How the U.K.’s FLO Rejuvenated Y2K R&B and Restored Our Hope in Girl Groups
From across the pond, Renée Downer of FLO, the buzzy, new U.K. R&B trio, says, “We’re still little fish in the big fish industry,” causing her groupmate Jorja Douglas to giggle at the metaphor. But for three “little fish,” Downer, Douglas and Stella Quaresma have made quite a massive splash over the last year they’ve started releasing music together as a group — which was years in the making.
Quaresma was born in Kingston upon Thames in southwest London and moved to Mozambique as an infant before returning to London at age five. She and Downer, who was born and raised in North London, both attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School, a performing arts school that boasts all-star alumni including Amy Winehouse, Dua Lipa and Jesy Nelson and Leigh-Anne Pinnock of Little Mix, the British girl group that rose from X Factor favorites to one of the best-selling girl groups of all time – before Nelson announced her departure in 2020, and the remaining members announced Little Mix’s hiatus two years later.
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Fans mourned the loss of yet another beloved U.K. girl group that came and left their mark — while behind the scenes, three girls in their late teens were just starting to find their flow… literally. Rob Harrison, the Island Records A&R and founder of independent record label Listen Generously who currently manages FLO, was on a mission to discover the next big girl group. When Downer arrived at UMG’s office to meet with Harrison, she ran into Douglas, whom she had discovered on social media after the then-14-year-old Douglas won the British singing competition series, Got What It Takes?, with a cover of Adele’s “When We Were Young.”
“The next step was to try different combinations of girls. So Jorja and Stella were together with two other girls for a day, and I was with two girls for a day,” Downer recalled. “We were just getting to know each other, singing together, seeing how we connected and it was not a vibe at all. But Jorja and Stella gravitated towards each other, and then the next combination was us three …. And the rest is history.”
Over the next three years, Douglas, Quaresma and Downer worked with British super-producer MNEK on harnessing the nostalgia of the noughties and the decade prior while still sounding fresh. On March 24, 2022, FLO released its debut single, “Cardboard Box,” a delectable kiss-off anthem that dusts off the “to the left, to the left” sentiments of Beyoncé’s 2006 smash “Irreplaceable” and repackages ’00’s R&B for today’s consumption. While FLO’s songs have since generated 162.1 million on-demand official streams globally, according to Luminate, “Cardboard Box” accounts for 61.5 million of those streams (through March 2).
“Cardboard Box” arrived ahead of their debut EP The Lead, which further cemented their position as the new classic R&B girls, because of how closely they’ve studied the game. FLO’s second single, “Immature,” implements a wailing baby sample that sounds straight out of Timbaland’s playbook (not to mention, the “Say you want my body, body” chorus line hints at yet another Bey track, her 2006 B’Day cut “Kitty Kat”). Meanwhile, the slinky, yet soulful promotional single “Not My Job” shuts down dudes with little-to-no game à la TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Even their latest single released Thursday (March 23), “Fly Girl” featuring Missy Elliott, reworks the O.G. rapper’s 2002 smash “Work It” into their own empowering anthem for the ladies.
When it comes to FLO’s job, says Downer, “We wouldn’t [want] to have any other career.”
Billboard spoke with March’s R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month about how FLO knew they were the right fit, what it means to carry the legacy of girl groups they grew up, and whether they’ll be opening for Queen Bey’s Renaissance Tour.
Who did you grow up listening to?
Douglas: I grew up listening to a lot of late-‘90s R&B, early-2000s R&B — just loads of old-school R&B like Usher, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Whitney [Houston] … all of the greats. Those are my biggest influences.
Quaresma: Similar vibes.
Downer: Similar vibes – people like Ciara, Rihanna, those type of ladies.
Stella and Renée, you attended Sylvia Young Theatre School together. What is it about that school that allowed you two, but also your famous predecessors, to succeed in the music industry?
Quaresma: I feel like it was the worth ethic you had to have. They just kind of drilled that into you – being professional, being places on time.
Downer: Yeah, they definitely did. They taught you about the industry, so that was nailed into us for years on how to conduct yourself and how to work with different people.
Jorja, you won the British singing competition show, Got What It Takes?, when you were just 14. Looking back at that moment, where did you believe your career was going to go?
Douglas: I don’t know. It was just a bit of fun for me. And then I won, which was just extra fun. That kind of helped me put myself out there a bit more. Following that, I knew being in a girl group was, like, the best thing to do. There was no girl group. So I saw an opportunity, and I took it. [Laughs.]
What is everyone’s special ingredient that they bring to the table? Outside of the music, what’s your favorite personality trait about one another?
