In July 2010, I was one of the 30,000 people gathered to see British band Florence + The Machine play at Splendour in the Grass, an annual music festival now located in the hinterlands of southern Queensland. Through a combination of faux innocence (‘I have to find my friend’) and sheer elbow power, I forced my way to the mosh pit. Fifteen metres from the stage, I found myself squashed between other festival-goers in the kind of sweaty, en mass physical intimacy people usually only experience at orgies or Spencer Tunick installations. Sound like fun? It wasn’t. It was pain and hyperventilation and body odour. But I would endure. After all, it wasn’t every day that I had an opportunity to experience Florence Welch live, and after a taste of her theatrics at Melbourne’s Laneway Festival earlier that year, I was determined not to miss out on a gig to remember.
As other festival-goers craned their necks in anticipation, and nearby one girl started crying, the roadies lumbered offstage, the lights dimmed, and the ‘Machine’ (the name for Florence’s backing band) tiptoed on. Soon Florence herself appeared, wearing a long white gown and a hooded cape. She walked slowly to centre stage, head bowed, before a black backdrop lit by pink and yellow neon birds. When she began to sing, the crowd gave an overwhelming roar – which continued for the hour-long performance. Young men and women stripped naked; people sobbed, dancing around with their eyes closed, hands raised – so manifest was the crowd’s devotion to the chiffon-clad figure on stage that the atmosphere was akin to religious fervour.
What is it about this former art student that allures so many, when such eccentric female musicians are ten a penny?
There’s no denying her popularity. In her mid twenties, Florence Welch has soared to incredible heights in a short time. She first got her foot in the door in 2006, when she drunkenly bailed up her future manager, Mairead Nash, in a nightclub bathroom and sang Etta James’s ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’. It was ‘loud’, Nash later remarked. Welch was soon signed to independent label Moshi Moshi Records (who have released music by artists such as Lykke Li and Friendly Fires), and by late 2008, she was signed with Universal Music Group-owned Island Records. In February 2009, Florence picked up a BRIT Critics’ Choice Award (the UK equivalent to a Grammy for best newcomer), and later that year her debut album, Lungs, was released in the UK, selling over 100,000 copies in a month and holding number two in the charts for five weeks. Lungs debuted at number 17 in the US, and at number 16 on the ARIA Album Chart in Australia. Florence + The Machine’s songs most charted in the 2009 Triple J Hottest 100 (four appeared from the album). At the time of writing this article, Lungs has had seven hit singles around the globe, gone four times platinum in the UK and Ireland, and gone platinum in Australia. There’s no denying it – this is a musician people are quick to adore.
I first heard Florence + The Machine when ‘Dog Days Are Over’, their first single, came on my car radio. Driving around in the heat, I heard the now distinctive opening of a harp being rapidly plucked. A woman began singing softly, background harmonies swooped in, and clapping hands and tambourine, then drums and guitars joined the harp. Enjoying the building energy, I turned the volume up and was rewarded with a chorus that was part battle cry, part gospel exultation: here was a voice so strong it made your eyes water.
At a time when most indie/alt/pop ladies, like Julia Stone, Cat Power, Sarah Blasko and Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes, create airy music with hushed, breathy tones (at best creating a finely wrought atmosphere of ethereal intimacy and at worst sounding like they’re whispering a limp funeral dirge for a dead pet), Florence + The Machine is a welcome change. The voice that first made me sit up and take notice – what one of her producers, Paul Epworth, has compared to a ‘field holler’ and The Sunday Times to ‘the bellow of a jungle king’ – gives her songs the full-bloodedness for repeat listening. The music of Lungs accommodates Welch’s paint-stripper vocals by matching it for vigour: tracks are driven by tribal drum beats and punk guitar riffs that are nicely countered by harp and keyboard. However, it’s Welch’s voice that ultimately demands attention and the focus of the critics. (‘Ululating’ is a word they often pull out of the thesaurus for reviews of Florence + The Machine.) The woman can belt it out, and it’s as invigorating as hell; like a comedian friend recently said to me: ‘I can rock out to a whole album of Florence, but after a few tracks of Sarah Blasko I just feel like sitting down and talking about my feelings.’
‘I want my music to sound like throwing yourself out of a tree,’ Florence writes on her website. ‘Off a tall building, or as if you’re being sucked down into the ocean and can’t breathe. It’s something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up, and you’re either going to explode with it or you’re just going to disappear.’
Asked by Vogue in 2009 what she thought her music sounded like, Florence replied: ‘Like a choir of nuns being dropped down an elevator shaft.’
This is the kind of kooky response people have come to expect from Welch, who has been described by Island Records senior manager, Ben Mortimer, as ‘following in the great English tradition of eccentrics, like Kate Bush or Siouxie Sioux’. The quirky persona Welch projects through costume, lyrics and high-concept music videos contributes vastly to Florence + The Machine’s appeal. In an effort to describe the qualities of her idiosyncrasy, music journalists have called Welch ‘twisted’, ‘ironic’, ‘eccentric, glamorous and lyrical’, ‘undeniably beguiling’ and (my personal favourite) ‘a bamboozling concoction of cake-beserk seven-year-old child, mystical soothsayer and will-o’-the-wisp’.
