January 2011

Visionary Vixen

With singular style, Florence + the Machine blends pipes, passion and heavenly performance

LORRAINE
ALI

florence welch, Florence + the Machine, pop, music NICK KNIGHT

A year ago, it was hard to imagine where the strum of a harp, tribal drums and syncopated hand claps might fit into a music world dominated by the likes of Lady Gaga and her auto-tuned voice. But that was before we learned about ethereal Florence + the Machine.

“People ask, ‘What kind of music do you make?’ ” says Florence Welch, 24, from her London flat. “I don’t know how to answer that. I say it’s choral and soulful, drum heavy and dark...but kind of light. They look at me like, wow, that sounds terrible.”

Then they hear her sing. The nearly six-foot fiery redhead captivated the U.K. in 2009 with her debut album, Lungs, then crept into America’s consciousness via soundtracks including Twilight: Eclipse, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and that ubiquitous Eat Pray Love trailer. A November SNL appearance garnered a standing ovation from host Anne Hathaway, and she wowed at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Now, she’s on the precipice of a Best New Artist Grammy and an eagerly awaited second album.

“I heard Florence just as Lungs was being released in the U.K., and the title isn’t accidental—the girl can sing,” says David Byrne, for whom Welch sang the title track on his tribute to Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love. But amazing as her voice is, he says, her songwriting and arrangements are a huge part of what makes this art-school dropout a compelling and unique force.

Welch created Florence + the Machine (a passel of ses­sion players and friends) in 2007, honing her unique baroque–meets–Siouxsie and the Banshees style in London’s underground clubs and art scene. Her far-flung tastes were influenced as much by her father’s punk-rock collection as by her mother’s job as a professor of Renaissance studies.

“I really like the idea that the Renaissance time echoes ours,” says Welch. “We’re dealing with all of the same things they did—love and death, time and pain, heaven and hell. Those things never go out of fashion. But I like interspersing that with odd mundanities—fill everything up with grandeur, then add something about a kitchen sink.” Clearly, millions of people now agree, including the cast of Glee.

Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina on the Fox series, covered Welch’s breakthrough hit “Dog Days Are Over” on a recent episode. “It’s definitely one of my new favorites,” she says. “It was a challenge because I wanted to keep the integrity of what she has created. She’s brilliant.”

Amazingly, the eccentric frontwoman has never considered herself all that worthy of attention. “I’d love to run down the street in a full-blown ball gown with some sort of floral wreath on my head,” says Welch. “But I’m not that naturally extroverted. I was that kid locked in my room, wearing weird clothes, putting strange objects on my head, doing odd dance moves. My family is quite amused that I do it in front of people now. My bedroom dance has gone global.”

As for that next record? Welch is vague on exactly where it’s going, and she likes it that way. “I don’t want a set format,” she says. “I want to be able to expand and become any entity. It’s mixing up instruments and genres so I never feel contained. Florence + the Machine can be 24 strong or just me and a drum.”

NOW HEAR THIS

SONG: “Na Na Na”
ARTIST: My Chemical Romance

“The goth-glam heroes are back with a garage-style pop nugget—on the album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys—whose righteous infectiousness is telegraphed by its brilliantly nonsensical title. They even add a proggy, theatrical bridge, proving rock ’n’ roll is alive and well—and sporting fuchsia-colored hair.”

Doug Brod
Editor in chief, Spin Magazine

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SONG: “Didn’t It Rain”
ARTIST: Tom Jones

“Welsh singer Jones came to fame as a 1960s crowd-pleaser, but his heart and soul were always in American R&B. Last summer, he showed what he could do with gospel music on his knockout Lost Highway CD, Praise & Blame. This barrel­house version of the traditional ‘Didn’t It Rain’ rocks like a church choir and howls like the wind.”

Tom Nolan
Music author and critic

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SONG: “Poison”
ARTIST: Nicole Scherzinger

“This song, released in the U.K. in November, instantly shot to number one on iTunes. After the Pussycat Dolls’ breakup, we sampled a few of Nicole’s solo songs, but none had the fire of a chart-topping red-hot record. Done by Lady Gaga’s producer RedOne, this will surely put Nicole on the music map in a big way in 2011!”

Julie Pilat
Music director, 102.7 KIIS-FM

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SONG: “La Pasión Según San Marcos”
ARTIST: Osvaldo Golijov

“A decade ago, this ushered in the Latin revolution in classical with Cuban and South American dance styles energizing a dazzling, dark Jesus. Audiences couldn’t believe their ears—or calm their feet. Here, fiery Venezuelan conductor María Guinand makes a modern masterpiece matter more than ever.”

Mark Swed
Music critic, Los Angeles Times