Florence Shaw is easy to talk to. That may sound trite, but it’s the first thing I notice about her during our Zoom call—that despite the hint of nervousness in her voice, she’s chill and unpretentious, easy to get a laugh out of. Not that I expected a difficult interview, but perhaps her vivacious energy came as a surprise coming from the cryptic singer-songwriter I’m faced with when I listen to her band Dry Cleaning, a post-punk outfit out of South London.
The first time I heard Dry Cleaning, I was hooked, drawn by droning guitars and Shaw’s spoken word singing style, something usually reserved for old Lou Reed albums and hip-hop tracks. Maybe my introduction was “Magic of Meghan,” off of their 2018 EP Sweet Princess, a song about breaking up with her boyfriend the same day Meghan Markle and Prince Harry went public with their engagement; the song has generated a deluge of new YouTube comments ever since the explosive Royal Oprah interview. Or maybe it was “Viking Hair” off of their 2019 EP, Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, in which Shaw matter-of-factly says “She’s beautiful, she’s got Viking hair/she’s a tragic heroine, I’m in love” followed by a verse that goes, “Lads and dads, put your words in a pair of joggers/I’m not just saying this ‘cause I have to/I can back it up with facts and relevant information.”
Shaw’s approach to her craft is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before: Her flow is chaotic, meandering, and mellow, then rushed before retreating back to a funeral dirge of a verse. And her lyrics are just as unpredictable; she’s mimicking a snippet from a passing conversation one moment, then stoically reading a label at the grocery store the next, followed by a poetic lyric that is as poignant as it is cryptic. These elements are usually all shoved into a single song, often abruptly and sticking out like a sore thumb. And yet, they fit perfectly into the musical ecosystem Shaw has laid out for us.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. Track after track, I found myself trying to decipher which lines Shaw probably jotted down in her Notes app in the middle of the night versus the lines she intended as part of a specific, coherent story. It’s all quite confusing, but the mystery is part of what has kept me around as a listener.
Shaw knows her music acts like a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, full of jumbled pieces that come together to create a coherent display. But who it’s coherent for is another story.
“It’s not something I plan to do, but it thrills me that that’s the effect it has on some listeners,” Shaw told me. “Like, I’m one of those people who love Easter eggs, where you notice something and you’re like, ‘oh my god! I know what this is, and maybe not everyone knows what this is, but I do.”
And it’s that confidence that builds an intimate sort of bond between her as a singer and us as listeners. I might not always get it, but I know she does.
I chatted with Shaw in April, just before release of Dry Cleaning’s debut album, New Long Leg, which has since received a deluge of critical acclaim. The band has had a hell of a year: recording an album at the height of the covid-19 pandemic, getting signed to 4AD, and releasing a string of singles and music videos while their tour schedule is on hold for several months to come. It’s a weird time to release music, especially when you’re an artist that relies heavily on touring for income, not just streaming. But Shaw and the rest of the band—Nick Buxton, Tom Dowse, and Lewis Maynard—are making the best of an unprecedented situation. (The band recently announced North American and European tour dates for fall 2021 and early 2022.) But until then, Shaw has plenty of time to reflect, on what it means to make music at a time like this and why she even decided to make music at all.
“I think performing gave me more than I realized it did, more catharsis and more of a sense of belonging,” Shaw said. “It made me feel very seen by people, literally, but also figuratively.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Just right off, are you OK? Is your family safe and everything?
FLORENCE SHAW: My family is good, thankfully. Really, really grateful for that. My parents have both had the vaccine, and that feels really good, really positive. And I’m fine. You know, it’s... it’s been a weird one. And it’s a strange challenge to be doing this sort of thing for the first time whilst in lockdown. It’s kind of a weird combination, you know, because it’s it feels very public, but also, I’m at home a lot on my own! It’s a weird dichotomy.
On that note, I want to ask you about the new album. Was this created from start to finish over the course of the last year? Would you call this a pandemic album?
We recorded it last summer, from July to August, over a two-week period. We were isolating at a residential studio to record it. So, you know, the pandemic sort of framed the circumstances of recording very much. But in terms of the actual structure, that sort of energy, that was all kind of wrapped up with the demo.
We kind of finished demoing it about a week before lockdown, we started in January and we were doing bits and bobs between touring in terms of assembling the songs. But it was sort of wrapped up before that, before it all really sort of descended, you know? Before life really changed. But lyrically speaking, I was working on things on the album during lockdown, not the majority, but fine-tuning. There were some parts that I actually changed or rewrote in the lockdown just because they didn’t feel relevant anymore, given how much had changed. I would come across passages that I just thought, this really doesn’t speak to me anymore.
