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Florence and the Machine’s Spooky Pop

Vampire-loving UK singer hits Top 20, makes fans of U2, Kanye West

Josh Eells Mar 11, 2011
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Florence Welch, the 24-year-old redhead who performs under the name Florence and the Machine, seems to dwarf every stage she graces, even in inevitably bare feet. Which is why it’s a little surprising to find her backstage before a recent New York gig, looking willowy, delicate and defiantly un-gigantic. She seems to have heard this before: “People always expect me to be, like, seven feet tall,” she says, laughing. “But I’m actually quite normal-sized!”

Blame it on her pipes. Welch’s voice is a force of nature ”“ Olympian, mighty. Live, her lip-sync-free pyrotechnics blow bigger names out of the water (see the 2010 VMAs), while her debut, 2009’s Lungs ”“ with its mix of chamber-pop gems (”˜Dog Days Are Over’) and Kate Bush-y gothic ballads (”˜My Boy Builds Coffins’) ”“ has earned her fans as diverse as Beyoncé and U2, who are bringing her on tour in 2011. And last month, she earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.

Welch grew up in middle-class South London, a quiet, book-loving kid who was enamoured with witches (she once started a coven), vampires (she drew crosses on her bed to ward them off) and fantasy books. “I was pretty odd!” she says. She still likes sneaking into graveyards to “commune with the spirits,” and she says that “places that are supposed to be scary I just find really peaceful.” It’s this blend of the innocent and the spooky that makes her songs so affecting. As Welch says, “I’m still pretty weird ”“ but at least now I can use it to my advantage.”

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Weirdness aside, being cool is practically encoded into her DNA. Her art-professor mom was a regular at Studio 54, and her dad is an ex-punk who used to frequent the same squat parties as Joe Strummer. She learned to sing Italian operas at age 11 and grew up listening to everything from Martha and the Vandellas to the Velvet Underground ”“ but it wasn’t until a stint at art school that she decided to pursue singing full-time. She was signed by her now-manager in 2006, after Welch cornered her in the bathroom of a London pub.

Lungs draws on a variety of influences ”“ from the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone to rapper Lil Mama to Welch’s breakup with her magazine-editor boyfriend. (They’re back together now.) Her best songs, like the raucous domestic-violence allegory ”˜Kiss With a Fist,’ are about the intersection between love and pain; Welch’s trick is making that sound like a nice place to be.

After tonight’s show ”“ whose guest list includes two Strokes and roughly half the cast of Gossip Girl ”“ she’s backstage with a flute of champagne, singing Justin Bieber’s ”˜Baby’ and then bouncing to Nicki Minaj in four-inch heels. Next week, she is heading back to London to start working on her second LP, which is shaping up to be “tougher-sounding.” “I’m trying to keep things simple,” she says with a sigh, “but we always end up putting a million things on.” Then she laughs, and utters what could be her mission statement: “You’re always sort of incorrigibly yourself.”

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