Crafted from Renaissance stone,
Mostly these days I write poetry on my phone.
In her poetry ‘scrapbook’, Useless Magic, Florence Welch – lead singer of beloved indie rock band Florence & the Machine – tells us she doesn’t know what makes a song a song or a poem a poem, that “they have started to bleed into each other”. Bleeding art forms together is central to Welch’s art-making, working in different spheres and across different stages. When her various voices, shapes and forms become inextricably connected, her magic is most felt.
Florence Welch is heavily influenced by Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, and, as a red-haired force of nature with transcendent, ethereal lyrics, she has become a Pre-Raphaelite sister of the modern age. Welch’s mother is a professor of Renaissance Studies at King’s College London, and she grew up with a special interest in the period and its traditions. She dedicated her Ceremonials album to exploring ideas associated with the Renaissance, paying homage to humanist ideas and reaffirming human emotion in art. Her fascination with folklore, giving back to the earth and the ‘flowering’ and ‘birth process’ associated with art are at the heart of her music, so much so that Tom Beard’s artwork for Ceremonials is currently featured in a Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, where it depicts Welch as the final image in a Pre-Raphaelite lineage.
In Useless Magic, Welch asks: “What would I say / If it was just me / Not full of choirs, singing fucking constantly.” The book embraces this new form to blend her music and poetry, making the literary moments in her music and poetry become even more profound. It has also lead fans to create a book club, Between Two Books (a play on the song ‘Between Two Lungs’), with an impressive Instagram following.
Literary allusions are dotted throughout her lyrics and flow through Welch’s overpowering sounds. On her first album, Lungs, Welch motions to King Midas in Greek Mythology: “Midas is king and he holds me so tight / And turns me to gold in the sunlight,” alongside several other references to Greek literature and history. In her second confessional album, Ceremonials, Welch’s song ‘What the Water Gave Me’ is named for a Frida Kahlo painting, and is an ode to Virginia Woolf’s suicide: “Lay me down / Let the only sound / Be the overflow / Pockets full of stones,” as well as to the burden of ancient Greek titan, Atlas. Her experimental, elemental sounds also pay tribute to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, as portrayed in John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite portrait. In ‘How Big How Blue How Beautiful’, she sings: “Mother, make me / Make me a big tall tree / So I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me,” an undoubtable allusion to Ovid’s nymph Daphne, who calls to Mother Nature to transform her into a laurel tree as to escape Apollo’s oppressive gaze, and who Welch aligns herself with. The fusing of literary history into her powerful sounds extends throughout her work.
Florence Welch has never tried to be anything but herself – a floaty, semi-mythical nymph whose “songs blow through her from elsewhere”. And, through the amalgamation of her poetry, music and literary history, this rabbit-hearted girl finds her voice.