INTERVIEW: Florence Welch reveals her biggest secret yet
Florence Welch is yawning. It’s an epic yodel of a yawn that she’s belting down the phone with the strength and volume of one of her hit songs. She stops, eventually. “I’m so sorry, I’m still half asleep. It’s quite early here,” she says, delivering a flurry of apologies. “What time is it with you?”
She’s in New Orleans with her band, The Machine, playing gigs on their “How Big” world tour, which will swing by Abu Dhabi in time for the Saturday night slot at the Yasalam concerts on November 28, the night before the F1 race at Yas Marina. It’s 8pm here in Dubai, 10am in New Orleans, I explain.
“Just before I knew I had to get up to talk to you, I heard my mum’s voice really loudly in my head calling my name, which was kind of weird,” Florence offers, a sleepy snippet in a voice that’s not quite timid, but quietly poised and oh-so polite – even when punctuated with yawns. It’s in stark contrast with her powerhouse singing voice and big, billowing bare-foot performances.
If you’ve ever seen Florence live – be it at a small London venue circa 2009 or headlining Glastonbury – you’ll have witnessed this distinct change of gear.
Blinking, gushing “thank yous” spring up like fresh buds between high energy intense explosions of onstage euphoria. Songs like the head swinging, tambourine thumping high-jinx of “Rabbit Heart”, the starry, lose-yourself highs of “Cosmic Love” or the dark drama of “Delilah” – mash-up fans will know “Back To Delilah”, which merges the latter with Drake’s “Back To Back” – all have the power to whip stadium crowds into a frenzy. She delivers a majestic energy that prompted The Guardian to say, “Had Stevie Nicks made an aerobics video circa 1978 it might have looked not unlike Florence Welch’s performance.” The comparison is hard to deny. “That kind of makes sense to me, yeah, definitely,” Florence tells us. “I love Stevie Nicks. She’s one of my heroes.”
Now back to her dream. “It may have just been Amy (her publicist) waking me up, but I really thought it was my mum,” she says. “I can get quite homesick and I think I’m seeing my mum in my dreams.” It prompts a thoughtful diversion on the subject of her Harvard-educated mother, Evelyn. “She’s a professor in Renaissance History,” she says. “If I could go back to any era I’d like to visit Renaissance Florence. I spent so much time in Florence as a child. I’d really like to go back and bring something back for my mum.”
And then she swerves back to the present day and New Orleans: “One of my favourite bands ever, Arcade Fire live here. They’ve been showing us around all the local music spots and the nightclubs where they play the most amazing dance music,” she says, with another yawn. “We’ve been going to see lots of live music, too. The other night we saw an amazing brass band in a church hall. It’s just been insane.”
Going with the flo
Insane is a good word to describe Florence’s adventure thus far. At most gigs, she will happily pause on stage to breathlessly tell her audience the story of how she was discovered in the toilet of a Soho bar by her (now) manager Mairead Nash, then one half of Brit DJ duo Queens of Noize, by cornering Nash and singing the Etta James song “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”. Then a 20-year-old art student singing in basement parties and squats, she took a chance on a night out and is now eternally delighted it paid off.
What followed is the band’s award-winning debut album, Lungs, released in July 2009, and the soundtrack to a sun-drenched summer; it finally reached number one in the British charts in January 2010. Their second offering – the Grammy-nominated Ceremonials – came out in October 2011, and entered the charts in top spot in the UK and number six in the US. And now the new record, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, has already scored the band’s first number one in the US album charts. In fact, sales are so good, they’re stepping onto record breaking territory.
Born on August 28, 1986 in South London, Florence was singing “Spooky” by Dusty Springfield at the end of every singing lesson aged 11, and started her first band, the Toxic Cockroaches, at Alleyn’s School a year later. “We didn’t have any instruments and we were all about 12,” she says. “We had the name, I used to draw it on my pencil case. But no instruments. I’d say we were pretty punk in that respect.”
