Florence Welch has conquered the British music charts. Next stop: America and the Voodoo Music Experience
To 24-year-old Florence Welch, the U.K. chart topper who's in the throes of a U.S. takeover, success is relative. "It's funny because you can be successful in one field, but I still live with my mom because I haven't had time to move out," she tells Gambit. "So there are 24-year-olds out there who are really starting their careers, moving out and being grown-ups and, in some way, I still feel like I haven't really made that step yet. So I'm kind of an unsuccessful 24-year-old in that way."
Welch is doing just fine. The London native and her semi-permanent backing band, which performs under the name Florence + the Machine, earned both critical acclaim and respectable album sales with 2009's eclectic Lungs (Island Records), which topped the U.K. Albums Chart, published in Music Week magazine, in January after spending 33 consecutive weeks in the top 10. Meanwhile across the pond, Welch's music was popping up in movie soundtracks (Jennifer's Body) and TV shows (Gossip Girl, United States of Tara and many others) and was given the nod of approval by discriminating tastemakers Pitchfork (Lungs earned a 7.2 on the site). Florence's popularity spiked after Lungs' exuberant lead single "Dog Days Are Over" appeared in the ubiquitous trailer for the book club favorite-turned-Julia Roberts vehicle Eat Pray Love, but Welch's performance on MTV's Video Music Awards in September solidified her position as The One to Watch. Amid pop cartoons Ke$ha and Lady Gaga — clad in black garbage bags and skirt steak, respectively — Welch was refreshingly free of gimmicks, letting her striking voice trump the theatrics. (Theatrics were not in short supply however, as her performance featured a stage of interpretive dancers backed with a gospel choir.) It also helps that she's a leggy, nearly 6-foot-tall redhead with impeccable fashion sense — she described it in an interview as "Lady of Shallot meets Ophelia ... mixed with scary gothic bat lady" — that has style blogs and magazines abuzz.
Reeling from a post-VMA recharge of fame in the United States — Lungs jumped to the top of the Billboard and iTunes album charts following her performance — Welch is making the press and television rounds, recently chatting with Ellen DeGeneres and brushing rhinestone-studded shoulders with Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino on Dancing With the Stars (she was there to perform "Dog Days," not the tango) while also touring. In anticipation of her performance at City Park Saturday, Oct. 30, at the Voodoo Music Experience, the surprisingly soft-spoken Brit spoke to Gambit.
Gambit: There's been increased interest in you and your music in the U.S. since you performed on the Video Music Awards. How have things been for you since then?
Welch: The VMAs were always going to be a platform, really. I'm just glad it went well and people have seemed to respond pretty well to the music. It was either going to work or, you know, it wasn't. So it seems to have worked. It's great. I'm happy it's gone so well.
You talked in an interview with the New York Post about crying and not sleeping because of nerves before the VMAs. You've performed at awards shows and on television before — what about the VMAs got you so nervous?
I think just because it's a kind of do-or-die moment. It's like it's either going to go really fantastically well, or it's going to completely mess up, and there's no real room for error, and it's so of-the-moment. You really have to give it your all, and it's only like, 2 minutes. It's like the biggest challenge, and at the same time you have to overcome these nerves. I think the fact that it's being beamed out to so many people and it was in front of all my peers and other musicians, it was like, of course it's nerve-wracking!
How did you feel after you finished the performance? Were you relieved?
I was so relieved. I ran down the corridor screaming. We all ran back to the dressing room, and me and my manager and the makeup lady and all my friends, we were there just jumping up and down, just because I was so happy I hadn't fallen over or forgotten a word.
Your songs have appeared in movies and TV shows, most notably in the trailer for Eat Pray Love. What's it like hearing your songs in other contexts?
It's quite nice, actually, because I think if you see something and the visual seems to work really well with the song — that's kind of how I got involved in the Eat Pray Love trailer. I didn't really know much about the film or the book, but when they showed me the trailer and put the music to it, it seemed to work really well together ... with the beautiful landscape shots and the colors with it. I'm really a visual person and ... I'm always interested to see what people think will go with the music because in some way, when you're writing music, you're trying to create a picture or landscape in someone's head and kind of see what people think your music goes with. I mean, sometimes it's just completely wrong. And I always say no. (laughs)
Have you visited New Orleans before?
