After the cape-wearing theatrics of ‘Ceremonials’, the third album from Florence + The Machine is a restrained and personal affair. Florence Welch tells Emily Mackay how embracing her vulnerability has exorcised many demons…
Recently, the creators of my favourite comic, Phonogram, published a new series called The Wicked + The Divine. It took Phonogram’s premise – that music is life-changing magic – one step further: in this world, pop stars are gods, chosen from among our mortal number but invested with a mesmerising divine power. The catch? Once deified, they only have two years to live. All of the gods of The Wicked + The Divine resemble real artists: Bowie, Prince, Rihanna. Sun goddess Amaterasu, especially, looks flagrantly familiar. Flame hair, bright facepaint, full white skirts and sleeves a-whirl… “Oh my god, what is this… OH MY GOOOOD!” Florence Welch whisper-screams when I show her the pages at her kitchen table. I tell her about the two-years-to-live bit. “That makes a lot of sense,” she says, touching the pages softly as she stares.
And you can see why Florence made a lot of sense as Amaterasu, too. Her first two albums, ‘Lungs’ and ‘Ceremonials’ – with their cataclysmic, cathartic songs, their maximal-to-the-max production and their opulent videos and press shoots – created a powerful image: a rampaging Celtic deity, a queen of self-destructive passions. But as in The Wicked + The Divine, godhood can take its toll on the incarnated, eat away at their human side. Amaterasu, in the comics, is ‘really’ Hazel Greenaway, 17, from Exeter. Just as Florence Welch is really, well, Florence Welch, 28, from Camberwell. But on her new album, ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, Florence has given up her divine glories for a new, more everyday strength.
“We did some gigs in-between ‘Ceremonials’-era and this album,” she says, “and we still had these gowns. As I was putting them on, it just felt so… it wasn’t right. I felt I had to fill the sound of ‘Ceremonials’, because it was so big. If you’re wearing a gown and a cape, it dictates the presence… and actually that was a protection, a way of dealing with how big everything had got. And that was fun, but it’s hard to keep up.”
After the touring of ‘Ceremonials’ finished, Florence had a year off to rest, so she could come to a new album completely refreshed. Out of the cycle of gigs, she found herself adrift, searching for who she was when she wasn’t that Florence. A difficult on-off relationship compounded her confusion, and she cocooned herself in the house where we meet today, a beautiful south London terrace with a fairytale garden of thick hedges and sprawling roses. The cosy rooms are filled with antique, heavy wooden furniture, trinkets, endless books and prints, butterflies in glass cases and domes. There is a heavy bureau overflowing with papers, a collection of crowns catches my jumper. In the toilet is a sequinned dragon tail, to be worn round the waist.
“When you come off tour… it’s hard to know what you like,” she explains, happy and relaxed in jeans and a white long-sleeved top. “You’re this big, like (spreads her arms wide like goddess-Florence), but then that’s not here, in this house. I was trying to figure it out, like, do I like partying? I’ll just do that loads. Do I wanna have a relationship? That’s not working either! What is it? What am I looking for? I had to contend with my own feelings for the first time. I couldn’t just be swept away and do a gig. Gigs have this magic thing of absolving. As long as you did a good gig, no matter what’s happened, no matter what’s going on in your personal life, it’s such an exorcism for me that it just resets everything.”
In an interview shortly before ‘Ceremonials’ came out, Florence talked about how songs such as ‘Seven Devils’ and ‘Shake It Out’ were about exorcising old demons, using hexes to ward off the self-destructive side of herself she used to call, around the time of ‘Lungs’, the Chaos Robot (echoed in the original name for her band, Florence Robot Isa Machine; Isa Machine being Isabella Summers, her songwriting partner and bandmate). She also spoke about choosing whether to be swept away by that indulgent chaos, or trying to grow up. This time around, a drained Florence found herself feeling shy at parties and awards ceremonies, wondering: “But I like this stuff, don’t I?”
She tells me that around this time people never recognised her in the street – apart from one time she was treated to an extra-boisterous rendition of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ on the train back from a football match – perhaps because they expected someone caped and seven feet tall. Now, with the frank, natural photograph on the promo material for ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, she thinks she’ll get recognised a lot more. There’s a massive poster on the platform of her local tube station. The whole thing feels more vulnerable, but in a good way.
