Search The Line of Best Fit
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Walking on the wilder side with Emilíana Torrini

01 July 2024, 08:30
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Dean Rogers

Additional reporting by Elim Arthur Léigh

On her first solo album in over a decade, Emilíana Torrini finds a free-spirited accomplice in a woman named Geraldine Flower. She talks to Alan Pedder about the process of bringing her story to life through hundreds of letters written by her many would-be lovers.

It’s been almost 20 years since Emilíana Torrini declared that her middle name was still Risk on the wistful “Sunny Road”, a song in the form of a letter to a one that got away. With her new album Miss Flower, she turns the tables, using written letters to inspire a heartfelt tribute to a woman who refused to be tied down.

Geraldine Flower was born in Sydney, Australia in 1947, but spent most of her adult life living in a terraced house in the west London suburb of Chiswick, raising her daughter Zoe alone. An innocuous enough setting that might imply she led a quiet life of convention, but, as Torrini portrays with loving care, nothing could be further from the truth. Miss Flower was a woman who loved adventure and lived on her own terms. She was never Mrs. Flower; of the nine proposals she received from men who were obsessed with her, only one came close to sealing the deal. She left him at the altar, and still he remained in her orbit. “She was like a Christmas tree, always gathering so many people around her,” recalls Torrini, “It’s quite rare to meet somebody so magnetic, who attracts people like a superstar.”

Born thirty years after Miss Flower, in the Reykjavík-neighbouring town of Kópavogur, Torrini has a Christmas tree quality of her own. Unpretentious and laugh-out-loud funny, she radiates a comfortably jumbled energy. Meeting her is like sitting down with a fractionally chaotic big sister who owns the fact that she only sometimes has her shit together. Even when she arrives to the hotel bar in Victoria puffed up and an hour late, there’s no being mad at Torrini. She’s simply, wholly herself; all smiles, giddy anecdotes and an aura of implied mischief. I’ve seen her in many rooms over the past twenty-something years, from student unions and dive bars to concert halls and churches, and there’s not one that she hasn’t lit up.

Torrini never set out to make a record about Miss Flower. Geraldine wasn’t a woman that she’d read about in a book or down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. She was simply the mother of Zoe, who’d become a close friend, together with her husband Simon Byrt, who co-wrote and played on several tracks from Torrini’s last solo album Tookah. On her visits to Byrt’s garden studio at the house in Chiswick, Torrini would often spend time with Geraldine in her rooms on the top floor, drinking G&Ts and listening to her stories – colourful tales of spicy flings, spontaneous adventures and skylarking through life, never compromising her freedom for the sake of a man’s comfort or convenience.


When Miss Flower passed away in the summer of 2019, Torrini took the first available flight from Iceland to be at Zoe’s side. Planning her memorial, the two came across a suitcase of telegrams and letters tucked away in Geraldine’s flat. Hundreds of them, some from friends but most from spurned lovers and would-be suitors. Men, it seems, were obsessed with Miss Flower, whose autonomy drove them to heartbreak and lust. Page after page, they spelled out their infatuations, forgetting themselves in the way that only the physical act of writing a letter can inspire. “I was a big letter writer when I was a kid,” says Torrini, recalling the long summers when she’d be sent to Germany to stay with an uncle and kept her best friend entertained by penning wildly untrue tales.

“Reading Geraldine’s letters really reminded me how people are much more vulnerable and poetic in letters than in emails. I think that’s because when you’re writing an email, you’re constantly so aware that someone is going to read it. I think letters are also about trust, because when you write a letter you are trusting someone to be able to hold on to a piece of you. There’s a deeper connection, and I think it’s really beautiful.”

