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A Lady of Devotion: Emilia Mitiku

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With her new album I Belong To You, Emilia Mitiku takes an unsparing look at heartbreak and the tricky matter of falling in love. Jason Holmes caught up with her in west London

In the shade on a Fulham rooftop, Emilia Mitiku sips her espresso, her large burgundy eyes avian and watchful. She sweeps her hand through her hair, a turquoise ring on her finger. She's in London to promote her new 12-track album I Belong To You which is a finely-crafted showcase for a voice possessing a soft, bruised quality which puts this reviewer in mind of a young Billie Holiday.

emilia mitiku
Emilia Mitiku is back, with a very different sound

In 1999, as Emilia Rydberg, Mitiku had a worldwide pop hit with the single Big Big World which sold more than 4.5 million copies, but today she is a very different artist.

'In 1999 I managed to convince four and a half million people that Big Big World was superb!' she laughs. 'I actually used the money from Big Big World to finance my new album. It's been a three-year journey. I'm happy that I have a great record company in Warner Bros Records who support me now. Myself and Anders Hansson, my producer and business partner, write the songs. When you're passionate about something, you throw caution to the wind, so we just hope our grandkids will love what we do.'

Emilia covers Rihanna's 'We Found Love'

Has it been a frustrating wait to get to this point? 'Not at all,' she says. 'It's been very good for me. I needed this time to strip myself of my history.

'I liked that Big Big World gave me a sense of what I wanted to do, but I needed three years to be proud of my eclectic background while allowing me to focus on writing music. There's a third person in this equation and her name is Sharon Vaughn and she's from Nashville but lives in Stockholm. She helps me with the lyrics.'

This trio of songwriters met every week for two years and crafted a batch of what Mitiku calls 'vintage pop' songs. 'I had the safe feeling of working with one producer and not trying to run around and please everyone.

'My creative process involves absorbing things from life around me, and I'm very bohemian, but sometimes when I write I can be too focused. In the past, I sometimes kept my emotions out of my songwriting and was too self-controlled. I was like "NO! That's two and a half seconds before going into the chorus! That is not possible!"' she says in a robot voice, before bursting into laughter. 'But I feel freer now,' she adds, dropping a sugar lump into her cup.

So there are two sides to Emilia? 'Well, that's how it is for everyone, don't you think?' she says, poking me in the arm.

'I found jazz through my father [Ethiopian jazz musician Teshome Mitiku], but jazz really didn't speak to me until I became a woman around the age of 26, so I did have to live a little to understand what Billie Holiday was singing about.'

Mitiku is a Stockholm girl and loves her home town. 'To enjoy Stockholm, you have to blend in. A lot of great pop music comes from Stockholm because the city is open to the world. It's a melting pot. When I was at school there was only one other person who was mixed race, but since the 1980s Sweden has changed and has become international. My musical heroes have changed over the years too. I love Tracey Chapman and Jamiroquai, but lately I have been fascinated with singers from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the era when jazz was pop. So I listen to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and believe it or not, Doris Day!'

Is she open to other musical genres? 'Oh absolutely yes. I'm off tonight to Camden to see my friend play in a band that plays electronic music, so I'm looking forward to that and I also love folk music, from all countries. Anders [Hansson] likes to make me leave my comfort zone and pushes me musically to sing things I wouldn't ordinarily sing.'

How would she describe her vocal technique? 'I think I colour with my voice,' she says after a beat. 'Hopefully when the album comes out I'll be able to perform in small intimate venues. The songs were composed on piano and guitar, but the arrangements are complex with strings, organs and percussion, so there's a lot we can do with them in a live setting.' Does she suffer from stage nerves? 'Oh yes, always. They never go away, but music is a continual learning process for me and nerves make for focus and concentration.

'I'm also very much a family person. My mother has been a widow for two years, so I need to be with her now. I have a big brother who is a chef, and my younger sister is a lawyer. I think my parents wanted her to be normal so that they didn't have to support her for the rest of her life.' And again comes the throaty laugh.

I ask her how she would feel if, for whatever reason, she couldn't write and had no outlet for her songs. Emilia sits very still for a moment. 'You know,' she says, 'I don't even want to think about it. I've always had a desire to communicate with people through small melodies and vocal phrasing, and that will always be my way of expressing my blues.' And come rain or come shine, she always will.

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

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