For Emilia Mitiku, there is one word to describe her new album, I Belong To You: honest. This quality is more important to Emilia than it might be to other singers – the type, perhaps, who set their cap and stardom and stop at nothing to achieve it. Emilia had a taste of that world when, in 1999, as Emilia Rydberg, she had a worldwide hit with the single Big Big World, going on to sell more than 4.5m records. She will always be grateful, she says, for the success Big Big World propelled her towards. But it is only recently that she has been able to make sense of it all. “I learnt that there are no easy ways up,” she laughs, “but also that it’s not important to be everybody’s darling. At 19, possibly. But not now – I don’t need to be that person anymore.”
That was then, in other words, and this is now. In 2012, Emilia is a very different artist. “Today,” she says, “there is so much music about that, if you’re going to ask for people’s time, you have to be honest. I met someone recently and they said, ‘So, what do you do – photography, writing?’. And I said, ‘No, I sing’. My way of dealing with a blue day, with a difficult thought in my head, is notes, tones.” Emilia, the daughter of a Swedish mother and the revered and pioneering Ethiopian singer, Teshome Mitiku, grew up immersed in the music of Etta, Ella, Eartha and Billie, and it was to these early loves that she knew she would one day return: it was only a matter of when. Meeting the producer Anders Hansson, and writing with him and the Nashville great, Sharon Vaughn, proved the key turning point in a project whose gestation, Emilia says, lasted years. “Going back to that music happened so naturally – but slowly. These melodies were probably always there; they just took their time getting out. But I’ve always sung this way, it really is at the core of me, though it’s taken me until now to represent that. I wasn’t born with some amazing technique – I sing with my body, with the state of the day. And Anders and I tried to take that, take my shower and cooking-in-the-kitchen voice, if you like, and put that on record.”
I Belong To You succeeds triumphantly in that task. Listen to it and you realise at once that this, for Emilia, is home. Infused with her love of classic jazz and soul, the 12 tracks balance melodic immediacy and lyrics that look, often unblinkingly, at the perils, delights and complexities of intimacy and romance. “I don’t like lyrics that tell only an ‘everything is good’ sort of story,” Emilia says. “That’s not life. There is always doubt and longing.” I Belong To You bears this out. Songs such as You’re Breaking My Heart, Officially a Fool and You’re Not Right For Me, or Substitute Arms, which imagines an assignation in which both parties excuse their behaviour – and bury their pain – by entering into a pact of denial, are anything but everyday love songs. On the contrary, like the best music from the genres Emilia makes her own here, they are multilayered and ambivalent. Teshome Mitiku would surely approve.
"I hope so," Emilia smiles. "I’m very much my father’s daughter. Yet the funny thing is, he didn’t encourage me to do music; neither of my parents did. But that only made me more stubborn. They didn’t even encourage me after Big Big World, but it didn’t matter, I always knew that music was going to play a huge part in my life. And I don’t stress: maybe it’s the Ethiopian in me.
"I love pop," Emilia continues, "and I still see myself as a pop singer. But that whole period after Big Big World was not really me, musically. And I had to give myself some distance, and the first thing I did was to leave Stockholm and move to Berlin. Suddenly I had no context, and I met some amazing people, who knew nothing about me. One man in particular, I became a sort of muse to. And he would always say to me, ‘You can do this, Emilia. You don’t have to live that way, think that way’. All those people, they showed me other aspects and possibilities to life, to music."
Emilia admits she had to un-learn a lot of habits and attitudes. “But then,” she says, “I was practically a child when I was first signed, at least, it felt that way. I’ve been doing this since I was 19. Even before that, I sang in four or five bands at school. And I didn’t go to university – my career has been my education. Not that you can learn about music at college – well, not in a profound way. Music is what teaches you about music. And I learnt a lot, but I had to forget what I learnt, almost – and go back to, find again, the sounds and the passion I first experienced as a young child.”
As I Belong To You demonstrates, that search was successful. You can hear confirmation of that in every bar and every phrase; and hear that passion when Emilia says: “Being on stage, or making a record, you’re creating an atmosphere, and that’s what all musicians live for. And if don’t get goose-bumps when I’m performing with some great musician, something’s wrong. But I’ve never got blasé or been jaded, even when I was first successful. If you do, it’s over.” So Emilia couldn’t contain her delight when she learnt recently that the photographer Mary McCartney, Sir Paul’s daughter, was a huge fan of her music and wanted to set up a photo shoot – a shoot that has now taken place, and the images from which are predictably definitive and superb.
Emilia’s journey to I Belong To You has been a long and circuitous one, but the strangest thing of all about it, she says, is that it’s led her right back to where she began: to the music her father shared with her, to the iconic singers she heard as a child, to the honesty she found there, to the reason she ever started singing in the first place. This is her world, Emilia says. “And I want to invite people in.”