An Almighty Sound – Florence's Biography

Extracts (prologue and chapter one) from Florence and the Machine: An Almighty Sound by Zoë Howe.

You can also read the Q&A we organised with Zoë earlier this year: CLICK

almighty

 

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (depending on how far away from South London you live) there was a thoughtful, dark-haired little girl called Florence, who dreamed of being a princess. A princess with a difference, but a princess nonetheless. She could even do a mean Lady Diana impersonation on request, so you couldn’t say she hadn’t done her research. Florence was slight, pale and shy – mostly – but she had a powerful voice with a life of its own. She sang every day to her school friends, whether they liked it or not. Sometimes they would tell her to shut up. She probably couldn’t hear them. Florence was a dreamer, she scribbled poems and lyrics into library books as the inspiration struck, dyed her hair pre-Raphaelite red, read Grimms’ fairytales, played in the woods and made up fantastical games, losing herself in her florid imagination, the same imagination that would produce the demons and terrors that would regularly wake her up at night. The only way to transcend them would be singing, and that would never change.

And she’d attain her dream – little did she know that her future held thrilling secrets and golden promises the like of which she could never have anticipated. Admittedly, the only way in England to become a real princess at the time of writing is to try to get hitched to Prince Harry, but Florence did something arguably rather better than that, becoming as she would a high priestess of the festival stage, a conquering queen of pop music, an undisputed style goddess. Yes, one day the little girl who warbled in the corridors of her school in front of a smattering of oft-unimpressed class-mates (“It just came out of my mouth,” she later protests, “and there were good acoustics.”) would share that voice with thousands of people in arenas, stadiums, fields. They would sing her words back to her, words that would articulate how they felt, and they would sway as one to her music, like a multi-coloured and somewhat inebriated field of corn.

All she needed now to complete the picture was a handsome prince. Even a Buttons… But her new life, spent scattering sparkling sounds and wistful words hither and thither, demanded sacrifices she’d never contemplated. The loneliness of the hotel room far from home, Florence would later find, would be the most hollow kind of solitude, and she felt it intensely. But these intense feelings, the terrors and the creeping dread at the dead of night that had plagued her since childhood would simply lead to more words that would touch the hearts of millions who could relate to her gloom (albeit for different reasons; if there were millions of hugely successful pop princesses it would probably take away the gloss) and would be uplifted and exhilarated in turn by the transcendence of her songs.

The Kate Bush of the digital generation, the gloriously witchy Stevie Nicks of the 21st century, these descriptions of the heroine of this book would never appear in any of Grimm’s fairytales. But they appear in her own fairytale, which is just as curious and romantic, just as dark and, if you love Florence, which, if you’re reading this now, I’m hoping you do, every bit as engaging. (And don’t worry, I won’t actually continue writing it as a fairytale; that could get irritating.)

So with a handful of glitter, a swirl of chiffon, a glass-shattering holler and several strange cocktails mixed with a silvery tear or two, let’s stage-dive into the story of Florence + The Machine and celebrate the fiery damsel who rocked the world.

 

“When I was a kid I really didn’t like my name, I wanted something really jazzy like Sarah or Beth…”

 

Yes, Florence Leontine Mary Welch’s name isn’t ‘jazzy’ enough apparently, and the more traditional names ‘Sarah’ and ‘Beth’ are deemed infinitely more exciting. When Florence – known as Leontine to her sister Grace – said she ‘wanted something really jazzy’, there must have been at least a few people expecting her to continue this sentence with ‘like Crazylegs Gillespie’ or ‘Snakehips Muldoon’. Now those are jazzy names. But still, to each his or her own.

