Florence Welch, the quirky, garrulous redhead better known as Florence and The Machine, is constantly amused by her own awkwardness. She relishes her malapropisms during interviews - during her visit with Rita Houston at WFUV a few weeks ago, a slip of "freak off" when she meant to say "freak out" led to ten minutes of snorts and giggles. And Welch freely, almost generously, offers embarrassing details of her life to any prying journalist who asks, nattering away about her mother's romance with the next door neighbor or her own drunken mishaps.
Back in March 2008 when the comely Londoner played BBC 6Music's SXSW showcase, opening for MGMT and Wild Light at an Austin Tex-Mex eatery, Welch nonchalantly upstaged both bands not only with her bold, explosive voice, but her guileless, Mad Hatter-meets-Tinkerbell persona. Barefoot and dressed in a flapper-like white frock, she cheerfully jumped mid-set into the restaurant's ornamental pool and, still dripping wet, clambered back onstage to finish her show, not minding the labyrinth of electrical wires coiled threateningly at her feet.
But Florence Welch is also one of the most thrilling, fiercely individual singers to come tumbling out of the UK in the Noughties, standing out in the crowd of other gifted young Brits, like Elly Jackson of La Roux, Adele, Lily Allen, Laura Marling, Natasha Kahn of Bat for Lashes, Speech Debelle, the xx's Romy Madley Croft and more. Early murmurs about the boundless talent of the 23-year old Welch has built over the last two years into a deafening roar.
Fresh off of a 2009 Mercury Prize nomination for her critically lauded debut Lungs, which came out earlier this year, Welch not only sold out gigs in Europe and the UK, touring with fellow buzz band the xx, but she also created a small stampede at New York's Bowery Ballroom; not an easy task for an artist who kookily defies any niche assigned to her. Although compared to Kate Bush, Björk, Kate Nash or even Stevie Nicks, Welch seems attached to no past muse in particular, despite her engaging eccentricities, love of curious fashion (curtains, ponchos and Captain America costumes figure into it), and thundering vocals. Rather, she sticks her fingers in assorted pots of sonic color, from early, hyper-theatrical Peter Gabriel or David Bowie to the glittering divas of 70s soul, like Cheryl Lynn, Chaka Kahn or Candi Staton, the latter who Welch covers via Staton and The Source's "You Got The Love" (retitled "You've Got the Love" on Lungs). Friends like the equally brilliant and bonkers Lightspeed Champion, aka Dev Hynes, have also been a steady - or slightly unsteady - influence.
On the heels of Florence and The Machine's triumph at Bowery last month, Welch sat down with Houston for a session in Studio A where she and bandmate Bobby Ackyroyd played acoustic versions of "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)," "Kiss With A Fist," "Cosmic Heart" and "You've Got The Love" and talked about Lungs, her obsession with Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," hangover inspirations, and the fetching lime green catsuit she inherited from Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT:
Rita Houston: You seem to really enjoy the live performance element. Is that the good part, when you get on stage?
Florence Welch: I've got such an idea of what the sounds should be, that I'm kind of such a perfectionist that I find it quite tough to listen to the album sometimes. You know, 'well if I'd gotten those choral vocals up a bit louder!' But when i perform it live it feels like I'm perfecting it every time. I can keep chopping and changing things and the album is constantly being readdressed. When I finally do get to bring the choir and strings section along on tour with me then I'll be like, well, 'now it sounds like how i wanted it to sound!'
R: The record is a really beautiful combination of your powerful voice, cool lyrics and crazy drums. Have you always been a fan of good rhythm tracks?
F: The first instrument I played in the band was drums. I used to sing and drum. Me and Bobby [Ackroyd] used to go out and I'd sit behind the kit and he'd play the guitar but there was a rumor that I couldn't sing and play in time (laughs) I don't know who came up with that one, that we should get a drummer. It was the enthusiasm that counted. I think with me the drums were always really important. When I first demoed, I didn't even have a kit so all the sounds - a lot of those sounds on 'Dog Days Are Over' - the drums were me banging my hands against the wall, or pens or all kinds of stuff. No actual drums. Well there was one drum that we stole from someone else's studio.
R: Tell us about the lyrics. Your love of language is quite clear. No tossed-away choruses. Where did you first get the love of language, words and writing?
Flo: I'm quite sort of analytical, I'm quite picky about what I'm saying and the words I'm using and the phrasing and I probably think about it far too much which is why it takes me ages to write songs ... It would probably be easier if I wrote the first thing that came to my head. But I get 'hot phrases' that come round in my head again and again that I'll build into songs.
R: So they live in your head for a while before they come out on paper?
Flo: I guess. I've got a notebook and I doodle stuff down, but a lot of it happens in studio like suddenly. Most of the songs, like 'Cosmic Love,' have not been written down at all, anywhere. It's just on record because it came in a sudden burst of hangover inspiration.
R: Many people don't find inspiration in hangovers! They stay in bed under their covers.
Flo: It's weird if you do try to get out of the bed. What was I saying yesterday? You're not thinking literally, you're thinking laterally. I don't even know if that makes sense. But it's like you're in a different frame of mind. If you can be bothered, sometimes, inspiration can come from a very strange place.
R: Your voice, when you were three years old running around the house and singing, did you always know that this big voice lived within?
