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A Quietus Interview

Florence Welch Interviewed: Rage Against The Machine
Laura Snapes , October 21st, 2009 09:56

We'd tell you Florence & The Machine were this year's T'Pau if it wasn't such a disservice to Carol Decker. Laura Snapes dons her iron shod wellies

"At times he got on my nerves, like all artists who think themselves loftier or more profound simply because they didn't know what electricity is."

Observed through the eyes of Max Frisch's tirelessly theoretical Walter Faber in 1957, some things never change. Though when referring to Florence Welch, perhaps switch "at times" for "every bloody time her sub-Evanescence squawl blares from the radio". Queen of all that's supposedly hip and ethereal, and so unrestrainedly passionate that she just can't help but scale speaker stacks because "flight is what I aspire to!", Florence listens to music through a Walkman. Well of course she bloody does.

"I can show it to you," she says, digging through a gaping handbag to find a battered CD player. "Not like a tape player, but a Walkman. This is how I listen to music." Surely that means you have to carry around a lot of CDs? "Yeah," she says, producing Sonic Youth's Goo and a still shrink-wrapped Nina Simone compilation. "But I can't fucking work iPods, any kind of technology past the 90s seems to break on me."

A couple of observations: firstly, how stupid do you have to be to not be able to work an iPod? It'd be nice to be able to somehow justify that she's clearly not an idiot, but what's still to come might seem to negate that. However, it seems that Welch is a willing victim of the post-MySpace obsession with fetishizing technical ineptitude, thus somehow proving that your unbridled creativity knows no quantifiable or rational bounds. Cynicism aside though, willingly embracing this attitude to the modern age leaves her in a dangerous position with regard to the trials facing music this century.

A few days before we spoke, Lily Allen had attacked the FAC, saying that "emerging artists don't have [the] luxury" of a lucrative back catalogue to rely on in the wake of illegal downloading, so it seemed sensible to ask Florence her thoughts on the matter. Given that groups of talking heads, international government commissions and the musicians themselves can't come up with a workable solution, it would've been unreasonable to expect her to find a cure for the multi-million pound industry plague in the boxy grey dressing room of an O2 Academy. But as the conversation turns from her much-lauded aesthetic to a serious issue, she's uneasy, if not incoherent.

"Um . . . I don't know. I mean, I think . . . It's definitely like . . . It's just hard isn't it, it's like, I mean, I completely understand, but it's a struggle if it's an unknown band, it's kind of like, a bit shitty to go and download their music, you're really like, wouldn't be helping to support them and stuff, but if massive, massive bands are making… but I suppose they're the ones who get affected the most, because most people… It's a very complicated issue. I'm not really sure.

"I just think that music is to be shared . . . It's to be . . . The reason you play music is to . . . is for people to hear it, you know what I mean? I'm not like, endorsing it, I dunno."

Maybe she was having an off day. Perhaps the tribulations of perpetual touring, skipping barefoot across stages and clambering up the speakers of Europe's many festivals had left her feeling a little deflated by the end of the summer. Also, it's possible that rigorous major label media training would leave her up shit creek if she were to voice an unscripted opinion on a contentious issue like this, if she actually has one. It's equally possible that you think me callous or pedantic for nit-picking at the inconsistencies and contradictions of her self-projection, but in person, she's undeniably at odds with the apparently vivacious, individualistic spark portrayed in the press.

Whether or not the stories about her belting out songs in bar lavvies and being a generally arty kook about town in her pre-Island, starving artist days are label/journalistic construction shouldn't matter — the fact that she's happy to indulge what certainly appears to be the public's false image and preconceptions of her indicates a phoniness that's supposedly the antithesis of what Florence and, although I bite on my tongue hard as I write this, Little Boots, La Roux and this apparent new wave of honest, empowered and creative female popstars supposedly embody. But even if La Roux's music is total bobbins, at least she's entertaining in person. Elly Jackson recently joked to the Guardian about wanting gak for breakfast, obviously disliking Lady Gaga and deriding the notion that "the only way to sell records is to be in Closer every week." For all Florence's onstage bolshiness, you'd expect her to take any opportunity to be outspoken and prove her mettle. The Heidelberg phenomenon this ain't.

One of the Spice Girls once said that until she was in the music business it seemed as though popstars lived in a box and were taken out and spruced up for a ten minute spot on Live and Kicking, then put away again. That's exactly how it seemed when I was a young pop fan in the 90s: girl power was groundbreaking, and there seemed little concept of the pop star as anything than a commodity (though that's very much retrospective analysis) - certainly not a proper person with any emotional capacity or function outside of their work. Florence seems to agree.

"I think now the boundaries between popstar and musician are becoming blurred, and I think that's a really good thing because it allows you to experiment with like, a look, or a style of performance, but still retain your musical integrity. You don't have to have one or the other now, you can have both."

It's amazing isn't it, these liberal cultural conditions in which we live that permit credible musicians such as Florence to carve out a niche look to accompany their music? Vanguard even. Harking back to those darkest of eras, the 80s, and possibly even the 70s and the 60s too, it's almost unfathomable how those celebrated musicians plied their wares in coats of practically Amish modesty. Oh, wait. There's Ringo Starr in a neon military jacket on the front of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club, circa ‘68. And a chap called Bowie with a lightning bolt interrupting his pale stare.

The artists Florence cites as evidence for the unlikely meeting of style and creativity? La Roux, Glasvegas, The XX and The Horrors. All pretty unique and ahead of their game.

And defining herself as a popstar, she thinks she exemplifies the point where style meets talent? Her total lack of cultural awareness makes it seem all the more probable that she's a spoilt posh girl with a host of "yes" men at her disposal who's been allowed to put the metaphorical interest pony up for sale when she inevitably gets bored of it. When asked what her albums of this decade are (she's been primed for this), she mentions Pulp's This Is Hardcore [1997] and Green Day's Nimrod [1997] amongst the debuts from The XX, Arcade Fire, Beirut and Klaxons, and can't say much about them other than dancing around their "haunting emotions". Being a former student of Camberwell College of Arts and the recipient of some serious art historian lineage doesn't stop her from bumbling about Ed Ruscha, Tracy Emin, "trawling markets . . . finding interesting objects . . . walking, and like, collecting things like old dresses and old paintings" when given the opportunity to talk at length on the non-musical subject of her choosing for The Quietus' 'Things I Have Learned' feature.

Still searching aloud for a strong love of anything to articulate, of her magpie-like tendencies to accumulate interesting trinkets on tour she says: "There's a Chinese dressing gown, a shawl, a chintzy lamp that we take around with a picture of the Virgin Mary [on it]." Suddenly animated, a temperament flares through. "None of this stuff is here though! Which I'm cross about, we've got to find it. At art college, I was obsessed with making my environment like home. I think you should always surround yourself with beautiful things, and have beautiful things to look at. I'm really obsessed with the way things look, and the positioning of stuff, like even on the stage and around me, I think you should always create an environment where you feel like, it's beautiful and romantic."

So why bother getting your knickers in a twist over the inarticulate ramblings of a pop star who'll eventually be remembered as little more than a cipher of that laughable period in music where being female developed into its own genre? Of course it doesn't really matter that she can't explain why her favourite albums of the decade mean so much to her, and if you don't want to hear her over-dramatic warbling, she's easy enough to avoid. But it's the pretence that grates, the hollow emptiness and lack of any coherent reasoning behind her ridiculously lauded aesthetic, all these vague allusions to beauty that try to appear weighty but fail. Perhaps a shock of electricity would be just the cure for her listlessness. Ambition should surely be made of sterner stuff.

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