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At only 23 years old, Florence Welch has had a year to make even veterans envious. The singer — who performs as Florence and the Machine with her backing band — was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize and won the Critics’ Choice honor at the BRIT Awards. Her first album, “Lungs,” went gold and was the best-selling debut among new U.K. artists.
It’s pretty heady stuff considering Welch was discovered in the loo. One evening, armed with just her voice — and a few drinks in her system — the South Londoner spontaneously belted some a cappella Etta James in the ladies’ room of a London club.
“I never realized I could do it by myself,” says Welch, whose impressive pipes already have garnered comparisons with Kate Bush and Björk. “But when I stood up there and sang, I thought, ‘Maybe this could work.’”
Before she knew it, she had a manager, and Florence and the Machine was born.
The “Machine” part of the equation can range from just a drummer or guitarist to a full six-person band (including a harpist). Welch usually keeps to the vocals, admitting, “I play the piano quite badly, but with much enthusiasm.”
She penned all the songs on “Lungs,” finding inspiration in everything from conversations to installations and poetry. The tracks are at once ethereal, as in “Dog Days Are Over,” and a little creepy, like “Girl With One Eye.” Cheeky touches can be found in lyrics such as “get your fingers out of my pie,” while Welch’s favorite song on the album, “Cosmic Love,” was written in 30 minutes after she happened upon three chords at the piano and the words just started flowing. Not that you would know it from the result: an epic, thumping, twinkling track that layers percussion, harp and a voice that ranges from Annie Lenox-like depths to a gentle, soprano-esque howl.
With her 6-foot stature and flaming red hair, Welch has also become known for her stage presence. “I always want to create a sense of magic around music, and I like the idea that you’re channeling something bigger than yourself,” she says. She often finds her costumes at local vintage shops, and her elaborate set features a Baroque backdrop with glowing, pulsating lungs.
“My stage persona is half possessed witch and half goofy twentysomething,” explains Welch.
It’s clearly working. Her first real New York show (an impromptu 4 a.m. dive-bar gig notwithstanding) on Oct. 27 at the Bowery Ballroom is already sold out. That same evening, her performance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” will air.
“It’s quite scary,” says Welch. “It’s, like, what proper famous people do.”