None of these descriptions, however, really hit upon what it is that makes Welch’s eccentricity so alluring. After all, we live in an age where eccentricity is commodified (think hipster) and therefore predictable. Surely idiosyncrasy is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to the modern-day chanteuse – what about Tori Amos, Lady Gaga or Bjork?
Only The Sunday Times, who called Welch ‘a sonic Angela Carter’, seemed to understand what exactly it is about Welch’s eccentricity that is so captivating. Unlike many idiosyncratic artists, Welch’s weird persona has narrative drive. As Carter did, Florence + The Machine invokes and plays with the macabre, Gothic imagery and the fairy tale in Welch’s lyrics and Florence’s performance. Songs like ‘Howl’ contain lines that would not be out of place in The Bloody Chamber: ‘Be careful of the curse that falls on young lovers / It starts so soft and sweet and turns them into hunters / A man who’s pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May still become a wolf when the autumn moon is bright.’
Other songs from Lungs are like short stories, intoxicating in their theatricality; they often feature a forest setting where moons are full and ominous, lightning and thunder crack (‘Blinding’), coffins are built (‘My Boy Builds Coffins’), eyes are gouged out from people as they sleep (‘Girl With One Eye’), ghosts possess the bodies of others and falling stars injure and blind (‘Cosmic Love’). There are frequent allusions to ‘losing oneself ’, whether to drink (‘Hurricane Drunk’), primitive instinct (‘Howl’) or music, and Florence is positioned as both a victim and purveyor of eerie yet cathartic self-abandonment: part druid, part Greek oracle, part Little Red Riding Hood forsaking the path for the woods.
This persona is supported by the video clips made for many of the singles. Take, for instance, the music video for ‘Drumming Song’, a track driven by throbbing percussion and the sound of heartbeats. The clip begins with a close-up of Welch’s pale face as she sings to the camera. After 30 seconds it pans out to reveal Welch standing, with Greco-Roman headband and dark blue robes (only just covering gold-spangled underwear), before four other long-haired beauties in similar pseudo-religious costume. They each stand as though in prayer. The clip then cuts away to Welch writhing on a marble floor as if possessed, and then jumps back to the singer surrounded by her ‘handmaidens’ in a temple lit by candles and stained-glass windows. They begin to dance in a semi-choreographed flurry of restless leaps and twirls, dishevelled hair swinging in slow motion as they twist in the air. Their uninhibited movements are purposefully incongruous with the religious setting; Welch (who in a few quick shots appears in bondage-inspired headgear complete with horns) is presented as both the rebel running havoc in a church and the priestess overcome with pagan energy.
The video for ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ also presents Welch in this light. Like many of the tracks from Lungs, this song combines Greek mythology and Western fairy tale, referring to offering and sacrifice; its chorus screams: ‘This is a gift, it comes with a price / Who is the lamb and who is the knife? / Midas is king and he holds me so tight / He turns me to gold in the sunlight.’ The clip depicts Welch frolicking in a garden with other youths, dressed in turn-ofthe-century costume, and feasting at a long table replete with grapes and roasted pig heads. It is an image of decadence, death and madness.
Towards the end of the clip, the merrymakers push over the goblets and food, and Welch lies down on the table, which is transformed into an open coffin. The casket is carried by her companions, now pallbearers, and set upon the river: a mistress of ceremony sacrificing herself to her own saturnalia. The cover art for the single shows Welch holding a rabbit, and after hearing the song, you’re not sure whether she plans to cuddle or kill it.
This persona, an interesting mix of folk tale and mythology, of divine agency and willing surrender, so cleverly achieved through the narrative of Lungs and the supporting media, is further sustained by her live performance where Florence is often observed to be in a trancelike state. Indeed, her website states that she ‘goes at it like a woman possessed’, and some reviewers have said that it is almost as though she ‘puts a spell on herself ’. Since a concert at Reading in 2009, where she scaled the lighting rigging in high heels, Welch has become known for pushing her body to point of injury in her performances, suffering a constant spate of bruises, broken bones and gashes as a result. ‘It’s like being possessed,’ she happily explained to NME.
Watching her at Splendour in the Grass, it was easy to see how Florence might appear to others as hypnotised by her own music. She embraced the havoc of her songs by alternately thrashing around the stage in paroxysms of unbridled energy, twirling those gangly limbs of hers and screaming her massive lungs out, only to then stand stock-still, draped in her cloak, unquestionably majestic. Surrounded by a mass of heaving, expectant bodies, all fixated on a hooded figure who jerked and howled into the night, I was reminded of the oracles of Greek antiquity where thousands were drawn to a woman who would utter revelations in a state of frenzy. There was something of the primal, of the deliriously holy, of the joyfully demented about Florence Welch’s performance. She banged a drum with enraptured intensity, she threw her long body about the stage, she clawed at her brilliant red hair, she grabbed her keyboardist and kissed her. She enacted the pulse and howl and narrative of her own music like no one I had ever seen before. So absorbing was her performance that after the last encore, the lights dimmed, and there was a pause where people blinked into the darkness about them, as if waking from enchantments. We were, all of us, bewitched.