USA TODAY US Edition
FLORENCE + HIGH PROFILE
Next up: Elton’s AIDS benefit
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.”