The countdown begins here. It’s now exactly two months till Florence + the Machine’s long-awaited new album is finally released. Just how ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, her third studio effort, recording with Bjork collaborator Markus Dravs, moves her sound on from the inspiring pop opera that was 2011’s ‘Ceremonials’, we’re still waiting to find out, but if lead single ‘What Kind Of Man’ is anything to go by, it could quite possibly be her best record to date. Here, to ease the wait, is Flo’s last NME cover feature: a 2011 chat with then-NME editor Krissi Murison unpicking ‘Ceremonials’ and her remarkable career so far…
“I was going to cut my hair all off, get it really short and shaved underneath. Sort of like a monk’s haircut. A bit Joan Of Arc.” South East London’s most famous resident since Enid Blyton has just floated into her local tapas restaurant, all wafty diaphanous dress, jangly charm bracelets and six inch heels. We are discussing how awkward it must be to have everyone always recognising her wherever she goes. “Oh not really,” shrugs Florence Welch as every diner in the room cranes round to get a better look. “Only on days like today when I’m dressed as a parody of myself. Besides,” she continues, “you can’t constantly worry if everyone’s noticing you, because then you’ll get detached from actually being in the world and being present. I mean, it would be slightly grandiose to thi-”
Um, do you hear that?
“No, what is it?”
“What? The song? I kind of recognise it. What is it?”
It’s you. They’ve just put your new single on.
“’So it is! Oh how embarrassing…”
Three million albums sold. Best New Artist Grammy bagged. Number 53 in Time Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World list. Watched by a billion people at the VMAs last September. Officially the most Googled person on the planet the day after. Still living at home with mother in… Camberwell?
“I know, I know. I told someone that the other day and they were like ‘’are you fucking kidding me?’” Florence cringes as we remind her that she still hasn’t got around to moving out of the sprawling Victorian terrace she grew up in with her mum and 18 year-old brother – despite also being named No.14 in The Sunday Times annual ‘Top 20 Young Music Millionaires’ Rich List this May. She’ll be staying there for the rest of the year as she sees through the release of her second album ‘Ceremonials’, the follow-up to the rather impressive ‘Lungs’. And we get the impression she rather likes the fact too because it just helps to prove that – despite all the business with the platinum discs and awards prestige and becoming a global fashion icon and being called an “inspiration” by Beyonce and wotnot – she hasn’t actually changed (i)at all(i). That she’s still the same ditzy, dyspraxic girl with bruises on her legs and fury in her heart that first charmed us all those Emmy The Great support slots ago.
“I had a really strange experience when I was about to go and do the VMAs,” she says as way of demonstration. “It was one of those days when you’re just eating food out of tins because there’s nothing left in the cupboard. So I’m there, cross-legged in my pyjamas on my floor watching the TV and this massive advert for the VMAs came up and I was like…” – she mimes spooning beans from a can into her mouth – ‘Oh look! I’m doing that!’ I’m not sure anyone else who’s doing that is sitting in a house in south London in their pyjamas eating food out of a tin right now!”
She’s right of course, but she needn’t protest so much. Truth is Florence is exactly the same super-enthusiastic, terribly nice, neurotic art school semi-posho she’s always been. Everything is still ‘a-MAZ-ing’, everyone continues to be ‘sooooooooo nice’, she has the same habit of stopping and starting each sentence five times before she ever completes them, and she still treats interviews “like therapy sessions – where I work out a lot of how I’m feeling about stuff.” Which is pretty good news for me, given this is the first major interview she has done in a year and a half.
“I am OBSESSED with drowning,” she decides as we start discussing some of the lyrical themes on ‘Ceremonials’ and its recurring water imagery. “I think it’s about succumbing and being completely overwhelmed by something that’s bigger than everything.” She hesitates as a new idea pops into her head. “I think it comes from being in love for the first time. Like totally and utterly in love. Like first 17 year-old love. I remember first falling in love with this boy – who was in a band, obviously – and having the first glimpse he might like me too. I had to go on this family holiday for two weeks. I spent the entire time sat at the bottom of the swimming pool just screaming at the top of my voice. I just wanted to be somewhere that completely encapsulated me where I could just thrash and scream.”
That’s our Florence, turning even a quiet family break in the Algarve into an Oscar-worthy Best Dramatic Performance nomination. So, it’s a little surprising to hear her talk about having consciously tried to turn the histrionics down on this new album. “Oh yes, definitely,” she concurs. “I think my first gigs were all: arrive, get drunk, scream. Arrive, get drunk, scream, fall over, scream. So I think now I’m definitely learning how to act with a bit more restraint.”
