In the plethora of end-of-the-year “best” lists, many little ‘handmade’ beauties, as often happens, get left behind and overlooked, because of our laziness as listeners or media underexposure.
It would be a shame not to give the well deserved attention to the amazing musical talent of Florence Donovan aka Dos Floris, an English-born, Bologna-based multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, whose impressive debut album titled ‘The Widowed Earth’, admirably blends acoustic and electronic sounds and encompasses different genres as dreampop, industrial, ambient, rock, choral, folk, trip-hop, creating a flowing magical and bewitching sonic journey that reflects, after hard times of anguish and distress, the real essence of a human being finally in deep trascendental harmony with the surrounding nature, out of the shadows and into the light.
Let’s talk with our “one woman powerhouse”about her life/art…
Please help our readers understand the origins, the early influences and the development of Dos Floris.
I think Dos Floris was the culmination of everything I had learnt and listened to up to that moment. Having played in various formations- rock/pop band, Dylan style guitar and harmonica, solo with piano etc. I took all of that and brought it to an electronic music context. It was amazing for me as I suddenly felt very free to make what I wanted to without having to discuss it or change it with other people. Then the songs themselves helped develop me as they speak their own language. The struggle is always to find them the right “arrangement” cloak. At that time, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Caribou, Debussy and Handel were my beacons. Ultimately, my ears drew me to a certain sound, which has become Dos Floris. That sound is developing through both live shows and new songs but still keeps it’s essential Dos Florisness.
Do you remember when and where you started to get passionate about music? What type of music were you exposed to as a child?
From forever! Books and music were a way to escape and feel things more intensely both of which hold true to this day. My parents always had classical music on at home. I grew up in cigar filled cars full of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Shostakovich. I still can’t listen to classical music in a car without feeling sick. I also fell in love with musicals- my two favourites were “The Sound Of Music” and “Annie”. On the pop music side of things it was a hit and miss operation. I didn’t have anyone to feed me stuff so I’d save up pocket money to get what I liked at the time veering from Mel & Kim and James Brown to Stock, Aitken & Waterman stuff, a-ha and Madonna. It was chart pop, musicals and classical music all the way until my early teens.
I saw a picture of you playing a flute, are you a classically trained musician and multi-instrumentalist? When did you realize to possess the natural gift and instrument of your beautiful voice? Did you also get trained for it? Do you think to have reached its full potential or is there still room for improvement?
I was lucky to be given piano lessons from an early age- even if I hated going straight from school to more lessons at the time. I had a great first teacher who realized that I loved to sing and play and encouraged it. I wasn’t so lucky with subsequent teachers. It all became about The Royal Academy piano exams and the fun and enjoyment disappeared. I hated the rigmarole of classical music and the fact that no one allowed you to change anything. The guitar, flute, drums etc. came later and I taught myself. I am not a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination I just use what I can to fit the purpose it has to in the song/music.
I sung from a very early age in public but didn’t have any singing lessons until I was 15. Then they wanted to pack me off to an Opera singing camp and I ran a mile. I started getting training again when I was performing with my pop/rock band and started to lose my voice after loud concerts. The lessons helped me develop a technique to avoid voice trouble and become better. They definitely provided a very solid backbone, even if you have to be careful that it doesn’t become only about your “vocal technique. There are so many fantastic singers who are fantastic because they don’t sound trained. Imperfection and roughness are a definite plus, I think, as they carry the weight of emotion, which is the main thing. It is a fine line between forgetting what you’ve learned and using it instinctively so that you can get the emotion across not the perfect vocals. I always feel that I could have done it better and that I have to do it better! So no, I don’t think I have reached my full potential. If I did I’d probably stop!
Why the unusual choice to move from London to Bologna? Italy does not have a great alternative musical tradition and few venues and facilities, usually on the contrary are the Italian musicians (not just them unfortunately) to cross the Channel in order to develop their career…
Ha ha! I crossed the channel the other way, for the reason most people do. For love! Yes, you are right. Italy is a very difficult place for alternative music or music in general I would say. There aren’t many venues or facilities and a lot of them are run like private men’s clubs, which makes matters worse if you are a solo female musician. However it is a great country to create in. You have space here. I often wonder what kind of music I would write if I still lived in London, or if I moved to say Russia. However, luckily, we have the Internet and Ryanair.
Your beautiful debut album ‘The Widowed Earth’ is the result of three years of ‘semi-reclusion’ in your home recording studio; could you please talk about that time and what guided you in doing it?
As with many things, I started out with an idea and then my subconscious through music led me to somewhere a bit different. What ‘The Widowed Earth’ ended up being feels so right to me that I can’t even remember what it was meant to be. During that time every path crossed at exactly the right place. Books helped me realise what I was writing, the natural world provided a lot of the sound, space and inspiration and I think you can hear that in the music. The album is part love song to the world in which we live and how we are destroying it and also partly biographical. It talks of the difficulty I had in growing up and how I had to make a conscious effort to overcome those difficulties.
The incredible processing options that electronic machines and tools have opened to musicians surely was a source of great incitement for you. I guess you’re not touched by the whole analog vs digital debate. How does the recording process evolve? Is it the capturing of improvisation or is it more structured?
