The art-pop of Florence and the Machine

Florence and the Machine's mad art-pop will be 2009's most beautiful noise, says Sylvia Patterson

It's not every day you see a pop star standing on their head in the middle of a library in Lancaster but today is that very day. Florence Welch, 22, hoists her skinny, grey-denim-clad legs into the air above her grey and white striped T-shirt, ropes of peachy-red hair splaying outwards on the wooden floor. "Urgh!" she squawks, upside down, then keels over, gets up again and turns her manically wandering attention to her homemade multicoloured five-foot-long funeral wreath made of artificial flowers spelling out "FLORENCE". Hoisting this into the air, she affixes it to the Large Print section shelves which provide tonight's backdrop for her band, Florence And The Machine, comprising drummer, keyboard player and harpist, with Florence on howling vocals and a stand-up military drum. (Here in historic Lancaster, this is a winning council ruse to showcase new music, with other recent library sets from Bat For Lashes and Adele.)

First, though, we must go to a nearby pub and Florence knows the way; except she doesn't, striding at a mighty clip for 15 minutes in exactly the wrong direction, gab-gab-gabbing all the way, until we're almost out into the countryside. The pub, it turns out, is 100 yards away from the library and Florence is always getting lost ("In a wormhole, sometimes for days!" she laughs). Florence, of course, is not yet technically a pop star — her debut album isn't due until May 2009 and probably won't be entitled Fuck The Cake, Take The Ice Cream And I Think I Just Punched The Waiter (though that's one of its joke titles) — but she will be soon enough and the pop world will rejoice.

The world hasn't seen this kind of profoundly eccentric folk-art minstrel since Kate Bush trilled "Hello sky! Hello trees!" and skipped barefoot over the hillocks in the late-70s in a frock made out of fairy wings (though, in Florence's case, this would be wings torn from mutilated dead fairies, with their eyes poked out). After Amy, Lily, Kate, Adele and all the idiosyncratic souls of the London chanteuse uprising, Florence Welch is a different kind of bonkers; a posho art school bohemian whose pulverising blues-pop contains no trace of a chirpy "innit", more visceral Grimms' Fairy Tales set in a Twilight Zone troubled by donkeys, birds and coffins.

This year, she's released two singles on the independent Moshi Moshi label (once home to Hot Chip and Kate Nash). The first was the clattering skiffle-pop Kiss With A Fist — with lyrics about slapping and plate-smashing — a song that has been read as a comment on domestic violence. Florence is adamant it's not, though. "If you're a writer, you're just expressing your perception of what's going on," she says. "These songs are all about highs and really intense lows ..." Then there's the thumping drums and yodelling yelps of new single Dog Days (a song Adam Ant would approve of). Now signed to Island Records, home of Amy Winehouse, Florence looks set set to skip barefoot through 2009 as a sort of surreal-folk PJ Harvey with lungs the size of the bellowing sails on an 18th-century ship.

From Camberwell, south London, she was discovered singing Motown covers in a nightclub toilet, drunk, by Mairead Nash of DJs/promoters turned 6Music presenters Queens Of Noize (she's now her manager), is friends with Jack Peñate and Daisy Lowe, and receives freebies from the tooth-witheringly cool fashion label PPG.

"God the fashion world's a terrifying one, isn't it?" she blinks, terrified, now safely inside the elusive pub wearing a white crocheted cape and pale blue felt beret. "If you're in fashion you can go out of fashion. If you keep trying to move away from fashion … it'll keep following you!"

Then again, it's also a jolly good laugh. This year, she pretended to be the other Queen Of Noize, Tabitha Denholm (who was ill) at a Donatella Versace party in her mansion in Milan. "And Jay-Z and Beyoncé turned up!" shrieks Florence. "We played (hollers beautifully) 'Ah got a woman way over town that digs on me!' (Ray Charles's I Got A Woman) and Jay-Z leaned over the decks and went, 'Yeeeaaah!' and him and Beyoncé were dancing with the weird Versace crowd and I was like, 'This! Is! Ah-May-Ziiiing!' Even though ... I'm slightly unambitious, you know? I'm quite happy to bimble around. In the Twilight Zone. And go off on a tangent. And think, 'I saw a really great pigeon today!'"

Florence used to be "a little punk", a Nirvana/Green Day obsessive who went to her inaugural Reading Festival on her 13th birthday wearing "pink fairy wings and a padded bra. Faaaack!" By the time she reached art school, she was obsessed with the White Stripes, Billie Holiday and the Mexican Day Of The Dead, which inspired a floral installation shrine. Today, unlike so many musical contemporaries, she believes in the power of the metaphor, finding the literal lyrics of Amy, Lily and Kate Nash "would make me feel too exposed. They're braver than me; a fantasy world is easier to live in." You'd imagine, though, she sees the human condition as a bleak one?

"I think it's a way of sort of tackling my own … demons maybe?" she husks, her perpetually trilling voice suddenly dropping to a shady whisper. "If I can lay them out in my characters or in animals it's just a way of maybe … confessing. Or expressing something that I couldn't say literally. You can be fastidiously moral when you're a kid. And when you come to this period it's a lot to do with developing your own sense of morality. And that's where a lot of conflict comes in."

Born, as she was, with excess energy, an overactive imagination and an inner colour contrast turned up to 11, she can also be as silent as the night, especially after a particularly dramatic performance. "It's just not wanting to be exposed any more, or give out any more," she decides. "I'll burrow away."

Florence is a jubilant giggler and prone to telling you stories about "the time I pretended to be a lampshade for two hours". Or the fancy dress party she went to in a hospital "where I carried a crumpled-up photocopy of my face in a jar and was dressed as Eleanor Rigby". Simultaneously, she's a lifelong bad sleeper who suffers "night terrors" and hallucinations where demons sit on her chest. When the demons come, sometimes she'll get up in the night and raid local skips "for old paintings" which she'll hang in her bedroom which looks like an olde art curator's curiosity shop wallpapered with newspaper headlines from the second world war. Singing, meanwhile, makes her "vibrate". If she seems like a magnificently wayward beatnik poet flailing on a chaise longue in Andy Warhol's Factory, her parents would probably agree. Her English dad's a Beatles fan who works in advertising and drives a camper van while her New Yorker mum is an art historian and academic author.

As a child, Florence would be taken on artistically educational trips to Italy, shown around "endless gothic churches" and shown the odd martyrdom masterpiece, like the one of St Agatha, "this saint who had her breasts cut off and she's holding her breasts on a plate". Her mum was, she notes, "part of the whole Studio 54 thing", the mythologically hedonistic New York nightclub beloved of the art-set glitterati of the 1970s and 80s. Her American uncle was one of them, an actor. "Andy Warhol was in love with my uncle," she avers, "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. It's weird for me now; she takes a really 'I don't wanna talk about your music, I care about you', attitude, trying to keep me grounded."

Up on the makeshift library stage, Florence is wearing a white, gauzy, trumpet-sleeved smock-top with golden sequins glued on her face, banging her beloved drum, howling beautifully, copper tresses spiralling like a whirligig. Her merchandise stall is a "Flo-Boutique" specialising in customised notebooks, mirrors and bunting all bearing the Florence motif of a birdcage, a free bird and some leafy twigs, the kind of irresistibly twee, indie-kid ephemera which defined the 1980s for some. Florence serenades the surrounding books before a parting life-affirming instruction from underneath the floral wreath which will mourn her future death (though not before, definitely, she's a pop star first). "You can," she cackles, as an art-folk banshee must, "do whatever you want!"

• Dog Days Are Over is out on Dec 1


Sylvia Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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