Florence: the voice that bewitched pop
Florence and the Machine’s gig at Belfast’s Belsonic festival tomorrow sold out in days, but just why is this red-haired singer so enthralling, asks Jane Graham
She has the lung power of Robert Plant and the octave-spanning range of Aretha Franklin, but flame-haired songstress Florence Welch inspires as many salivating headlines in the British tabloids as she does column inches in serious music mags like Mojo and the NME.
The singer of what has to be the most played track of this year (when did you last get through a day without hearing her cover of Candi Staton’s You’ve Got the Love?) was all over the red-tops again this week after casually recounting the time Kate Moss’s bad boy ex Pete Doherty proposed to her. “My dad got seriously worried,” she said. “He’s a cool dad but I think that was a step too far even for him.”
It was a great little tale, with just the right ingredients to whet the appetites of the popular press — a snippet of info on a favourite tabloid villain, a highly unlikely romantic coupling and a cute reminder that cool, glamorous pop stars have concerned dads too.
It also summed up many of the things which have led to the UK falling slowly in love with the 23-year-old Londoner over the last year; she’s prodigiously talented and undeniably beguiling, so it’s no wonder that Doherty fancied marrying her.
She’s also smart, grounded and level-headed, so it’s equally unsurprising that she turned him down. “I reassured my dad,” she said, displaying her usual, not very rock’n’roll, common sense. “I’d never marry Pete.”
Like most of the best and most interesting pop stars, Florence Welch is an enticing combination of contradictory elements and occasional thunderbolts.
When she first came to attention as front-woman of her band Florence and the Machine, initially as one of the BBC’s big tips for success in 2008 through their annual ‘Introducing scheme’, and then as an increasingly crowd-exciting act on the influential Shockwaves NME Awards Tour in 2009, her huge howl of a falsetto and luxuriant mermaid hair made comparisons with Kate Bush inevitable, and Bush’s ardent army of devotees dubbed her Bush-lite.
The more we’ve got to know Welch though, through interviews, live shows and gutsy singles like Kiss with a Fist (sample lyric ‘broke your jaw once before / spilled your blood upon the floor’), the more she has convinced as an artistic heavyweight. It’s true that her unusual wardrobe — floaty nightgowns and mining boots one day, superman cape and ballet slippers the next — suggests a slightly contrived and marketable eccentricity, but glimpses beyond the stage-gear have revealed a far less clichéd character.
On the one hand, Welch has all the hallmarks of a rock’n’roll rebel who uses music as cathartic therapy — she was diagnosed dyslexic and dyspraxic at school and began drinking at 13 when her mother moved in with the man next door, leaving her “incredibly angry, moody and difficult”.
She wrote her first album, Lungs, in a haze of depression and solitude, mourning the break-up of a passionate affair.
Her live shows often see her display an almost pathological need to shock and take risks — whether she’s diving into a nearby pool mid-song (at South by South West in Texas in 2008) or scaling a 30 foot lighting rig in high heels (at Reading the following year).
On the other hand, Welch is no toughened escapee from life on the wrong side of the tracks. She comes from an esteemed family of high achievers including her mother, Evelyn Welch, a Harvard-educated art historian, her grandfather Colin Welch, former deputy editor of The Irish Times, and her uncle, the well known parodist Craig Brown.
She may have her moments of reckless abandon and deep despair, but she also has a deeply unfashionable work ethic, a deep love and respect for family, and even a puritanical streak. She bans alcohol from her backstage rider, saying “You need to be so healthy to keep up with the pace of work. I can't think of anything more terrifying than turning up to a gig with a hangover from hell”.
She pays tribute to her “completely amazing” mother who created the “incredible” family unit she is part of today. Even when she is being asked vacuous questions about sandwiches or shoes by Fearne Cotton, she is as erudite, polite and self-deprecating an exhibitionist rock’n’roll star as you are ever likely to find.
Whether she’ll be able to hold on to her down-to-earth perspective remains to be seen — few could have foreseen quite what a phenomenon Welch would turn out to be in the year since the release of Lungs. The album has stayed in the Top 40 for 56 consecutive weeks and is one of the biggest sellers of both 2009 and 2010.
It also secured Welch a Best British Album award at this year’s Brits in February, at which her live mash up of You’ve Got the Love with Dizzee Rascal was widely considered to be the ceremony’s stand-out moment.
Since then, barely an emotional moment on TV or radio — in sport, drama or documentary — has gone unaccompanied by her vocals. Meanwhile, Welch herself has become something of an icon to various sets of women. Teenagers gather together on Facebook to rave about her independence from standard image fascism — gawky, too tall and not conventionally beautiful, she is still inspirationally stunning and effortlessly cool, with just the right, likeable balance of self-belief and humility.
Fashion editors clamour to have her on their pages, compelled by her proud, unpredictable style. She is unapologetically bright and talented, but she has enough of the approachable girl next door to make her feel friendly too. She’s one of us in a way that Lady Gaga or Beyonce could never be.
She’s also unlikely to be tripping her way through a list of unsuitable suitors a la Gaga any time soon. Despite the head-turning success she has enjoyed since he inspired her first set of lovelorn songs, Welch is now happily back with her literary editor boyfriend, whom she shelters protectively from the media gaze.
Her father need never have worried — she might perform half of her set shivering and dripping wet in the desert, but she would never have considered doing anything as silly as marrying Pete Doherty. This girl’s head is firmly screwed on.