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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Florence Welch talks fame, men, and how she didn't have a breakdown last year

She is about to release her brilliant new album. Florence Welch talks in London about dealing with fame, her space being a bit 'impenetrable' to men, and how she didn't have a breakdown last year

'What sets Florence apart? Everything'. That's what Taylor Swife said about Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + The Machine. Photo: Andrew Winning.
'What sets Florence apart? Everything'. That's what Taylor Swife said about Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + The Machine. Photo: Andrew Winning.
Florence Welch at an awards ceremony. Photo: Jason Merritt.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Taylor Swift recently told Billboard magazine about her friend Florence Welch: "Every time I've been around her, she is the most magnetic person in the room - surrounded by people who are fascinated by the idea of being near her. But when she meets people, she pays them a warm compliment and immediately disarms them. There are very few people I've met in my life who are truly electric, and Florence is one of them."

"What sets Florence apart?" Miss Swift asked rhetorically. "Everything."

In person, what sets Florence Leontine Mary Welch, lead singer of Florence + The Machine, apart is that she looks like she has just stepped - androgynously, gorgeously - out of an English Pre-Raphaelite painting. Ophelia singing before she sinks to her watery fate. Or The Lady of Shalott on her final journey.

Florence's signature shock of long, bright red hair is worn under a big, black, floppy hat. Her svelte figure is held tightly inside a black Spanish-style suit teamed with pointy purple velvet boots by Yves Saint Laurent.

She has a birdcage tattoo on her finger. Karl Lagerfeld once put Florence inside a giant clamshell and had her sing at his Paris fashion week show. Today, the bohemian indie superstar doesn't so much sit as lounge.

Her legs are curled up under her on the couch in the hotel suite in London.

In line with her particular other-worldly boho look, Florence Welch talks like some one from another era - equal parts posh and dotty, like a punk Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey or Virginia Woolf rebooted for the Noughties.

She talks about channelling the subconscious, about not knowing the place in her subconscious where some of her lyrics come from, or even where the feelings that brought up those lyrics come from. She believes that when she's singing, she can suddenly understand what she's feeling. "To say something to one person I have to sing it to a thousand strangers," she has said. "It's sort of deep-seated emotional repression!"

Even allowing for exaggeration, she is a supremely fascinating woman. When Florence - who was born on August 28, 1986 - was a kid she used to believe she could breathe underwater. "I think it was a dream, but when you're a kid it's hard to separate dreams from reality."

The strangest rumour she's ever heard about herself is that she was planning a forest inside a church. She is, I think you'll agree, exceedingly ethereal. That said, she is hugely entertaining. "It was probably the best night of my life and I can't remember any of it," she told GQ in 2012 of a tequila-fuelled bender with Beyonce in New York once upon a time. "Apparently we had a really long conversation. We met her again at an event just before the VMAs (video music awards), my sister was with me and Beyonce said 'Hi Grace! I've heard so much about you!' So I must have been talking about my sister, but God knows what I said."

Her parents broke up when Florence was 11. Then her mother fell in love with the widowed neighbour in Camberwell, south London, and the two families moved in together. The elder of two sisters, Florence gained two older brothers and a sister, and was in the middle in terms of ages. "It was like The Royal Tenenbaums with more swearing," she told the LA Times, referring to the Wes Anderson movie. Florence remembered that she "ran around in leopard-print platforms and black PVC macs trying to look like Fairuza Balk in The Craft."

Her maternal grandmother died by suicide when Florence was 13. "It was hard to be close to her, because she was on a lot of medication. For most of the time that I knew her, she wasn't very well at all," she said once of that troubling time in her life.

Florence's artistic side was clearly inherited from her American mother, Evelyn, a professor of Renais­sance studies at Queen Mary University of London.

Her first album, 2009's Lungs was all about her first big break-up. It was pretty honest, and painful, stuff to put to music.

"It's like what Iggy Pop said, isn't it?" Florence says today in London. "That he used to go out with girls so he could write songs about it. But I definitely don't think I do it on purpose!"

So she doesn't go out with guys for songs then?

"I don't. But song-writing is how I understand things, and when things are hard and difficult it is kind of a medium to piece yourself back together," she adds.

"Once you have written it down in a song, it's almost like, 'Yeah, OK.' It is a way that I feel I can be almost clear about how I feel to myself. But it is almost like a personal thing, because you hold on to the songs when you are making them - and you're not playing them to anyone else.

"They are so healing and restorative," she continues. "And then, once you give them away, it's like 'Oh, the genie is out of the bottle.' They're like talismans. It is like a release. You know - even though there was this bad feeling at least you can make something of it."

What was the lowest point in her life?

"When you get on that fame roller-coaster there's a lot of real highs - and what comes with that is lows," she answers, "I think I'm a lot more balanced now than I was at the beginning of my career. I think I was quite low when I started. But when I came to make this record, which was the beginning of February last year, I think it was difficult," she says, "I had had this year where I was not going to work. I moved out of my mum's house. I was going to live on my own!" she adds excitedly.

What was it like to move out of her mum's house?

"I moved from down the road into my step family's house and then I had the living room, which was my room, which became this insane installation of clothes, and bunting and Chinese lanterns hung over it!" she says chuckling.

"I felt bad for my mum, because it made the outside of the house look like a squat all the time; like an art project installation." At Camberwell College of Arts, where she studied fine art, Florence created another art installation - plastic flowers arranged to spell out the poetic words: "You're a twat".

