Florence + the Machine
An Almight Sound
London, Omnibus, 2012
Paperback. 239 pp. ISBN 978-1780385136. £14.95 / $23.95
Reviewed by Carey Fleiner
University of Winchester
Florence Welch and her band Florence + the Machine are currently high in the UK charts, and Zoë Howe’s new book is a timely publication for both fans and music aficionados to find out about the inspiration behind the artist and her rise to fame. Florence + the Machine: An Almighty Sound is Zoë Howe’s third book for Omnibus Press; her first was the well-received biography of the Slits (Typical Girls? The Story of the Slits), and her second is How’s Your Dad: The Sons and Daughters of Rock Royalty. She comes from a background of music journalism having worked as editor of Iceland Music Export, written for numerous music publications, and has appeared on BBC 6 Radio and Absolute Music among others. Her enthusiasm for her subjects sparkles in her exuberant, bubbly prose.
Florence + the Machine: An Almighty Sound focuses primarily on singer Florence Welch; Howe tells Welch’s story from childhood through her success as an indie star; musically she has been compared to Kate Bush and P J Harvey – a performer with a distinctive voice and thoughtful lyrics who is very English, very emotional, and very eccentric. The biography is rendered via interviews throughout, gathered from myriad sources, which allows the subject(s) literally to speak for themselves. The book is laid out as a biography rather than an academic exercise, hence no chapter titles (which admittedly, would have been handy), which present a detailed chronology of Welch’s rise to stardom.
Howe emphasises Welch’s culturally rich, cosmopolitan background: academic and well-travelled parents who gave their imaginative daughter both free rein and support to develop her musical and artistic talents. She sets the stage for the biography by casting her introduction in the vocabulary of a fairytale – and really, considering the quick rise to fame that Welch has enjoyed, it probably all does feel a bit like a fairytale. Throughout the book, Howe emphasises Welch’s predilection for whimsy and somewhat otherworldly interests (running from stories about Welch’s childhood nightmares to her interests in Edward Gorey to fantasy-worlds and Midsummer’s Night Dream imagery ) juxtaposed with the mundane aspects of her professional life and the practicalities and harsh world of the music industry. From this juxtaposition we learn that Welch is a sensual and imaginative young woman, given to the whimsy of ghost stories and childlike rituals while on tour (e.g. the “Florence Commandments” , tour rituals , and a discussion of Welch’s lip-stick collecting habit ), while showing the backbone needed to stand up to the rigours of tours and the industry.
The chronology of the book is broken into chapters based on periods of Welch’s life: her childhood, first boyfriend, art school, meeting with Isabelle Summers, her lightning quick rise to attention in the music world (the key moment being an appearance on BBC Introducing), early tours, the creation of her two studio albums, Lungs and Ceremonials. Each chapter emphasises how Welch has continually incorporated her life experiences in her musical expression. The inclusion of much minutiae, while admittedly interesting, tends to obfuscate some of the key points in Welch’s career; the chronological format tends to lead to some repetition and some key points in Welch’s career are given the same weight as other bits of trivia and episodes in Welch’s formative years. The chronological structure becomes a hindrance to the overall narrative, as there are clear themes throughout the book the author wishes to emphasise; repetition sets in as Welch encounters similar obstacles throughout the various stages of her career (for example, she has suffered from self-doubt and sometimes almost debilitating depression and stage fright at various points in her career). We are reminded again and again that Welch is moody and romantic, given to self-doubt and depression, that she is like Kate Bush but not like Lily Allen, that her life is a fairytale, that she has pre-Raphaelite red hair, collects Victoriana, &c.
I wonder if the solution here might have been to approach the story of Florence and the Machine thematically – perhaps a brief biography and then a closer look at some of the intriguing topics raised here, but lost amid the white noise. For example: Welch’s place in the context of the strong, current crop of female British singer-songwriters; the conflict between emotional stress and performance and production pressures; and how Welch and others like her cope and manage to stand out, maintaining integrity, considering Howe’s remarks that the music industry is quick to place female recording artists into particular boxes (for example [78-79] and [113-115]).
