Singer of 'Lungs' climbs lighting rigs on stage, wails like a banshee and has a story of insomnia and macabre imaginings Sylvia Patterson
Florence Mary Leontine Welch is padding softly around a London exhibition called Exquisite Bodies. A ghoulish affair, it's a panoply of grotesque Victorian anatomical artefacts. Dissected female models, horns growing from hands, syphilitic heads in jars. “Victorian dead stuff, wow-ee,” marvels Florence in her exquisite English timbre, her copper-red mane plunging over her china-blue floral frock.
Welch, 23, better known as Florence and the Machine, is the most peculiar and most highly acclaimed female singer of the moment: poetic, literate, hurricane-voiced, prone to climbing up lighting rigs on stage because “flight is what I aspire to!” In the year that Lady Gaga became the world's biggest new pop star by pretending to be bonkers, Florence Welch actually is — a bamboozling concoction of cake-berserk seven-year-old child, mystical soothsayer and will-o'-the-wisp for whom life is “a constant acid trip”. She can erupt in theatrical reverie — “love is a yearning for the divine, a mania, a sickness” — then literally jump for joy: “I can get excited by a peanut!” Endearing, exhausting, heroically free from self-consciousness: no wonder the public is transfixed, its senses long dulled by immaculate studio sheen and lairy perv-pop “moves”.
We're ready for some spontaneous bedlam, for a twirling, head-shaking limb-quaking human prism who might explode on stage. Fans deem Florence's most ethereal songs “beautiful”, a word too-long missing from the contemporary pop lexicon. The crackling applause of 2009 is almost certainly just the beginning; with Europe already spellbound, she tours America next month, Rolling Stone having already likened her atmospheric thrills to “being chased through a moonless night by a sexy moor witch”.
In a year in which several idiosyncratic female solo artists have vied for pop's wonky-shaped new crown — La Roux, Little Boots, Bat for Lashes, VV Brown — Florence has won the Critics Choice award at the Brits, been nominated for the Mercury prize and earned a thunderous reception at Glastonbury (considerably less shambolic than her previous appearances: in 2007 she stayed awake “for two days and had to be revived, crying and shaking at 11am”, while 2008 saw her wear a Victorian clown suit for 48 hours — “Were drugs involved? I couldn't possibly comment!”).
By late July her debut album, Lungs, was at No 2 behind the suddenly deceased Michael Jackson, selling over 200,000 copies. No instant success (she's been on the periphery, as Florence Robot Is a Machine, with a stand-up drum and a guitarist, since 2006), this year she's been unavoidable. In January, The Culture Show's Lauren Laverne called her “the girl we'll all want to be in 2009, eccentric, glamorous and lyrical”, while Radio 1's Jo Whiley deems her “stunning”.
An art-school dropout blighted by lifelong insomnia, as a child she believed in werewolves and vampires and drew crosses on her bed to protect herself, while developing a fascination with Mary Shelley, murderers and “the beautiful but sinister”. She has always been drawn to the macabre. But at the sight of a scowling cyclops head she shrieks and scampers for the door.
“I can't handle it! I feel like a layer of skin has come off and I'm too raw to the world today.”
She seems oddly detached, edging towards the gallery bookshop. “I need to buy a notebook,” she whispers. “I'm having an out-of-body experience.” She is “discombobulated” from a late-night party and “a fight with my boyfriend”. Her boyfriend, Stuart, a skateboarder and literary editor, has asked her not to talk about him, “so
I won't, but it would be good to get last night on paper because then I'd feel more attached to my brain. I don't know what was the dream and what was the truth. Shit! But I'll have to go to a cashpoint...” I offer to buy Florence a notebook. “Really? Are you sure? Thank you so much!” she says and flings herself around my shoulders.
She buys some postcards, declaring a first-world-war ink sketch by Louis Raemaekers of a skeleton strangling a nurse, “incredible... terrifying!” She explains her fascination with the body's interior. “It's because I don't understand it... it's so much part of my life, being a body.” Then, to the shopkeeper's amusement, she begins flailing her limbs. “I grew my own body!”
Florence is as alarmingly surreal as, say, Kylie is alarmingly demure. Her album is a drum-driven, primal serenade to love, death and the twisted foibles of human nature — eyes gouged out, beds on fire, animals as human metaphor. She's a profoundly eccentric middle-class English girl. A singer from childhood, beginning with family funerals, she's a sonic Angela Carter, consumed by magic realism, the latest in a line of great English pop eccentrics: Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, PJ Harvey, Alison Goldfrapp. Her videos are often set in woodlands, featuring clowns, coffins, barefoot prancing in billowing gowns; this month's Drumming Song features Florence sashaying through a church in a good-v-evil epic. “I was taught an actual dance routine,” she trills, “dressed as a Viking bat-woman.”
