Three months after the release of their debut single, “Cardboard Box”—produced by the UK pop mastermind MNEK—London-based outfit FLO have released their first body of work entitled The Lead. With their angelic harmonies and ‘90s and early ‘00s music and fashion influences, Renée, 19, Stella, 20, and Jorja, 20, are now walking the path carved out by a long lineage of R&B and pop girl-group greats.
Behind the vocals and unbreakable chemistry are three young Black women coming from different walks of life before their journeys amalgamated. After moving from Mozambique to the UK at the age of five, Stella grew her passion for the creative arts while attending Sylvia Young Theatre School. Having also attended the same school, Renée was able to bond with Stella over their mutual love for singing, before later uniting to form FLO. Jorja, meanwhile, was embarking on her own musical journey until she met the other members at an audition later on. From this point on, the story of FLO began and a winding road of experiences lay ahead.
Months before releasing their own music, viral videos showcasing the group’s pitch-perfect covers of soulful favourites, such as “Insecure” by Jazmine Sullivan and Summer Walker’s “Insane”, would circulate TikTok, accumulating thousands of views. But it was a single viral tweet stating “the UK girl groups are coming hard”, accompanied by a clip of their clean-cut visuals for “Cardboard Box”, that introduced many to the world of FLO. The trio have already garnered a cult following online (fan pages aplenty) and received major co-signs from the likes of Missy Elliott, SZA, Brandy and the Sugababes.
Fresh off releasing their 5-track debut project, The Lead, we caught up with Jorja, Stella and Renée over Zoom to talk about the journey leading up to the forming of FLO, finding their voices in label meetings, their music-making processes, and a whole lot more.
“In a way, we’re all quite similar. We’ve had similar experiences growing up, all primarily being raised by our mums. When you have similar experiences, it’s really easy to get along with each other.”—Renée
COMPLEX: Hi, ladies! Big fan of your work. “Cardboard Box”, your debut single, dropped in April of this year and it went viral from a single tweet. How has life been since its release?
Renée: It feels good because, before that, we didn’t have an actual piece of music to show for ourselves so it feels good to have our music out there. We’re officially artists now.
Jorja: And it’s been received so well! That makes the wait worth it.
Why did you choose “Cardboard Box” to be the song that introduced FLO to the world?
Renée: Everyone was actually quite against us releasing “Cardboard Box”, just because it was…
Jorja: —really ambitious.
Renée: Yeah, it was very ambitious of us as our first song, and MNEK as a producer. We didn’t know what the reception was going to be. Our label wanted to play it safe but we wanted to be true to ourselves. “Cardboard Box” was the best first song for us to release because it’s a really nice introduction to FLO. It’s got the R&B melodies but it’s still a bit easy on the ears so that everyone can listen to it and enjoy. I think it was the perfect introduction.
Stella: And it definitely paid off [laughs].
Pop hit-maker MNEK produced the song—how did you guys cross paths with him?
Stella: Our manager knew him from another management company and put us in our first session with him. It’s just been amazing, and he’s so talented. He makes all of our songs sound so elevated. It’s really special working with him.
Jorja, you performed a cover of MNEK’s “Wrote A Song About You” on a CBBC talent show in 2017. How did it feel when you had that full circle moment when working with him?
Jorja: It feels really good to be close to one of your idols because, outside of music, he gives us life advice. We don’t just strictly work with him professionally; he’s our friend as well. It’s really amazing having someone you look up to but also appreciates you and your music around. Like, imagine Beyoncé telling you that she actually loves you and that you’re really talented…
How did the three of you meet, and was there instant chemistry in the studio or was that something you had to work towards?
Jorja: I met the girls for the first time at an audition for a group our label was putting together. Renée and Stella went to school with each other but I knew about them via social media. I think because of that, we gravitated towards each other and formed more of a connection than we did with the other girls at the audition. The connection was already there, and the chemistry just followed that.
Renée: I think, in a way, we’re all quite similar. We’ve had similar experiences growing up, all primarily being raised by our mums. When you have similar experiences, it’s really easy to get along with each other. None of us have sisters, we all have brothers, so we’re like the sisters we never had.
You were building your relationship as a group, developing your sound and style, two years prior to releasing your debut single. What was the most important thing you learned during that time?
Stella: Probably having patience, and that not everything goes where you want it to go. But as much as it was frustrating in ways, I think that we got closer because we were all going through the same thing. So I think it was for the best.
Jorja: For me, I learned to not be afraid to speak up. Even the process of us picking the tracklist for our EP, it’s changed like four times. The songs we’re putting out now are not the songs we were planning on putting out six months ago. So all of that comes from being really honest with yourself, if it feels right, and whether it makes sense. We have to put out a song that we love and have confidence in, otherwise it’s not going to translate the way we want it to. It’s our music and it’s personal to us, so we have every right to have an opinion on it.
