Flo interview: ‘The Brits doesn’t feel like a win. Especially with what we’re about’

Flo  (Sammy King for ES Magazine )
Flo (Sammy King for ES Magazine )

Amid a Brit Awards year filled with questions over representation, there was one notable victory that bucked the trend. Picking up the Rising Star gong (a marker of seemingly inevitable stardom previously won by the likes of Adele, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith), Flo became the first-ever group to do so.

Jorja Douglas, Stella Quaresma and Renée Downer sit in a pocket often ignored by the awards circuit: a girl group in the classic sense of the word, put together by a management team and engineered for success. It famously took Little Mix a decade in the game to pick up a Best Group title at the 2021 ceremony, the first time a girl group had been recognised on a level with their guitar-based peers. Yet less than a year since the release of debut single ‘Cardboard Box’, Flo are already racking up the wins. On top of the Rising Star title, they were named the BBC’s Sound of 2023; they’ve picked up an MTV Europe Music Award and been nominated at the Mobos.

‘Girl groups have always been really successful, so I don’t know [why it’s taken so long]. Maybe people just don’t like multiple women in one situation…’ eye-rolls Quaresma, legs tucked under herself on the sofa of Flo’s east London management office a few days after the ceremony. ‘It’s deep-rooted misogyny because when you see three girls — especially three pretty girls,’ Douglas continues, with a mocking emphasis on the ‘pretty’, ‘you think, “They don’t really do much; they just stand there and sing with a bit of autotune and they also rely on each other.” I think that’s how people perceive girl groups. And in the past, girl groups haven’t written their own music, and it has been very manufactured, so I think that’s partly the reason that they haven’t been taken seriously.’

Flo photographed by Sammy King (Sammy King for ES Magazine)
Flo photographed by Sammy King (Sammy King for ES Magazine)

‘People are so surprised to find out that we are involved in every single thing,’ Downer picks up, sitting across from her bandmates. ‘They’re like, “Oh your management is so amazing! Everything they’re doing is so correct!” And it’s like, what about us? We’re 80 per cent of everything.’

While in some ways Flo are continuing a legacy that stretches from the Spice Girls to Sugababes, Destiny’s Child and Little Mix, they also feel like an empowered, modern version of the format: a trio who are vocal about the amount of work they put in, and who don’t see the fact that they were originally puppet-mastered together back in 2019 as any reason not to speak their minds and stamp their identity on everything they’re doing now.

Though they’re appreciative of their Brits win, Douglas notes that ‘it doesn’t feel like a win, especially with what we’re about’ when none of their R&B peers are being recognised around them. When we ask their thoughts on the lack of women nominated for Best Artist, Quaresma quickly steps in: ‘It’s just pathetic, because there’s enough women to choose from that we should respect, so it’s just like, why? There’s definitely a known annoyance [among female artists]. It’s gonna have to change.

Their emergence and ascent may have seemed almost overnight to the outside eye, but behind the scenes Flo were hard at it for two years before eventually launching at the start of 2022 — ‘trying to get our sound, workshopping what we wanted to write about,’ explains Downer. ‘No one takes it seriously [when you say] you’re in a girl group and you have nothing [released] to show for it. Now it’s a different story.’ The three women all had some degree of previous acquaintance before being put together for the group. Quaresma, now 21, was in the year above Downer, 20, at Sylvia Young Theatre School; both were aware of Douglas, 21, from her videos singing on Instagram. But nonetheless, the emphasis was put on taking their time, getting to know each other and fully fleshing out the world of Flo before letting the wider public in.

‘We were like, “We need to live together.”

This was at the point when we were having to churn out content and have this presence on TikTok because everything was going viral. So we were like, “Okay, we need a mansion, and a wardrobe, and this, that and the other,” but we didn’t get that stuff and now it’s too late,’ shrugs Douglas — easily the most gregarious of the three despite being visibly in the throes of a rotten cold. ‘I think we should have lived together like in The X Factor when they all do it. It would have been cool, but maybe then we’d have had to have an awkward break-up where someone says they’re moving out…’

Flo photographed by Sammy King (Sammy King for ES Magazine)
Flo photographed by Sammy King (Sammy King for ES Magazine)

Though they might not have got their Hype House-style TikTok mansion, Flo did win out on some altogether more important aspects of their burgeoning trajectory. In previous interviews, the band have described crying with relief when they were eventually allowed to release ‘Cardboard Box’ as their first single — a global success of a song that’s currently clocked up more than 25 million Spotify streams and been praised by SZA, Missy Elliott, Brandy and more. Today, Douglas recalls the tug-of-war that came from standing their ground in those early days.

‘We really stood strong and as soon as we were listened to, that’s really I think when things took off,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of uncertainty from everyone else [at the label]. I think they knew what they had was special and had potential to be amazing, so when they let go a little bit and were like, let’s maybe listen to the artist for once! Let’s try something new, something fun and fresh! Then it went quite well.