Florence held on to her inner punk when recording the band’s breakthrough track “Dog Days Are Over” (Lungs, 2009) in a closet. She’d have to bang on the walls and use pencils as sticks because she couldn’t afford a drum kit. It’s a time to remember fondly, but those days must seem like another life now she’s getting ready to perform in the UAE again – her first time being Dubai’s Sandance festival in 2013. “I’m really looking forward to performing in Abu Dhabi, it’ll be really fun,” she says. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I’ve never been to the Grand Prix, so the whole thing will be really interesting.
“I’m hoping to have time to explore the city. I always like to have a little walk around when we visit a new place, otherwise we’re just going from venue to venue.”
Her band consists of childhood best friend Isabella Summers (keyboard), Robert Ackroyd (guitar and backing vocals), Chris Hayden (drums, percussion and backing vocals), Mark Saunders (bass guitar and backing vocals) and Tom Monger (harp). But even with her Machine behind her, does the frontwoman get nervous before big gigs? “I think we’re getting used to bigger stages now,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s a confidence thing, but I am quite shy, so I just try to forget about how big it is while I’m there and just make sure everyone is having a good time.”
The show promises the band’s belting hits as well as a live introduction to the new record. It’s not the break-up album that the UK media have suggested, she says, but it does tell a stripped-back story of self-discovery. The sounds have been brought to life on the band’s website as continuous “chapters” rather than music videos.
The raw depth and honesty of How Big, How Blue... offers further parallels with the likes of Stevie Nicks, PJ Harvey and Aretha Franklin. Do the comparisons get annoying? “I used to get compared to people a lot more than I do now,” she says. “I think as you grow up into your own person, people do it less, but when you start out they are trying to understand what you’re about and so comparisons are helpful.”
Has Florence gained a certain level of understanding of herself? "There are a few shades of red I would have avoided," she laughs. "I was all over the place with my hair colour for a while. But I had to take it to those extremes in order to explore. You know, in your early 20s, you’re doing a lot of exploring and figuring stuff out.”
Florence is, surprisingly, a natural brunette, but she has "punctuated her success with an ever-changing colour palette of red hair. Ranging from Ariel from The Little Mermaid bright – “I always wanted to be Ariel when I was younger” – to more strawberry tones, reminiscent of Springfield’s 1969 Dusty in Memphis album cover. Right now, her hair colour is still red but feels lighter and, well, a little more balanced somehow.
“I had to perhaps go through the unravelling and perhaps the highs and lows and I did have to do some of that in the public eye,” she says. “But that got me to the record I have now and to the person I am. I wouldn’t take any of it back.
“In fact, if I could go back, I think I’d tell myself not to be so afraid,” she adds. “Now I’ve learned maybe to try to lead a less chaotic existence and that meditating is good for me,” she laughs.
Meditation isn’t very punk, but with a final yawn Florence politely chirps a goodbye, no doubt readying herself to have another little walk around New Orleans.
Who is your secret hero?
“Right now, Vali Myers. I love Vali Myers. You may have to look her up but she was an Australian artist and a muse and a really powerful kind of shaman woman who became part of the Parisian Left Bank scene in the 1950s. She made these amazing paintings, which took her ten years to complete. She had a facial tattoo and a pet fox and lived in a cave in Portofino, Italy. I kind of discovered her when I started making this new record and she became my spirit animal and muse for it.”
What classic song do you wish you’d written?
“I wish I’d written ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’ by Jeff Buckley. I remember hearing it for the first time and it just made me stop and be entirely still. You get those songs sometimes, you just hear them and they stop you in your tracks. It’s just so beautiful.”
If you could relive a duet you’ve done, who would it be with?
“I’d love to sing with Jarvis Cocker again. He was such a hero of mine growing up and I did sing with him years ago at this NME show we did together. But I was just too young and over-excited to really appreciate it. I mean I did appreciate it, I was overjoyed, but I wish I’d played it a bit cooler.”