Behind the success of florence and the machine

Florence Mary Leontine Welch is padding softly around a London exhibition called Exquisite Bodies. A ghoulish affair, it’s a panoply of grotesque Victorian anatomical artefacts. Dissected female models, horns growing from hands, syphilitic heads in jars. “Victorian dead stuff, wow-ee,” marvels Florence in her exquisite English timbre, her copper-red mane plunging over her china-blue floral frock.

Welch, 23, better known as Florence and the Machine, is the most peculiar and most highly acclaimed female singer of the moment: poetic, literate, hurricane-voiced, prone to climbing up lighting rigs on stage because “flight is what I aspire to!” In the year that Lady Gaga became the world’s biggest new pop star by pretending to be bonkers, Florence Welch actually is – a bamboozling concoction of cake-berserk seven-year-old child, mystical soothsayer and will-o’-the-wisp for whom life is “a constant acid trip”. She can erupt in theatrical reverie – “love is a yearning for the divine, a mania, a sickness” – then literally jump for joy: “I can get excited by a peanut!” Endearing, exhausting, heroically free from self-consciousness: no wonder the public is transfixed, its senses long dulled by immaculate studio sheen and lairy perv-pop “moves”.

We’re ready for some spontaneous bedlam, for a twirling, head-shaking limb-quaking human prism who might explode on stage. Fans deem Florence’s most ethereal songs “beautiful”, a word too-long missing from the contemporary pop lexicon. The crackling applause of 2009 is almost certainly just the beginning; with Europe already spellbound, she tours America next month, Rolling Stone having already likened her atmospheric thrills to “being chased through a moonless night by a sexy moor witch”.

In a year in which several idiosyncratic female solo artists have vied for pop’s

wonky-shaped new crown – La Roux, Little Boots, Bat for Lashes, VV Brown – Florence has won the Critics Choice award at the Brits, been nominated for the Mercury prize and earned a thunderous reception at Glastonbury (considerably less shambolic than her previous appearances: in 2007 she stayed awake “for two days and had to be revived, crying and shaking at 11am”, while 2008 saw her wear a Victorian clown suit for 48 hours – “Were drugs involved? I couldn’t possibly comment!”).

By late July her debut album, Lungs, was at No 2 behind the suddenly deceased Michael Jackson, selling over 200,000 copies. No instant success (she’s been on the periphery, as Florence Robot Is a Machine, with a stand-up drum and a guitarist, since 2006), this year she’s been unavoidable. In January, The Culture Show’s Lauren Laverne called her “the girl we’ll all want to be in 2009, eccentric, glamorous and lyrical”, while Radio 1’s Jo Whiley deems her “stunning”.

An art-school dropout blighted by lifelong insomnia, as a child she believed in werewolves and vampires and drew crosses on her bed to protect herself, while developing a fascination with Mary Shelley, murderers and “the beautiful but sinister”. She has always been drawn to the macabre. But at the sight of a scowling cyclops head she shrieks and scampers for the door.

“I can’t handle it! I feel like a layer of skin has come off and I’m too raw to the world today.”

She seems oddly detached, edging towards the gallery bookshop. “I need to buy a notebook,” she whispers. “I’m having an out-of-body experience.

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Behind the success of florence and the machine