Taken from the spring 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
We may never know what Frank Gehry, renowned designer of Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, thinks about FLO. But meeting the group at Loft Studios in west London I’m reminded of something he said, about the role of an architect being to speak of their time and place with a yearning for timelessness. The UK pop trio comprised of Jorja Douglas, Renée Downer and Stella Quaresma make music that exploits a similar tension between the achingly of its moment and the timeless. They’re a group that’s undeniably now, but steeped in reverence for what came before.
“We’re constantly moving and changing,” says Rob Harrison, the group’s manager, picking his way through the clutter of their Dazed shoot. “It’s very nuanced the way things are put into the world, whether it’s the music or social media posts the girls are responding to where we’re at now as a team. I feel like that’s the way to do it. As soon as you’re months ahead, it stunts the potential of the now.”
Among timely colloquialisms such as ‘period’ – heard when Downer comments on one of her looks for today’s shoot – is a group fluent in the idioms of past eras, which they have been quick to reference boldly across their public appearances to date. Lyrics like “Come take your shit ’cause you can go stay at hers”, from their resonant debut single “Cardboard Box”, throw back to uber-assertive 00s ballads like Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”, while their ever-evolving harmonies – check out their recent performance of “Immature” for Vevo’s DSCVR platform – take an immediate steer from En Vogue, The Supremes et al.
In a musical climate that some have characterised as relying too much on nostalgia, FLO embrace the influence of their forebears. And yet, all signs point to them being the genre’s future – in December of last year, they won the Brits Rising Star award, an accolade they followed a few weeks later by scooping the BBC’s Sound of 2023 prize. As Downer sets her phone on the table, her silk press still immaculate an hour after it was retouched, she rationalises the group’s commitment to spotlighting past iterations of R&B. “[Our references] are genuine,” she says with an audible passion and care in her tone; it reflects the organised and poised character she says she adds to the group. “My mum was born in 1983, and she had me when she was 19; that was the music she was listening to as a person, a teenager, a young mother, and that’s what’s in me.” Ironically, Rihanna can be heard inches away from us through the speakers, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” lingering in the background before fading out. “I was listening to my homegirls Rihanna and Ciara growing up. You can’t fake that.”
Being placed together by a Universal callout looking for singers to try out for a new girl group, their beginnings echo that of a Making the Band or Chasing Destiny imprint in that iterations of what would later be monikered FLO were trialled and tested through early 2019. Downer was placed with Quaresma, a schoolmate and coveted Instagram ‘close friend’ at Sylvia Young Theatre School in London, at one of the first group tryouts, alongside an unnamed third member who originally rounded out the trio. After another chemistry check, Downer’s instincts told her they should add Douglas, whom she knew from the social media world of London singers, to their arrangement.
After the shoot, west London-based Quaresma tells me she never envisaged herself performing as part of a group – but all that changed once the three of them got to work. “Once we were a group, it all started to make sense,” she says of the sparks that flew when the lineup was assembled. “It’s that feeling of not being alone – like, even if you’re scared, you’re scared with other people. But my mother, who never initially saw me in a group, was so happy I was placed into such a crazy, unpredictable industry with girls who all feel the same.”
The breakout success of FLO’s 2022 single “Cardboard Box”, which peaked on the UK official singles chart at 76 and found international success in both New Zealand’s Hot Singles chart (#19) and Japan’s Hot Overseas ranking (#17), was instinctively always anticipated by the group. However, internal wrangling with the label cast doubts on whether the single would ever be released. “It wasn’t that they were trying to control us,” says Douglas. “It’s just that they are used to doing things in a particular way and having autonomy. I think FLO were very confident in what we wanted to do, so we just had to present that to them and talk them through it.” Downer is more pithy in her assessment of what went down. “We can’t put rubbish songs out. It just wouldn’t be a thing because we know we’re much better than that,” she argues, clarifying that none of the early tracks suggested by the label for their first single saw the light of day on their 2022 The Lead EP.
“Once we were a group, it all started to make sense. It’s that feeling of not being alone – like, even if you’re scared, you’re scared with other people” – Stella Quaresma
Presenting a united front hasn’t just been a winning formula for FLO in battling the music business – it’s been integral to their creative spark from day one. As their creative director and sonic architect, MNEK is hailed by the group as the fourth member of FLO. “MNEK is all of our idols in one, he’s so talented, and there’s so much to learn from him. He’s really laid the groundwork for us to be comfortable,” says Downer, who notes the producer’s role in encouraging the trio to be more audacious with their lyrics, and in adapting to the formal studio setting. On The Lead, that confidence can be heard in songs that draw power from lived experience: the palpably Timbaland-influenced “Feature Me”, for example, guides a generation of Gen Z listeners into the minds of each group member, ushering in a pronounced vulnerability.