Prone to a satisfying splash of sass, Douglas describes herself as the one in the band who ‘makes sure that, if people are telling us to do stuff we don’t wanna do, I make it clear that we don’t wanna do it’. Downer emphasises her role as being more on top of the business side, ‘the organisation of the numbers’, and making sure no one’s ripping them off. Quaresma, a quieter presence, notes that her ‘level-headed’ personality means she can be a mediator who ‘sees both sides of things’. A far cry from the Smash Hits-style descriptors of girl groups past — the ‘cute’ one or the ‘tomboy’ of the band — Flo might be a stylish pop juggernaut in the making, but they also take the game seriously.

Flo’s Jorja Douglas photographed by Sammy King (Flo photographed by Sammy King for ES Magazine)
Flo’s Jorja Douglas photographed by Sammy King (Flo photographed by Sammy King for ES Magazine)

All raised by single mothers (Quaresma’s a teacher, Downer’s a project manager and Douglas’s a sports massage therapist), the three musicians credit their upbringing for instilling this no-nonsense attitude within them. ‘It’s what you see about how they operate,’ nods Quaresma. ‘They’re all very strong and independent, and that’s what we bring into our work.’

Another set of strong female role models have clearly stamped their mark on them, too: GOAT R&B girl group legend, Destiny’s Child. Scroll through @flolikethis on TikTok and you’ll find clips of the band being put through their paces with intense choreography sessions, and practising their vocals while simultaneously running on a treadmill.

‘We don’t have to get on the treadmill, but we want to,’ says Douglas. ‘When you’re admiring Destiny’s Child who are doing sets with full choreography, running and singing — you don’t just click your fingers and you can do that. I don’t even wanna talk about it, I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it…’

‘I’ve seen videos of Beyoncé where she’s literally jumping and doing this massive note, like how?! How is your voice not [cracking] in the middle of the note?!’ exhales Downer with wide eyes. ‘You grow up seeing these things and wanting to make your dreams come true, so you just have to do it.’

Flo’s Renée Downer photographed by Sammy King (Sammy King for ES Magazine)
Flo’s Renée Downer photographed by Sammy King (Sammy King for ES Magazine)

Flo are clearly not afraid to put in the work. When we bring up the subject of self-care, following a 2022 in which artists such as Arlo Parks and Sam Fender cancelled high-profile tours because of burn-out, Downer answers diplomatically. ‘Our calendar is always full and there are multiple things for us to do every single day. We’re only one year in and it’s only going to times by 10 each year, so it’s definitely hard but this is what you have to do to get to where you wanna be,’ she says. They have a team, Douglas emphasises, that has their best interests at heart and who’ll let them take time off if and when they need, but the women of Flo’s ambitions are clearly sky high; it’s hard to imagine them bumping an engagement for a lie-in.

We’re only one year in and it’s only going to times by 10 each year, so it’s definitely hard but this is what you have to do to get to where you wanna be

Last year’s debut EP The Lead — a polished set of R&B pop nodding to the 1990s and early 2000s ideal of the genre (Faith Evans, Mary J Blige, Destiny’s Child and Brandy, alongside the ‘new R&B girls’ such as SZA, Victoria Monét, Kehlani, Summer Walker all get a shout-out) — was helmed by executive producer MNEK, who will continue to write with and guide the group as they head into their full-length debut. MNEK, Douglas explains, was the perfect fit for their mindset. ‘His level of perfectionism and talent — it’s very simple, he just gets it,’ she shrugs. ‘He’s the perfect balance of pop and R&B and we’ve been inspired by the same people. He’s very meticulous and that’s what we need; we’re all perfectionists.’

Indeed, more than rinsing the red carpets and quaffing the spoils that being the UK’s hottest new stars will bring, Flo’s favourite thing has become getting an early night. ‘I like turning down parties. There’s actually so many events, so you get so much joy just saying, “Hmm, I can’t go to that one. I’m gonna go home and go to bed and get some rest.” It’s really liberating. That’s the best part,’ decides Douglas as her French bulldog, Bunny, snuffles around her feet. ‘Getting sent too many clothes, these are our problems now,’ Downer giggles. ‘It’s a great problem to have.’

Flo’s Stella Quaresma photographed by Sammy King (Flo’s Stella Quaresma photographed by Sammy King for ES Magazine)
Flo’s Stella Quaresma photographed by Sammy King (Flo’s Stella Quaresma photographed by Sammy King for ES Magazine)

Later this month, they’ll play a long-sold out show at Tottenham Court Road’s shiny new venue, Here at Outernet, before heading to the US for a run of shows and a month of writing for their album. They’re adamant that, despite their nostalgic love of the turn of the millennium, the record will feel fresh. ‘We don’t wanna be an R&B tribute girl group,’ notes Quaresma. But the likelihood of Flo allowing themselves to do anything except push themselves as far as possible seems as minimal as their chances of superstardom are high.

‘I like to think that we can do anything we put our minds to; nothing is off the table. If we wanna do it, then we’re gonna work to do it. This is just the beginning and it’s crazy to see how far we’ve gotten just by working hard and doing it ourselves,’ smiles Downer as they look into a future that seems limitlessly bright: ‘Well done, Flo.’