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This bird can sing

The voice of Florence and the Machine carries to the States
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  March 30, 2010

VOCAL OPPONENT: “When I was 14, I started smoking in secret — like, ‘I’ll show you, I’ll ruin my voice!’ ” says Florence Welch. “It was the stupidest rebellion ever.”

For any artist, there comes a time when you must assess just what it is you have to offer the world. For some, it’s their minds; for others, their hands. For æthereal chanteuse Florence Welch, it was a string of brainy pop hits and the lure of her seductive piano work that helped make her a household name in her native England. But ask even a casual fan where Welch’s true talents live and the answer is as plain as the title of her debut: Lungs.

“My voice is the only instrument I actually feel skilled at!” she tells me over the phone as she winds her way through Newark Airport on her way to the start of the debut US tour of her band Florence and the Machine (which includes a sold-out Paradise show this Wednesday). Amid all the scurrying around, she finds a quiet spot in which to reflect on her origins — how she moved from a background of aria recitals to the strange mix of garage-rock howl and bucolic pixie dust that is Lungs (Universal). “You know, singing opera helped me train my voice and improve my range, but I hated the attitude behind it. It was restrictive and nerve-racking — just the idea of being judged for your singing! When I was 14, I started smoking in secret — like, ‘I’ll show you, I’ll ruin my voice!’ It was the stupidest rebellion ever.”

As with so many great British musicians, Welch’s “stupid rebellion” led her to art school (at London’s Camberwell College), where she learned to unlearn the formalist process of her operatic background. The big ideas that she got into in college, however, were coming largely from the garage bands she was seeing in town nightly, as well as the soul music she consumed during all other waking hours. The eventual result of this education was her own batch of howling corkers that stomped a fine line between raging guitar rock and Kate Bush–esque fantasia. Forming a band and naming it the Machine to avoid coming across, as “like, just another girl with a guitar,” she eventually released her first single, “Kiss with a Fist.” Taking the UK by one big soulful storm, it led to Lungs’ topping the charts in 2009.

“Fist” tends to get her labeled as an angry artist, a point with which she takes issue: “It’s not an angry song at all, it’s a celebration of destruction, joyful chaos! To me, my music isn’t angry, it’s more about longing and questioning, obsessing over love and sadness, and euphoria. The sources of your dreams, and your nightmares.” This kind of spectral yearning comes across in the songs she wrote to fill out the album. “Cosmic Love” and “Drumming Song” find her splitting the difference between the music of her childhood and the free spirit her post-opera life has allowed her to be.

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