Devil in a Mermaid

Photo: Chloe Aftel/Contour by Getty Images

‘I just flew in from Miami, where everyone was running around with these enormous fake tits,” Florence Welch says over coffee at the Soho House. “I felt like such a perv, I couldn’t stop staring.” The lanky, 23-year-old Brit behind the operatic pop of Florence + the Machine, which plays two shows in New York this week, is much preferring today’s dank, wet spring weather to Miami’s offensively bright sun. Not to mention the closer-to-life-size breasts. New York reminds her of home, where, after releasing her debut album, Lungs, last summer, she’s been anointed the next great female pop eccentric, a descendant of Kate Bush and PJ Harvey. Lungs went platinum in the U.K., was nominated for the Mercury Prize, and rose as high as No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Heatseekers chart, where twisted chicks who write ironic soul tunes about domestic violence (“Kiss With a Fist”) don’t usually reside.

Welch grew up in Camberwell, a rough section of South London. “I ran around in leopard-print platforms and black PVC macks [raincoats] trying to look like Fairuza Balk in The Craft,” she recalls. She went to the mall bookshop to inquire politely about a book on witchcraft, then formed a coven with three of her friends. “Even when you’re 11 you look for subculture.” While Welch was communing with Satan, her parents were divorcing. Dad, an adman, had a “crisis of morals and moved to Russia”; Mom, an art-history professor, fell in love with her widowed neighbor and moved in with him, bringing along Florence and her two siblings. “Everyone gets along great now, but at the time we all hated each other,” Welch recalls. “There were a lot of tears at teatime.”

On the path to rock stardom, “goth tendencies,” and “chaotic family life” are usually followed by “discovers rock music” and “forms punk band,” but Welch is idiosyncratic even in this, citing her childhood obsession with the Disney film The Little Mermaid as the source of her interest in music. “I was always putting a red flannel [washcloth] on my head and pretending to be Ariel in the bathtub,” she remembers. “It was the first movie I went to see, my first gig, in a way.” As she got older and occasionally sang outside of the tub, people would remark on her voice—an unexpected blend of delicacy and force—but aside from a few one-off joke bands, Welch stayed away from music until she started Camberwell College of Arts in 2005. One night, wasted at a party, she grabbed a mike, opened her mouth, and a song came out. “I stood up and started clapping my hands and stomping my feet,” says Welch, accidentally hitting upon her signature style, a frenzied eruption of gleefully macabre narrative on top of violent percussion.

Welch is currently working on her sophomore disc, which she says will be harder than Lungs but also “make people dance.” (The Machine, by the way, are whoever is playing with her at the time.) In the meantime, she’s working on her Little Mermaid happy ending—perhaps a little too literally. “Ariel’s voice is the most precious thing and she keeps it hidden for love,” says Welch, whose hair is coincidentally nearly the flaming red of Ariel’s. “When you go into this, you think you have to sacrifice the idea of a normal relationship for ‘the voice.’ But Ariel gets her voice back in the end, and she gets the dude, who I had a massive crush on. Eric, he was a looker.”

Florence + the Machine
(Le) Poisson Rouge and Terminal 5.
April 8 and 9.

Devil in a Mermaid