And as always, life always seems more tempting on the other side of the fence. But it was on this side of the fence, the Welch side, that was, by most people’s standards, if not ‘jazzy’, then bohemian, curious, cultured, comfortably chaotic, enviably interesting. Florence, named after a great-aunt rather than the Italian city, was born to high-flying parents: Evelyn, a New York academic and later professor of Renaissance Studies, a woman so bright that her younger daughter, Grace, would boast to schoolfriends that her mother had ‘read the dictionary back to front’, and Nick, a frustrated performer himself with a mighty record collection who brought ‘a rock ‘n’ roll element to the family mix’, having lived in a West End squat and hung out with Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band the 101ers.

Nick, of course, is now better known as the advertising executive who’d, no doubt among other things, invented the ‘can you feel the bubbles melt?’ slogan for Aero chocolate, but the influence of his record collection (The Ramones, The Incredible String Band, Fleetwood Mac) on Florence during her childhood cannot be underestimated. He now manages an ‘alternative’ camp-site near well-to-do Tunbridge Wells. Strummer would have been proud.

The hifalutin family connections don’t stop there: Florence’s uncle is the satirist Craig Brown, while her paternal grandfather was former Daily Telegraph deputy editor and Daily Mail parliamentary sketch-writer Colin Welch. Those are some smart, go-getting genes right there. Colin would also contribute some wild-card records to what would become Florence’s own record collection, not least the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It had, as you might imagine, something of an effect on Florence.

“I think one of my first crushes when I was about 10 was Richard O’Brien, in suspenders,” she said. “I don’t know what that says about me. My ideal man would be like a photo-fit of Buddy Holly, Jarvis Cocker, Richard O’Brien and David Bowie. That would be one weird-looking man.” Indeed it would. Especially if you incorporated the suspenders into that picture. But The Rocky Horror Picture Show was also an early influence in a different way: from repeatedly warbling along to the tracks, Florence maintains she taught herself to sing. Not that hearing Florence belt out a few tunes around the house was a particularly rare thing before Rocky Horror came into her life. As a toddler she adored watching musicals and would sing all of the songs in the bathtub “with a red flannel on my head!” And why not?

But back to her parents, it’s clear that Evelyn was always the realist, “so clever it’s mental”, according to Florence, while Nick would be a perennial dreamer. As a result, Florence was left, as only she could put it, “dreaming in reality”. Between Nick and Evelyn, you had all the ingredients for a charismatic child who would be at home in front of an audience, not just because of Nick’s rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities but thanks to Evelyn, who, while not a performer, could cast a spell over a hall packed with students with her passionate, mesmerising lectures about art history. “When she gets on stage to give a lecture she becomes this heightened version of herself. She can suddenly hold the whole room rapt,” Florence would muse. “I think that’s where it comes from. I aspire to something like that, but with music.” Watching her mother give lectures in later years would have a huge effect on Florence, and this and the subsequent ‘educational’ family trips to the gothic churches of Italy planted a love of Renaissance art, and the immortal themes within it – sex, death, love, violence – firmly in her heart. (Her favourite painting was of St Agatha: “this saint who had her breasts cut off and she’s holding them on a plate”.) So the passions of her mother would be passed down to Florence. She saw her father as glamorous and exciting, and always wanted to impress him, but, in Florence’s words, “It’s my mum who had the really rock ‘n’ roll life, and she’s really down to earth and academic.”

*

Evelyn left New York as a young woman, pre-children, finding England more of an appropriate fit. Saying that, she’d also been connected to Andy Warhol’s Factory clique and was a regular, alongside her clearly incredibly groovy father and brother, at the iconic 1970s New York disco Studio 54, beloved by stars including Michael Jackson, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Cher, Salvador Dali and Debbie Harry to name but a few. Florence and her siblings would grow up listening to stories told by her godmother about how, when Evelyn and Nick were first married and staying in New York City with Evelyn’s family, they would be called by name to the front of the queue by none other than Warhol himself, who was, Florence has revealed “in love with my uncle, but in his weird, platonic, ‘I just wanna draw you’ way. The lifestyle was too much of a whirlwind for my mum and she left America.”