Looking back now on ‘Ceremonials’, she says, “It was all like (makes dramatic, expansive arm gesture) WHAAAAAAH, y’know? Turning things into spells, and finding other ways to express things so that they wouldn’t be as clear. Because I didn’t feel clear. But with this, I felt clear. It was a humbling feeling. How I usually approach feelings or things that are happening is to translate it into this fantasy… and then having a bit of time away, suddenly like my actual life became something that I had to contend with. It wasn’t like a fantasy… it was like, ‘Oh, shit’… But it felt quite like a new, pure feeling as opposed to kind of like the big whooshy confusion.” She gestures back to the images of whirling Amaterasu. “I still love all of this stuff. But you don’t ever wanna feel like you have to be something.”
All this existential wrangling can be heard clearly in the lyrics: ‘How Big…’ finds Florence standing, fighting, questioning, rather than surrendering or being swept away by her emotions. “I’m gonna be free and I’m gonna be fine/But maybe not tonight”, she sings on ‘Delilah’, acknowledging that there’s “a different kind of danger in the daylight”. Where once she was worshipping the water, calling out from the depths, now she looks to the sky referenced in the title and invokes saints (even if one of them is St Jude, patron saint of lost causes). Most revealing are ‘Mother’ and ‘Third Eye’. In the former, she finds herself at a party, not feeling it. Couples kiss around her, but she leaves, walks out into the night and puts her feet in a fountain. So far, so Florence, but instead of a font of absolution, she comes to a frank admission: “No use wishing on the water/It brings you no release”.
‘Third Eye’ was written by Florence on her own (as well as Summers, she often writes with long-term collaborator Kid Harpoon): “You deserve to be loved/And you deserve what you are given”. Talking to herself? “Sadly, yes,” she says. “I didn’t think I was at the time. When you reach a level of fame and attention, it can make you feel quite unworthy. To be compelled, to need that catharsis and exorcism, there’s obviously going to be an underlying dissatisfaction… it was trying to learn to just be happier in my own skin.”
Florence crafted the words from not just personal emotions but ideas from her voracious reading, snippets from newspapers, titles of artworks. A quick scan of her living room reveals a framed print of contemporary dancer Pina Bausch, a huge ornate volume on the Ballets Russes, and prints, patterns, books, books, books everywhere. Her fans joyfully scour her more literate references and puzzles – a bit of Greek myth here, a biblical reference there – writing essays on her videos, and in the case of some, forming a book club that took suggestions for its reading from the lady herself. “There’s a lot of quite literary kids out there,” Florence enthuses. “Poetry and reading books has played such a big part in the making of all the records, and it’s nice because it’s not as personal, and you can connect with people.”
Musically, ‘How Big…’ was inspired by her songwriting trips to Jamaica and to LA, where, like many before her, the sense of space and warmth and light seeped in (“We’ve opened our eyes and it’s changing the view”, she sings on the title track). She knew she wanted something that sounded “big, but not heavy”, inspired particularly by a late conversion to Neil Young (whose Bridge School benefit concert she also played at in October last year), plus listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Springsteen, in search of a “tougher” sound. Also key, though, was Fiona Apple’s last album, which Florence admired for the mixture of strength and vulnerability in its emotional frankness.
Yet flouncy habits die hard, and it was producer Markus Dravs, famed for his work with Björk on ‘Homogenic’, Arcade Fire, and Mumford & Sons, who nudged her towards the more direct sound that was coming out. “When I first went to work with Markus, I did have some songs that were like… slightly more ‘Ceremonials’-esque,” she says. “We got really into obsessing about the LA witchcraft scene, and I was imagining this concept album about a witch trial in Hollywood, and someone falls in love. It was kind of tied up with things in my own life, but it was an escapism.”
Instead of what actually sounds like a freaking amazing concept album, though, Dravs honed in on a clutch of simpler songs, dealing with Florence’s emotions in a more straightforward way. Florence wasn’t initially convinced. “‘I thought, ‘I’m just saying stuff, as it is! Where’s the drama, where’s the big cape? Where’s all the glitter?’ He encouraged me to be a bit more open, I guess. But that’s frightening.”
As well as taking away her metaphor, Dravs removed her sonic barriers, her multitracked vocals, and much to Florence’s chagrin at first, her reverb. Yet, having tried everything else to soothe her vexed brain – meditation, yoga, walking ridiculously long distances – Florence found that throwing herself into the work with Dravs was the best way to reground herself. When recording started, she shuttled herself from house to studio every day in what she calls “a monastic experience”.