The first letter to be transformed into a song was one written by an admirer of Geraldine’s in the 1960s that was more suggestive in the things that he was holding himself back from saying. It had a very mid-century piquancy, “kind of hot but kind of not,” with its talk of mowing her lawn and imagining Miss Flower as a vintage wine. The letter’s stilted ardour captured Torrini’s imagination, so she set about trying to write a song from it as a way to cheer up Zoe. In the process, she found herself pushing the breathless subtext of the letter to the fore, combining spoken word verses with a chorus formed of body parts, sensations and sweat. “When Zoe came in to listen to it, I thought ‘Uh oh, maybe I’ve gone too far,’ but she said her mum would have loved it,” says Torrini, proudly. “It’s spicy in kind of a powerful way.”

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Sexual tension ripples throughout Miss Flower’s 40-minute runtime, sometimes explicitly so but just as often left simmering in the mix. There’s a slight return to the trip-hop essence of Torrini’s international debut, Love in the Time of Science, which marks its 25th anniversary this coming November, but Miss Flower is a more finely drawn and knottier work, taking pleasure in its multilayered reconciliations. These are Geraldine’s stories but they are largely told through the worldview of men, embellished by Zoe’s shared stories of her mum and Torrini’s own intuition and impulses.

“Because of the way Geraldine was, we never felt that we were going overboard,” she explains. “We decided from the beginning that it would have to be a work of biographical fiction, because none of the letters were written in her voice. In a way, that made my life easier because I could mix different letters together and wander off into my imagination with no restrictions. I think two people can read the same letter quite differently, and we are always kind of mirroring ourselves and weaving ourselves into the space between, even if we don’t mean to.”

Torrini is an avowed fan of the concept album as a cultural totem. She describes it as “a different medium within the medium of making a record,” more like writing a book or performing an interpretive dance where you’re freer to get weird with it. Like any well executed concept piece, Miss Flower creates its own intimate universe, a shared emotional space that rewards investment. The songs explore Geraldine’s rebellious nature from all kinds of angles, some of which came as a surprise even to Zoe.

It was common knowledge in the family that Miss Flower’s most enduring love interest, Reggie, had at some point worked as a spy, though who he was spying on and why remained a mystery. But, as further letters would suggest, there was another possible spy in the picture. At some point in the early ‘70s, Geraldine formed an unclear relationship with a man who turned out to have been a high-ranking officer in the CIA. As Torrini explains, “We started finding all these telegrams and letters that had a wonkiness to them that couldn’t really be explained. On the surface they might seem perfectly normal but they provoked a lot of questions, like why were there so many different meeting places and addresses, and why was she going on these long walks with this man? It seemed like there was a whole different thing going on.”

Having already written a “kind of naïve” spy song about Reggie (“Waterhole”) in the early days of making the record, she began to wonder just how far Miss Flower’s involvement might have reached. “We found a paper from the Daily Express showing that she was hired by them as a photographer out in the Middle East, but there are no records of her being out there taking pictures, so it’s all a bit blurry and exciting,” she says. “Of course, none of it might actually be true but that’s where the song ‘Black Water’ comes from.”

What Torrini does know for sure is that Miss Flower spent a short time in the Caribbean in the early 1980s on assignment for a magazine, where she met a Trinidadian photographer and musician by the name of Harold Prieto. There’s no suggestion that the two were ever more than just friends; the only correspondence between them that Torrini could find among Geraldine’s things was a single chit-chatty letter that arrived to Chiswick after she’d returned to England, apparently delivered with a cassette tape of his music that Zoe remembered having been shown as a child.

"Getting to know Geraldine and working with her letters reminded me of parts of myself that I had kind of squeezed into a box over the years, which she never did."


When the tape was eventually found, Torrini and Byrt were amazed to find that one song had a verse that locked in perfectly with a piece of music that they’d already written but weren’t sure what to do with. Prieto was singing about forgiveness, giving Torrini an idea for the lyric that would become the song “Let’s Keep Dancing”, a slinky, Latin-tinged groove about the last meeting of two lovers. “I felt like Harold was the kind of guy who would have understood what a free spirit Geraldine was, so the song became about this man who’s not out to clip her wings,” she explains. “He’s going to let her go, but he’s not going to let her forget what they had. He’s going to have that one last night with her.”

