Let’s talk about magic. Because music, at its best, is a kind of magic that lifts you up and takes you somewhere else. “I want my music to sound like throwing yourself out of a tree, or off a tall building, or as if you’re being sucked down into the ocean and you can’t breathe,” says Florence Welch. “It’s something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up, and you’re either going to explode with it, or you’re just going to disappear.”
Florence writes her best songs when she’s drunk or has a hangover, because that’s when the freedom, the feral music comes, creating itself wildly from the fragments gathered in her notebooks and in her head. “You’re lucid,” she explains, “but you’re not really there. You’re floating through your own thoughts, and you can pick out what you need. I like those weird connections in the universe. I feel that life’s like a consistent acid trip, those times when things keep coming back.”
Florence herself is a mass of contradictions: she’s tough yet she’s terrified, a bundle of nerves and passion, of darkness and pure joy. “I feel things quite intensely, which is why the music has to be so intense. I’m either really sad or really happy, I’m tired or completely manic. That’s when I’m at my most creative, but it’s also dangerous for me. I feel I could write some good songs, or break some hearts. Or tables. Or glasses.”
As a performer she can seem fearless, but she’s also far too quick to pass judgment on herself. This is the woman, after all who got into Camberwell art college by making a huge floral sign telling herself “You are a twat.” She says she’s a geek, who loses all control when in love. She’s also something increasingly rare and precious in a time of karaoke pop: an artist who has found her own, authentic voice.
Her soaring, epic vocals, quirky melodies and self-contained musical world have already won her the 2009 Critics Choice Award at the Brits. Some compare her to Kate Bush. You’ll also find touches of Tom Waits and Nick Cave in her dark visions, and if you heard a little of Bjork too, she’d find it a compliment. But mainly, Florence is out on her own: an exhilarating place to be, she points out, but also a little scary.
Her debut album Lungs is made of harps, choirs, drums, elevator shafts, bits of metal, love, death, fireworks, string quartets, stamping, sighing, strange electronic wailing, lambs, lions, sick, broken glass, blood, moon, stars, drink, coffins, teeth, water, wedding dresses … and the silences in between. The songs are full of Gothic imagery, of fairytale flights of fantasy, and although much has been read into her lyrics, Florence says it’s usually simple. “Everything is about boys!” she laughs. “The whole album is about love – and pain. People see my lyrics as crazy, but to me it’s an honest, heartfelt album. I didn’t set out to be wacky. I just want it to be emotive.”
Florence grew up in Camberwell, south London, the oldest of three children. One of her earliest musical memories is standing on top of the trunk where her dad kept his vinyl collection, dancing with him to the Rolling Stones. She started singing along to Nina Simone and Dusty Springfield at home, expanded her vocal range with arias, then became a pre-teen skatepunk before getting into drum’n’bass and dance music at squat parties. It’s an eclectic mix, but for her, the common thread is always the emotion. “Anything that has real feeling in it always excites me. Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Going To Come’, Eva Cassidy singing ‘Wade In The Water’, even Rhianna’s ‘Umbrella’- I’m obsessed with music. I’ll play Beyonce, Lil Wayne, Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Going Down’. I can’t stay in one place or genre. That’s why I had to make my own genre.”
After her parents had separated, her mum fell in love with one of their neighbours. The two families moved in together and at the age of 13, Florence was suddenly one of six teenagers “I grew up in a weird Brady Bunch family, it was more like a tribe of teenagers than a regular upbringing. I had to share a room with my sister and my little brother had to sleep in a cupboard! Now, it’s nice having a big family. But then, it was a completely fraught environment. No wonder I went off the rails, because there was never any space at home. In that sort of situation, you have to become an individual.”
Florence found her own space by going out to clubs and pubs, by singing onstage and in her bedroom. By the time she left school, she’d already written songs like ‘Kiss With A Fist’, and knew she wanted to make music but not how to go about it. So after a year working behind a bar she went to art school, making tents under the desk to sleep off her hangovers while trying to convince her tutors she was an installation.
It wasn’t until she wrote the haunting ‘Between Two Lungs’ that it all came together. Instead of percussion, Florence pounded the studio walls with her hands. She built the melody on the piano even though it’s not an instrument she knows how to play, and recorded the backing vocals first, before writing the top line. It’s bonkers and totally unconventional, but of course it is also glorious – a strange but yearning song about losing yourself in love. “I’d found my voice, and I just felt euphoric,” she recalls. “It’s been a real process of me learning that the way I wanted to do it was actually the right way. This whole album has been about having faith in myself.”
As for The Machine, it’s a flexible beast. It can go right down to Florence and a drum kit or a piano, but right now it’s a seven-piece band including long-term collaborators Rob Ackroyd (guitar), Chris Hayden (drums), Isabella Summers (keyboards) and Tom Monger (harp). “I’ve worked with most of them for a long time and they know my style, know the way I write, they know what I want.”
Live, Florence and The Machine become an entirely different beast. No two performances are ever alike, and clad in clothes often culled from local second-hand shops that day, Florence goes at it like a woman possessed. “It’s just this sense of total freedom,” she says. “It sounds so cheesy, but I want to touch people. Not in a weird way. I just want to help them feel what I’m feeling.”