Paul Epworth, one of the producers of Lungs (whose previous clients include Florence's old school friend Jack Peñate), describes her as “away with the fairies... but very connected to her heart”. He worked with Florence in the dark, a colossal full moon projected on the studio wall providing workable moonlight. One session resulted in Florence's favourite song, Cosmic Love (created with her keyboard player, Isabella Summers, “in about half an hour”, as Florence notes, “with the worst hangover ever”). It's a song about how being in love means “you give yourself up to the dark, to being blind”.
A harp, drums and piano spectacular, “it's a beautiful piece of music anyway, but that vocal performance was otherworldly”, shivers Paul. “She reduced me and the other staff to tears. Her voice is almost like a field holler, and combined with the tenderness of the lyrics, it's lethal.”
Florence, genetically speaking, is Art. Her mother, Evelyn Welch, is an American professor of art history (as was her maternal grandmother) specialising in the Italian Renaissance. She would take Florence to Florence on educational pilgrimages, was a Studio 54 club regular acquainted with Andy Warhol (who was “in love” with her brother) and talks, insists Florence, like Loyd Grossman. Florence has watched her mother “lecture for an hour on one pair of scented Renaissance gloves. She's proper”. Her father, Nick Welch, is English, a music obsessive who works in advertising, is prone to the word “cripes”, calls Florence “the Daffy Diva”, and reportedly coined the Aero catchphrase “Have you felt the bubbles melt?” for Saatchi & Saatchi.
When Florence was a schoolgirl (at Alleyn's, a private school in Dulwich), the Welches attended a party in a working hospital with a Beatles lyrics theme. Florence dressed as Eleanor Rigby, carrying a crumpled photo of her face “in a jar”, while Dad opted for Hello Goodbye, wearing a backwards suit and a mask on the back of his head. “And my little brother came as Back in the USSR,” she chirps. “He was only 11 but he was so drunk my dad had to take him home.”
Her paternal grandfather, meanwhile, Colin Welch, was a legendary Fleet Street satirist and deputy editor of the Telegraph. “He was as brilliant in his own way,” concluded one obituary writer in 1997, “as the late Peter Cook.” Little wonder Florence is possessed by words, jokes and historically gothic imagery, her childhood spent in imaginative fancies pretending to be “a witch, or a fairy warrior, living in trees for weeks”.
After her parents divorced, her mum married the next-door neighbour, the two families merging to include six teenagers. “It was like the Brady Bunch,” she says. “For a long time
we really hated each other.” Bewildered, the 13-year-old Florence found solace in the caterwauling of Hole, Nirvana, Green Day, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, the Velvet Underground and the unfeasible piping of Celine Dion. By 16, she could be found at gigs “in crypts”, crowd-surfing, straddling people's shoulders, “or doing handstands up against the wall”. She discovered ecstasy (today she swears drugs aren't good for her psychedelic mind: “I try and stay away from them!”) and found in the student bands emerging from nearby Camberwell College of Arts, “a parallel reality” she loved. “I thought 'This is it!'”
At school, she had been told off for impromptu singing. She is sure she has OCD and ADD, and was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysmetria, the inability to judge distance. Has she ever been on medication? “Nooo!” she squeals. “I don't ever think I'm not sane! And I wouldn't ever not want to be excited. If my thoughts were less prone to tangents, maybe I wouldn't write songs. Or sing.”
In her permanent state of yodelling distraction she left school, nonetheless, with “a whole load of GCSEs, straight As, I think” and three A-levels, As for art and English and B for history. At 18 she was a Camberwell art student herself (a 6ft-wide flower installation read You Are a Twat, “directed at myself”) and fronted two adolescent bands, the Toxic Cockroaches and Ashok. The latter was offered a contract by a manager, which she signed. Miserable and “in the wrong band”, she had her dad speak to a music lawyer, who said the contract would be nullified if Florence merely resigned, which she duly did.
“I just didn't have a nice time,” she frowns. “I didn't play an instrument, so I always thought I had to be a singer in a band... Then I found the drums.” In 2006 she became Florence Robot Is a Machine, played tiny London venues, where a reputation grew for unbridled performance idiocy, often involving stage-diving: “a leap of faith! I'm ruled by my emotions”. After 18 months at art college she dropped out to focus on music, creating her own greatest opportunity by following the London indie figurehead Mairead Nash (friend of Pete Doherty, Courtney Love and Donatella Versace) into the loo at a party in December 2006, drunk, hustling for gigs. “She was wearing a sexy boy's black suit,” marvels Mairead, “and then she started singing, really loudly. I'd never heard anyone sing like that. In six years of putting on clubs.”
Within weeks Mairead was her manager; within months Florence was signed to the independent label Moshi Moshi Records, and by November 2008 she was signed to Island Records. Today, she's been “gigging for years”, often in wilfully ludicrous outfits made of “old curtains”, or a Captain America costume, or gold-sequinned hot pants beneath a turquoise minidress “held together with a magnet”. Music, she yelps, arms outstretched, “should feel like a cataclysmic starburst”.
