Welcome to my professional website. To kick things off, I’m uploading a few of my favourite published articles from the past. This Florence and the Machine interview was published in summer 2009 in Clash Magazine.
Florence and the Machine
2009 may be the year of the female vocalist, but one flame-haired eccentric is set to soar above the rest with her quirky debut. Step forward, Florence Welch…
Florence is tired. Yesterday she had an 18-hour round trip to Glasgow for two interviews. She is learning that her time is no longer her own – today she has spent the afternoon zipping around London to interviews with a mini entourage in tow.
She arrives in a floral tea dress with a black, baggy jumper and huge clodhopper boots. “I’m going for a nineties grunge look. I was really depressed when I chose this yesterday and I haven’t been home yet,” she explains before she is whisked away. She reappears a short time later, having been metamorphosed into the glossy pop star she is becoming.
Resplendent in gold sequinned hot pants and a top fringed with hair that looks like it was made out of Cousin It, she looks stunning with her crown of flame red locks tumbling down her back.
We’ve congregated in the Albert and Pearl pub in Islington, an old, otherworldly boozer that serves punch in teapots and has a bar in a wardrobe. It somehow seems to fit in with the image that is being built around Florence: quirky, left-of-centre, with aspects of fairytales. We have stepped through the looking glass into her world.
“I think my imagination has always taken me to dark places,” she gabbles. “When I was a kid I was always fucking sure that vampires and werewolves and ghosts all existed, and was terrified of them consistently. Now it’s good, ‘cos I can translate that into songs, but I’ve always had that sense of being haunted.”
Her manager, Queens of Noize’s Mairead Nash, has an office above the pub, plastered with Florence paraphernalia and full to brimming with designer clothes.
It is here, cocktails in hand, that Clash eventually settles down with Florence to discuss her quick ascent to critics’ darling and the imminent release of debut album ‘Lungs’.
Due to her hectic schedule she is fairly subdued, speaking mainly in a soft, dreamy voice. “I have ups and downs, good days and bad days,” she says, apologetically.
As the conversation progresses, she soon livens up. When she really gets going on a subject, she’ll punctuate her sentences with high-pitched screams and start flailing her arms around. She is clearly an exuberant character who finds it difficult to keep herself in check.
Florence’s route into music was – as it appears most aspects of her life are – unconventional. Starting life as the eldest of three children, she was pitched into an extended family at the age of 13 when her mother married their next-door neighbour.
Florence found she had gained two older brothers and another younger sister, and was suddenly lower down the pecking order as a middle child. “Talk to a shrink about that one,” she quips, though she clearly found the upheaval quite difficult as an angst-ridden teenager.
To escape the mayhem and confusion of her new extended family life, she delved into the Camberwell art scene at a fairly young age, and became immersed in a sub-culture that revolved around parties in abandoned Texaco garages and Co-Op shops.
“There was one in this big abandoned warehouse in Peckham,” she recalls excitedly, “And I ended up wrapped in a gold and green glittery curtain, being pushed around in this toy car while all these bands are playing.”
Florence would unleash her voice at friend’s gigs and the end of parties. “I knew I loved singing and music, and I was hanging out with loads of bands and Camberwell Art College dropouts, and singing at the end of their sets and at four in the morning in old lift factories, so it was always just something that I loved, but I was never thinking of it as a career. It was more just like – OH, I CAN SING! WOO!”
Given the quick rise of her star, it would be easy to envisage her as a cool operator who plans her next move carefully. Strangely, she is anything but. “I’m a bit scatty, unfocused – these are things that have been told to me, mainly at school – I’m undriven, don’t concentrate.
“My brain moves too quickly between things all the time, I think onstage I have the clearest head, because it’s like, breathing space for my brain.”
For someone so apparently unfocused, the gods have smiled down on Florence so far. Her career appears to have fallen into place piece by piece without much conscious effort on her part.
It was during one of her wild nights out that Florence stumbled across Mairead and sang for her, leading to an immediate offer from the Queen of Noize to manage her. It is a partnership that clearly works well.
“We really sort of understand and help each other,” Florence muses. “And she can see that I’ve got that self-destructive streak, so she keeps me from the pitfalls of this industry. She looks after me, and I think it’s a project for her as well.
“She doesn’t tell me what to do, she just gets what I want done. She’s my facilitator, but she’s also my adviser. She’s been through this industry, and she’s really wise to it.”
With a manager in place, a year of intense gigging ensued, during which time the current line-up on the Machine was shaped. The group is emphasised as being ephemeral, but Florence hasn’t surrounded herself with strangers. “I’ve basically hired my friends. My best friend Izza couldn’t play piano but I was doing loads of music with her. I wrote Cosmic Love, Dog Days and Lungs with her, and I was like ‘Come and be in the band! Oh, it doesn’t matter that you can’t play piano, you’ll learn!’
