked with artists like Howe Gelb and Lisa Hannigan but the collaboration with Torrini feels special. Did Proesmans find similarities in how the process worked for Racing The Storm?
“The similarity is that to begin with we don’t know what we are doing. We work with people who are way above our league from our perspective. We just want to learn and see how someone’s universe can lead us to a new perspective of our own universe. Sometimes it goes really easy in terms of musicality but it might be harder in terms of personality and then sometimes it is easy in terms of personalities but musically it is tough. At the end of the journey there is always this magical moment and it all falls into place. I feel we are at a different level this time in that we are really good friends and when you’re good friends you know that if there’s a time when you are stuck in the process at the end you’ll get out of it. That’s why we are so proud of this album, it goes beyond being just an album and starts celebrating something we have together. There is so much friendship and humour when we are together and the album is a reflection of that. That’s why this collaboration is different from other collaborations we’ve done before.”
The title of the album relates to some of their experiences during recording. Proesmans takes up the story. “We were in the Westfjords in Iceland working on the album and the day before we had to leave there was a storm coming. Aarich and I didn’t know anything about Icelandic storms so people were telling us that we should go home. Everybody jumped into the car and as we drove the storm was literally following us. That is one of the reasons why we called it Racing The Storm. For Emilíana, a storm like that is probably something she has experienced a lot of times but for us it was really something. The wind was blowing the car around when we were driving and we were scared to be honest. Emilíana was with Aarich in the other car and apparently she was just talking about the songs and the lyrics and having a good time. He was thinking “why are you just talking about the songs when there is this huge storm happening?!” That wasn’t the only storm they have had to contend with. “When we were in Belgium writing for the first record there was a crazy electrical storm happening” explains Torrini. “It took the electricity in the studio out. Then there was the Icelandic storm so it felt like we were always racing some kind of storm.”
“I used to think people always wanted good for others. It was a real ‘eureka’ moment for me to realise that this isn’t always the case and there was so much to learn” – Emilíana Torrini
Nature also finds its way into some of the songs on the album, most notably on Hilton which features mention of meerkats, a much under-represented animal in the world of music. “I’m glad you mentioned about the meerkats. I was obsessed with them at the time, they’re so funny,” Torrini adds, clearly someone who is enamoured by the simplicity and beauty of the natural world. Attention however is soon turned back to the human race.
“During the pandemic I realised how naive I am about people. I used to think people always wanted good for others. It was a real ‘eureka’ moment for me to realise that this isn’t always the case and there was so much to learn. Humans have such a sense of ego towards the world, thinking we can just leave this world behind and go to live on Mars, this unbelievable madness. During the pandemic you saw humans leave things alone and suddenly dolphins are spotted swimming in Venice and the river Thames becomes cleaner. Humans think we are everything when we are absolutely not.”
It’s a suitably modest and self deprecating comment which somehow also seems to be reflected in the simplicity and beauty of the songs on Racing The Storm. Our conversation ends with Torrini and Proesmans exchanging wishes that they can continue to work together in the future and it certainly does feel like there’s further ground to be explored, additional scope for their music to grow and develop. For now however, we have Racing The Storm, an album that quietly enchants and delights with its manifold qualities. It might not be the highest profile release of the year but few will match it for delicate beauty and enriching personal warmth.
Racing The Storm is out now on Bella Union. Further information can be found here.