F: Yeah, it was annoying for my family. I kind of always enjoyed it. I have a lot of strange childhood memories of singing in my bedroom or always singing in stairwells. Stairwells have really good acoustics. Running around school singing. My entire life has just been a chorus of 'shut up!' My family ... I was just so annoying. They weren't into it at all.
R: So you had to rebel against that? Or rise above it.
F: Yeah, well, now they're all, 'now you get paid to do it, but you don't have to do it in the house. We're not paying you' (laughs).
R: Do you remember the first songs you heard or the first ones you'd run around and sing?
F: Probably musicals. I really loved musicals. And Disney films. I just remember thinking, I could be Ariel [from The Little Mermaid]. You know when she does (Welch warbles, mermaid-like) and I just remember being in the bath with a red flannel on my head (laughs). Now I have red hair so it's nice ... One of my earliest music memories is hearing 'Would I Lie to You' by the Eurythmics on the car radio and being really young and just thinking, 'this is the best song I've ever heard.' I still think it's one of the best songs I've ever heard ... Annie Lennox is an amazing singer. She's got an amazing kind of soul voice. I like how she uses her voice as an instrument. She's not afraid to go all over the place.
R: Where were you when you wrote 'Kiss With A Fist?'
F: I think I was watching another band perform. I was quite young, about 17. And there was some underground cavern in Greenwich that I was in and I was watching another band play. I think I was monkeying around with a friend and he was strumming some kind of countryish rhythm. It was kind of swimming around in my head. But I remember the first time I sung it was when I got onstage at open mike after a Jamie T gig in London ages ago. And I got on stage and I was kind of used to improvising and that's the sort of thing that came into my head. I was kind of making it up as I went along, clapping and stamping my feet and it was actually two years later before I got anything together musically. I spent a lot of time working in a bar and then going to art college. But that song was always kicking around.
R: So you went to art school? Painting?
F: Well, I got into illustration but I used to make a lot of installations. I actually wanted to do a degree in illustration ... I feel as if the band is some kind of ongoing art project. I'll go back to college and just hand them the album and be like, 'I have been here and doing work, look, this is it.'
R: Can I have my degree please?
F: Well they want me to go back and [do a show] as a former pupil but I was hardly there when I was there and I took a year out and never came back. But can you give me an honorary degree for opening the show? I'll only do it if they gave me a degree.
R: You're from London - what's the live music scene in London? Is it cool? Happening? Varied?
F: Yeah, there is. Everyone wears a lot of black. All the bands in London, everyone seems to be wearing black (laughs).
R: You're so colorful!
F: I wear a lot of black. Secret goth. But there's a really exciting scene with bands like the xx, The Big Pink and people like La Roux.
R: Were you playing a lot around London?
F: Yeah, that's how it got started. I had no idea how the album was going to sound but I was playing an awful lot of live gigs, just me and Bobby. We played [acoustically] for months and then we got Chris [Lloyd Hayden] in to play drums when they decided I couldn't be the drummer. Still bitter about that. They gave me one drum on stage to placate me. And then after I went away to record the album, the sound of it was so big, [the band] had to become a six piece. If I wanted it the way I wanted it, it would be like 25, including choir and strings and two drummers. Makes things more complicated.
R: What are some generally impressions of traveling around the States? The difference between the UK radio scene and the American radio scene as you seen it so far?
F: London and Paris are both beautiful, but New York has a special sort of quality, I think. It's a sort of gutter beauty that I find very visually arresting. I'm quite greedy visually so I've seen a lot, but New York, I've got family here so it's been nice. I've got a sort of locality. I think in America the radio - because America is such a big country - it's really an important part of getting your music out there. In England, we're about the size of Texas, so we only have one radio station (laughs). UK FM. The whole of England (laughs). But we've had a lot of support, especially from the BBC and Radio 1. They've been amazing. And I don't know if my songs are not kind of typical, radio friendly hits so I get freaked off - that's a word? (laughs). I get really freaked out when my songs come on the radio, I have to turn it off.
R: Do you remember the first time you heard your song on the radio?
F: Yeah, it was ["Dog Days Are Over"] and I thought it sounded terrible. I turned it off. I thought, this is rubbish.
R: What's your strangest or favorite article of clothing to wear onstage?
F: I've had some really weird outfits. There was a lime green, slashed to the navel, catsuit that Andrew of MGMT gave me because someone gave it to him and I wore that with a curtain that I brought from home and that was pretty weird.
R: What's your favorite Beatles song?
F: I like 'Oh, Darling,' I think that's one of my favorites. It's such a soul song. The performance is amazing. Apparently, Paul McCartney sat on the wall outside Abbey Road [Studios] and screamed for ages so his voice would sound cracked and broken before he sung it.
R: If you had to choose another career, what would it be?
F: Fighter pilot! Zoologist. Magician's assistant. No, I wouldn't like that, it would be too scary. Maybe a fighter pilot-zoologist-magician, combine all three!
R: What's the best piece of advice you ever received?
F: Probably to drink tea if you have a hangover, not coffee. You think coffee is going to wake you up and keep you sharp, but it's just going to make you really jittery, so drink tea. And also, make sure all of your mistakes are your own mistakes, don't let other people make mistakes on your behalf, in your name.