I wanted to talk to you about your lyricism, and also how you perform. When I stumbled upon Dry Cleaning, it took me a while to realize that your songs are all spoken word, which is a phrase that some people cringe at, but it was the only way I can really describe it. It absolutely works, and has a mesmerizing quality to it that lends well to your surreal lyricism. I read an interview in which you were talking about “Magic of Meghan” and you were saying something like, I’m kind of glad that it kind of puzzled some people because sometimes I don’t even know what’s coming out of my head.
It’s a funny one because, to a certain extent, I never gave it as much thought as other people did. [Laughs] You know? I sort of did what came naturally, and it’s lovely that people respond to it in the way that they do. And I would add, lovely that they respond in positive and negative ways, because it’s quite amazing to me that people are interested in something I wrote at all! Complete strangers, you know, people who don’t know me!
What are the negative things you’ve heard?
Not necessarily negative, but I get questioned sometimes in a way that feels... perhaps it’s more to do with how I perform? I sometimes get questions that seem a bit... people say, “why don’t you ever let loose?” or “don’t you ever want to, like, scream?” Stuff like that. And I don’t think they mean it as a kind of a criticism, but sometimes I want to say, why is that a problem for you? And it’s very hard not to sometimes wonder about what effect being a woman in this context has on how people read what I do. I was thinking the other day that there were so many times in my life where I’ve had a hard time for being emotional, for being lively, for being talkative. And now in this context, I get asked, “why are you so reserved?” And it’s just kind of like, oh... so it’s the opposite of the struggles I’ve had before.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
I‘m answering to the things I’ve had to answer for in the past in various ways. Like, even at school, I would get in trouble a lot for being too much. You know, too loud... too hysterical or whatever people want to say, or emotional, or too loud. I got too loud quite a lot. But now I’m having all these conversations with where people are wondering why I’m so sedate. [Laughs]. And I get that the context is different. One is social or domestic and one is on a stage. But it’s interesting that there are these discussions around... sort of asking me to explain my behavior. And in that is a bit of a criticism. Like, what’s your problem? Why don’t you let loose, or whatever? And I think it’s really interesting to me. Not at all to suggest that that was your question. But it’s something around the performance side that is really interesting to me, that it’s always a discussion around sort of defending the way you are.
In terms of lyricism itself... my approach to writing is... it’s really something that comes from being interested in language, obviously, but also being interested in talking, the way people talk, and how people change the way they talk in different situations, or how the way people talk is influenced by the language of marketing, or the sort of language that you might hear in advertising, how that sort of filters down into the way people speak with their friends or their family. That the kind of vocabulary that winds up everywhere, that actually starts into boardrooms and things like that... I find that sort of thing really interesting. So it’s really like... conversation, and the pauses people make when they speak—which obviously aren’t in writing, you know, not all writing, anyway, novels don’t tend to have long pauses, you know—and also meter, and the sort of rhythm of people’s speech. I find that really interesting and really inspiring and quite telling sometimes. That’s where I sort of get my fuel from.
So you said listeners can decipher your songs in a way that you didn’t necessarily intend. You’re not trying to write little Easter eggs or anything. But what I thought was fun is that I do, admittedly, approach your music like hmm what is she trying to say here? All writers have that moment where a random sentence suddenly comes into your head, and it resonates. And you think, I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I’m writing it in my notes for safekeeping.
Absolutely. That’s absolutely what I do. [Laughs] Like, hundreds of them.
That makes it fun and real, and listening to “Scratchcard Lanyard”... there’s the bit where you say, “Tokyo bouncy ball, Oslo bouncy ball, Rio de Janeiro bouncy ball... filter!” and I was like, “Are those the Instagram filters for an Instagram story?”
[Laughs] But I really do love that. I think ... when I sort of say that other people think about it more than I do, it’s more like... it’s true to say I didn’t have a plan for how to be a writer, I kind of just had a go and this is what I did. I never had a plan of attack, or someone I wanted to emulate consciously. I was more like, “Okay, I’m going to try to do this now, let’s see what happens.” And I sort of wrote what I wrote. But in terms of Easter eggs... that’s just a natural part of the way I like to write, because I’m quite a nerdy person, and Easter egg kind of stuff thrills me.
Speaking of another song, I have to mention “Magic of Meghan,” because Meghan Markle always feels a bit topical now. I read that the song is about how you were moving out of your partner’s house, which was the same day that Harry and Meghan’s engagement was announced. “Magic of Meghan” is pretty funny to me now, because of the constant across-the-pond drama with the Royal Family. How could you have known then what the media’s fixation with her would be like?
