Ever feel like the algorithm is trying to tell you something? On the wall of Shoreditch Studios, a mounted iPad pumps out Y2K R&B anthems from a themed Spotify playlist, songs so ubiquitous that they almost feel like genetic code: Destiny’s Child, Rihanna, Mary J Blige. But as the playlist rolls on, it throws up something new: a featherlight harmony shared between three female vocalists, simultaneously nostalgic and fresh. The guardians of those heavenly sounds? They’re right here in the room, laughing and miming along to their own voices. Meet Jorja, Renée and Stella, otherwise known as your favourite new girl group, FLO.
To say that FLO had a busy debut year in 2022 would be an understatement. Put together by Universal Records imprint Listen Generously in 2019, their three-year development feels not dissimilar to the model of K-Pop, honing artistic excellence through meticulous behind-the-scenes training. Not since Little Mix has there been a British girl group of their international crossover potential, already attracting huge online armies of eager stans desperate to document their meteoric rise.
FLO’s sound, however, is pure R&B; channelling the lineage of Sugababes ‘Overload’ and Beyonce’s iconic “box to the left” lyricism, their debut single ‘Cardboard Box’ went impossibly viral, shunning a cheating ex with such panache that Missy Elliott, Kelly Rowland and SZA all shouted them out as ones to watch.
Proving that lightning could strike more than once, singles ‘Immature’ and ‘Not My Job’ only bolstered the furore. Since NME spoke with the group in April for their first-ever interview, they’ve appeared on Later with Jools Holland and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, amassed over 200,000 new TikTok followers, been nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBOs and won the 2023 BRITs Rising Star Award, the first group to ever do so.
While each girl brings her own distinct personality, the power of FLO truly lies in their harmonious friendship. Where historic girl groups might have appointed themselves nicknames or specific roles from the off, the balance of FLO follows the trajectory of a Girls Aloud or Eternal, trusting that there is strength in feelings of equal-pegging collectivity. Millennials love them because they deliver a hefty dose of noughties nostalgia; Gen Z gravitates towards them as contemporaries, freshening up a sound that has arguably fallen out of the mainstream in recent years.
“When [the group] eventually came together, we had the same vibe, and it just felt right.” – Stella
With only six original songs released, and an array of note-perfect covers that built up their early social following, FLO have become the vessel upon which listeners can pin hopes for British R&B’s bright future. There could be no other choice to top the 2023 edition of The NME 100, a bumper list of all the most exciting new artists on the planet.
Right now though, FLO are three early-twenty girls in their comfies, sitting poised and patient amidst a flurrying storm of hair, make-up and wardrobe. Travel to our crowning shoot in London has been delayed due to snowfall, and everything is running several hours behind. Picking its way through the chaos, NME finds its moment with each of the girls in whatever lull possible, trying to get a sense of what it feels like to be part of one of the most talked-about new groups in the world.
First up is Stella Quaresma, greeting NME just moments after effortlessly nailing her solo part of the shoot. Raised in Mozambique before moving back to the UK aged five, she credits her diverse love of music to her mum. “She was always burning CDs, making playlists. There was Rihanna and Beyoncé, but she also listened to loads of Amy Winehouse, Dido, Otis Redding. Etta James was my go-to performance – whenever I was at a wedding or anywhere, my family were like ‘Stella, sing ‘At Last’!” she laughs.
An avid viewer of the CBBC show School for Stars as a pre-teen, Stella became fixated on the idea of attending an arts-focused school. Convincing her mum to let her audition she ended up getting into the show’s featured London institution, Italia Conti. “And that was basically that. When I got there I realised I wasn’t better than many people at dancing, but I was…” – a cheeky smile creeps in – “pretty alright at singing”.
Later, Stella attended the East London Arts & Music college, where she would meet Renée, a casual friend who she didn’t yet know would also be recruited to Universal’s girl group development. “At first me and Jorja had been put with two other girls, and Renée in a different group, but I think it was good to have something we could compare. When we all eventually came together, we had the same chemistry, the same vibe, and it just felt right.”
Three years of hard work later, and the speed at which everything is happening constantly brings fresh surprises. “It sounds so deep, but I didn’t even get as far as imagining all these artists who I’m obsessed with liking us,” she says. “Even yesterday, we had newspapers saying that Beyoncé was considering us to support on the UK dates of her ‘Renaissance’ tour… that’s the first I’d heard of that! It’s just crazy stuff happening all the time – things that I couldn’t even think to dream up.”