Development of what comes across as throwaway, but intriguing comments are well worth a further look. Given Welch’s unique talent and flair for design, to what would Howe attribute as the pivotal key to her attracting the attention of mainstream producers? It is extremely difficult for female performers, let alone singer-songwriters, to break out of the commercial clichés set by the music industry where Welch was fortunate whereas other uniquely talented British singer-songwriters cannot quite seem to break through. The prominent example here is Corinna Round: she, too, is highly respected in the industry, and she is well supported by such solid and “elder statesmen” as Brian Eno, Dave Stewart, and Billy Corgan, yet she remains obscure from the mainstream. Whimsy and eccentricity are a hook, certainly, and Welch seems quite sincere in staying true to her artistic background and outlook, unspoiled by fame; how has she survived in the cut-throat world of the music business? What is it about her that she clicked with the mainstream, whereas Round has not? Work ethic? Determination? Right-place-right-time? Some combinations therein? Welch seems even to have eschewed that particularly important medium for indie acts, the Internet, as she remarks she never really got into social sites as MySpace or Facebook, and put little to no effort into posting her stuff on line. Why did the gatekeepers and the suits choose her? It is a terribly interesting line of discussion, not just in Welch’s case, but one to consider in the context of the current state of popular music and its relationship with the media at the moment and well worth further discussion.
Howe comes across as a fan and staunch supporter of Welch and Florence + the Machine; her writing belies great enthusiasm. The narrative is a chatty, conversational style with many asides and use of “you” to emphasise and include the reader in the conversation. Perhaps this, along with the repetitive trivia, lets down the side a bit, unfortunately. Howe’s verbal chumminess and constant asides grate after a while and distract the reader from otherwise a compelling story. Some of the verbiage is downright baffling: when describing how Welch bravely gave a demo CD to James Ford, Howe writes,
…she grabbed a demo CD, knocked on his door and thrust it into his hand. The result? He told her to go away and stop bothering him. Of course he didn’t. He took one listen and decided he wanted to work with her .
One presumes the author is a professional journalist, not a 13-year-old girl attempting a strange joke with her mates. Other comments are similarly strange: when describing Tom Monger (who is introduced on pg. 73 in such obscure language that the reader has to work to figure out what his actual name is) and his skills on the harp, she notes:
He proved his strength on the strings – no gavottes or minuets here, thank you very much…this was a harpist who’d been playing all of his life and developing his own style, which included using barrel-loads of electronic effects.
It is confusing what is actually being said here, although it appears Monger suffered annoyance from his classical teachers when he decided to pursue popular rather than classical music (although the suggestion that gavottes and minuets are somehow only for dilettantes is risible.) Presenting Monger as a young man following his own musical path – as Welch herself has done – is far more effective than resorting to childish insults hurled at the squares. Who is the audience for this book?
As for extra features, the book includes a discography of studio and live album releases of the group as well as singles and videography. The latter is essential as quite a bit of Florence + the Machine is visual, from the artistic direction of the videos to Welch’s own appearance. To this effect, there are three sections in the book of high-quality colour photographs which are quite lovely and reinforce Howe descriptions of the band’s visual appeal.
The bibliography/source material is somewhat interesting; Howe lists her interview sources in chronological order which at first glance appears a bit shambolic. It also reveals that while Howe uses Florence and her family’s, friends’, and colleagues’ words to great effect, it is not made clear if Howe herself interviewed anyone connected with Welch or just assembled all of the interviews in chronological order around the framework of her narrative – which tends to make the quippy asides all the more distracting, as the reader does get the impression of sitting in on the interviews on the one hand, but sat beside someone who is leaning over constantly to whisper an aside into one’s ear or jab an elbow into one’s ribs. The final list of sources on the bibliography is of little use to the reader as it is simply a list of media websites such as MTV, NME, and BBC Radio 1 websites – surely Howe could have provided deep links to the relevant material she found on these sites about Welch and the band?
Overall, Florence + the Machine is packed with information as it covers in detail the rise to fame of Florence Welch and her band. With great energy and enthusiasm Zoë Howe presents a dynamic, talented young woman who combines a unique blend of lyrics and visuals in her performances that make her stand out among the current collection of female British artists. Welch’s distinction is not just in her powerhouse of a voice; what sets her apart from other artists such as Lily Allen, Adele, or Amy Winehouse - all with formidable voices, unique looks and rich musical heritage – as Howe might argue, is Welch’s distinctive childhood, her great emotionalism and eccentricity, undiminished and unaffected by the pressures of fame, and the notion of her dreamy Englishness.
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