It’s funny because, to be honest, there was an ominous feel for me back then, you know, and maybe that’s partly why it seemed apt to write about it.There was a feeling it would be a story that would change over time. Just because of, you know, how racist the writing about her was and how much she is the victim of the really misogynist storytelling in the press. And that was happening right from the word go. It was less vitriolic, I want to say—well, not less vitriolic—but it was full of hate in a more secret way back then. But it was sort of masquerading as... I think people thought they were being perceptive by sort of talking about how she was “different” a lot. I think people thought that was really intelligent or something.
Right, like, thank you Sun. She’s Black, she’s American, her mom has dreadlocks, we get it.
Yeah, and let’s all talk about how “amazing” this is. And the idea of it being amazing, also, seemed to me to be kind of bullshit. Not kind of bullshit, total bullshit. Because... the line in the song—which actually wasn’t taken from a press cutting, a lot of those lines are taken from press cuttings, but one that isn’t is, “You’re just what England needs, you’re going to change us.” It was an imaginary message from the public that I imagined in my own mind. It was very much that kind of attitude. She’s going to come and free us of our racism... which is such a racist idea in itself. Like, monumentally ignorant. But it was very much, like, yay, Meghan’s here to fix it. And I’m just sort of like, that’s fucking horrible. And it was ominous at the time, and I think certainly that was what I was seeing, and I just thought... but you know, at the same time, I was really enjoying the story! It was a great story!
On the one hand, as an American, as a leftist, I think the Royal Family is nonsense, monarchy shouldn’t exist. And on the other... I’m like, “you know, that dress is so nice. Her mom looks so beautiful.” I watched the wedding and got wrapped up in the memes... it’s all very human. So you have these competing feelings where you’re very aware of the bullshit, but we’re still taken in by the pageantry.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think people are very eager... I do feel at ease with people interpreting the song however they want, really. Because they’re going to anyway, and also, it is a really everchanging subject. Like, I think the way she’s been treated is not good, it doesn’t make me happy to see it, it’s really embarrassing—I’m just so embarrassed to be a human in this situation sometimes—and I really think the whole thing is absolutely bananas. She must be lying awake at night, like, “what have I done?”
People were eager to know, “What are your feelings about it? Pro or con?” And it’s like... there’s so little in life that are really straightforward. Everything’s a mess. Everything’s just kind of chaos if you really get into it. And that’s part of what I would like to reflect in my music, in some of what I write. It feels too simplistic for me to write something really cut and dry—pro-social media, anti-social media—it’s just, what the hell? It’s a mess.
I think that’s also apt because, I mean, how pro or con social media even are we when we can acknowledge everything bad about it, but we still use it? We still, you know, drop a link in the group chat like, “Did you see this?” Debating its goodness seems like a futile activity.
Yeah, and it’s responsible for so many incredible things, right? And it’s responsible for so many terrible things. Just like anything else.
Speaking of social media, I saw on Instagram that you guys have scheduled a tour for next spring. How has the pandemic impacted the band?
The sort of death of everything around touring for the last year or so has had a seismic effect in so many ways, I mean, most of all, the livelihoods of people who work as crews. It is kind of shocking. You know, people we worked with were finding themselves having to get a new job within a week of lockdown. The way people live these days, it’s not a matter of, “oh, just use some of my savings” or, “oh, you know, I’ll just apply to the nonexistent government scheme that isn’t kicking in for another three months.” They had to go, you know, work in a warehouse straight away. I think that that was the thing that hit us, just seeing the people that we’ve been touring with weeks earlier having to basically just change their lifestyles overnight to survive. That was really kind of stark, you know? So it was kind of hard to think about the effect it had on us until quite a long time afterwards, because so many palpably huge things were happening with people that we care about and are really close to in a way that they weren’t necessarily happening to us. We went home, we had our record deal and stuff, so we just kind of survived. We felt really unbelievably lucky.
But it’s kind of funny, I think. On a personal level, the lack of touring had an unexpected effect in that I didn’t really realize how important the live audience was to me. And maybe it sounds a bit shallow, but the validation of that was something that I was really surviving on. You know? The sort of reassurance that people are connecting with this and this is why I’m doing this.
Like sharing new music to the crowd for the first time or something and seeing what they respond with, stuff like that?
Absolutely! But even just, you know, because I don’t have the most confidence. I can be a very sort of shy person sometimes. I can be full of self-doubt like everyone else. But when you play live, and you’re performing to people who are sort of visibly responding to whatever you are doing—whether it’s an old song, a new song, whatever—there’s something irrefutable about that where you’re like, “I know what my role is. I know that in this scenario, in this room, I know what my role is, and it’s an act of communication, even if it’s a frivolous one. I don’t mean something very profound, but I perform, and you all respond, and then I respond to them, and they respond to me, and so on... having that not happen with regularity, sometimes there’d be this sense of like, “What am I doing?” [Laughs]
I really want to know your take on just what it’s like to be an independent rock musician in 2021. I mean, there are musicians who have to have side jobs and things like that, because the music landscape is different than what it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Are you at all resentful of how it is now?
