The Unstoppable Rise of Florence and the Machine

Florence Welch is horribly hungover. The British singer – whose voice can be a dramatic, emotionally-charged instrument reminiscent of Kate Bush – groans on the other end of the phone line: “I’m living in my own self-inflicted nightmare.”

Welch, who performs with a group of collaborators under the moniker Florence and the Machine, seems to have purposely put herself there many times before. Even her official biography – typically spun with sycophantic superlatives – claims that she writes her best songs when drunk or hungover.

“I think I was drunk when I said that,” she says, laughing. “I don’t feel like writing any songs right now. I feel like curling up into a little ball and maybe crying.

“I said that because Cosmic Love was written when I had a hangover that was scarily worse than this one,” she adds. “I literally felt like my face was going to fall off.”

Cosmic Love, of course, is a hauntingly beautiful track from her critically acclaimed debut album, Lungs, released last year.

Her break, however, came three years earlier in 2006, when (“quite drunk”) she cornered DJ/promoter Mairead Nash in a club’s bathroom and belted out Etta James’ Something’s Got a Hold of Me. “I think we were talking about boys and I was pretending I had a band,” Welch says.

The inebriated toilet session certainly got Nash’s attention, and she asked Welch to perform at her upcoming Christmas party. “Then she asked to manage me. She’d never managed anyone before and I’d never had a manager so we we’re both kind of chancing it.”

The risk paid off. Dropping out of art college, Welch continued to perform at various venues around London, eventually releasing the aforementioned Lungs.

“It’s an extreme album,” she says. “It’s very dramatic [and] it’s an album written across different periods of time.

“It’s a real hodgepodge of influences.”

Hard to classify too. Which is why she is often compared with artists such as PJ Harvey, Bjork and Kate Bush. “I get compared with so many people who are so different from each other. I guess it’s because our music doesn’t have a specific genre.”

At only 23 years old, it’s a definitive, sure-footed debut, one the singer describes as a juxtaposition of the imaginary and the physical.

“When it was going to be released I was just so nervous. It’s so personal, it’s amazing to me that so many people have kind of taken it to heart and can relate to it. It’s such a labor of love and you really think that you are the only person who’s going to want to listen to it.”

The 2009 Mercury Prize-nominated album has sold more than a million copies in the U.K. It’s been on the album chart there for 40 straight weeks, peaking at number one in its 28th week, on January 10, 2010. The group won the Critic’s Choice award at last year’s BRIT Awards and took home the Mastercard British Album award at this year’s ceremony.

Last fall, Welch and the band performed in New York City for the first time and appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. “He walked over to me and it was like meeting Santa Claus: ‘Oh, you’re real.’

“I was giggling to whole time. It was totally bizarre.”

The Cosmic Love Tour, her first in North America, kicked off April 7 in Boston. Bringing her theatrical show across the continent is an exciting prospect, but she doesn’t expect to be reading too many reviews.

“Good or bad stuff, it’s kind of all messing with your head. It’s frightening to read stuff about yourself, especially from people who don’t know you personally. Even if I read a good review, I’ll find one bad thing in it and start obsessing about it. It just doesn’t do me any favors.

“I’m always wracked with self-doubt but I kind of know when things work as well,” she adds. Then she pauses for a moment. “Yeah, I definitely have a healthy amount of self-doubt.”


Story by Graeme McRanor originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun

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