Organic chemistry. An infectious online presence. Music video vixens outfitted in Diesel and Jean Paul Gaultier. FLO has all the makings of a successful girl group, with sultry vocals reminiscent of the early 2000s sound die-hard R&B fans miss. Before their first album had even been released, Renée Downer, Stella Quaresma and Jorja Douglas were on their way to becoming household names.
Following their first televised performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on Oct. 6, the ladies of FLO left New York City and returned to the United Kingdom.
The R&B girl group’s debut single, “Cardboard Box,” has already reached 10 million streams in six months.
Since the release of their EP “The Lead” in September and their latest track “Not My Job,” Downer, Quaresma and Douglas have been working around the clock: performing at the Moth Club London, recording “Later… with Jools Holland,” and more. While the 20-year-old songbirds deserve a celebratory break, they’re laser-focused on honing their craft.
“We’ve got a singing lesson,” Douglas told HuffPost, peering into her iPhone’s front-facing camera from their Mill Hill-based recording studio. “I can’t even remember much of [the ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ performance]. I think, naturally, there were nerves because we knew what we were doing. But it was a really nice environment. We weren’t made to feel nervous.”
Their nerves were assuaged by the countless fans in attendance who knew every lyric of the song, mouthing it alongside them. Written in November 2019, “Cardboard Box” was released in March, amassing 27,000 likes on TikTok, spawning countless duets and stitches on the social media platform, and reproducing a remix that has been used in over 1.1 million videos. “The Lead” has garnered over 25 million streams so far.
“There wasn’t really a period of time where [“Cardboard Box”] was doing nothing. I think we knew the impact it was going to have; that’s why we wanted to release it so bad. The label wanted us to release a different song,” Douglas said. “We wanted to put our best foot forward, and they were able to get on board with that. It was the best decision we could have made because, obviously, it went viral.”
“Worthy heirs” to Destiny’s Child and TLC’s legacy, they’ve been credited by Pitchfork with “ending the R&B girl group drought.” Apart from their natural chemistry, FLO’s seamless arrangements, pitch-perfect harmonies and vocal depth prove that maybe, the genre isn’t dead. In fact, Gen Z could revive R&B by studying its earliest pioneers.
“We are really shaping our music,” Douglas said. “We’re trying to control the narrative. In most of our music, we write and we’re very a part of the process — the production, the writing, the melodies and the harmonies. We try to be across all of it to really make sure that FLO is us, which I think is different from the other group I was in.”
Though FLO’s meteoric online rise makes it seem like the trio was an overnight success, the group has been many years in the making.
Music has been a constant thread in Quaresma, Downer and Douglas’ lives, citing inspiration from “the greats like Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Brandy, Faith Evans.” Quaresma, raised in Mozambique until she was 5 years old, recalls dancing with her cousins and delving into singing upon moving to the U.K. Meanwhile, Downer remembers being a notorious back-seat singer.
“[My mum] always listened to the best music. One of my earliest memories is her driving me to school, and she would just play Rihanna and Mary J. Blige,” Downer said. “We would literally pour our hearts out in the car. I feel like my love of music stems from my mom, and she surrounded me with that growing up.”
Growing up in London, Downer and Quaresma attended secondary school and university together. It would be years before they connected with Douglas in person. In 2017, Douglas won the British talent television show “Got What It Takes,” wowing judges with her soulful rendition of Adele’s “When We Were Young” at age 14.
“My mum had to put this bunny costume on and hop around on a space hopper to try and win carrots so I could sing in the sing-off,” Douglas laughed, reflecting on her time on the show. “But it was fun. Me and these two [other] girls, we formed a really close relationship, then I was in a girl group with them.”
But that was short-lived. Trusting her intuition, Douglas felt she wanted to be in a different collective. Douglas, Quaresma and Downer were connected on social media — so they knew of one another — but they developed chemistry at an audition.
“I think we auditioned [for this talent search] in 2019. It was quite quick from our first audition to us being in a group, maybe a couple of months,” Quaresma said. “Then, we just started making music straight away.”
Now, the girls are bonded for life with matching “3” tattoos. An inseparable group, their chemistry has won over the hearts of fans, who call themselves “FLO Lifers.” Ironically, Douglas, Quaresma and Downer’s synchronicity wasn’t the primary source material for the group’s name — but Downer said it fits them perfectly.
“We used to hang out, and there was this random white cat that we just called ‘Flo,” said Downer. “Then, we called ourselves ‘FLO,’ but to everybody else, we would just be like, ‘Oh, that’s just a placeholder name.’ But then we just stuck with it. I feel like we’ve given it a meaning. There’s three of us, and we’re all joined and connected as one.”
Since FLO’s inception in 2019, they’ve worked with producers like Grammy-nominated MNEK (“Never Forget You”) and were visited in the studio by former Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland. With a co-sign from Rowland and British girl group Sugababes, FLO has garnered a roster of celebrity fans, from SZA to Missy Elliott, who see their potential. While the standard set by the Black women entertainers before them is a hard act to follow, the ladies of FLO are not shying away from it.
“We don’t really feel the pressure. Having a co-sign from Kelly Rowland and from other people from that era of music that we love takes the pressure off it a little bit,” said Douglas. “Because we know that we have people in our corner, people rooting for us, that want us to win. So I guess that makes it quite a positive experience.”
At 20 years old, Douglas, Downer and Quaresma have a strong sense of intuition and confidence in an industry known for whittling young women down. They attribute that strength to their respective upbringings, specifically their mums, and continue to uplift each other.
“We have all been raised by predominantly single parents, so we know what it’s like to be a strong woman. We’ve seen it our whole lives,” Downer said. “They really instilled in us a drive to achieve whatever you want to do. Because we’re also similar in that way, when you put the three of us together, it’s just like —”
“The people are shook!” exclaimed Douglas.
“Shooketh!” laughed Downer.
Yet these three vocalists remain humble, constantly in awe of their growing support months after “Cardboard Box.” Downer recalled that fans struggled to find the track on Spotify when their latest single, “Not My Job,” was released. But with a cult following on social media, the girls are topping the charts — and “Not My Job” has acquired over 2 million streams.
In true Gen Z fashion, Downer, Douglas and Quaresma are constantly online, bonding with their fanbase over their day-to-day antics and gaining new listeners daily.
“We’re in this world now where if you don’t do social media, then you’re not going to make it as an artist. That’s just a fact,” Quaresma said. “But I think we’ve grown to like certain spaces like Twitter because we can really interact with everybody. We definitely find the fun out there.”
As the ladies of FLO continue their journey, they hope to see more people in R&B and elevate the genre. Douglas said that her aspiration for the future of R&B is “to be achieving and making the same impact that pop music has.” But what they all agree upon is that R&B is not dead.
“I think people just don’t know where to look for it. People just don’t want to,” said Douglas. “Or they’re scared to admit that it has evolved. Because I guess it’s not gonna be the same as it was back in the day. Naturally, everything evolves. I think that’s just a hard pill for them to swallow.”
In addition to releasing more music, Downer said that they’re embarking on more live shows and performances. FLO confirmed that an album will be coming in 2023. But first, they’ll be releasing singles and crafting “really big moments,” Douglas added. For now, it’s back to the studio.
“We’re now trying to work on our sound. We were doing 2000s nostalgia because that’s our comfort zone; that’s what we’ve been influenced by,” Douglas said. “I think now, we need to develop that sound because, obviously, people are just expecting bigger and better things. We just need to really push ourselves to create good music to show people that we’re here to stay.”