“So many things about making this album were kind of a miracle,” adds Torrini, explaining how she and Zoe were finally able to track down Prieto after more than two years of trying. “We were facing the prospect of having to throw the whole song away if we couldn’t get permission to use his voice, so it was really exciting when we finally got an email from him, four days before his 80th birthday. He said he really loved the song, and so it became a collaboration.”

In total, Miss Flower took almost 4 years to finish. Torrini and Byrt decided early on that they could only work on the songs if they were together in the studio. They seemed at a loss without each other, she says. “It was as though the only way we could actually be plugged in to the project was when we were in Geraldine’s surroundings.” The pandemic complicated things, of course, and Torrini had other demands on her time – not least last year’s Racing the Storm album, her second collaboration with The Colorist Orchestra (Byrt also co-wrote two songs), and raising her two young children in Iceland.

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There were other setbacks, too. At one point, Torrini says, the folder with all of Reggie’s letters disappeared and only turned up again a few months later. Then, as the album edged towards completion, she began to get more and more unhappy with the glaring absence of Miss Flower’s own perspective.

Attempting to redress the balance, she wrote the celebratory “Black Lion Lane”, which imagines Geraldine as a young woman going about her day in London, enjoying a walk down to the Thames from Chiswick High Road, as she often loved to do. “I felt like I was constantly walking in her footsteps, which did make me a bit loopy,” says Torrini. “It’s good that I don’t live in England anymore because I could switch it all off as soon as I went home, before things got obsessive!”

In a way, the song is also about Torrini, as implied in the bridge with a sprinkling of Italian, her father’s mother tongue. Perhaps more than any other song on Miss Flower, the unifying “Black Lion Lane” feels closest to Marc Bessant’s artwork that superimposes Torrini into a crumpled old photograph of a young Geraldine sitting at a café, cigarette in hand. They look strikingly alike, both paused in inscrutable expressions as if to say, ‘Try me.’

“Getting to know Geraldine and working with her letters reminded me of parts of myself that I had kind of squeezed into a box over the years, which she never did,” Torrini explains. “I’ve always been a free spirit like Miss Flower, but life has a way of making you conform without you even meaning to. There are conversations that you kind of forget to have when making important decisions – work, marriage, etc. – and there’s so much that happens where you’re just winging it constantly. I’m a very impulsive person and tend to just jump into things, and then it’s a lot about luck.”

Crediting Geraldine with bringing her back out of her shell, Torrini hints at seismic shifts that seemed to run in parallel with the unfolding story of Miss Flower. “It was like something out of an ‘80s movie,” she says, laughing. “It felt a bit like I was in The NeverEnding Story or something, where what I was reading in her letters actually seemed to affect what was happening out in the real world.”

Still, writing “Black Lion Lane” didn’t quite scratch the itch that Torrini was so irked by. It took a literal fever dream for a solution to present itself. Sleeping off a nasty flu in the upstairs flat, Torrini encountered Geraldine in a vision, sitting at a table surrounded by artists, stubbed out cigarettes and empty bottles of wine. “I was like, ‘Hey, I really, really need your help because I cannot close this record without you. I refuse. Can you please send us something or someone to help? This is your record too, you know.’”


The next morning, Torrini went downstairs to find Zoe with a look of shock on her face, holding a piece of paper. “You won’t believe what I’ve just found,” she said, handing over a poem in her mother’s own handwriting. “It was an incredible feeling to finally have something from Geraldine herself, and even more poignant that it was written to Reggie,” says Torrini, recalling how quickly the song “Love Poem” came together. “I went into the studio where Simon was nerding out with some synth and just improvised the song over that. It felt so amazing for me to do a co-write with Geraldine. I was like, ‘The record’s finished! A-choo!’ and then I was sick for a month.”