I've never been. I'm so excited. I'm coming up three days early before the festival so I can explore.
Do you have any specific plans or things you want to do?
We've got a friend who lives down there, so he's going to come show us the ropes. I've heard they've got a really amazing dance scene, so I want to go to dance clubs.
You perform at a lot of festivals. What is it about festivals that you like?
I think it's just the atmosphere, you know, something about the band there and ... everyone's just kind of up for it and up for having a good time and, you know, once you're done you get to hang out — because when you're a musician, your friends are people you meet on the road and at festivals, and it's always a big reunion with bands you've toured with or bands you've played with at other festivals. It's just really fun to kind of hang out.
Are there any bands you're looking forward to seeing at Voodoo?
Yes! MGMT, Drake and Ozzy Osbourne are going to be there, which is the most amazing lineup!
Do you usually get a chance to watch others' performances at festivals?
I love to watch other performances. It's really important to watch other performances and other musicians play because it's inspiring. I think watching other people perform makes you realize that yeah, you love doing that, as well.
If you really love the support band (that's playing with you) it's great, because you get to watch your favorite band every night. And that's why we always choose support bands we love, like we have The Drums, The xx, Babe Shadow. That's something that's great about it, and you all become friends. Everyone kind of inspires each other.
Besides being known for your music, you're also known for your fashion. Do you think the two things have a relationship?
Definitely. Because you're representing your music, it's just another way to express yourself when you're on stage. The more experimental the music, the bigger the stage, the most experimental my outfits are.
Can you give us a hint about what's in store for Voodoo fest? Do you have your outfits picked out? Can we expect a theatrical performance?
I don't know, I haven't gotten quite down to thinking about outfits yet. I'm not quite sure. I'm a huge fan of vintage stage wear, so it might be something long and flowy and vintage. Or, you know, it could go completely the other way and I could be in a leather bat costume. It depends on what the weather's like, I guess.
Yeah, since it's New Orleans, it might be hot.
I'm thinking something long and flowy. I think it's good to wear things that kind of flow around with you on stage and kind of perform with you.
I can't sort of say it's going to be theatrical. It is what it is. It's about expressing the emotion in each song. And it's about really connecting with the people, and getting the audience involved, and you want to try to make each person in the audience feel like you're performing for just them, but at the same time you want to make everyone feel like they're together. That's kind of what I want to do when I'm performing. It's nice to feel like you're all in it together. You want to feel like you, the band and the audience are all connected and having this experience. It sounds kind of hippie, but you know (laughs). And just to be kind of free and experimental and to not feel restrained, and I want to encourage people in the audience to feel that way as well — to let themselves go and I think, especially with me doing that on stage, it encourages people to let go. I think people don't need much persuading. We're probably going to play new material as well.
Are you working on a new album right now?
Yeah, we were doing some writing just before I came out here (to Los Angeles), actually. We were in Soho, which was kind of distracting, because Soho's the hub of London, so every time I step outside the door I always end up getting lost in Soho for a half an hour. But it's fun. At least it's always inspirational.
Lungs has a range of different sounds — "Kiss With a Fist," for instance, sounds a lot different than most of the other songs on there. Have you figured out what your sound is, or will the next album also be eclectic?
Well, I think this album, so far, is just moving forward. I think with the first album, some of it was written when I was 18, some was written when I was 22, and I had gone through a real musical sort of evolution in a way. I kind of moved from one style to the next. I honestly couldn't tell you what I'm going to do next, because it happens quite naturally. Nothing is really planned. It's just kind of whatever I'm interested in then.
When you first started touring in America, how was it, since audiences here were less familiar with you than in the U.K.?
I love performing and playing live shows, and that's how I made my name in England. I was gigging in pubs and clubs with an acoustic guitar for like a year, so that's kind of how I built up a fan base where record labels started to get interested in me. So performing live is really what it's all about for me. I'm glad I got the opportunity to come over here and do that. Obviously I didn't have a year to troll the pubs and clubs, but what's really exciting about the VMAs now is that people are interested and they'll come and see the show live. I think that's where you really understand what the album's about.