Some things in this world come almost absurdly easily to flame-haired 23-year-old Londoner Florence Welch. To the surprise of no one who has heard Lungs, the debut album from Florence and the Machine, songwriting is right at the top of that list.
Other endeavours are more of a struggle. Like the small matter of fitting into a world that can be difficult to navigate for those who are, um, kind of out there. And make no mistake, Welch is definitely, unabashedly, and charmingly out there. So much so that, during her tortured youth, she signed up for more than one subculture geared to those who think differently, only to find she never felt quite at home.
“I went through a phase for a while where I was trying to be a witch,” Welch confesses, on the line from a New York City tour stop. “I had lots of purple lipstick and long black skirts. But it was the ’90s, so I didn’t look that out of place. I guess I wanted to believe that there was something out there.
“After a witch, I became a punk, so I guess I was always looking for something slightly out of the ordinary,” she continues. “I was looking for an identity because I was an awkward kid at school. At that age, you are always looking for something that will define you and protect you. And music kind of becomes that thing.”
It’s entirely debatable whether Welch is Middle America’s idea of normal in 2010. After all, she’s cheerfully confessed to being obsessed with death and werewolves and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and insomnia. In art school, she briefly thought she’d found her calling, producing six-foot installations that spelled out messages like “You’re a Twat” in flowers. There’s no arguing, however, that she’s now found a place to fly her freak flag in the weirder-the-better world of pop, with Lungs scoring shitloads of high-profile awards nominations, including nods from the tastemakers at the Brits, the Mercury Prize, and MTV Europe. (Welch has also taken home her share of hardware from said dog-and-pony shows, the most notable being the critic’s choice prize at the 2009 Brits.)
The hype is totally justified, with Lungs drawing on everything from circa-’76 punk (“Kiss With a Fist”) to antiquated jazz (“Girl With One Eye”) to string-swept paisley pop (“Howl”) to, quite improbably, Italian opera (“Dog Days Are Over”). Yes, Welch definitely has a flair for the dramatic, this being driven home by a vocal attack that suggests she’s taken the best parts of Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush, Sinéad O’Connor, and Cat Power and then spun everything into something seemingly fresh and new.
For all its left-field charm, though, the craziest thing about Lungs is that it’s the work of a first-timer. And don’t hate her, but Welch doesn’t mind admitting that the songs came pretty easy, the best example perhaps being “Cosmic Love”, which was written inside of two hours in the middle of a screaming hangover.
Refining her own sound took a while longer.
“For ages, I was really unsure about what kind of music that I wanted to make,” Welch admits. “I had these songs, but they didn’t really have set music, so I was doing a lot of experimenting. I was going to make an album that was much more guitar-based, but it just wasn’t fitting. Whenever I’d go into the studio and record a song where the main instrument was guitar it didn’t really work, maybe because I can’t play guitar.”
Given her ambition on Lungs, it’s perhaps no great shock that Welch wants to offer audiences something more than the standard singer-songwriter setup when playing live. Sorry, kids—despite her onetime obsession with all things witchy, she won’t be flying on-stage on a vintage Wiccan broom. (And while we’re clearing things up, there actually is no Machine. The second half of her stage moniker stems from an in-joke from when she was working with a friend, struggling to find her sound. Welch’s friend was Isabella Machine, which inspired the singer to dub herself Florence Robot, leading to early gigs being promoted under the banner Florence Robot Is a Machine.)
What Welch promises from Florence and the Machine is a mini-spectacle that will capture the considerable magic of Lungs. As a bonus, she evidently shops for clothes at the same stores as current freak of the week Lady Gaga.
“We’re bringing a six-piece band, including an orchestral harp,” she says. “I’m also really interested in decorating the stage. I want to create a world—we’ve got all these birdcage lamps and stuff. I like to decorate the stage basically to make it look like a junk shop.”
And why? Well, let’s just say that it feels like home, which can be important when you sometimes wonder where you fit in.
“I feel comfortable there,” Welch says of the thrift-store décor. “That, I think, is pretty good.”
Florence and the Machine plays a sold-out Commodore Ballroom as part of the Straight Series on Wednesday (April 14).