Even more surprising, is that she’s been pretty successful in her challenge. If listening to ‘Lungs’ often felt like you standing at the sharp end of a wind tunnel, ‘Ceremonials’ certainly has more shade and space to hide in. There are still the epic singalongs like ‘Shake It Out’ (which you’ve already heard) and ‘No Light, No Light’ (which she claims is inspired by Otis Redding but we can’t quite hear ourselves), but there’s also delicate introspection on the track ‘Breakdown’ (which sounds exactly like Arcade Fire at their most French) and her first bona fide soft rock masterpiece in ‘Never Let Me Go’. It is undoubtedly a much better album too, thanks in a big part to the fact it’s been produced entirely by Paul Epworth, rather than the hodge-podge of names that vied for room on her (occasionally overwrought) debut. Not that it isn’t still clearly a Florence album – and destined to be loved and loathed with exactly the same fervour as the first. Loved, by those who hear the voice of a clomping angel and see the body of a girl-next-door triumphantly living out her every bat-shittingly brilliant fantasy. And loathed by those who call the pipes a foghorn, her kookiness ‘contrived’ and refuse to accept that jumping out of a tree on E on your eighteenth birthday constitutes any kind of spiritual awakening as Florence (sort of) claimed in her first ever NME interview.
‘Ceremonials’’ opening track ‘Only If For A Night’ is about – whimsy alert! – the ghost of Flo’s gran, who she claims visited her in a dream one night while she was staying in a campervan in a German wood while on tour with MGMT. What truths from the beyond did she come to pass on? “She told me to – and I can remember the exact wording – ‘concentrate on your perfect career’” relays Florence, adopting a haughty old lady voice. “Can you imagine?! It’s like ‘you’ve left the laundry out and it’s going to rain!’ Ok grandma, thanks! I thought it would be something, y’know, more cryptic.”
Despite such visions, Florence claims she is “not, like, a mystic person”, and that any ghosts in her lyrics – and there are lots on this album – are purely metaphorical. ““I think it comes from being a really scared kid. I was always a worrier and possessed by guilt which gives you the feeling of being haunted constantly. I think it just comes from being the eldest child and having a stupid, overdeveloped sense of responsibility for stuff where you worry about messing stuff up, and you strive to make yourself better constantly. It’s the stuff that follows you around in the back of your head – mistakes you made two years ago that suddenly creep up on you from dark corners when you’re asleep.”
What scares you now?
“God, there’s so many things. I don’t want to talk about them because then they might become real. It’s usually just about hurting people you love or messing up the opportunities that have been given to you. You move from being a kid and being scared of vampires and werewolves into equally unrealistic scenarios but to do with relationships and your job.” Fame, Florence will later declare as we are leaving the restaurant, “is like standing on the edge of a cliff trying not to fall off.”
Is it true that you and Paul Epworth held séances when you were recording the album?
“We didn’t have séances but we bought matching headdresses at one point. It’s nice to get yourself in a state of mind where you’re slightly removed, like it’s a ceremony or a ritual. We burnt a lot of candles. You want to get into a state of mind where it feels like you’re conducting a ritual almost. It could either be sacrifice or exorcism or absolution, good or bad, it doesn’t matter, you just want to get something out of you.”
Paul says he thinks you’re psychic…
“Yeah, he’s told me this. I think he means that sometimes when you’re songwriting, a song will just appear and you have no idea where the words came from or what you’re even talking about til it’s finished. That’s kind of ideally how most of my favourite songs are written. You look for that almost séance thing when you’re almost channelling something, when you don’t even want to look at what’s coming out of your mouth until it’s done. Shake It Out just happened like that.”
So you can’t tell what I’m thinking right now?
“I think as a performer you pick up other people’s emotions so much and you feed off them because they’re like your paint. Like an artist gets so intoxicated by colours and for a chef it’s flavours. For songwriters, it’s emotions and stuff – you sort of absorb them, they’re almost like the tools you’re working with. So I get really affected by people’s moods. I genuinely feel, like, because you’re using your emotions so much in your work you get quite a heightened sense of emotions in other people and the atmosphere in a room. But no I wouldn’t say it was psychic.”