References to Black Britishness and Black womanhood abound when speaking to the girls. Whether it’s the classic ‘plantain’ or ‘plantin’ diasporic debate I have with Downer, the references to retouching Quaresma’s wig and how she toys with her curls on set, or Douglas’s relentless stanning of the one-woman “vocal bible” Brandy, the trio refuse to shy away from their identities in this regard. It’s a welcome antidote to the shocking levels of racism many Black British women have been exposed to in the industry: in the acclaimed 2021 documentary Race, Pop & Power, Sugababes’ Keisha Buchanan talks about wanting to be “seen for myself” amid tabloid stories portraying her as the stereotypical ‘angry Black woman’. FLO feel like a timely rejoinder to such tales of rampant misogynoir, championing Black womanhood as a fundamental part of their creativity. “Our music is for the Black ladies,” Downer shares. Harrison, for his part, is mindful of his position as a white man in how he navigates the nuances of managing the group. He knows that, historically, Britain isn’t always first to champion Black women and says so in our exchange.
“Often when you communicate with people, things can be based on presumption and assumptions – there’s simply not time to get into why at every moment,” he begins. “But there’s an extra pressure for me to make sure I understand their experience and what they want to do next.” Listening to their interactions with Harrison over the course of the day, a sense of the trust and synergy between them is apparent. While he does reveal an additional party has recently been added into the equation – renowned manager Sam Eldridge – the foundations are seemingly in place for synchronicity.
While the girls contort in and out of Paco Rabanne looks on set, their social team announces FLO’s debut North American tour online, and the excitement in the room is tangible. Everyone from press to hair stylists congratulates the girls repeatedly throughout the day, and the subject spills naturally into our conversation. In a few days’ time, they will enter four weeks of rehearsals: new, as-yet-unreleased music to learn line-by-line, Kash Powell-curated choreography, vocal training. It’s the sort of brutal pop-star training regimen Frank Gatson would prescribe for Destiny’s Child. “We’re on treadmills making sure we can still sing; it’s a crazy month ahead,” says Downer. “But once we get over that, we can finally be excited about the year.” Douglas says she sometimes struggles with her nerves, and is leaning on the confidence choreographer Powell has taught her as a first-time dancer to dive into the experience with flair. And for Quaresma, it’s about using her innate calm – inherited from her mother – to help the group conquer what’s to come. “My mother has always navigated experiences with grace; I try to hold myself to that standard,” she says. “[It’s about] knowing how to manoeuvre in difficult situations.”
While on tour in the States, the girls will additionally look to finish their debut album, which Downer says is about “45 per cent” complete. All believe that a more holistic body of work is the way forward for the group. After the shoot, Douglas and I are among the last to leave. As we sit on the sofa awaiting our Ubers, she gushes over the prospect of reuniting with R&B superproducer Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins. “We worked with him in London and he’s just amazing,” she says. “He taught us to sing our background vocals 16 times – he used to do that with Brandy and Michael Jackson.” Douglas adds that Ariana Grande collaborator Victoria Monét and D’Mile are also on her wishlist of producers to work with.
Despite the group’s wholehearted embrace of the genre, Douglas is wary of headlines positioning FLO at the vanguard of a new generation of R&B. “I do feel like we’re also trying to establish ourselves in that pop and mainstream space as well,” says the singer, citing Bellah and Jvck James as more conventionally R&B than her group. “UK R&B is well and truly alive [beyond FLO], it’s just not as appreciated as it could be by mainstream platforms that put people on to music. But it’s definitely there.”
Hair MELL’ROSE and ALIYAH WILLOUGHBY, make-up SABA KHAN and LISAMARIE MCDONAGH, set design LYDIA CHAN at NEW SCHOOL, movement direction YAGAMOTO at NEW SCHOOL, photographic assistants BENJAMIN BUTCHER, WYNSTON SHANNON, styling assistants ANNIE SEVERS, ELOISE JENNER, production PRODUCING LOVE, post-production INK