- Words Russell Dean Stone
- Photography Mikayla Miller
We head into the studio with the super producer to take a first listen to her forthcoming debut album.
“I love rap music so much”, beams Isabella Summers aka Isa Machine—the super producer that puts the ‘Machine’ into Florence + The Machine. When you hear the epic, throw-yourself-off-a-cliff, harp-infused sound of Florence + The Machine, hip-hop is probably not something that comes to mind but it’s hip hop that was Isa’s first love.
Born on Halloween in 1980, Isa is an OG Hackney girl who grew up with a proper cockney accent on Victoria Park Road. Despite the fact that her dad is a born and bred East Londoner, he was adamant that he wasn’t going to bring up his offspring in his native Hackney. When Isa was 10 years old the Summers upped sticks and moved to the seaside town of Aldeburgh.
“When I was 13 the two guys in the house next door to me were rude boys and older than me and I was terrified of them and therefore completely in awe of them,” says Isa. They gave their scrappy neighbour a cassette tape with Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle album on one side and 6 Feet Deep by Gravediggaz on the flip. Isa listened to that tape over and over and learnt every single word.
“When I was 15 my best mate Dale had decks and was into turntablism. There was nothing to do after school in the countryside, in the bleak east of England. It was a tiny seaside town, we moved from London to nothing by the epic sea. I hung out with loads of boys who smoked loads of weed and listened to hard American rap. They’d never let me touch the decks. Then when I was 18 I bought a pair of decks myself and thought if they can do it, I can do it.”
Eventually Isa moved back to the big smoke to study fine art at Central Saint Martins, where she made and soundtracked horror films for the next three years and that’s about when life got crazy. She moved into an infamous squat in Peckham, South London, known as the Co Op squat and would DJ at hip hop nights in Brixton and Stockwell. Isa immersed herself in the male dominated scene, turning up to gigs, 5ft tall with her bag of Mobb Deep records terrified and having to properly psyche herself up to go in and DJ.
Isa scored a part-time job at Xfm working on the station’s All City hip-hop radio show with Dan Greenpeace, who took her under his wing. Greenpeace was tapped into the hip-hop world and people like The Game, Guru and Gang Starr would regularly come through the studio. Isa got herself an MPC (music production controller) and a little studio in a former plastics factory in Crystal Palace and started making music with people like Skinnyman and Kashmere The Iguana Man. Collaborators began stacking up but then something unexpected happened—Isabella Summers met Florence Welch.
“Flo came into my world in the beginning when I had this studio in Crystal Palace and was sampling the bible and screaming into the microphone and doing really weird stuff. We created this thing together and then ten years later it was kind of a funny joke that we did so well,” says Isa.
The pair began recording bare bones demos, banging on walls, howling and attempting to smash out hit songs in 30 minute writing sessions—with many of those original ideas later arriving fully formed on debut album Lungs. “All the songs we wrote were three notes because that’s how all the hip-hop stuff is done, on a loop and that’s how I learnt everything,” says Isa. They started referring to themselves collectively as Florence Robot/Isa Machine (a private joke that got out of hand), before refining their band name and going on to sell over 6 million albums, headline Glastonbury and experience what Isa calls the “whole rollercoaster of rock’n’roll”.
“I probably do take for granted the doors that are open for me because of what we have done,” confesses Isa, “but I’m a true believer that everything you’ve ever wanted in your life is in your mind. Flo came into my life with all of her force and she set the bar for me so high that it’s been awesome. All of this came out of nothing. I fancied the boys next door and then all of this came out of that I guess. Hard work pays off.”
The Florence + The Machine success led to Isa working with artists like The Game, Puff Daddy, Grammy nominated duo Chloe x Halle, pop stars like Rita Ora and LP, Juliette Lewis and, umm, living in the Hamptons for a couple of weeks at a writing camp for Beyoncé and Jay-Z!
“They hire this huge house and all these people have studios all over it,” says Isa. “I had the basement which had a halfpipe in it, like the kids basement halfpipe room, which is very fitting. I basically sat in the basement the whole time and then Beyoncé would come in and she’d be like ‘there’s a lot of talent in this room’. Jay-z is such a badass. We had a good time but you can’t help but feel competitive in that environment, everyone’s listening through the walls—it’s intimidating.”
Unsatisfied with casual studio sessions (“It’s great but you can work every single day and not get paid and you’re at the mercy of the next whatever 19-year-old potential next big thing”) and having been in the orbit of Florence Welch’s blazing presence for the last decade, having written written songs together that have made numerous ‘greatest songs of all time’ lists, Isa is now trying it for herself—or as she says, now it’s her turn “to have a little go” on her own and break out of her comfort zone.
I can’t tell you everything about the solo material that Isa plays me when we sit down in her London studio, with it’s stacks of William Blake books and canvases emblazoned by Isa with phrases and sketches. I can assure you that Isa is stockpiling an arsenal of absolute bangers that feature a line-up of first-class collaborators (yes her phone book is lit and yes there are rappers onboard). The songs have real range, distilled with all the familiar sounds you love from Florence + The Machine records—shimmering rushes, majestic brass—only with smash pop hooks, simmering darkness and killer drops, all informed by Isa’s devotion to hip hop.
“It’s enchanting but also a little bit terrifying, also very loving, dark, hopeful… Magick too—there’s definitely magick thrown into it,” says Isa of the music she’s been conjuring up. “At the beginning of last year I shut everyone out—I needed to bring my power back. I said I’m going to start getting artists in the room to write songs for me and then actually finish records. The concept became getting dudes to write love songs for me.”
Although it’s been a year since Isa first decided to start work on a solo record in ernest, she confesses it’s not a decisive body of work just yet, in part due to the demanding rehearsal and tour schedule with Flo and the gang. Instead it’s more of a work in progress. “It’s really hard to explain where I’m at without playing people all the music,” says Isa with frustration, “I’m holding my cards very close to my chest right now because none of it’s quite finished. I’ve got all of these songs that are coming together really well and no one’s heard any of it. I’ve always been nervous of myself but I’m not any more. I want this to be as big as it deserves to be.”
In a world massively short on prominent female producers, the promise of Isa as the next big production talent is beyond exciting. Isa herself says she’s open for business should any musicians wanting to work with her want to get in touch: “You can proudly put in print that my Instagram is @isamachine and they can just come at me.”
I’m in this really beautiful moment right now where anyone could potentially make the track list,” reflects Isa, “I’m totally master of ceremonies. But I’m not gonna stop until Lil Wayne and I are in the studio together.”