When Florence was eleven she was obsessed by witches and the occult (it was 1996 and proto-Twilight spook-fest ‘The Craft’ had just come out), forming a coven with her best friends and making love potions out of her own blood in her lunch breaks. These days it’s a different type of doomed woman that she feels a spiritual connection with. “There’s definitely a tragic heroine theme – Joan of Arc, Frieda Kahlo and Virgina Woolf – women who are totally powerful and in charge and dominating but also so fragile,” she says of the figures who stalk the new album (Joan of Arc crops up with her dead grandmother on ‘Only If For A Night’, whereas ‘What The Water Gave Me’ is named after a Kahlo painting and centered around the re-telling of Woolf’s drowning in 1941 when she killed herself by loading her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home).
“I think songwriting is like a collage of images and things just come up, it’s almost like a scrapbook of different things that you see. All of a sudden I saw her in my head, walking towards the river bank and it stuck with me. It’s so powerful that thing of weighing yourself down with stones, so intense, but there’s also something so bucolic about a stream at the end of a country house. It’s fascinating because it’s so idyllic in one way but so horrifying in another. That’s the thing about drowning, it’s not violent in a way that some of the other ways [of dying] are. It’s like succumbing, letting something wash over you. I think there’s a romance in it.”
Do you identify with these tragic women artists?
“Yeah, I think so. [Being a performer], you’ve chosen a lifestyle that leads to real elation and real devastation. It can be so lonely. That sense that you sacrifice having a normal life for this dream and it’s so fantastic in so many ways, but the exhaustion in your emotions and your body can just become really massive. So you can be completely powerful when you’re onstage, but there are moments when it’s really awful because you’re exhausted and you’re singing and you feel so exposed.”
It sounds like you could be talking about Amy Winehouse. Did you know her?
“No and I am so sad to have never met her, which is really strange [that they hadn’t met]. When I found out I was like ‘oh I never will’. You know when you feel like something’s out of time? Like this isn’t its place in history, it seems totally like that. I remember seeing her at Glastonbury performing and being completely in awe of her. Her voice just seemed so unique and powerful but she wasn’t trying to be anything she wasn’t, just so raw and real. It was just after her and Lily had like kicked the door open for female singers. Growing up especially it was such a male band dominated music environment and that album [‘Back To Black’] was really seminal, [it proved that] women could be strong, powerful and rebellious but be a singer, not a band. It was really a huge moment. As a female performer, I think that’s what makes…especially with Amy, it’s that sense of being completely in control in one way and be able to completely entrance the audience and have that power, but at the same time being so vulnerable and fragile.”
Is that a uniquely female thing?
“I think female performers are more willing to expose their vulnerability and it’s that really intoxicating mix of vulnerability and strength.”
Perhaps it’s because she’s a female performer that Florence is so worshipped by girls of a certain age and theatrical disposition. The front rows of her shows are filled with them in their kaftans and glitter and dodgy red dye jobs. ‘The Cult Of Florence’ – “the what???” (she does a pretty convincing job of being constantly befuddled by her iconic status) – has undoubtedly done wonders for true equality in the gig-place. Sure, it’s been fine to be female in rock music for a long time, but thanks to Florence, it’s finally ok to be feminine too.
“That’s interesting,” she says, again befuddled by the compliment. “Because I always like it when I don’t sound too pretty. Most of my influences have been male singers and the people I grew up watching perform were all these garage punk bands who went to Camberwell Art College with male singers who were almost trying to exorcise the audience. So when I write songs like ‘No Light No Light’, I’m thinking about the rhythm and the chant and the aggression rather than the melodic mellifluousness of it.”
Quite. But putting melodic mellifluousness to one side for a moment, Florence has actually taken inspiration from a fair few female performers on ‘Ceremonials’. There’s Stevie Nicks (obviously), PJ Harvey (who’d she love to be able to play as many instruments as one day) and Adele (who disappointingly we can’t draw her into any kind of bitch-spat over at all). “Rolling In The Deep is one of my favourite songs in maybe, like, ever. It’s soooooo good,” she gushes a little sickeningly.
But she’s a female solo artist. And she’s sold more records than you! You should hate her!
“Music’s not a competition in any way,” says Florence, sounding like the ghost of her dead grandmother giving me a lecture. “I’ve never seen a need to compete with any female artist at all. I think I play these songs to get out any aggressive tendencies I have because I’m literally the least aggressive person in the whole world. I know when I first heard Adele sing, I thought ‘that’s really beautiful’ and it inspired me to go and write a song. It was ‘My Best Dress’ which never ended up on the album. It was a sort of murder ballad for a dead lover.”
And that, once again, is our Florence – taking any potential obstacles that stand in her way and turning them into gothy torch songs for romantic corpses. A self-parody? Sure, but still the same ridiculously excellent one we always knew.