Well, one thing I would say is that there have been several things that we’ve had access to—really out of sheer luck—that have allowed us to do this. The first place we ever rehearsed was Lewis’s mum’s garage, which she let us use for free. And that’s really where we built the band. That’s where we first met, that’s where we wrote both those EPs. And we were allowed to go as long as we wanted, to make as much noise as we wanted, and would cook for us on top of that! An amazing lady, amazing lady.
But that’s not something that everyone necessarily has access to. Like, a space that they can go and actually experiment without the sense of like, “oh crikey, this is costing us 100 quid, we need to come up with something.” It was very low pressure for that reason. And I think the low pressure is what enabled us to be as creative as we were in that place.
I really feel for bands who were just starting to gig, just starting to grow a little bit of a fan base or something as the pandemic hit, because I imagine it probably thwarted a lot of people who were building, you know? I imagine it really crushed quite a lot of people and bourgeoning projects. Also, we were all working full-time jobs until this time last year, and gigging a lot, and doing mad stuff like playing shows in Leicester, and then driving home that night, and going to work the next morning. Really mad, punishing kind of schedules, you know?
But we did that for a couple of years. There are so many people who do that for 10 years or more, because it’s a complete passion for them. And I think really, in this country, there’s very little support for people in music, and especially now with Brexit. There’s nothing coming in to help people in Europe, for example. And unless you’re making a decent amount of money doing it, I have no idea how anyone is going to be able to do that as it stands currently.
There are so many bands out there doing all of this as passion projects instead of careers because they’re unable to make a living doing this. Is that a sentiment that resonates?
I think it’s absolutely true. We were talking about this the other day. There’s a lot of factors at play, especially in London. And one of them is—it sounds almost ridiculous—but one of them is noise. And noise is a problem because of how many areas have been sold off to build luxury flats. As soon as there’s any kind of luxury flat anywhere near a rehearsal space, it’s just dead on its arse because there are noise complaints. And as soon as noise complaints come, it’s all over. And that really is happening all over the place. It’s really hard to find permanent rehearsal spaces in London, and it’s a lot to do with property developers.
And the raw materials you need play guitar music are not easy to come by. You really need to be quite belligerent and quite bloody-minded to get what you need to do it. It’s absolutely not easy in any way. I mean, we’re a signed band and we often struggle to find places to rehearse that we can sort of keep coming back to. We don’t have a permanent rehearsal space at the moment, and it’s really hard to afford one in a place where you’re not going to get kicked out!
Same problem in New York. A luxury condo goes up in Brooklyn and all of a sudden, like, five DIY spaces are gone.
It’s the same with all the nightclubs that closed down in London. It’s the same reason. I’ve got this horrible feeling that once when things go back to normal, we’re going to realize the full extent of what has had to close, what hasn’t survived this whole thing.
Perhaps I sort of can come to expect the worst sometimes, but I’ve been thinking for a while now that this thing is going to be with us for quite a while. I don’t really see life going back to “normal” any time soon. I think it’s sensible to imagine the next few years are going to be a bit stop-start.
Okay, lastly, and on a lighter note: First album, what are you dreading and what are you most looking forward to?
They call it a release for a reason. I’m looking forward to let go of it. The record, I’m really, really proud of it. I think that as soon as it’s in someone else’s hands, it becomes something else. It’s not yours to look after anymore, really. And I’m quite looking forward to being an empty nester about this album. [Laughs] It’s really exciting to see what it can wind up meaning to people, or how people interpret it.
The thing I’m dreading...I think it’s funny in this in this last few weeks, I’ve kind of become aware of this sort of level of exposure, this moment where you suddenly become fair game for either light or very harsh criticism, or just generally people commenting on what you do online.
Someone blogging about you!
Yeah! You know, it does seem to be a moment at which you become fair game. I religiously don’t read the comments, I’m not a consumer of things about me or about the band or about anything like that. I definitely don’t read the comments, but, you know, sometimes it’s hard! Sometimes they’re suddenly just there. You know, your mum says, “oh, send me the link to your video.” And I’m like, “okay!” And then, ARGH!
Yeah, my mom tells me when she notices that someone is angry at me on Twitter. I’m like, “Mom, I get into Twitter fights every day. It is what it is!”
Yeah! Having said that, all the reception we’ve ever had is overwhelmingly supportive and really mindblowing. The kind of things people send us, and write us and tell us about what we do and their sort of relationship to it... it’s been overwhelmingly nice.
But then there’s one person who says, “You know, I don’t really get this,” and you go and cry! No idea why. It’s a very strange phenomenon for me.