“My mum doesn’t really talk about it,” says Florence. “I don’t think she cares that much. She was always more interested with the Renaissance than she was about Studio 54.”

Born in Rotterdam, Holland, on August 28, 1986, baby Florence would arrive home for the first time – home being Camberwell, South London (the place that inspired the name ‘Camberwell carrot’ as a sobriquet for ‘enormous spliff’) – in the height of a sticky English summer. To put it into some kind of cultural context, her birth came just days after the 1986 Notting Hill Carnival, and not long after Chris De Burgh’s quivery-vocaled ‘Lady In Red’ stormed the UK charts, so one could argue that this fateful year which birthed both Florence and this soft-rock hit was simultaneously a good and bad year for British music.

Nick was keen to instill his musical tastes into his new daughter; even in her early months he attempted to get her to sleep by eschewing Brahms’ Lullaby and trying some of his records out on her instead: “Florence, always a difficult sleeper, was often encouraged to nod off by being wheeled around the sitting room in a pushchair to the accompaniment of loud music,” he chortled. “Her earliest subliminal influences include The Smiths, whom she found highly soporific, and Syd Barrett, less so.” Whatever works, Nick, whatever works.

Four years later, Florence’s sister Grace would arrive, and the pair became inseparable companions, as they still are. The two imaginative little girls both loved to indulge in flights of fancy, romantic nostalgia (inspired by what they were reading or which re-runs were on daytime TV) and creativity, making dollhouses out of cereal-boxes and pretending to be the characters in Little House On The Prairie, which involved an impromptu remodeling of their bedroom. However the novelty didn’t last long…

“We made our bunk beds into the house and the whole rest of our room into the Prairie,” Florence reminisced. “There was a towel river and fields of corn made from books. It was really boring actually because the only game we could play was: go out, plough, come home, cook, fish in the towel river…”

When they weren’t playing ‘let’s pretend’ at home, Florence would be dabbling in magic and accessing her inner witch (all girls have got one), slicking on purple lipstick and dying her hair black (she’d already dyed it red when she was 10 – nothing to do with the pre-Raphaelites, rather because she was “obsessed with Rogue from the X Men”). Her witchy preoccupations led her to secretly make candle-lit shrines in her bedroom and try to bewitch boys from afar. “I tried to cast spells to make the boy in the next class fall in love with me. I don’t think he did.”

Or, if she was dragged out on a shopping trip, she’d be doing her other favourite thing: dancing in supermarkets. It was an activity that Florence took to with great aplomb, although her sister needed a little more encouragement, to say the least.

“(The supermarket is) such a strange place because no one will look at you,” Florence said. “Everything has such order and everyone is so focused on what they’re doing that no one ever pays attention to you spinning and dancing around.”

Grace Welch: “I remember her dragging me and running down the aisles. My dad had to get them to call out, ‘Would Grace and Florence Welch please come to the front of the store?’ That’s one of my earliest memories of being really humiliated.”

London life seemed to suit the growing Welch family – brother JJ would arrive a few years later – and the Europhile matriarch of this colourful brood was in her element in London. However, Nick had been rather more thrilled by the glamour and glittering nightlife of New York. When they were first married, he was excited by the prospect of living in America and, according to Florence, when he discovered Evelyn’s enviable connections ‘he thought, “Ok, this is going to be fun…”

However, despite staying in the ramshackle and often distinctly unglittering London of Thatcher’s Eighties, there would be plenty of opportunities to escape to the sandy haven of Long Island, where Evelyn’s parents lived, and enjoy a rather more family friendly version of what New York City had to offer…. even if most of Florence’s early memories of being on Long Island were rather, well, grey… And there was a ghost house, naturally. This is a book about Florence, if there wasn’t a ghost house within the first few pages you’d surely be wondering what was going on…