She became obsessively attached to a plain blue anorak that made her feel safe, hidden: the opposite of goddess. She wore it every day, focusing on her work, her packed lunch, her reading and sometimes the friendship of a “psychic cat” that would seem to turn up in her garden whenever she was feeling low. Her house was her base, giving her a safety to figure out not only what sort of album she was making, but what sort of Florence she was being.
And in the end, of course, she found not a Galadriel, not a Boudicca, not even a Stevie Nicks, but a middle-class south London girl with dyed red hair who, like many 20-somethings, has reached a point where ambitions have been fulfilled, disillusion has hit or priorities have changed. Everyday human stuff.
“Relationships not working out, trying to figure out how and why your relationship with yourself isn’t working out. That stuff humbles you and it’s human, things that everyone goes through,” says Florence. “That was the perspective I was writing from, whereas ‘Ceremonials’ was about imagining this thing I wanted to be… And it was funny, perhaps Markus was expecting me to come in, like, riding a chariot with a broadsword. And we did have moments where he was trying to get a push-through power chorus out of me and I was like, ‘Dude… I’m not in a very good place. I can’t pretend to write a like “IT’S GONNA BE AMAZING NOW, IT’S ALL GONNA BE FINE!” chorus. Like, I think it’s all gonna be fine, eventually. I don’t fucking know right now, though…
“But what’s so nice is that another kind of power came out. One more accepting of just being OK with feelings, like anger, in ‘What Kind Of Man’. Being OK with being sad and with being super-happy and joyful. You’re writing from a place that feels, like, really real to you.”
Now, she says, feeling more grounded in who the actual Florence is, she’s coming back to a place where she can be Cape Florence again, without feeling like she’s giving up the Human Florence, or that she has to be Anorak Florence to be real.
“I was reading Just Kids, the Patti Smith book, when I was writing the album,” she says, “and she’s just so self-possessed. I really like the idea of being able to conjure and create without a costume, to not need it.” Another rock shaman also helped point the way in which all the Florences could be reconciled: Nick Cave, whose tricksy sort-of-documentary 20,000 Days On Earth explores his fascination with the boundary between Nick Cave the artist and Nick Cave the man; as he says in the film, “You turn it on, you turn it off – but one day you can’t, and you find you’ve become the thing you wished into existence.”
“He said something really interesting that I thought about at the beginning of the record: ‘I am Nick Cave, and I cannot be what I was,’” says Florence. “And I think there’s something quite liberating about the boundaries between reality and stage and the borders being open – it’s quite freeing, I think. I am perhaps a bit more feral and chaotic than something (adopts classically Florence drama pose) you hold quite poised. I still love a gown, don’t get me wrong, I still like capes, but there’s something I’ve come to, that perhaps I feel a bit more… comfortable.”
Florence does seem comfortable in herself (and in her foot, which has healed from the break it suffered after a Chaos Robot-esque moment at Coachella, when she threw herself from the stage). Recent live shows have seen her eschew the usual stage sets and costumes, “actually just allowing things to be quite raw, and as they are. Again, I think a lot of it was not me wanting to be prescribed to do anything in a certain way, just to be completely liberated. And breaking my foot has been quite good as well, in a way, because it’s forced more intimate performances that I perhaps wouldn’t have done. I was inherently forced to be myself!”
Soon, she’ll be taking the new-style Florence live experience to the Pyramid Stage, and though she doesn’t share my outrage that she wasn’t Glastonbury’s third headliner (“I think I’m quite happy with where we are! It would be wonderful to headline, but I also don’t know how I would be dealing with that right now. I would probably be back in the anorak”), she’s clearly looking forward to the festival of which she’s practically the spirit animal. She refuses to make predictions. “I’m not really planning what’s going to happen at Glastonbury, because I just don’t know. It’s almost quite hard for me to remember gigs sometimes, because I just don’t know what happens. It’s almost like something else completely takes over. So if I’m back in my full-charged-feet mode, I’m nervous for what’s going to happen. Because that’s what happened at Coachella: I hadn’t performed in a really long time. And it was like whoosh… and then the crowd were all taking their clothes off, I had my shirt off and I threw myself off. It’s this sense that anything could happen.”
Well, everyone needs some element of contained chaos left in their life, right? To err is human, after all…