Go with the Flo
Before I meet Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine, my overriding impression is that she's a bit of an attention-seeker. The deliberate provocation of her first single, Kiss With a Fist (sample lyrics: "a kiss with a fist is better than none"), the stage outfits made from curtains, the bizarre antics at parties and the climbing on top of speakers at gigs ... It all seems like a lot of showing off.
But seeing her perform live is an astonishing experience. Everyone -- critics and otherwise -- emerges from her shows rushing to praise her with reviewers calling her "mesmerising". Her voice has the exhilarating force of a hurricane. Even recorded, it is extraordinary. Welch's debut album, Lungs (which performed the almost unheard of boomerang act of reaching number two in the UK charts behind Michael Jackson, in July, disappearing, then coming back in at number two over Christmas), showcases its full range: one moment raw and bluesy, as if she has just been crying, and as sweet and light as candyfloss the next.
Already hailed as a "musical masterpiece" and the "finest album of 2009", Lungs seems destined to take home several prizes at this month's Brit Awards. And Welch herself, 23, variously described as a "psychotic fairy queen", "sonic Angela Carter", "comedy Janis Joplin" and "punk Ophelia", will be one of its most eagerly papped attendees.
In the short year since she won the Brits Critics' Choice Award for best newcomer, Welch has become one of the industry's most eccentric personalities.
When I arrive at the tail-end of a photo-shoot, she is posing in a scarlet jumpsuit by the window of the studio in east London. She is very tall (6ft) and her very thin arms are turning blue in the cold. I notice a silk Hermès scarf that she keeps throwing over her shoulders, then on to the floor. "It's freezing!" she yells, in a voice that, like her singing one, swoops from being tiny and girlish to so loud it makes you jump.
Her accent -- all clipped vowels and exaggerated modulation -- is worthy of a finishing school. When we sit down to talk, she tells me about "going to gigs and getting into the weird squat-party scene in Elephant and Castle" as a schoolgirl. "It was very exciting," she concludes, with perfectly enunciated consonants, sounding for all the world like a society hostess describing a horse ride.
It was that scene that led her to the über-cool club promoter and Queens of Noize DJ Mairead Nash. She met Nash in the lavatories of a club in 2006. "I was dressed in a full tuxedo and I was really drunk, running around going, 'I can sing!'" explains Welch. She proceeded to belt out Etta James's Something's Got a Hold on Me to Nash right there in the ladies.
"It turned out to be one of those slow-motion moments," Nash has said. "I got goose bumps all over." She decided to manage Welch and gave her a gig the following weekend. At the time, Welch had three songs and no name (she decided on Florence Robot is a Machine on the way to the gig, shortening it a few months later), but she was no stranger to performing.
Her father, a music-obsessed ad man (he wrote the slogan 'Have you felt the bubbles melt?' for Aero chocolate), and her mother, a professor of art history/author/Studio 54 regular from New York, brought up Welch in a bohemian south London home. Her natural gift for singing led to little Florence becoming a fixture at funerals, which may or may not have exacerbated a proclivity for the macabre.
When Welch was 14, her parents divorced and her mother married their neighbour. The newly amalgamated household contained six teenagers. "It was pretty awful," Welch says. So she lost herself in the south London music scene, writing songs about break-ups ("I'd never even had a boyfriend") and eventually enrolling at Camberwell College of Arts, because it seemed "like a place where you could go to some good parties". There she played in punk bands such as the Toxic Cockroaches and drew "cannibalistic stick men who'd eat each other in really violent ways" until her encounter with Nash.
Originally a pared-down, bluesy act that played "standing really still and wearing regular clothes, every Sunday at the Lock Tavern [in Camden]", Florence and the Machine began to attract serious attention as Welch fleshed out her sound with new band members and gave in to her love of dressing up. Dramatic capes, teeny-tiny sequinned hot pants and end-of-gig crowd-surfing became the norm. "I was finally living my dream!"
Welch is prone to sudden fits of animation, delivering excitable monologues about getting a tattoo "in Texas from a man called Animal at four o'clock in the morning".
She speaks in an odd, staccato rhythm -- unexpected little pauses followed by rushes of words -- stretching her hands into the air and throwing herself into the back of the sofa for emphasis, like a highly articulate child suffering from ADHD. But when the conversation strays to a topic that doesn't interest her, a thick blanket of boredom falls without warning, signalled only by the spread of a hostile, dead-eyed smile.
This happens when I ask her about her grandparents. They all died within a couple of years of each other, and it has been suggested that so many early encounters with death (she lost her first grandparent aged 10 and her last at 14) are what caused the young Florence's fascination with all things morbid. "Maybe," she says, fixing me with that vacant smile.
She's much happier talking about clothes. Welch went through many style phases as a teenager, including "little old lady", which involved brogues and cardigans and ankle socks, and "chubby goth", which prompted one of her worst fashion disasters: a jet-black bob. Her hair, naturally "mousey brown", has also been blue, green and blonde, before she eventually found red, "the only colour that really suits me".
Despite the increasingly glamorous lifestyle and ever-slicker music videos, Welch still lives in her family home, where she has created her "own crazy world" in her bedroom. "I use clothes as decorations, and I collect old paintings and black-and-white photos of people in interesting outfits from junk shops, plus loads of birdcages and candles ... "
I ask her if the musical range of Lungs -- which travels from the indie-pop of Kiss With a Fist to the multilayered harmonies of Hurricane Drunk and the sparcely arranged Between Two Lungs -- was deliberate. "Not really!" she booms. "I just get easily distracted!" And Welch is fidgety, ceaselessly shifting position and bouncing her leg under the table as she talks -- she kicks me at least four times during our conversation.
Lungs has already generated five singles. But the latest, released last autumn and now back in the charts at number five, is the first to break into the top 10. Welch's euphoric version of Candi Staton's You Got the Love, a song that has enjoyed endless remixes and at least five visits to the charts since its original release in 1986, is now the only rendering to be heard.
Most of Lungs is much darker, though. The album was written in the wake of Welch's break-up from her boyfriend of three years and it is dense with heartbreak. Now they are back in love and Welch is anxious. "Sometimes things only make sense to me when they're going wrong in a relationship, that's when they are clearest. When things are going really well, I have this underlying anxiety that something's going to go wrong."
Welch can, she says, "be really hard to live with". She finds it "quite hard to express my emotions on a day-to-day basis. I get really frustrated and either end up crying or picking a fight". Indeed, throughout our interview, there are many long pauses and half-finished sentences as she searches for the right words. She tries to tell me why her mother has reservations about her being in the music business: "She just doesn't feel ... The way she sees it ... She's just not ... I dunno. She's very practical."
All that hesitation disappears when she performs. "On stage I feel like I'm tapping into some kind of emotional core," she says. And the audience can feel it: people talk of bursting into tears and feeling their hairs stand on end at the sound of Welch's visceral voice.
Welch has just embarked on her tour of Australia and Europe that will bring her to Dublin for the Meteors this week and two solo shows in May. "I'll have to buy a parasol," she comments, contemplating the weather she'll meet Down Under, before launching into a story about a Victorian prostitute called Tilly who "uses a parasol to hide her face, but apart from that she's completely naked. That's a strong look!" she says.
Australia and Dublin, you have been warned.
Florence and the Machine are performing at the Meteors on February 19 and in the Olympia on May 2 and 3