“I remember these grey beaches with this spiky seaweed that hurt your feet and stretches of grey coast with this huge abandoned grey house in the distance,” Florence recalled. “It was a massive mansion, one of those big wooden ones. But it was a ghost house. We had a house on the beach miles down, but you could see, well, this big grey house with shutters. It was incredible. And that sensation of the pain from walking on spiky seaweed…”

 

Florence might well have had an American passport as well as a British one, but at her core she was as English as a cream tea: porcelain-skinned and green-eyed, softly spoken, elemental and emotional with an unquenchable spark of fire in her heart. Admittedly these words don’t always spring to mind when English people are being described these days – drunk, boorish and lairy tend to be more widespread – but if you were looking for the quintessential English rose, you only had to look at the young Florence, as in touch with nature as a folk song heroine, as fascinated by the curious romanticism of junk shop Victoriana as she was the vivid melancholia of the pre-Raphaelites. And yes, when she got a little older, occasionally drunk too. And of course, always singing, whether drunk or not. Yes, the singing, believe it or not, could be a bone of contention. “It annoyed my family so much because it was constant,” Florence would later confess, and her father Nick cheerfully admits that many was the time he begged his daughter to “put a sock in it”. Well, don’t blame her. Apparently it’s all God’s fault…

Florence was never particularly religious, although she has always been fascinated by the high drama and “smoke and gold” of Catholicism (she was deeply disappointed when she was told by her father that she was actually C of E). Either way, the first music that truly inspired her at a young age would be the hymns that she sang at school, first at the historic, expensive Thomas’ London Day School in Battersea in south west London, and later at the exclusive Alleyn’s – school motto ‘God’s Gift’ – in leafy, middle-class Dulwich, a South London suburb. Posh? Relatively speaking, yes, although naturally Florence denies this hotly, insisting, “It’s not like I have tea with the Queen.”

Hard as it may be to imagine now, with her endlessly long limbs, slender physique and style icon status, Florence has described herself as a “short, chubby” kid at school and not at all ‘cool’. What’s more, the logistical side of school life could often be tricky, particularly as Florence is dyspraxic, which meant coordination and organisation could be a challenge, leading to Florence feeling self conscious and ‘different’ to everybody else: “My mum describes it as not thinking in the most linear way. I’m not very logical. I always go for the most extreme option. I take things and turn them into something that perhaps they aren’t.”

So she particularly looked forward to the daily escape that hymn-singing in assembly could bring. These spiritual songs, full of dark warnings or transcendent messages that would often be lost in the mixed-up din of school-age voices, sparked Florence’s curiosity, and the communal choral singing experience would be one she would later repeat in her own music. From the first time she opened her hymn-book to sing, flanked by her jostling school-mates, little Florence, who was normally so quiet, would throw her body and soul into it, losing herself in the music.

“Singing takes over your whole body and your brain,” she said. “It’s like coming back from a weird place every time you stop. I remember singing hymns at school and people in front of me turning around and looking at me funny, I must have been singing loudly.” We can only hope she wasn’t inspired to attempt one of her now trademark crowd-surfs. Anyway, hymns. You were saying?

“It’s nice to mix the mundane and the magical, the irrelevant with the huge themes. Sex, love, death, marriage, guilt – mix that with seeing a huge sky or going for a walk or turning the page of a book. Living is dealing with the everyday and the notion that you’re going to die.”

 

Big themes indeed, and themes that would stay in her heart, informing her creative decisions and inspiring her art, music and lyrics in years to come. School plays would also give Florence an outlet for her raw, powerful young voice. During her early years at Thomas’ Day School she was in her element on stage in the Great Hall, which had been converted into a theatre. No damp Portacabins or giving your best Virgin Mary portrayal amid the PE apparatus here. What’s more these performances gave her something to channel her musical energies into, because by the age of seven she already had what she described as “musical Tourette’s”…

Comments

Flombie1 says:

Nareszcie, doczekałem się!
Świetna strona.

WHAT THE HELL IV - ogólnopolski oficjalny zlot fanów Florence + The MachineSZCZEGÓŁY

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