“When people see greatness from three young Black women… praise our management, but praise us too.” – Renée
Wrapping up her own shoot, Jorja Douglas carefully picks her way across the room in high heels, under strict styling instructions to move carefully in her pristinely-white minidress. Getting used to shoots, she says, has been the biggest curveball of their journey. “I didn’t know the amount of people that go into this,” she says, gesturing around the room. “In the beginning I really hated it and never thought the pictures were good, but I’m becoming a bit more confident with it. With shoots, music videos even, there’s no anxiety anymore. Live performances are a different story…”
Daughter of former Olympic sprinter Stephi Douglas, Jorja’s high standards are perhaps a family trait, but also informed by her competitive singing experience. In 2017, the then 14-year-old overcame her childhood shyness to feature on the CBBC kids singing contest Got What It Takes (which she ultimately won, singing Adele’s ‘When We Were Young’). Later, bandmate Renée will describe her as FLO’s harmony queen. “Any note you can think of, she’ll pull it out her ears, out her bum, wherever.” As a self-identified vocal group, sonic perfection is FLO’s bread and butter, and there are always ways to improve.
“We’re very critical of ourselves, yeah,” nods Renée. “We’re very big on wanting to sing live and do choreo, but I’d rather execute one thing perfectly than be too out of breath to sing or super anxious about remembering everything.” Appearing on Jools Holland in November, she says, “was so fun because we were just sitting down”, able to focus on the vocals. The Jimmy Kimmel performance from October? “We [were] shitting ourselves!” And the MOBOs? “Did you see our faces at the end of the performance? It was a HOT. MESS.”
While “hot mess” might be a little harsh, being a unit has made it easier to laugh off the kind of awkward onstage moments that can happen to any group. Knowing Stella and Renée beforehand through Instagram, Jorja fondly recalls the day they all ”‘naturally teamed” together, making a case to their manager that they were the ideal final trio. “Instead of him having to try and force random girls to form a relationship, that hard part was already done.”
Now, their bond has FLO-urished to the point of sisterhood; on a recent trip to LA, each girl got a ‘3’ tattoo to mark their adventure together so far. “My favourite thing about Renée is that she’s very selfless,” says Jorja. “Anything I need her help with, she’s there. With Stella, it’s her humour; that kind of thing where you can just look at each other a certain way and just laugh. All three of us, we just pick one another up.”
When NME does catch up with Renée Downer, it’s clear that she was always FLO’s final puzzle piece. A soft, gentle speaker with pageant queen poise, she ends each thought on a note of graceful positivity, clearly grateful for everything so far. But she’s also a smart self-advocate, with a shrewd sense of just how special FLO can become. Like the other girls, she trained in singing, dancing and acting, but a trip to her very first concert – Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ world tour – solidified her decision to focus on making music. “You don’t go to something like that and not come away wanting to be a singer. But that’s the best thing about music; you’re acting, you’re dancing, you have to be the full package to really be a star.”
“I think PinkPantheress is really cool; I’d love for both of our worlds to mesh.” – Renée
This star package, as Renée puts it, meant being hands-on involved in FLO from the very beginning, pushing against the assumption that girl groups merely concede to the business plans of older svengali men. “Everyone who works with us is amazing, but we fight to be involved in everything. Right from our EP [2021’s ‘The Lead’], we made a presentation to show the label, ‘This is what we want to release, this is what it’s going to look like, this is the timeline’. When people see greatness from three young Black women… praise our management absolutely, but praise us too.”
This sense of unapologetic womanhood, of not taking things lying down, Renée says, is the passion that fuels FLO’s entire lyrical ethos. “We were all predominantly raised by single mothers, and that independence is embedded in us. I’m a very firm believer in like, ‘Yes, I love you, but if you leave me tomorrow I’m gonna find a way to pick myself up.’ I hope anybody who hears our music gets that message, especially young Black girls like us. Whatever you’re going through, you’re going to get through it, you’re going to slay it, you’re gonna be a bad bitch. Period!”
Two days later, NME meets the girls again, huddled together on Zoom. The hectic, excitable energy of shoot day has been replaced with polite exhaustion, delicately concealing their yawns under manicures and murmured apologies. They have every right to be knackered; not only have they just dropped their last single for 2022, the epic ballad ‘Losing You’, but they’ve also found out that in addition to their BRIT, they’ve topped the BBC Sound Of… Poll, unleashing a torrent of fresh interviews and promo opportunities.
If 2022 was their big introduction to the world, 2023 is going to be the year where FLO go stratospheric. Throughout it all, they insist that this early hype is “motivating” rather than pressurising. “We just don’t think about it.” laughs Renée. “People have said like, ‘Oh, your music is nostalgic but fresh’, and great! We grew up listening to the R&B that our mums played us, but we of course have our own generation and our own peers. Whatever sounds good, we just roll with.”
