Behind the machine
SHE WALTZES into the room like a flame-haired Shirley Bassey, feather boa slung over her shoulder, cigarette holder poised at her lips and a gaggle of assistants arranging her elaborate white lace dress around her feet as she poses dramatically at the window. Well, okay. It didn’t quite happen that way, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Florence Welch might be something of a diva.
In reality, the 25-year-old sits meekly at a table in a posh west London hotel room, pouring green tea into a china cup and offering over a plate of digestives. The extravagant white lace dress isn’t an invention, though; she explains that this is pretty much her everyday attire, along with the charm bracelet that rattles every time she moves her wrist. She speaks softly and warmly, looks younger than magazine photoshoots and TV appearances would have you believe, and is generally the polar opposite of her theatrical stage persona. As mammoth pop stars go, Welch seems pretty normal.
“I think people do expect me to come in singing a high soprano note and wearing a cape and be seven foot tall, or something,” she says, throwing her head back and laughing heartily. “I don’t even wear heels on stage, I think there’s just a lot of material going on. A lot of chiffon, it gives an illusion of height. Lady Gaga has always been really sweet about that sort of stuff. One of the first things she said to me when I met her was ‘You’re so nice’. She’s always been so lovely to me, really supportive.”
Welch’s dialogue is peppered with references to pop stars like Gaga and Beyoncé, but this is the world that the south Londoner inhabits now. Having broken the States – and pretty much everywhere else – with debut album Lungs, Welch is now a bona fide star in several territories. So when it came to writing second album Ceremonials, it must have been hard to settle back into a life of semi-normalcy, right?
“I didn’t really, though, that’s the thing!” she says. “When we were supposed to be writing the album, it all started kicking off in America. So I’d be back and forth all the time, touring and playing big TV shows and stuff, and writing at the same time. What was nice, though, is that coming back home was a bit of a sanctuary from all the craziness that was happening over there. Just to come back and sit and write in [keyboardist] Isa’s little studio with an antiques market next door; it felt like being in the middle of nowhere, on a pirate ship at the top of Crystal Palace, with the deep, dark depths of south London below you.”
Lungspropelled Florence and the Machine into the public consciousness in a way that few pop stars manage these days; every musically-inclined dog on the street in Cork, Chicago or Canterbury is familiar with the red tresses and powerhouse vocals of its protagonist. Creating a follow-up to one of the most successful albums in recent times must have been daunting, but Welch rose to the challenge with gusto.
“I think success for me was trying to make an album that sounded more like a whole. The first album, for better or for worse, was definitely like a scrapbook of influences I had from when I was 19 to 21, so it’s slightly confused and conflicted in that way as a record. The differences between Kiss with a Fistand Dog Days...are huge. But I needed to include that, because I wanted people to see where I had come from. Now, it’s almost as if I feel that I can take ideas that I had from halfway through the making of the first record and finally make them whole; take that idea and round it, and make it a more cohesive sound. I wanted to make an album that had more of a beginning, a middle and an end to it, rather than a scrapbook.”
The fact that Ceremonialswas produced by just one person, rather than the numerous names attached to Lungs, certainly helped on that count. Welch brought Paul Epworth – who co-wrote and produced some of her debut’s biggest tunes – on board to oversee the entire album, which was recorded in the plush surrounds of Abbey Road.
“There was just something about the way [the Epworth-produced] Cosmic Loveturned out that made me think,” she nods. “That’s my favourite song from the first record, so it just made sense to move forward with Paul. We still did a lot of demoing in Isa’s ramshackle studio, so there’s still a strong relationship with that shambolic style of recording. But because I set myself this challenge, this ambition of making a whole record, I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I didn’t want to waste a second of being in there, y’know? [Abbey Road] is such a special place to me and to the band, we almost set ourselves a challenge to make the most of it and to come out with something we could be really proud of.”
Even the lyrical content of Ceremonialsseems more mature, or certainly outward-looking, in comparison with its predecessor. Spectrumtouches on science and human evolution, entwining it with a paean to the object of her affection, while Only for a Night ties together loose concepts of her grandmother’s funeral, the English countryside and Joan of Arc.
Yet given her success, Ceremonialscould have seen Welch take a completely different angle; indeed, the subject of maximising her sound to further endear her Stateside fanbase was broached several times.
“I think people might have been expecting – what with the success in America – for me to go off and make a more American-sounding record. And I did have the opportunity to do that, but it just never felt right. I’m such a huge fan of big American pop music, and it was suggested to me that I’d go over there and write with someone big... and at the beginning, I was really into it. But then I thought that I just couldn’t do it: if this record was really going to be an evolution of the first one, I really need to stay here and write with the people I started off with, like Isa and Paul and Eg White. It was important to me to keep the same writers that I had on the first album.”
The album retains her distinctly British take on stadium-sized indie-pop songs, with tracks such as Shake it Outand No Light, No Lightproviding the huge choruses and skyscraping vocals we’ve come to expect of Florence and the Machine. While it may not have the immediate impact of Lungs, it’s certainly destined to position Welch at the vanguard of female-driven pop music for the foreseeable future. Does the competitive nature of the music business – and being inadvertently pitched against the likes of Adele – factor into her creative process?
“I’m pretty much the least competitive person in the world,” she says. “I find it really hard to get angry; maybe a lot of my aggression comes out in my songs. That’s when I feel powerful and I can get it out. But I feel like we’re all individual artists and it really feels like the female artists out there all have really strong personalities. I’m just very appreciative to be part of it, I think. I’m a huge fan of Adele, I’m just kind of in awe of her; the way she carries herself and the way she performs is just magical to me.” Yes, but then again, Adele hasn’t been described as an “inspiration” by Beyoncé, either...
“It’s funny, because people seem to tell me stuff like that when I’m doing the most un-sort of famous thing,” she says. “I’ll be watching telly in my pyjamas, eating sweetcorn out of a tin, and my dad will phone me and he’ll be like ‘Ohhh, Beyoncé said this!’ and I’ll be like ‘What?’ Or I’ll be in my pyjamas and an advert for the VMAs will flash up and I’m like ‘Surely other people playing at the VMAs aren’t at their mum’s house in south London in pyjamas’. These flashes of such un-reality mixed with total normality make me just think ‘Okayyyy. . . my life is weeeeeeeird!’ I’ve definitely not lost the attitude that these things are strange.”
Despite it all, however, there’s a feeling that Welch is aware of how tentative popularity is. She’s aware that the songs on Lungsfilled every available crevice to the point of exasperation for many people, and also that there’s no such thing as a guaranteed fanbase.
“I think there is that worry, where things get played so much,” she nods, a frown briefly crossing her face. “It’s completely understandable that people get tired of stuff because it’s out there so often. But I think from the response that I’ve had when we put out What the Water Gave Me, it’ll be okay. I was totally expecting people to say ‘Oh God, here she goes again’, but it seemed like people wanted to hear it. And that was a real moment for me; I felt really grateful that people were ready and willing to accept new stuff from me. I definitely breathed a sigh of relief. It’s good to be back.”