Rather more elegantly, Welch, told Vogue in 2013 that "I went from singing at the Met ball to coming home and sleeping on a mattress in my mom's living room."

"I slept on a mattress," Florence says now, "albeit one that I had decorated with paintings. I made a bed out of books. I was constantly creating this environment. And then I was always on tour. I never had a chance to [be domestic]."

"So when I had some time off, I moved into this little house, which was again like nought to 60 - like all the things I do in my life!" she says with a laugh.

"I've been on tour with loads of people! I've lived in my family home with six people my whole life! And now - now I live on my own!" She shrieks with laughter and indeed, it seems, happiness.

Florence's crash pad sounds rather swanky, as the aforesaid Vogue magazine in 2013 did a shoot at her Georgian-style cottage "with views of Parliament and the London Eye". There are also English antiques, family treasures, and vintage finds sourced by Florence's pal, designer Carolyn Benson. Flo, as she is called by her mates, described it as being "like being drunk or on a ship - I think it suits me."

Being drunk on a ship is possibly a description, too, of what it is like to interview Florence Welch. Everything is said with a delightful English accent but the problem is that Ms Welch talks in long sentences that meander then stop, then meander again. Or just stop. Never to start again. In truth, this article is like a translation of Florence's interview rather than a transcription.

Her band Florence + The Machine's brilliant new album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is everything the title makes it sound like. Beautiful, textured, soulful, romantic, left-of-centre, operatic indie-pop with lyrics that no one other than Florence Welch could have written.

In the Terrence Malick-esque mini-movie of her new video What Kind Of Man, Florence tells a man in a car who has watched her have a nightmare in bed the night before:"So, you think people who suffer together are better than people who are content?"

Florence, who makes Lady Gaga seem like a bit of a fake poser, then sings: "You're a holy fool, all coloured blue/ Red feet upon the floor/You do such damage, how do you manage?/Trying to crawl in back for more/And with one kiss You inspired a fire of devotion that lasts for twenty years/What kind of man loves like this?'

A woman who writes words like these is not exactly going to be an easy-going pop princess with a fixed rictus grin. Florence actually exudes the intensity of Sylvia Plath. You can just see her telling author Bret Easton Ellis at the 2010 London launch of Imperial Bedroom that she hoped he would write her into one of his books.

She appears on the cover of the current Billboard magazine under the headline: 'Florence Welch on Bouncing Back From a Near-Breakdown and the Life-Changing Advice Taylor Swift Gave Her.'

The latter guidance that Ms Swift, who is much given to writing about her ex-boyfriends in songs, gave her was: "You must sing about what's happening in your life."

Following the advice, Florence made the new album effectively about her on-off beau James Nesbitt. "It's not about trying to be vindictive. It's about being honest. This could've been a break-up record. But it was much more about trying to understand myself." As for the near-breakdown (when she took a year off to decamp to Los Angeles before this new album was recorded), it would be easier to get state secrets than to get Florence to discuss breakdowns of any description.

"This year that was really chaotic," she says. "I felt like I was kind of breaking things all the time. When I came to start making this record I was in a bit of a heap. I was supposed to have a year off to relax and get ready and Markus," she says referring to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful's producer Markus Dravs, "was like, 'Let's start making this record now!'

"And actually I think it was kind of like trying to come to terms with figuring out all that kind of stuff."


"Like - who are you? What makes you happy? You know - 'I've been partying a lot. Maybe that doesn't make me happy anymore. I feel quite sad and I've broken everything in the house,'" she says.

But did she break stuff inside herself too? Did she have a nervous breakdown or did she just need time away from the music industry?

"It wasn't like that. It was more just like the things that I wanted and the things that I was trying to make work during that year haven't worked..." she says with even more Sphinx-like aplomb.

"Like relationships?" I go on.

"Things like that."

What is it like to go with Florence romantically?

"Um ... I think ... it would be ... I feel like... I'm quite like..." Pause. " I think when I feel things I feel them quite strongly."

"Too strongly even?" I press on.

"Maybe! Maybe! Maybe! Then I get scared of those kind of feelings as well. It's almost like the stage is a safe place for all that stuff!" she laughs. "But not real life! What if it is too much? What if I'm too much?"

I say to her that being too much is better than being too little.

"Yeah," she smiles, "perhaps ... the stage is great but I need that quiet, and I need to read. But I think I feel strongly for people."

Does she want a man breaking that quiet in her life?

"My space can be a good bit impenetrable."

Do men find that difficult?

"I have in my house quite a specific aesthetic. I have very much something about me. I don't know whether they [men] find it difficult."

Does her fame make it difficult for men to go out with her?

"Because they would have an idea of the person I am? I don't know. I'm not sure that that - " she says meaning her fame and never mentioning James Nesbitt once in a 45 -minute conversation - "has kind of affected it so much."

"I think it was almost like the fame thing was the least of my worries!" she shrieks again with laughter. "There was a lot of other stuff!"

Like what?

"Like w-h-a-t?" She shrieks with laughter for a full 30 seconds now before I give up on her ever answering.

But she has dealt with the other stuff?

"Oh, yeah. I've kept it under my hat," she laughs as her big, black floppy witch's hat practically falls off with the joke.

Florence + The Machine's new album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, is out on May 29  on Universal.

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