While each FLO track does indeed have its own gravitas – the punchy, ‘No Scrubs’-esque ‘Not My Job’, the all-out girls trip shimmer of ‘Summertime’ – their unifying message is one of fun, rolling with the punches of young flirtation and identity exploration. Like their fashion sense, the songs are designed to be playful rather than out-and-out raunchy: “Kind of skimpy, yes, but with an element of class,” says Jorja. “That’s one thing that I’m happy about; people always say that we look our age, not too over-sexualised. Very Y2K, low rise, super cropped stuff… just cute!”
They’ve begun to build a network of people they can trust, fellow artists who are helping to redefine British R&B. Freshly independent popstar RAYE recently extended an offer of solidarity, inviting the girls to her home if, in Jorja’s words, they were ever in need of a “trauma dump.”
Stella has been loving the work of old classmate and fellow NME 100 alumni Tendai (“He’s so talented; I’d love to go through his brain”), while all three girls have struck up a close relationship with Bellah, whose debut EP ‘Adultsville’ strikes a similar chord of Gen Z relatability. “She is definitely doing it for the UK girls,” beams Renée. “I’m so glad that we have a relationship with her now and can grow with her. I can’t wait for the day when she gets her flowers worldwide, because she’s really special.”
Similarly, a recent personal invitation to appear at PinkPantheress’ Boiler Room session got some potential collaborations cogs whirring, allowing the girls to let loose and experience a different kind of up-close-and-personal performance. “That night was the first time we’d met, but she’s definitely someone I could see us working with,” says Renée. “I think the style that she’s bringing back is really cool; I’d love for both of our worlds to mesh.”
“All three of us, we just pick one another up.” – Jorja
In the meantime though, thoughts have turned back to their own gigs. Selling out in under a minute each, their debut headline shows at London’s Here at Outernet and Manchester’s New Century Hall in March will be a real solidifying moment, the first time for fans to fully experience the FLO universe. Forever chasing excellence, treadmills have been ordered so that they can practise singing while getting their cardio on, and they’re also working with a live band, part of their commitment to doing things as “real” as possible.
There is also the small matter of their debut album. While they’ve been experimenting with legendary US producers such as Darkchild (Brandy, Monica, Whitney Houston), they’ve also stuck close with homegrown producer-artist MNEK (Little Mix, Mabel, Beyoncé), whose alchemic eye has been there from the beginning. Set for release later in 2023, it is hoped that the album will be a natural follow-on from ‘The Lead’, their debut EP. “It’s still very much FLO in their R&B bag, but we’re trying to touch on some more hard-hitting topics,” says Jorja.
Of the work-in-progress tracks that NME is lucky enough to hear, there are two that immediately stand out. One super-upbeat, self-referential pop track feels destined for its own TikTok dance trend, while another – currently scheduled as their next single – interpolates a hip-hop classic, coming full circle on the sounds that influenced them growing up.
“When we heard that one, we were like, this is such a cool idea,” says Stella. “We added more lyrics and it just felt like a really cool next step. It’s like ‘Cardboard Box’s big sister in a way; a fusion of R&B and pop in a way that the masses will like, but our fans will hopefully be really into.”
Whatever the outcome, they can rely on that core fanbase to help them spread the word. Nicknamed the FLOlifers, the level of fan activity they’re generating on Twitter and TikTok is unusual for a band at this stage, indicating just how strongly they have captured a cultural mood. “Right from the start, they’ve just been the best ever,” says Renée. “They clap back if anyone comes for us, and they’re always there. Honestly, I don’t know how they have so much time! Every single thing we do, they’re tweeting. I don’t know how they know it all…”
Ambassadors for a generation who are learning the language of self-love, stan culture and their own figure-it-out-as-you-go adulthood, FLO’s potential seems every bit as high as their heels. Their harmonies may be utter popstar perfectionism, but there is a welcoming warmth to them that only the most beloved of girl groups truly capture; a sense that theirs is a club that you can not only look up to, but belong within.
“If you’re a FLO supporter, then you’re part of our world,” says Renée. “Especially with people who’ve hopped on our journey from so early on, we’ve been able to make great connections, and now we just want everyone to be as involved and as a part of this as possible.” Deeply in control of their own destiny, who wouldn’t want to be on their side?
Read the full NME 100 2023 list here.
Styling by Kirsty Stewart ( @kstewartstylist )
Styling assistants: Caitriona Oladapo, Katie McCormick
Makeup by Jasmine Hamilton ( @lovehughmua ), Saba Khan ( @thefacefairy )
Hair by Mell’Rose ( @mellroselondon ), Aliyah Willoughby ( @aaliyahthegoat_ )
Jorja: Dion Lee (via Selfridges)
Renee: Miaou (via Selfridges)
Stella: Luis de Javier (via Selfridges)
Jewellery by Emma Walton and Shaun Leane
Jorja, Renée and Stella are all wearing 1xBlue
Jewellery by Emma Walton and Shaun Leane