Return of the wild she-wolves

Florence's new album is inspired by devilry, science and horses. Eccentric? She's part of a great tradition

Watch Florence and the Machine's album launch gig at the Hackney Empire live on the Guardian tomorrow night, sponsored by Sky Arts

A couple of winters ago, just before of the launch of her second album, I interviewed Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes. We sat in a chilly studio in London eating HobNobs while she told me how her new songs had been inspired by the Karate Kid, the Wizard of Oz and an alter-ego named Pearl. It wasn't the most straightforward of albums – rather, as the accompanying press release explained, Two Suns was "a record of modern-day fables exploring dualities on a number of levels".

And so we talked about those fables, and about microcosms, macrocosms, Tic Tac box aquariums and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. At one point, Khan urged me to read her favourite book, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "which is all fairytales from all over the world from different tribes and religions. And after each tale there's a Jungian psychoanalysis which delves into subconscious meanings and archetypes and it's really full-on, the most amazing book I've ever read."

I remembered this conversation recently when thinking about the imminent return of Florence and the Machine, whose second album, Ceremonials, is set for release at the end of this month. Florence, like Khan, is generally filed under "wild wolf-runner" – a special category reserved for female songwriters whose style, though often bold and sometimes confessional, is at odds with the frankness of Adele, say, or the conversational narratives of Lily Allen and Kate Nash.

These are songwriters who seem considerably more stewed, more sensual, more sinewy, who quite unabashedly draw their inspiration from mythology, artistic movements, historical figures, fables, fairytales, politics and literature. Think of Kate Bush, for instance, using Emily Brontë's novel for her 1978 hit Wuthering Heights, or of PJ Harvey's Let England Shake seizing on the poetry of Pinter and Eliot, British military history, and the art of Goya and Dalí. Think of the fact that Florence's new album offers songs about devilry, science lessons and horses, while Marina and the Diamonds has promised that her next record will involve a character named Electra Heart, and tackle subjects such as female sexuality and corruption of the self.

Wild Wolf Woman is a style we do particularly well in the UK, though of course we see it elsewhere, too. I think particularly of Björk, as well as Dory Previn, Laura Nyro, Joanna Newsom. Crucially, these artists display an eccentricity that seems inherent rather than worn, in the manner of Lady Gaga, whose attempts at the avant garde make me think of the Henry Brooks Adams line: "The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest."

There are numerous artistic precedents for these musical wild women. As far back as the 10th century, the narrator of the Old English elegy Wulf and Eadwacer shares something of their flavour: exiled, possibly adulterous, certainly desirous, singing her lament. The writer Emma Forrest once captured these songwriters' mingling of madness and tragedy, describing Kate Bush as "the singer-songwriter who conjures Millais's 1852 painting of Ophelia come to life, a beautiful young girl, singing to herself as she drowns, her pure, high, upper register both childlike and demented".

In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic, a feminist exploration of Victorian literature, in which they claimed that male writers had traditionally tended to define female characters as either the "angel" (pure, meek and submissive) or the "monster" (a woman who was sensual, rebellious, unkempt and untethered).

I often think how something of this characterisation lingers in popular music. Compare our perky, clean pop princesses against the swarthy, matted style of our wolf women. And think, too, of the confusion that appears whenever an artist moves from one category to another – Kylie Minogue, for example, singing murder ballads with Nick Cave. What Kylie gained in that move was a new ring of authenticity; because while these songwriters may be deemed uncontrollable or unpredictable, their sheer creative force regarded as a sign that they are mentally or emotionally unstable, what they gain instead is a sense of realness and strength.

Such categorisation can prove frustrating to those who find it thrust upon them – Björk once told me with some exasperation that she had never really claimed to have seen elves, while Khan said: "I do find it annoying, this madwoman thing. I'm not mad, any more than the next boy or man that makes music. I think there is a general artistic temperament, but I wouldn't say it's gender-based."

I went back to Pinkola Estes's book this week, thought again of Khan's enthusiasm, and was struck by one passage that seemed somehow to chime with the accomplishments of these women songwriters: "Be wild," she wrote, "that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life." Let the flood begin.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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