“Rob [guitars] was a friend, he used to work in film and we’ve hijacked him, and his friend was Chris who drums, and then Cherish [Kaya, originally from female quartet Ipso Facto], I’d seen out and about for ages, and she told me that she was looking to play, and I was just, ‘OH COOL! YEAH, COME AND BE IN MY BAND!’ That’s how it happens!
“Mairead has actually said to me, ‘Florence, you know we can’t actually afford to get any more members now? Just chill out! You’re not the Polyphonic Spree!’”
Having written a clutch of songs while still only 17, including debut single Kiss With A Fist – which, incidentally, isn’t about domestic violence, or liking it rough, but rather being in a really passionate relationship – Florence set about writing and demo-ing to find her definitive sound.
Kiss… is a punchy (excuse the pun), White Stripes-inspired garage rock number, and was produced by Steve Mackey. Released last October, it is different from the rest of debut album ‘Lungs’ in that the guitar is emphasised on this track.
“I never wanted to make a guitar album,” Florence explains. “I can’t play the guitar! I can play the piano and the drums – BADLY. I do like that song, it’s amazing to play live and I think it’s nice to show the progression from the starting point.
“But I didn’t want anyone to pigeonhole me, and when I started people were like, ‘Oh, she’s indie rock.’ I was just like, No, no way. I don’t wanna do that. I wanted to make something that would make people feel an emotion. I remember hearing Funeral by Arcade Fire and not being able to move because I was listening to it.”
In the December of 2008, it was announced that Florence was to follow in Adele’s footsteps as the winner of this year’s Critics Choice Brit Award, which pinpoints the best emerging British talent within the industry.
Winning came as a surprise to her, not least because she hadn’t been told she was nominated. “They thought it would freak me out. I wasn’t actually scared until I had to go and get the award,” she remembers. “I’ve never been so scared of anything in my life.
“I felt so humbled by the whole thing, I didn’t feel like I deserved it, as I hadn’t done anything yet. After I’d accepted the award, I just went and wept. ‘Cos it was too abstract.”
Now she has had time to process the fact she won, Florence has managed to maintain a level head about the accolade, refusing to feel the pressure despite the huge success that Adele went onto. So what does she think of last year’s winner?
“I think she’s got the most beautiful voice, and she went on to do really, really well, but I don’t think as artists we’re the same. I don’t think I’m now expected to sell as well as she did,” she muses.
In the midst of the fanfair of winning such a high profile accolade, Florence was trying to keep her head down to finish writing and recording her album, crafting the distinctive sound of her debut.
James Ford and Paul Epworth each took up production duties on the album following Mackey’s earlier work with the songstrel.
“A lot of the songs were demoed and then taken to James and Paul. We wanted something really – boom – epic.”
Epic is certainly one way of describing the LP – it is an emotion-drenched record that’s heavy on harps, handclaps and massive choruses, with everything built to showcase Florence’s distinctive, soulful voice. Every second conveys the feeling that Florence is exuberant at the simple prospect of being alive.
“I wanted the music to be quite physical,” says Florence, “It’s all quite simple chords, but the vocals are the one thing that I can control, so that’s why there’s a lot of choral stuff involved in it. I wanted it to sound grand and heartbreaking and beautiful and sort of orchestral, and hopefully I got that.”
One of the album highlights is Between Two Lungs, a simple composition constructed around a stabbing tom-tom drum and keyboard. As dreadful as that combination sounds, it is transformed into a brilliant love song with Florence’s soaring voice. It makes you want to leap around fields full of flowers with joy.
“Between Two Lungs is where I think I found my sound, but also, so often I’ll play a gig where I’m just drumming and singing, ‘cos I love drums and to sing, I think that takes it down to the bare elements of music.
“In some ways I think that with music, the drums are the heartbeat, and then the voice is the lungs, so that’s your two core elements. The lungs are just me, I think. And the rest of the body is the Machine.”
Lungs is the culmination of the first 23 years of Florence’s life. It is her way of gaining a voice amongst a family of six children. It is the Camberwell Art College parties in abandoned Texaco garages, her lost, tequila-fuelled weekends, and her bi-polar moods. It is as if she’s sorted through the jumbled laundry of her life, and strung it out on a beautiful, highly colourful washing line for all and sundry to see.
It’s certainly a nerve-racking time for her. “It’s a scary time, I’m nervous, I’m putting an album out there, it’s like putting your baby up to be judged. It’s like, someone’s gonna go, ‘It’s a fucking ugly baby.’”
The coming months will determine whether the Critics’ Choice accolade will once again have predicted the next British music sensation. It is hard to see Florence’s path going any other way, however, given the exposure she has already received as a result of the award, paired with her unique character and the strength of the album.
There is a fairytale – one of Florence’s favourites – about a young girl who is bewitched by the queen of the fairies so that every time she speaks, a diamond falls from her lips.
Given the expected commercial success of Lungs, Florence may well become that little girl.
To view this article on Clash’s website, click here.