Next up: El­ton’s AIDS ben­e­fit

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - By Edna Gun­der­sen USA TO­DAY

Six months ago, Florence + The Ma­chine was an­other Bri­tish suc­cess story strug­gling for a toe­hold on U.S. shores.

Now singer Florence Welch and her back­ing mu­si­cians, in Grammy Awards con­tention for best new artist, just ac­cepted El­ton John’s cov­eted in­vi­ta­tion to per­form at his 19th an­nual AIDS Foun­da­tion Academy Awards gala Feb. 27 in West Hollywood.

“That El­ton asked me, that’s just un­be­liev­able,” Welch says from London, where she’s record­ing a fol­low-up to 2009’s de­but Lungs. “It’s an amaz­ing event, and the AIDS cause is such a fan­tas­tic thing to be a part of. I’m so happy to play some small part in rais­ing aware­ness for his char­ity.”

In 1993, John vowed to stage the an­nual Os­car night fundraiser un­til a cure for HIV/AIDS is found. Last year’s party raised nearly $4 mil­lion.

As usual, Os­car win­ners and Hollywood glit­terati are ex­pected, along with mu­sic and TV stars. Among this year’s chair­per­sons are David and Vic­to­ria Beck­ham, Mary J. Blige, Cameron Crowe, Mi­ley Cyrus, Hugh Jack­man, Ni­cole Kid­man, Ozzy and Sharon Os­bourne, Jane Lynch, John Wa­ters, Sharon Stone and Tay­lor Swift.

Welch, 24, has grown ac­cus­tomed to per­form­ing be­fore au­di­ences of all sizes, but never to such star-packed gath­er­ings. How does she calm the but­ter­flies?

“You fo­cus on what you’re feel­ing and imag­ine you’re sing­ing to one per­son who’s never heard the song,” she says. “And you con­vey the feel­ing you had when you wrote the song.”

That strat­egy served the flame-haired songstress at Septem­ber’s MTV Video Mu­sic Awards, where her ethe­real and dra­matic per­for­mance of Dog Days Are Over, atop a ro­tat­ing plat­form with scores of painted dancers, was widely ac­claimed as the night’s high­light.

“I wasn’t on a level of fame with any- one else per­form­ing that night,” she says. “I mean, are you se­ri­ous? Usher was play­ing. I was rel­a­tively un­der­ground with a cult fol­low­ing in Amer­ica. So you ei­ther do some­thing peo­ple get ex­cited about or you (fail).

“It was a huge moment, and it was ter­ri­fy­ing. I must have cried seven times in the week lead­ing up to the awards. But on the ac­tual day, I had the best time. It was like fi­nally fac­ing your fate.”

That break­through, along with a cast ren­di­tion of Dog Days on Glee in Novem­ber, built mo­men­tum for the Grammy nom­i­na­tion. She’s pit­ted against fa­vorite Drake, a rapper and re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tor.

“I feel rel­a­tively un­known in Amer­ica, so I can’t quite be­lieve it,” she says. “It’s such an iconic award. Drake is a good friend, and that’s what’s im­por­tant. There’s no com­pe­ti­tion. When you take away the glam­our and have a chat about your fam­i­lies, you find out you’re go­ing through the same sit­u­a­tions. He’s a real sweet­heart. If he wins, I’d be over the moon.”

Lungs gar­nered raves for Welch’s pow­er­ful pipes, off-cen­ter folk-soul and the­matic grandeur, hardly the in­gre­di­ents of ra­dio pop these days.

“I went to Catholic school, and the first songs I re­mem­ber lik­ing were hymns,” she says. “I find it’s nice to mix the mun­dane and the mag­i­cal, the ir­rel­e­vant with the huge themes. Sex, love, death, mar­riage, guilt — mix that with see­ing a huge sky or go­ing for a walk or turn­ing the page of a book. Liv­ing is deal­ing with the ev­ery­day and the no­tion that you’re go­ing to die.”

Welch won’t be ton­ing down the am­bi­tion or fer­vor on her sopho­more disc.

“I don’t think of my­self as re­li­gious, but on the next al­bum I’m mov­ing to­ward the in­ten­sity and pas­sion of heaven and hell, rev­e­la­tion and ret­ri­bu­tion, that kind of bat­tle. The first al­bum was more about flesh. This is about light.”

Florence Welch by Michael Loccisano, Getty Im­ages

By Chris Pizzello, AP

“Un­be­liev­able”: Florence Welch and her band The Ma­chine will play El­ton John’s an­nual Os­car night gala Feb. 27.

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