Reflecting on the 25 years since Love in the Time of Science, Torrini is grateful to have come to a place where she feels she doesn’t have to make as many sacrifices for her art. Her collaborations with people like Kid Koala and The Colorist Orchestra have helped her in learning how to let go and to not overthink things. “I had such a bad opinion of myself when I started to write music, because I started quite late,” she says. “I’d always considered myself to be a singer, so the writing process was really quite painful.”

“These days, I see songwriting in two different forms,” she adds. “You have these red metallic balloons, which are the songs that come to you when you are ripped open, whether it’s by pain and heartache or you’re falling in love. Those are the songs you can’t close yourself off to. But, as an artist, what you actually want to do is to bypass those songs and try to reach the songs floating above them, these golden electric ribbons which don’t demand that you have to pay so much for your creativity, mentally and often physically as well.” She stops herself, laughing. “I know that probably sounds insane but that’s really how I see it in my head.”

After three solo albums on the Rough Trade label – Fisherman’s Woman (2005), Me & Armini (2008) and Tookah (2013) – Torrini has found a new home on Berlin-based indie Grönland Records, reuniting her with Mareike Hettler who’d always had her back in the Love in the Time of Science days. She’s reunited with her old publisher at Domino too, and – bombshell alert – is well underway with ET6. “I feel like I’m in this beautiful space when I’m creating,” she says wistfully. “It’s only afterwards that the shitshow starts. I find being in the music industry quite excruciating most of the time, so working with people I love and trust is such a big thing for me.”

Torrini recalls how the magnetic Miss Flower could build a community around anything – in later life, especially the dog she named after Reggie – and that superpower seems to live on even in death. Besides the record and the upcoming tour, Geraldine’s life is the subject of a new performance film by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the directorial duo behind ANOHNI’s “It Must Change” and the visionary Nick Cave documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth.

Described as “part theatre, part fever dream,” The Extraordinary Miss Flower stars Torrini in her first acting role, which she says prompted such questions as “How do I move my body and use my voice at the same time?” and “You want me to dance?!” It also features Doc Martin actor Caroline Catz as Miss Flower, along with dramatic readings of some of her letters by familiar faces including Nick Cave, Richard Ayaode and Siggi Baldursson of The Sugarcubes. Zoe Flower is a producer, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor narrates.

Starring in a film sounds like the kind of tall tale that a young Torrini might have written in a letter to her friend one languid summer’s afternoon, and even she can hardly believe that it’s real. “It was the wildest experience,” she gushes. “We shot the whole 80-minute film over just two days, and the artistry of it is insane. So beautiful. I’m in total awe.” The feeling seems to be mutual from the directors’ side, who’ve described Torrini as “spellbinding” and “a true raconteur with a permanent twinkle in her eye” – not a million miles from her own words on Zoe’s mum.

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Wherever the rest of the Miss Flower journey takes Torrini and the people who have trusted her with Geraldine’s extraordinary story, it’s clear she’s already forever changed by it. To honour her own lineage, she’s planning to get tattoos of words specially chosen by her mother and great-grandmother, who she describes as “a complete rock and roll star” who’s had “more lives than a cat,” and connect the two with a string across her back. There’s a third sentence that she wants as well, borrowed from the artist Grayson Perry. “I went to his exhibition at the British Museum, and it was the most be-au-ti-ful thing I’ve ever seen,” she explains. “I bought a little woven artwork from the museum shop that says ‘hold your beliefs lightly,’ and I really want to have that as my first tattoo.”

So much of Perry’s work is about subverting the expectations of gender, class and rigid societal norms, and, in her own way, that’s how Miss Flower lived and loved her way through life. To hold your beliefs lightly is to see the world with an open heart, alert to its complexity and capacity to change. It’s to recognise that a new narrative doesn’t erase the old story, it just changes its course. So be fluid. Take a risk. Get weird with it. Write the letter. Speak your truth. Someone might write a song about it.

Miss Flower is out now via Grönland Records. Emiliana Torrini tours the album across Europe this autumn. Visit her website for the full list of dates.

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