To celebrate BUST's 25th anniversary, we're bringing some of our favorite cover stories online. Here's our interview with Florence Welch from our June/July 2011 issue.
From art school dropout to Grammy-nominated artist, Brit singer Florence Welch is cool as hell. Here, she reveals what it's like to be a sudden celebrity and what happened when she had the world's worst hangover.
Florence Welch cannot believe what I am telling her. “Whaaaaat?” she says into the phone incredulously. She’s drawing out her words, apparently in so much shock she needs to make the most of the few sounds she can produce. “I can’t belieeeeeeve it.” I’ve just mentioned that I saw a photo online of a fan who had one of Welch’s lyrics tattooed on her arm. “Oh, my God, I’m freaking out,” she continues, in a whispery-soft voice that’s very different from the powerful one she employs on stage.
Frankly, I’m surprised that she’s surprised. Welch, the 25-year-old singer of Florence and the Machine, is a bona fide superstar. Her 2009 debut album, Lungs, has been at the top of the charts for the past year, she recently received a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and she has toured and performed relentlessly, including a gig at the Grammys—an Aretha Franklin tribute that featured Welch singing “Think” with backup from Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, and Yolanda Adams. (Backup!) The London Times called her “the most peculiar and acclaimed female singer of the moment.” (She was also described as a “Viking bat-woman.”) She’s the kind of person who wears a custom Margiela bodysuit on stage at Glastonbury while dueting with the xx and Dizzee Rascal. She hangs out with Blake Lively and Drake. Even Gucci’s creative director, Frida Giannini, cites Welch as the inspiration for her last collection. Let’s just say I know some male musicians who have accomplished way less and would consider a fan’s tattoo no more than their due.
Perhaps her surprise is because her breakthrough was so unexpected. Until last summer Welch was just another Brit musician with a carefully calibrated collection of bohemian-chic outfits, really great skin, and a small musical following. And things might have stayed that way, if it weren’t for Julia Roberts. “Dog Days Are Over,” Welch’s second infectiously intense single from Lungs, was used as the music on the trailer for Eat, Pray, Love, hurtling Welch into American consciousness on the back of a tune that she wrote using spare pans for instruments. But if it was the Roberts marketing machine that got her here, it’s Welch’s stunning songwriting and vocal ability that have sealed the deal. Lungs is a singular musical proposition, with gothic chants, ominous echoes, an insistent rhythm, and Welch’s warble, which recalls Sinead O’Connor’s unnerving ability to switch from screech to songbird. There’s enough angst for the emo crew, a heavy quality that hints at Welch’s love of metal, and a definite hip-hop influence, all within the context of a sensibility that can only be called neo-Nicks. It’s a sound that has Florence and the Machine selling out venues all over the U.S. on their summer tour.
Even though I am neither Blake Lively nor Drake, I can confirm that Welch is, as they say, surprisingly down-to-earth. Born and raised in Camberwell, south London, the singer got her start in the school choir, performing at family weddings and funerals by the time she was seven. Her mom, an art-history academic from New York, and her dad, an advertising exec, indulged her penchant for performance with singing lessons that left Welch well versed in French and Italian arias. As a teen she discovered bands like Nirvana and Green Day, further fueling her love of music. After high school, she enrolled at the Camberwell College of Art but never actually graduated, dropping out to focus on her singing career, which exploded just a couple of years later.
We spoke as she was walking home from the studio in London where she’s at work on the follow-up record to Lungs, due out later this year. With the runaway success of “Dog Days Are Over,” it seems like the pressure to write another trailer-worthy standout would be fierce, but Welch sounds blasé about feeling the need to produce hits. “I never really think about singles,” she says. “I’d rather the album feel like a whole than have any singles that stick out.”
For the new album, she’s once again working with Isabella “Machine” Summers, a longtime friend, musical collaborator, and Florence and the Machine keyboardist—the band was originally called Florence Robot/Isa Machine. It’s a partnership Welch views as imperative. “I find I get a bit nuts if I do it by myself,” she says. “I need someone to bounce off.” The loyal Welch will also be bringing back the entire band that worked on Lungs. “I think it’s important to work with the people I know and who understand my process,” she says. “I’m going to do the writing, and then we’ll record it as a band.”
That Welch is re-creating the vibe of the first record with the same contributors suggests that she views the new project as a bit of unfinished business. “I feel like we kind of hit on an idea for the first album, but we couldn’t make a 24-song record,” she tells me. “So we need to finish that up and resolve that idea.” And the idea is? “I’m still figuring that out,” she says. “You’re constantly looking for resolution, and it never comes. That’s why you keep making music: you’re looking for an answer, but you never get it, so you keep making it up.” Yes, she can sound a little woo-woo, but Welch’s approach to her work honors her esoteric ideas with practical solutions. While working on Lungs, producer Paul Epworth darkened the studio and projected a giant moon on the wall so Welch could feel like she was working in moonlight. The payoff was “Cosmic Love,” which describes a world without that light: “The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out,” she sings. Despite her strong persona both onstage (she regularly crowd-surfs, and several reviewers have noted her penchant for air-drumming) and off (she famously nabbed her manager, Mairead Nash, by following Nash into a bathroom stall and serenading her), Welch says that the studio brings out her quiet side. “I’m actually quite subdued. I guess people think I would be coming in and belting out stuff, but it’s not like that. I try to do things instinctively, but I’m big on analyzing stuff too, and I can spend hours trying to get something right. I can be very pensive.”
