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BBC Sound of 2009: Florence and the Machine

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Florence and the Machine singer Florence Welch recalls her musical childhood

By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News

Spirited singer-songwriter Florence and the Machine has come third on the BBC's Sound of 2009 new music list.

We are revealing one artist from the top five every day until Friday, when the winner and full top 10 will be announced.

Through the window of a small recording studio in west London, Florence Welch can be seen jumping around like she's on fire, her auburn hair thrashing as she bounces to a raucous drum beat.

There is no-one watching, but Florence is in a world of her own.

In the studio, on stage and on record, Florence is unbridled, expressive and wonderfully weird. Her music is fresh, arresting and accessible - and the combination makes her one of pop's most compelling new voices.

Florence and the Machine

Slightly bonkers singer-songwriters like Kate Bush, Bjork and PJ Harvey are not far-fetched comparisons.

When Florence sings, this innocent 22-year-old is possessed by rock's most restless demons, and channels them though her enigmatic fables about sex, violence, revenge and donkeys.

But the ideas in her fervent imagination can get lost in translation when she talks.

Asked to describe her songs, she decides they sound like the joy of someone being overcome by music after discovering how to play. "Like something being taken over and escaping," she says.

"Taken over and escaping? That doesn't make sense. It sound like an escape I think. Or the end of something. Or things falling over. Falling down."

She continues mulling whether her music is more like "a collapse and then explosion" or "a demolition" or "one of those demolitions where they do it from the inside so it all goes boom" or "a reverse demolition".

Erm, an implosion?

"An implosion!" she explains. "But no. Because it's all external so it would be like an externalised implosion. But that doesn't make sense. I'm just saying random words. I don't know."

Florence inhabits a slightly alternative reality to the rest of us. But it seems like quite a nice if slightly strange place to be.

Florence and the Machine
Florence has won the Brit Awards' Critics' Choice prize for best rising star

She remembers growing up with "musical Tourette's", where she was unable to stop singing.

"My whole primary school life was just a chorus of 'Shut up! She's singing again!' Teachers telling me off," she says.

At home, her family had a giant wooden chest that held their vinyl. "I can remember opening it up and the smell of all the old records," she says.

The young Florence would dance on top of it with her father to Love, The Incredible String Band, The Smiths and The Velvet Underground.

"But my mum only listened to Tom Jones and The Monkees," she says. "And collectively that's what I sound like - Tom Jones, The Monkees, The Velvet Underground and The Incredible String Band."

Asked to name her musical heroes, there is a long pause before she picks Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane because she named her daughter god as a joke.

Florence herself was spotted singing in the toilets at a party by Mairead Nash, one half of DJ duo the Queens of Noize, who is now her manager.

Sing or swim

An early taste of her unpredictable talent came at a gig at the South By Southwest Festival in Texas in March, when she jumped into a pool and then crawled under the stage during her final song.

But the performance impressed US space-rockers MGMT enough for them to ask her to support them on tour.

And her first single Kiss With A Fist may be familiar as the music from a Channel 4 TV trailer.

Many of Florence's songs conjure up warped fantasy, unlike the down-to-earth storytelling of the likes of Lily Allen and Kate Nash.

"They're stories with consequences and weird morality issues," she says.

"I write about love and I write stories and I write about things I've seen or walls or picked up on pieces of paper.

Watch the video for Florence and the Machine's single Dog Days Are Over

"I write about things people have said to me, I write about things I've done. And then it all gets stuck together and it sometimes becomes a story with characters, like a bird or a donkey."

In her live shows, she lets the rest of us into a small nook of her fantasy world, bringing on scary clowns, spelling out her name in flowers above the stage and selling bunting and customised school exercise books at the merchandise stand.

After making waves for the last 12 months, many of Britain's scene-watchers are now willing Florence to fulfil her potential, and she has just won the Brit Awards' Critics' Choice prize for best rising star.

She has recently been putting the finishing touches to her debut album, which will be released by Island Records, home of Amy Winehouse, Mika and U2.

Now, she is ready to bring more of us into her world. So would she like to be a pop star?

"Umů yeah, why not?" she replies with a giggle. "Might as well."

More than 130 leading UK-based music writers, editors and broadcasters took part in Sound of 2009. They named their three favourite new acts and their responses were used to compile the list. Find out more here.

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