I can imagine that’s been a useful but frustrating experience, especially since you’ve developed a solid following that have been wanting you to release music and are really vocal about that.
Stella: I think it’s nice that they want us to put out music, and we want to put out music as well. But I think that we did have to keep in mind that it’s important it comes out right, and it’s something we’re happy with.
Renée: Yeah, it has to be ready.
Jorja: And the strategy has to be there because we want to have the best outcome, even if we want to give people as much music as they want.
Was music something you always wanted to be involved in?
Renée: For me, I definitely enjoyed anything creative. I went to Sylvia Young to pursue acting initially, then dancing, until I decided I was going to focus on singing. So it’s always been there, but I was never really set on anything until that point; I just knew I wanted to do something creative.
Jorja: In the beginning, I wanted to be a vet and then I decided it was going to be too much hard work—like, the bad kind of hard work, not the fun kind of hard work. And, oh, and I can’t put an animal down. I could never do that. I also wanted to do athletics, as my mum was an athlete, but then I discovered I wanted to do singing and you can’t really do both. If you want to be at the top of your career path, you have to pick one and dedicate your whole life to that. So I chose singing over athletics because I’m not going to the gym! [Laughs]
Stella: Singing was always one of the things I love. For a while, I wanted to be a 100 metre sprinter, but that didn’t last very long. Then I wanted to be a teacher, because that’s what my mum does, but nothing made me passionate the way music does—even if it was just listening to it. Singing was the passion that was the most consistent.
“Musically, we have a little family now. So, like, MNEK, Kabba, Ryan Ashley, Jamal Woon, they’re all involved in the whole EP. It’s been so good and they really get us.”—Stella
Describe your process when in the studio, creating music.
Stella: We don’t usually go in knowing what we’re going to write about or what we’re going to do. We’ve just started getting used to pulling melodies from our brains and onto the mic and we used to be really scared of doing that. Usually, we’ll go in with a producer and choose a vibe based on something we’ve been listening to or beats the producer plays us. Then we’ll do melodies first, arrange those melodies into different sections, and write the lyrics after.
Where do you usually draw inspiration from when writing songs?
All: Life experiences!
Renée: Especially when we have our conversations at the start, that might dictate where the song is going to go and what it’ll be about.
Whenever the topic of British R&B is discussed, there’s often an online debate as to whether the scene is “dead” or lacking visibility. This conversation circled around again when The Brit Awards announced the new fan-voted Best Pop/R&B Act category earlier this year. But you guys have proved that there is indeed an appetite for the genre by the success of your debut single and loyal following cultivated on TikTok. How do you feel about the future of UK R&B?
Renée: I feel like I’m really excited for us to be in the light and for people to recognise that UK R&B is a thing. There are so many UK R&B artists that we love and listen to and they just don’t seem to be getting the light, which is really unfair. But, hopefully, we can inspire people not to be afraid of it because I feel like the UK labels are currently a bit like, “Oh, R&B… No thanks.” But obviously, if they can see that we’re being successful, they might be more willing to help some UK R&B artists out there and shine the light on them.
The Sugababes gave you a massive co-sign during a radio interview with Nadia Jae on BBC Radio 1Xtra. You’ve also had co-signs and praise from Missy Elliott, SZA, Victoria Monet and more. How did it feel when you got this positive reception from such huge artists?
Stella: Renée and I were in the toilet when Victoria Monet...
Renée: —I screamed! My whole chest. It just feels incredible when your inspirations are seeing your work and they love your work too.
Jorja: It doesn’t feel real to think that SZA was on her phone on Instagram and she actually reshared, followed and pressed buttons to type words about us! It’s crazy. We sound crazy [laughs]. And the Sugababes, we met them a few days ago and they’re so lovely!
Stella: It’s just what you want: the people who inspire you to think you’re good. It feels amazing.
Who would FLO’s dream collaboration be with?
Jorja: I think, as a group, we would really love to have Doja Cat feature on a song. Also, Megan Thee Stallion, SZA, Summer Walker... American R&B is what inspires us and where we draw a lot of our inspiration from.
Aside from bagging a song with your faves, what’s the one goal you’d love to achieve as a group in the next few years?
Jorja: I want us to perform at award shows. The performances at these shows are always so crazy and different to the original song. So, like, the BET Awards, The Brits, the VMAs—all of them.
Stella: I just want to sing in an arena. That’s when you know you’ve made it. You see some artists—like Dave, that moment when he just started crying because the whole of the O2 knew his words, it was amazing to see.
You’ve given your fans a name: FLOLIFERS. What’s the one thing you’d say to your FLOLIFERS reading this?
Renée: Oh my gosh! Hi, besties. Live your best life, believe in yourself, and remember: you’re a bad b! Forever and always.
Stella: And thanks for loving us so much.
Jorja: We appreciate every single one of you. Seriously.