To me, “pensive” often means “hung over,” and having seen several exuberant YouTube videos of Welch performing a booty-shaking version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and initiating a dance party on her tour bus, I’m wondering how much alcohol plays into her creative process. I ask if it’s true that in art school, she made a tent underneath her desk to sleep in on particularly dark mornings, telling her teachers it was an installation. “I did do that!” she says. “It was an artistic statement.” Hitting the bottle, or at least its aftermath, has an effect on her music as well. “The song ‘Cosmic Love’ was written with the most crushing hangover I’ve ever had,” she says. “I went to the studio and was lying on the floor and the song just, like, appeared. I was trying to write the piano part, and then I hit upon these three chords, and suddenly I knew what to sing and I knew the structure. It was sort of a gift, like I’d been forgiven for my hangover. But I wouldn’t rely on it as a source of inspiration.”
These days Welch’s long nights at the pub are interspersed with galas and red-carpet events. When I ask what it’s like to be suddenly hobnobbing with other celebrities, she seems genuinely unsure of herself. “It’s very surreal,” she says. “I still feel very much like a voyeur on the whole fame, awards-shows thing. It’s an amazing experience, and I’m always very happy to be there, while at the same time, I’m very surprised to be there.” Of course, fame has its drawbacks, loss of privacy being chief among them. Feeling like kind of a jerk, I bring up the rumor that she’s engaged to be married, something that has been going around the Internet since she was spotted by none other than Perez Hilton hugging her boyfriend with a rock on her ring finger. “No, no, I’m not,” she says. “I have a boyfriend, but he hasn’t even popped the question yet, poor thing. I was just wearing a ring on that finger. I don’t really think about those things. And then suddenly you’re in a magazine and you’re engaged, but we’re not engaged.” It’s not the only occasion on which speculation has led to elements of her life being blown out of proportion. A few mentions of trouble sleeping and difficulty getting over a breakup have led to assertions that Welch suffers from depression, insomnia, even dyslexia and bipolar disorder. “Those things got taken out of context,” she says. “Sometimes I get down, and sometimes I have trouble sleeping, like everyone. I’ve been labeled with all kinds of disorders I don’t actually have.”
“It was the first time I knew that music could help form your identity. Me and my girlfriends, it definitely empowered us at an age when you feel kind of awkward. Music made us feel strong.”?
Using social media to connect directly with fans is one way to get around the rampant distortion of information that a lot of other artists have embraced, and Welch definitely appreciates its power. “It’s nice having something that’s so direct,” she says. “Before, you didn’t have access to something that gave you such a clear voice. With Twitter, it’s just you. You can talk directly, and nothing gets twisted.” But its immediacy brings other issues to bear. “You do have to be careful what you say, because it’s complete, direct, out to the world. I get too nervous to do it all the time.” And there’s another stumbling block: “I can never get it to work on my phone,” she says.
Technology may not be her forte, but when it comes to fashion, Welch is on top of her game. In fact, much of the media’s interest in the striking songstress has to do with her appearance: a bright red mop of hair and her seemingly endless supply of enviable ensembles ranging from designer gowns to ratty shorts and tees that she somehow looks great in. (Being six feet tall helps.) She’s become a fixture at Fashion Week, sitting in the front row at Chanel, Givenchy, and YSL runway shows, but she’s also been a champion of young designers like Alice Halliday and Verity Pemberton, who designs Welch’s stage wardrobe. I wonder if Welch is already thinking about what she’ll be wearing on tour as she works on the new record. It’s a little early for that, she tells me. “But we were thinking it would be fun to get shamans’ robes for everyone while we’re recording. So everyone—the whole band—gets dressed for work, puts on their big robe, and comes down to the studio.”
Shamans’ robes in the studio would be a joke for most artists, but it feels like a natural move for Welch, whose work is constantly referencing religion and its rituals. Her mother, a Renaissance scholar, gave Welch access to all kinds of images of martyrs, saintly passions, and bloody sacrifices, and they had quite an effect. “I’m not a religious person,” she says. “But sex, violence, love, death, all of the topics that I’m constantly wrestling with, all connect back to religion.” She reels off a list of obsessions that would make any goth proud: “Mexican Day of the Dead, séances, witchcraft, heaven and hell, voodoo, gospel, possession, demons, exorcism, and all that stuff.” The promise of ritual, its magic, is in its repetition. Every time is the same, but every time is different. It strikes me that this must be very much what it’s like to perform the same songs night after night, and Welch excitedly agrees. “Yes! There are always things you want to refine, and there are always different ways to play songs, so you have both continuity and newness,” she says. “And the audience is different. I like the idea that there is always someone in the crowd who hasn’t heard a song before.”
Most of the rest of the crowd, of course, will have heard the songs before, and some will have even tattooed the lyrics onto their bodies. She happens to love the validation. “It’s so personal, making music, and there is always that voice at the back of your head saying, ‘Who is going to listen to this?’” she says. “It’s worrying. It’s a labor of love, but you want other people to love it too. So when people embrace it, it’s an amazing thing.” But Welch gets the response, especially when she recalls her own first foray into music fandom and how it affected her. “I was really into punk when I was very young,” she says. “Well, I still am, but I started a punk band called Toxic Cockroaches, and it was the first time I knew that music could help form your identity. The music you listened to dictated what kind of boys you fancied and the clothes you wore, everything. Me and my girlfriends, it definitely empowered us at an age when you feel kind of awkward. Music made us feel strong.”
Story by Mikki Halpin // Photography by Chloe Aftel // Contour by Getty Images
This article originally appeared in BUST's June/July 2011 print edition. Subscribe today!
More from BUST