Florence and the Machine are getting edgy
Unlike Amy Winehouse, Florence Welch has never quite lost herself to the dark side of rock and roll. But she has teetered on the brink a few times and has a sense of what it might feel like to plunge, as the Rehab singer did, headlong into the abyss.
"Her death is such a devastating loss. I can't believe she'll never make another record," says the flame-haired pop siren who records as Florence + the Machine.
"It can be lonely being on tour. There is a lot of time when it is just dead time. You start to drink to get through it, to make things more entertaining. It becomes this endless cycle. I can definitely see how the loneliness and boredom could get to you."
Florence doesn't, it must be said, appear particularly weighed down by the burden of fame this morning. Installed in the creaky ground-floor suite of one of those romantically shabby hotels in which London seems to specialise -- the garden is pure Alice in Wonderland, the downstairs loo something out of Dickens -- the 24-year-old wears a floppy-brimmed hat and Patti Smith-style waistcoat.
Seated so that the golden afternoon light is behind her head and shining into your face, she looks every centimetre the ethereal songbird. So it's surprising to hear that she has started to tire of her otherworldly image and is eager to move on.
"Karl Lagerfeld recently shot me for Japanese Vogue and wanted to bring out my androgynous side," she reveals. "I was definitely drawn to that. Most people want to shoot me so that I'm floaty. When he suggested I put on a suit I jumped at it."
A former art student and punk singer, Welch moves in rarefied circles nowadays. Some months before Lagerfeld sought her out she flew to Las Vegas at the invitation of Jay-Z and spent the night partying with a posse of A-listers including Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kanye West and half a dozen movie stars.
How far she has travelled since the fateful evening three years ago when her future manager Mairead Nash discovered her singing "half blathered" and with mascara streaking her face in the toilet of a Soho nightclub and offered to represent her on the spot.
"Hanging out with Jay-Z and Rihanna was a totally pinch-me moment," says Welch, who is gearing up for the release of her second album Ceremonials.
"There were also all these Hollywood stars there. It was at New Year's, which was probably just as well. Had it been at any other time it would have been overwhelming. Everyone was so drunk that I think it was okay. I fell off a table at one point."
Florence speaks candidly about her relationship with the bottle. As she is eager to stress, she's never been in danger of becoming the next Amy Winehouse. Nonetheless, the success of her debut LP Lungs, which sold a remarkable two million copies, has put her under enormous strain. Who can blame her for throwing herself into the comforting arms of her mini-bar night after night?
She was, she says, especially reliant on booze early on when she would be frequently overcome with stage fright.
"I drank to get through it," she says. "I came from the garage punk scene where everyone would be wasted all the time... There would be drinks before stage, drinks on stage. Everyone was on this big pirate ship of emotion."
She has used her drinking to fuel her art in curious ways. One of the best tracks on the new album, Shake It Out, for instance, was inspired by the worst hangover of her life -- specifically the sense that the throbbing in her temples was a wicked spirit she needed to exorcise.
"I wanted to make a hangover cure out of the song, to shake the demon drink out," she smiles. "I wouldn't recommend it. Most of the time, I want to hide under the duvet and watch box sets, like everyone else."
Still, the fast living couldn't go on forever. When it became clear she was going to have to spend a fair percentage of 2010 touring the United States (where she became a sensation on the back of a provocative Video Music Awards appearance), she knew it was time to knock her bad habits on the head. If she didn't, she was perfectly sure her life would take a darker turn.
"I have gradually come down to not drinking at all before I go on," she says. "The last tour was completely one of temperance. I didn't even drink Diet Coke. It was quite tough -- it makes you feel more exposed. I suppose that's a good feeling to learn. You learn to get your release in any other way. I'm enjoying the clarity of performing that way."
Lungs was inspired by a painful break-up with her long-term boyfriend. Though the new record doesn't wear its heart on its sleeve quite so explicitly, she is still obviously channelling her emotional life (single What The Water Gave Me likens obsessive love to drowning).
Coincidentally, Mod icon Paul Weller has been venting in this morning's papers about the sudden preponderance of whingeing female singer-songwriters. While he's mostly ranting about Adele, he could as easily be talking about Florence. She is taken aback when this is put to her.
"Actually, I did hear about that," she says. "You use songs as a catharsis for your emotions. I don't think anybody should be told what to write about. At the same time, everyone is allowed their opinion, aren't they?"
welch is often portrayed as a child of privilege, for whom a career in music is basically an extended lark. She certainly hails from the leafy side of the tracks. Her mother is a prominent American academic and contemporary of Andy Warhol (they used to hang out in Studio 54 together), her father a high-flying London ad executive who minted the slogan 'Let The Bubbles Melt' for Aero.
And it's true, she really is rather posh, speaking in the sort of cut-glass accent most Irish people will have only heard in a period drama. Does the inverse snobbery bother her? She blanches, for the first time this afternoon, appearing genuinely at a loss as to what to say.
"People want to label you in an effort to understand you," she says. "They want to categorise you and [class] is an easy thing to put on you. I don't have any feelings on it. I don't know... maybe it is easier for people to get a handle on you if you are presented on those terms. It isn't something I think about. I would never judge someone in that way. It is a very strange attitude."
Oddly, she is far happier discussing the plagiarism row which blew up after it emerged that the chorus from her biggest hit Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) was lifted from the song Slow Jam by the cult New York art band Gang Gang Dance.
Speaking to Day & Night over the summer, Gang Gang's Lizzi Bougatsos expressed annoyance that Florence had taken so long to admit pinching the melody. According to Welch, however, the whole thing had been agreed from the outset.
"It wasn't a secret! It was strange. We had sorted out the publishing and everything. Lizzi was really sweet about it. There was no big discovery. I guess the internet does have a habit of exaggerated things. I love their music."
There's a lot riding on Ceremonials. Reprising the wide-screen melodrama of her debut, the record will be perceived as a flop if it sells anything less than a million.
Florence insists she felt no external pressure during the making of the album. Her only responsibility, she says, was to do well by the songs. "You can't stop and worry about what people are going to think," she reveals. "You have to write what's in your head. Otherwise you would be paralysed."
The hardest part of becoming famous, she says, was adjusting to the endless scrutiny of her personal life. Not only did she have to revisit her painful break-up with her boyfriend and the ensuing depression she suffered (she has since moved on and has a new partner). She also faced questions about the divorce of her parents when she was 13 and her mother's subsequent relationship with the neighbour a few doors down.
"It was weird being in the public eye in that way," she says. "I am so close to my family. They sort of understand. We've got a really strong bond. In my early interviews, I didn't hold back. In hindsight, maybe I wouldn't be so forthcoming. On the other hand, if there are kids out there who have similar issues -- parents who have divorced -- it might help them to know someone else has gone through it. It's all turned positive in the end."
Ceremonials is released today
Day & Night