Absolutely, the world can now be found in a box! Seriously, though there can be so many possibilities that it can be overwhelming. The processing and transforming can sometimes take on a life of its own and I often have to remind myself that I am interested in writing songs. Recently I’ve started doing my own “litmus test” which is if the song doesn’t work on the piano on its own then it doesn’t get recorded. Otherwise I’d just be relying on soundscapes and effects which are fantastic but not for what I want to do. They have to be the colour not the skeleton. The analogue vs digital debate…aaargh! I’ve met so many musicians who are now recording on tape, who diss the new digital roland drum machine etc etc. If you have a bank account that matches your ambitions, great! But if not then it’s going to have to be digital. Also, a lot of these things were cheaper than they now are. They were meant to be for the everyman not some exclusive club of rich people. Digital is that. It’s a level laying field. Let’s also not forget that there are some seriously amazing analogue emulation plugins out there and that most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Having said all of that, I generally combine the two. Lots of real instruments and field recordings blended with some digital some analogue synths and virtual instruments. Most of my songs do start with vocal and piano improvisation. I’ll record some piano I like and then sing on top without thinking of much. Usually most of it comes out in one go and then begins the nightmare of arranging it. Giving it a special cloak.
You’re not afraid to naturally blend different genres as dreampop, industrial, ambient, rock, choral, folk, trip-hop into a personal, organic sound, I’ve read about comparisons to Zola Jesus, Kate Bush or Björk even a ‘female James Blake’. What music were you listening to? And what were your main inspirations during the period you were making the album?
I love mixing different genres. I really don’t see how you can’t in this day and age. We have such a wealth of material to poach from, listen to, be inspired by that to make a pure rock or metal or whatever album seems to me to be a bit of cop out. As long as a fundamental sound is there, surely it’s our job now to create something new and exciting and what better way than to mix genres and play with structures.
When I was making the album I actually wasn’t listening to anything. I find if I listen to other people’s music whilst recording or writing I start questioning my own work. I’m like, why can’t I write like that or that’s such a good chorus and I don’t have one- so it becomes very counterproductive. When I’m not in the middle of an album I listen to everything I can. I am definitely an album person so I don’t make playlists but I will go from Arvo Pärt to Sufjan Stevens to obscure techno to Katy Perry and then back to Kendrick Lamar, for example.
Do you draw on, or are you influenced by, any non-musical cultural resources (e.g. films, books, visual art) in your creative process?
Yes, yes, yes. All of the above but mainly books and some films. During the making of the Widowed Earth, three books taught me what I was writing about and also massively helped me when I got stuck. Ted Hughes’ “Letters”, Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways” and Jay Griffiths’ “Wild”.
What are the emotions that you personally feel when listening back to ‘The Widowed Earth’? Did you, thematically, have an all-encompassing vibe you wanted to portray with this release?
I actually wrote down my rules before I started. The main one was that it should be “beautiful” and the second that it should have no guitars. I broke the second one- It’s now time for the game “spot the one guitar”!
To be honest I haven’t listened to the whole album in one go for some time. I lived with it so intensely that I needed some space from it. I have listened to individual songs, when, for example we were doing the video ‘Water‘ and it felt magical, we were in a magical place though -Corno alle Scale regional park. As I said I wanted this album to be beautiful and to communicate the spiritual power that I see as music’s essential purpose. It’s up to you to judge if it did or not.
I guess your writing comes from personal life experiences. Is the lyrics’ writing process an outlet to channel, in a cathartic way, all your struggles and torments and negative emotions? The artist is a lucky human being if seen in this perspective… Please, could you better explain your lyrics?
I’d probably say that most of my lyrics are influenced by my view on what’s going on around me and in my own head or how I feel or felt at one time. So it probably is an outlet. I couldn’t just write about relationship breakups all day long as that would kill me, so the outside world and my relationship with it and others is a big topic as well. How we all connect. Which I think is always the main question for us humans. Nina Simone said that the job of an artist is to reflect the times. I agree with her. Of course every artist will have a different take on “the times” as nowadays it’s not so black and white.
Talking about your live performances, do you always have the complete control/focus or do you get lost in an euphoric trance-laden state sometime? Are you full confident or do you have any moments of awkwardness? So in short, please explain, or better transfer the feel, the magic of a Dos Floris gig?
All of the above except complete control (laughing). The risk with this kind of music is that a live set can turn into singing along to a backing track even if it’s being run through a fancy controller and I really didn’t want that. I also wanted the set to be spontaneous and include a degree of improvisation and turn the studio album into something less perfect and more direct. It took a lot of work and practice but it is now getting there. As I’m dealing with so much- looping, singing, playing various instruments and launching drum clips- things do and can go spectacularly wrong. The main culprit so far has been my looping pedal not working and not responding in the middle of a song- but so far audiences have been very generous with technical hitches. A friend of mine suggested I do a dance to the God of Electronica the other day as she thinks the looping pedal has cursed me!
I can’t really give you an objective view on a Dos Floris gig as in a way I’m not there. I disappear into the music. People have said that it’s a hypnotic trance like experience. I hope that is true. I would like people to leave feeling they have gone somewhere magical for a bit and for that magic to stay with them a little longer.
What current bands/artists are you excited by? What are your most treasured all-time albums?
Great question! I love Sufjan Stevens’ album ‘For Carrie And Lowell’ as well as Julia Holter’s ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ I also really love Laura Mvula’s ‘The Dreaming Room’, Anna Meredith’s ‘Varmints’ and James Blake’s ‘The Colour In Anything’. My most treasured all-time albums? That is difficult. Today I would nominate anything by Arvo Pärt, The Second Movement of Beethoven’s 5th Concerto, ‘Swim’ by Caribou and James Holden’s ‘The Inheritors’. Tomorrow it would probably change.
Many thanks for being our welcomed guest, just the last usual question: Your hopes, plans and dreams for the future?
I hope that the new EP is going to be as good as I think it is. I plan to do some serious touring in 2017 including North America and I dream that one day I will be able to perform my music with a full orchestra in a big space and create some serious magic.
Thank you, for having me.
Photo credits: Nat Wilms (first), Giovanni Gori (second), Antonietta Dicorato (third)