Inside the mind of Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw

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      Florence Shaw’s favourite book—at the moment, at least—is Baby, I Don’t Care. It’s a biting collection of poems by Chelsey Minnis that riffs on Old Hollywood romance with lines like, “Darling, you have such a soft belly/I always want to cut a soft belly/I can’t help it/No, don’t try to get away.” It’s gloriously unhinged, flirty, and self-reckoning, all at the same time. 

      “I love all those themes mixed together. I can definitely relate. It’s declarations of love and then, like, go away and leave me alone,” the vocalist for Dry Cleaning says with a laugh, speaking to the Straight over Zoom. 

      Because isn’t that exactly what falling in love can feel like? That strange exchange between blissed-out euphoria and heart-dropping-into-your-stomach terror that, Shaw continues, comes with allowing yourself to be so vulnerable to someone and then quickly hating that person on some level—“wanting to eliminate them!”—because they’ve now bared witness to a hidden-away part of yourself. 

      Like Minnis, Shaw also has an incredible knack for observing and then excavating the intimate details that fill the spaces of everyday life, turning them into poetic monologues that are poignant and barbed and tender. It’s one of the hallmarks of the South London, England postpunk band, the thing that gives it such character. That originality is in large part due to Shaw’s avant-garde and conversational delivery that vocalizes those slightly absurd but very real thoughts that are stacked and stored in the back of one’s mind. 

      It was the magic ingredient that brought Dry Cleaning to life when guitarist Tom Dowse convinced his friend, Shaw—an artist and college lecturer who taught drawing—to join his new group. Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard, and drummer Nick Buxton had played in various bands for years, but the addition of Shaw’s almost soothing spoken-word to their musical miscellany of jazz, funk, punk, and alternative rock would change everything. 

      “I think it's a lot about the contrast, the music we make,” Shaw considers. “In a way, if either of them stood on their own, it doesn't feel like quite as valuable a thing, somehow. It feels like our band is more than the sum of its parts, because we care a lot about the vocals and the music sparring with each other, especially in terms of the emotional quality. 

      “And often we'll be doing quite opposite things. You know, if the music's romantic, sometimes the vocal will be a bit aggressive or almost defensive. Then, sometimes, if the music is more sarcastic or spiky, often the vocal will be a bit more tender. And so I think that's what it offers. It's a counterpoint, but vice-versa, as well.” 

      That duality has resonated. Dry Cleaning’s debut album, New Long Leg, was released in 2021 to universal acclaim; last year’s follow-up, Stumpwork, expanded on its spunky sound, rounded the edges of loss and grief with humour, and made Dry Cleaning one of the most-watched new bands in the world. The group was raved about in Pitchfork and The New York Times, and headlined sold-out rooms across continents and back again.  

      Considering that, prior to all this, Shaw had never been in a band before in her life, it has felt like somewhat of a strange dream to the frontwoman. On the day we speak, Dry Cleaning is at La Tulipe in Montreal, where it kicks off the North American leg of its tour. Guitars pang intermittently in the background as Shaw sits, knees pulled up to her chest and long hair tucked behind her ears, on the floor of the venue’s foyer. She’s getting much more comfortable with the whole thing now, she laughs. 

      It’s the layers of nuance in Shaw’s intonation, though, that makes her lyrics cut right to the bone in a way that reveals something universally human. Her voice floats along a lower register as she speaks, sighs, hums, and sometimes sings, giving seemingly mundane lines searing depth. On “Kwenchy Kups,” she murmurs, “Things are shit, but they’re gonna be okay/And I’m gonna see the otter/There aren’t any otters”; on “Gary Ashby,” a song about a lost family pet tortoise, she laments, her tone lifting, “Are you stuck on your back without me?”

      Her approach, Shaw explains, is informed by assuming a character that channels a rawer part of herself. “I think I'm trying to access something that I tend to hide, out of a lack of confidence. So, maybe, I'm searching for a very confident person or a very steadfast person that I think I am not able to be in my normal life.” 

      She continues, “Sometimes I like to inhabit completely different characters as well, depending if I've met somebody or overheard something that I think is really interesting. It's a bit of a mash-up, but it's changing subtly all the time—which is sort of what's exciting about it at the moment: I'm gaining more confidence, performance-wise, and that's kind of changing it, as well.” 

      Before she joined Dry Cleaning, Shaw had a habit of collecting sentences that she found intriguing or unintentionally entertaining; stuff she’d come across on a hand-written sign or advertising copy. She still does, but much as her approach to performance is evolving with more experience, this practice has, too. She incorporates it into her writing less directly now, and rather uses it more as a creative prompt. 

      “When something interests you, sometimes you're not sure why and it's fun to try to pick it apart,” Shaw notes. “Like, what is it about this sentence, or this way of speaking, or this thing I heard someone say that I love so much? And then you try to work out what that is and write more things like that. I categorize and dig into things a lot.” 

      This brings to mind a lyric on “Icebergs,” the final track on Stumpwork: “For a happy and exciting life/Locally, nationwide, or worldwide/Stay interested in the world around you.” It also highlights the heart of the album—the staggering power of daily minutiae—and how little things really add up to something much bigger. 

      Though not explicitly or obviously, this was greatly informed by the loss of bassist Maynard’s mother, Susan, who passed away while Dry Cleaning was writing Stumpwork. Susan, Shaw says, really nurtured the band from the start. She let them rehearse in her garage for free and would feed them. The loss was very emotional, for everyone, and it inevitably steeped through the writing. 

      “I think it actually brought us a lot closer,” Shaw opines. “I think we thought about each other's emotional lives a lot more than we had before. A lot of that wound up on the record, quite tender things or things that are sort of naked or raw. All those thoughts you only really have around a grieving period, where it's about how to talk to people who are grieving and how to deal with your own grief and those funny little worries you can have, like, what should you say, or what should you not say, or when should you talk about it?” 

      At the same time, maintaining a sense of humour became absolutely essential. Case in point: Stumpwork’s cover art, which features a foamy bar of soap with the album’s title in pubic-haired cursive. It’s incredibly intimate—and also hilarious. 

      “That's what we spend most of our time doing, telling jokes, trying to make each other laugh,” Shaw says. “And it became even more important, during the last few years.” 

      Dry Cleaning play at the Rickshaw Theatre on Tuesday (January 17). 

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