Emiliana Torrini

“We started reading some of these letters, mostly, but not only from boyfriends. They were pretty obsessed with her, totally in love with her.“

This is a good one: acclaimed Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini – her solo albums include Love in the Time of Science (1999), Fisherman’s Woman (2005), Me and Armini (2008) and Tookah (2013) – and her friend, Zoe, were sifting through Zoe’s recently-deceased mother’s letters when they stumbled across her extraordinary secret life. Zoe was deep in mourning, and Emiliana was providing auxiliary comfort, when they were both struck by a thought: what if? What if this remarkable woman – Geraldine Flower – who they were just discovering (through a series of letters, journals, and photographs) had received nine marriage proposals but never married, and who had a very varied group of friends – one of her friends had a lion cub that she would walk some evenings after dark! – could somehow be brought back to life? And what if Emiliana and Simon Byrt (her long-term collaborator, and Zoe’s husband) could do this in the form of her stories set to music?


Well, that what if? blossomed into MISS FLOWER, Emiliana Torrini’s first solo record for ten years, and a stunning evocation of a woman’s life, reimagined by one of the most innovative and ground-breaking artists of this, or any other era.


‘Twas ever thus, I hear you cry, for Emiliana has often spun a merry tale. Born in Iceland to an Icelandic mother and Italian father, Emiliana joined a choir as a soprano at the age of seven, before enrolling in opera school at the age of fifteen. Discovered singing in a restaurant in Reykjavik by One Little Indian head-honcho Derek Birkett, Emiliana subsequently contributed vocals on GusGus’s debut album, Polydistortion, before a relocation to London ensured co-writing duties on Slow – for which she was nominated for a Grammy – and Someday on Kyle Minogue’s 2003 Body Language album. By this point in proceedings, Emiliana had already contributed vocals on Paul Oakenfold’s Hold Your Hand, and composed three songs on Thievery Corporation’s album, The Richest Man In Babylon, although she is perhaps best known for her performance of Gollum’s Song for the 2002 film, Lord Of The Rings: the Two Towers, and breakthrough tracks Sunny Road (off 2005’s Fisherman’s World) and 2009’s Jungle Drum, “a little gem reminiscent of Nancy Sinatra in her heyday” (Clickmusic) that hit the No.1 spot in several European countries. Correspondingly, a series of breath-taking solo albums would result in her reinterpreting some of her back catalogue with pop/chamber music collective, The Colorist Orchestra, on The Colorist and Emiliana Torrini in 2016, before 2023’s Racing The Storm cemented her reputation as one of the industry’s most prolific collaborators, whilst perhaps deferring to a somewhat greater truth: a good deal of us were still yearning for the powerful solitude of her solo recordings.


“I lived most of my life behind a curtain.”


Which brings us back to MISS FLOWER. Kicking off with Black Water, a perfectly realised slice of mysterious electronica, that’s just as likely to stop the traffic as anything you will hear this year, the song is really just a metaphor for a much grander notion: why does a US special agent write to Miss Flower, and why do other letters seem to hint at spy connections and codes? Emiliana was inspired to come up with the metaphor after swimming in a lake at a festival in Berlin – “there was a meteorite shower, and the full moon was shining on the water, creating a black water oil mirror: entering the water was like entering into some other kind of fabric” – but the experience also conjured up another abiding theme on the record: the nature of what it is to be a free spirit. Naturally, Miss Flower had been one, but what about Emiliana? Like most of us, Emiliana had occasionally succumbed to the behavioural norms of adult life – and sometimes embraced them – but what did “living in the constructs” of motherhood and marriage mean to her? And why, when she had finally returned to full time work after a sabbatical devoted to motherhood, had she felt patronised as a mature woman?


Of course, whilst the answers to these questions remain largely unanswered, Emiliana soon finds herself with bigger fish to fry: Lady K is a cleverly-designed alternative-electronica number, where Geraldine’s long-term lover (and chief letter-writer!), Reggie, appears to be writing to her about a new lover, only to reveal that Lady K is actually a new boat he has fallen in love with, a boat the couple would eventually vacation on; Waterhole, with more than a nod towards trip hop, was inspired by the possibility that Reggie was a spy, and Miss Flower had travelled frequently at that time – so was she herself involved in something? It features all sorts of imagery involving animals (that would normally eat each other) meeting at a waterhole, which for all intents and purposes, turns out to be a metaphor for people meeting and exchanging information in a safe space; Dreamers is almost certainly about Miss Flower and Reggie knowing that they love each other, but also that they can’t be together; and Miss Flower – all “sixties sexiness”, describes a man writing to her, saying he thinks of her when mowing the lawn – it is so delicately nuanced as to be reminiscent of artists like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, at least in the way those artists treat their voices as instruments in themselves, Emiliana’s vocal delivery so finely poised as to be able to claim land rights of its own. Intriguingly, whilst the album was being mastered in New York, legendary Egyptian engineer, Heba Kadry, was under instructions from Emiliana to make the record sound like Leonard Cohen’s ‘I’m Your Man: “intimate, in your face vocals, without the music disappearing!”


“We are only as sick as our darkest secrets.”


There are more truths yet to be revealed: Emiliana knew Miss Flower, if perhaps not as a younger woman, then in later life when she was “a magnet, super-positive and super-clever.” So Black Lion Lane finds Emiliana staying in her London flat near Black Lion Lane, trying to imagine her living there as a younger woman, “sitting in the pub, walking down by the river.” Later, on Let’s Keep Dancing – another up-tempo, melancholic, Cohen-tinged number – Miss Flower meets a man in the Caribbean, and we hear he has forgiven her for what she did a long time ago, and maybe understands he now needs to “let her fly” says Emiliana. The song surely celebrates/commiserates a last dance, a last evening before a breakup, and is the only duet on the album, Simon Byrt having sampled a song that Miss Flower’s Trinidadian friend, Harold Prieto had sent her on a cassette in the early ‘80s. “We couldn’t find him for over two years,” Emiliana recalls. “But we didn’t give up – and then, when the album was almost finished, an email from him arrived!”


“Now, I try to imagine you a wine/ What sort you’d be, and how I’d describe you.”


Towards the end of the recordings, Emiliana came to the realisation that a voice and perspective were missing – that of Miss Flower herself. Then Zoe came across a poem written in 1970, and dedicated to her great love, Reggie. The poem, together with new verses written by Emiliana, became Love Poem, “as if I had written it together with her.” “It was so important to me to have this piece,” says Emiliana, whilst presumably acknowledging that the album’s closer, The Golden Thread, fulfils a similar function. The latter recounts the story of an ex-partner who describes in passionate letters to her how he thinks about her constantly, even when he is in bed with his new partner.

Emiliana says, “it was heart-wrenching for me to finally say goodbye to those characters, but I look forward to telling these incredible stories to an audience.”

This is another good one: if Emiliana Torrini, and her friend Zoe, hadn’t stumbled across a box of letters, then we would never have had MISS FLOWER– and that would have been a sad loss to the world. A staggeringly accomplished solo return to the musical landscape, the album is nothing more or less than a masterpiece, nine perfectly- realised snapshots of a life being lived. And, oh what a life. And, oh, what a record.

© Jane Savidge, December 2023.


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