James Allan, the singer-songwriter with Glasvegas (fellow Mercury prize nominees), met Florence when the two bands appeared on the spring 2009 NME tour. “I thought she was the best female singer I'd ever heard,” he says.
“I told Florence that and she just looked all coy and laughed. If you do get a force of nature in music, if 'the real thing' does exist, then she is it. Electric. She's sprinkled with magic dust.
“We do mention the Milky Way,” smiles James. “She's got a mad wee brain. Maybe the nutters are winning. Aye! 'Cos we don't need awards, or Aldous Huxley. We just need passion.”
Lowlands Festival, Holland, August 23, 2009. “The world,” exclaims Florence, “is soooo beautiful! Look, there's two dragonflies having sex!” Florence is back to “normal”, her infinite alabaster limbs poking out from a cream-and-gold Zandra Rhodes vintage camisole-and-knickers all-in-one. “A nightie,” she notes, from beneath large John Lennon sunglasses. With hair under sunlight the colour of lava, she's the comedy Janis Joplin.
We're sitting at wooden garden furniture on decking outside her white marquee dressing room, by a glacial, green, reed-festooned lake. Drinking 6pm vodkas, it's the sort of life-affirming rural scene that bends Florence's brain towards death, her most constant lyrical theme.
“Death is timeless,” she avers, gothily. “Death. Life. Love. Faith. Everything else is transient. But thinking about death makes you closer to life. It's life I'm attracted to, the soul of things. I went to see a Beckett monologue last week.” She intones, faux-gravely: “'Rain... black mud... bubbling... black umbrellas... the hole, who is in there? A loved one.'” (As her dad might say, cripes!)
Her lifelong fascination with terror and doom was intensified by the death of all her grandparents within a few years, a litany of almost satire-level calamity. At 10 she saw her granddad Colin dying close up, although she wasn't close to him. “He didn't like kids. My main memory is of him making stewed plums. Then lying in a coma, this fragile person, paper-thin skin, like a sort of moth. Very beautiful. I remember my dad kissing him on the forehead. A strange role reversal, such a vulnerable moment. Anything bad happening to old men, I can't handle it. I have a thing about the vulnerability of the father figure, it makes me so upset.”
Her maternal grandmother was a manic- depressive who committed suicide when Florence was 14. “It was really sad. She was a brilliant woman. But I didn't really know her as a grandmother — when she came to stay she was very much on medication. But my mother dealt with it amazingly. She's so capable.”
Florence was far closer to her paternal grandmother, who was Scottish (at her funeral she sang Over the Sea to Skye), someone who was “always in the village play and good at doing voices, and I was good at voices... Then, she had a stroke”. She sips her vodka. “And my godfather, he died... That was really sad.”
Florence is psychologically prone to “falling into severe holes”, crying on the floor. Her brain is “a home for anxiety and fear. I hate the idea of hurting someone, of letting people down, or myself down. When I'm tired I feel like the most rubbish person ever”. She claims to have several “internal critics, in a constant dialogue, but I'm not schizophrenic or anything!” She sometimes feels she was “born out of time”. She is “terrified of technology. I can't work computers. I've got a Walkman — I love tapes”.
She finds British politics “meaningless — and Barack Obama is just so exciting”, an unapologetic idealist. “You want to have something to believe in. And be unbridled by cynicism. My generation are really hard on each other. A real sense of tearing each other apart, especially in those [gossip] magazines and TV and reality shows. Just out to vilify people. That frightens me. There needs to be acceptance of each other. People are scared, searching for purpose, taking their fears out on each other.”
On stage, she's told me, Florence feels “unhindered, the most free... from myself”. Perhaps she is a classic hippie. “I am not a hippie!” she roars. “I'm just an emotional creature. But I am interested in being free. And how you get there. I want to make people feel something good. It's essential. You should lift people.”
And now the Viking bat-woman is about to make Holland levitate. During Dog Days Are Over she invites the crowd to howl like wolves and leap into the air, which they do, spectacularly. By the end of Cosmic Love, a girl at the front is in tears.
In the dressing room afterwards Florence is ecstatic, crumpling all-comers in a bear hug, her performance given 9 out of 10 on the festival website, “the highest of the whole festival!”
She's behaving exactly as befits someone days away from turning 23 in the 21st century: speed-drinking vodka, cackling, teetering in a flimsy minidress on a pair of backless Topshop platforms with gold-studded cubed heels.
Then she clatters off to watch the next act, Peaches, and possibly do some handstands up against a wall, unaware that one of her own seductively exposed heels has been injured, glistening gruesomely with freshly-drawn blood. Oblivious, she wobbles away, back into her beloved darkness.