Londoner Florence Welch is poised for a stratospheric career boost thanks to a self-penned song about the gut-wrenching twists of a psychologically intense relationship, 'A Kiss With A Fist'.
The protagonists in Welch's tale of a dysfunctional relationship are evenly matched, for this is a singer songwriter as far removed from the Leona Lewis school of relationship drama as you could imagine. There will be no clifftop performances in ballgowns from Welch.
"You hit me once, I hit you back" starts the track before rapidly ramping up the stakes and ending with the singer setting fire to the combatants' shared bed. Stark, dramatic and infectious, it recalls the theatrics of Siouxsie Sioux and the spiky attitude of early Slits; in three minutes, it demonstrates more backbone than most of the current crop of female singers put together.
A drop-out from Camberwell Art School, 22-year-old Welch is part of the NME Shockwaves tour that barrels into Glasgow next weekend. Along with Glasvegas, Friendly Fires and White Lies, Florence and the Machine, as her band are known, represent the music mag's tips for stardom in the coming year. Welch has also been anointed as the Critic's Choice for this year's Brits. Good going since she had only released two singles on an independent label at the time. She's now working on her debut album for Island.
Florence and the Machine are completely different from the lads with guitars that characterise the rest of the NME show line-up. Cut from a more colourful cloth than the other groups, it would be fascinating to hear her contributions to the interband chat as the tour bus rolls up and down the country. It's probably safe to assume that Welch will be the only songwriter telling her tour mates that she draws inspiration from werewolves.
"When I was a kid, I was physically afraid of monsters and ghosts, vampires and werewolves," she explains carefully. "It was a scary couple of years and I don't know if I am over it yet. I've toned it down but I still have to wake up at night and turn the light on. Now I translate it into songs and try to become the werewolf."
A mix of everything from Grimm's fairy tales and art to allegory and doomed romance, her songs weave in and out of fact and fantasy, myth and the mundane. She calls her track 'Dog Days Are Over' a "stolen song" as it blends ideas from an installation by the artist Ugo Rondinone with graffiti and various legends about Sirius, the dog star, said to be able to affect the mood of animals.
The video for the single features a crumpled Welch waking up to the aftermath of what looks like a Hallowe'en party for woodland animals but, just as it seems as though reality has triumphed and fantasy banished, she is kidnapped by creepy clowns. When Welch says "that the dream world and the real world are porous" it isn't hard to see where her work comes from.
There is a strong gothic and even morbid sensibility running through Welch's work. As a child she was obsessed by Victoriana and Jack the Ripper. For a while, she convinced herself that she was a witch and read up extensively on the occult. By way of contrast, some of her earliest memories of singing are of her time in a school choir. Childhood singing trips to churches still haunt her and influence how she thinks about her songs now.
"You can't get a better feeling, that sheer gothic power, of singing in a choir in church," she sighs. "It's euphoric and terrifying and sad all at the same time, and that's something that I always want to come across in my songs."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Welch had a very active imaginary life as a teenager. Her earliest songs were all about romances that she had never had. Daydreaming about perfect boyfriends is hardly a unique experience among teenage girls but Welch's mooning had a further twist.
"In my head, I would go straight to the imaginary break-up before I had even had the imaginary relationship. It was imaginary heartbreak. These romances instantly went bad. I would bring up all these feelings of loss and desolation before I had even had a boyfriend."
It follows that Florence and the Machine gigs are turbulent, engaging affairs. With titles such as 'My Boy Builds Coffins', you know that her songs are always going to display a little more imagination than, say, Lady GaGa's 'Boys, Boys, Boys' but, for Welch, the actual performance is at least as important as the content of the songs themselves.
Her accoustic spot at the BBC Showcase at last year's opinion shaping South By South West festival in Texas was made memorable by Welch diving into the venue's pool mid-song, returning dripping wet to polish off the last verse and then trying, unsuccessfully, to exit the stage by crawling underneath it. Her actions earned her a tour support slot with fellow mentalists MGMT, and an appearance in the video for their single, 'Kids'. Admittedly, her SXSW performance is an extreme example but it underlines the unpredictable theatricality of her shows.
"Performing is what makes songs come alive for me," she reckons. "You can live through songs on stage. You never know how they are going to affect you or other people until you are performing them and they are out there. Being able to convey an emotion onstage and being able to give something is what is important."
Although she looks uber confident in front of the microphone, Welch is understandably less flamboyant away from it. She is a fun and open interviewee who can see the humorous side in some of her more outlandish statements but says that real life can be quite awkward and that she handles it quite badly. On stage she is more comfortable because she is in charge and can direct what happens. A recurring theme is that being on stage offers her a form of escape.
"Singing and living through songs and stories allows you to control life for that time when you are on stage because you know what is coming next. You can lose yourself in it but you are in control. You can step out of yourself and away from the drudgeries of everyday life. When I do a show, I want everything to be magical."
The last time Welch did a show in Edinburgh was in November. She fell in love with the city. The historic atmosphere helped, as did playing in the subterranean vaults of Cabaret Voltaire. However, what really swung it for her was stumbling across a shop selling swords.
"It had a sale on," she grins. "What kind of city has shops that not only sells swords but sells them on sale?"
Naturally she bought one. Foolishly, I ask why.
"They're great for werewolves," she deadpans. v
The NME Shockwaves tour plays Carling Academy, Glasgow, Friday and Saturday www.myspace.com/florenceandthemachinemusic
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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