The Specials featuring Rico were the first to do it, Queen Latifah and Del La Soul, together, did it 11 years later, Nick Cave & Kylie did it five years after that. Queen have done it four times but Florence and the Machine have done it the most, nine times so far. Done what? Used the + symbol in the artist credit. A few others have done it as a one-off and Ed Sheeran has certainly had the most success with it for his 2011 album title. This week I’ll be focusing on Florence + the Machine’s 2011, number twelve hit, Shake It Out.
They started out in 2007 originally as the duo Florence Welch and her friend Isabella Summers, Florence explained how the name came about, “The name Florence and the Machine started off as a private joke that got out of hand. I made music with my friend, who we called Isabella Machine to which I was Florence Robot. When I was about an hour away from my first gig, I still didn’t have a name, so I thought ‘okay, I’ll be Florence Robot/Isa Machine’, before realising that name was so long it’d drive me mad.”
Before long, the band grew and its line-up was guitarist Robert Ackroyd, bass player Mark Saunders, harpist Tom Monger and drummer Chris Hayden. They released their debut album, Lungs in 2009 which went to number one and spent 155 weeks on the chart. In 2010 they released four stand-alone single including the number two hit You Got the Dirtee Love in collaboration with Dizzee Rascal. Their second album, Ceremonials, came in 2011, a title which was inspired by some 70s video art, Florence explained, “Years and years ago, I saw an art exhibition and there was this video art piece called Ceremonials. It was made in the 70s and was done in Super-8 and is kind of Coquette-sy – there’s that documentary called Coquette about this 70s theatre troupe that lives in San Francisco and I came kind of obsessed with it.” The lead single was What the Water Gave Me which peaked at number 24. The follow-up, Shake It Out, halved that and peaked at number 12.
“I feel weird because I’m always talking about how I’m writing songs when I’m hung over,” Florence revealed, “and most of the songs weren’t but Shake It Out was. It became the ultimate hangover cure. All the songs I write are a bit of fun with each one lurking in my mind. I was with Paul (Epworth, producer) and he came out with these chords on the organ, and they sounded optimistic and sad at the same time. And I was thinking of regrets, like, you know when you feel like you’re stuck in yourself, you keep repeating certain patterns of behaviour, and you kind of want to cut out that part of you and restart yourself. I kept thinking about wanting to shake something out, you know, shake out the things that haunt you like hangover ghouls. Basically, it’s about getting through something or seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re on tour and things can get worrying, that song’s always a good one. Sometimes I have to write songs for myself, reminding me to let it go. But then, the end refrain of ‘what the hell’ is really important as well, because you’ll dance with the devil again at some point, and maybe it will be fun. I’ve heard he does a really good foxtrot.”
As always, once you’ve had some commercial success many writers and particularly producers queue up to work with you, but when it came to recording the album Florence knew exactly what she wanted. “I chose Paul Epworth because I like what he did and it was important to me to have just one producer,” she said. It was all recorded at Abbey Road in studio three and the songs were all written over a period of the previous year when we’d been touring America and we finished them together in London especially in Soho as it was so nice to be back in a city that is so close to my heart.”
The accompanying video was partly inspired by the album’s title, “ceremonies got stuck in my head,” Florence said. It was filmed at Eltham Palace in South East London and depicts Florence attending an old-fashioned masked ball, similar to something like The Great Gatsby. “We were kind of going for a sort of ‘Gatsby at West Egg’-style house party but with maybe slightly ritualistic and sort of satanic undertones and séances,” she explained.
At the 2012 NME Awards, Welch also won the title of best solo artist and Shake It Out was voted Best Track. In her acceptance speech she said, “It is slightly strange because I’ve never been quite sure myself about whether I’m a solo act or a band. I’ve always thought of it as a project that I’ve started.”
Florence herself is already an inspiration, in a 2011 interview with Billboard, Beyoncé said, “My album, 4, was inspired by listening to Florence + the Machine, as well as the likes of Adele, Prince and The Jackson 5.” On learning this, Florence replied, “It’s amazing. I was listening to 4 and trying to figure out where the influence might be, but it’s incredible. She’s a really wonderful person, it’s a surreal thing to hear, but really nice.”