Douglas, Downer and Quaresma [in unison]: Hmmmm.
Douglas: In terms of music, we just bounce off of each other. And because we all have those same influences, we all enjoy the same R&B melody, so we’re just pretty in sync with each other. And then personality-wise, we’re like the same, but in different fonts.
Downer and Quaresma: Yeah. Yeah.
How did you work with MNEK on crafting your signature sound?
Downer: The great thing about MNEK is he grew up around our influences, and when that type of music was a thing. He learned about it so early on, and he really crafted that and worked on it. We’re young girls who can learn so much from him. He honestly knows like everything. He’s one of those crazy-talented people. He took time to get to know us and know our influences, and we just connected on that vibe.
I saw you met Kelly Rowland while you were recording in an LA studio with MNEK. How memorable was that for all of you?
Douglas: With Kelly Rowland, I mean…
Quaresma: … I mean, it’s just like …
Douglas: … Surreal.
Downer: Too stunned to speak.
Quaresma: It’s just crazy that they’re actually real people. And also, it’s nice because she’s lived a similar situation that we’re going through, and she’s still alive! She’s still here! [Laughs.]
Is there anyone else you’re dying to meet or collaborate with?
Downer: Victoria Monét. I’m really excited for when we get in the studio with her. We can learn a lot [about] songwriting as well.
What surprised you most about the success of “Cardboard Box?”
Quaresma: I feel like we knew it would do quite well. We pushed for that song to come out first. We knew to put our best foot forward. But it was a really amazing shock how well it did. It just worked!
I’ve read in some of your interviews that you convinced your label to make “Cardboard Box” your debut single, and you made a presentation about how involved you wanted to be in the rollout for your debut EP The Lead. What advice do you have for other artists, especially young Black female artists, who also want to advocate for themselves to their teams?
Quaresma: No one knows your music and your craft better than you. Just remember that. Nobody can try and shape it to be something that’s not genuine. It’s just not going to be as good, so just trust that what you’re about is good enough.
FLO Wins Brit Awards' Rising Star Award
You made history by becoming the first group to win the BRIT Awards’ Rising Star award, and you also won Radio 1’s BBC Sound of 2023. Both honors are decided by separate panels made up of music industry leaders. How does it feel that the U.K. music business is rooting for you so early in your career?
Douglas: We’re very, very grateful, because we just feel like we’re being put in a really good position. It makes us feel really empowered — like, the stage we’re in, we feel really in control of what we want to do and the direction we want to go in. And we feel like, because we’re being given these awards, they’re making us more … what’s the word, like when [what] we’re saying has actual weight to it now?
Douglas: Yeah, exactly!
How has the legacy of British girl groups impacted you three as the U.K.’s newest edition, and what does it mean for you three to be carrying the torch?
Downer: It means a lot to be carrying the torch, because girl groups are so powerful — and to have the people that we grew up watching recognize us and be like, ”You guys have got this. You can go where we’ve gone and further,” is the biggest accomplishment ever. It’s just so deep to us.
Stormzy tapped you for one of the “Hide & Seek” remixes from his latest album, This Is What I Mean. What did recording with a U.K. superstar like him mean for you three?
Downer: He just asked us if we wanted to do it. And we were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” But we didn’t get in the studio with him. It was a bit different, because we’ve never been featured on somebody else’s track — so we really had to get into a different vibe and think how we can add to that song. It was a nice vibe to experiment with.
FLO Announces First North American Headlining Tour: Here Are the Dates
Describe the process of prepping for your first North American tour, which starts this April. How did you know was the right time for you to embark on your first tour in the States?
Quaresma: Well, we got told this is what we’re doing. [Laughs.]
Douglas: Most of all, it made sense, because most of our fans are in America. And obviously, R&B is just so much more appreciated in America as well. So it’s like: Go where you’re wanted, don’t try and force it. Obviously, there’s still a love for R&B here, but it’s just something completely different in America. Majority of our fans on Twitter, they’re American. We would have been abused if we didn’t go. They would’ve cussed us out!
Speaking of tour, there have been some reports going around that you could be opening for Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour. Can you confirm or deny at this time?
Quaresma: Honestly, I wish we knew.
Douglas: I think it might be Doechii.
Downer: Oh! Imagine if it’s Doechii! That would be amazing.
Douglas: [Beyoncé] knows who we are. But that was just a rumor.
What can you tell me your upcoming debut album, and when can fans expect it to come out?
Downer: I don’t think we can say yet…
Douglas: …because we don’t have the answer.
Downer: We’re still figuring it out.
Quaresma: Just more elevated, different. We’re just growing up, basically, so our music’s just growing with us.
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