Florence and the Machine: Florence Welch interview
Camberwell, South London is more often associated with tough, urban music than richly orchestrated and transcendently beautiful pop. But Florence Welch, lead singer of band Florence and the Machine, has produced one of 2009’s most glorious and vibrant albums out of the very heart of these grubby streets. Camberwell is where she grew up, went to art school and now continues to live, in a flat with her mum.
Nowadays she spends an increasing amount of time on the trail of international pop stardom, but when I catch her she is on home turf, taking my phone call as she heads from Camberwell into the city centre to ‘do a spot of shopping’.
She has the voice of a timid, extremely polite girl, younger even than her 23 years. It’s a speaking voice that contrasts her singing persona as the Dionysian herald of beauty and destruction, or her press billing as the natural successor to both the gothicism of Kate Bush and the soulful warbling of Aretha Franklin.
In reality she sounds very normal, and just a little phased by the whole experience of fame. ‘Now I think I’m at a level that if people know about my music they might recognise me but I’m not like a celebrity,’ she says, with just a tinge of false modesty. Welch’s debut, Lungs has been a huge critical and commercial success, with a new four-disc box set re-issue at the end of November continuing its already lengthy stay at the top of the album charts. She was a nominee (and for a while the frontrunner) for the 2009 Mercury Prize, and – perhaps most beneficial to her burgeoning star status – she has the look of a complete pop star, from the pre-Raphaelite beauty of her chiselled cheekbones and flame red hair, to her superbly eclectic wardrobe.
Not that you would sense this powerful appeal, conversing with her as she undertakes a Tuesday morning shopping trip. In between the two seemingly happy poles of her life – near limitless acclaim and a relatively normal day-to-day existence – she can’t get rid of her innate fearfulness. ‘I can’t ever seem to shake the feeling that when things are really good it essentially means that things are going to go really bad,’ she says, uneasily. ‘When I feel calm and settled, there is always an underlying feeling of impending doom … I don’t think that it’s healthy. I’d much rather just be content in that things are going well, and they’re going to keep going well. I always seem to feel that everything is about to cave in on me. I think that maybe music is my protection from that and in some senses it’s an outlet to turn it into something euphoric: embracing the eventual decline.’
The two sides to Welch quickly become apparent – one is introverted and shy, with an almost painful sensitivity to the world; the other is outgoing and violently passionate, with a desire to block out the fears with noise and clutter. She pursued the latter, more creative side, in her time at Camberwell College of Arts, developing a feel for the layers of abstract meaning that now make up her songs.
‘I made a lot of environments,’ she says of the work she produced there. ‘Bat for Lashes [a former University of Brighton art student] said she makes microcosms – tiny worlds in a shoe box or something – but I was turning a whole room into something else, with bird cages and things, kind of like what I do on stage now … Maybe in music you’re making an auditory environment and maybe you change your environment around you to suit your own way.’
It’s a theory that would help explain how so much colour can be drawn out of grey South London streets, and also why her performances are always complemented by such a jumble of onstage objects.
‘I’ve always been a bit of a decorator,’ she admits. ‘I think if I wasn’t a singer I’d probably be in stage setting or interior design or something. I like clutter and I’m quite visually greedy. I can’t have things to be plain; I have to have things looking interesting … maybe I’m just a frustrated interior designer stuck in a singing career.’
Or a fashion designer stuck in a singing career? Welch’s visual greediness extends to her massive wardrobe, from which she pulled out some of the most startling stage outfits to grace the festival stages over the summer. ‘Before it was very much “pull everything from my wardrobe into a trunk and then take it tour”,’ she recalls. ‘My friend came with me and we were buying wardrobes and literally an hour before [a performance] we’d jump in the trunk, roll around and go on stage in whatever outfits had stuck.’
Are there any that she remembers in particular? ‘I’ve worn some ridiculous outfits. On the NME tour it got beyond a joke! I ended up in a feather cape and half of one bright blue, shiny mini-dress but with a grey T-shirt and sparkly pants underneath. But by the end of it the outfit had just completely fallen apart and I was running around in just a grey T-shirt and a pair of sparkly pants.’
While it’s hoped that the cheap thrills of sparkly pants won’t be absent from her upcoming tour there’s more to be expected from these live shows including, for the first time, a gospel choir and an expanded string section on stage.
These are additions that will help the musical richness of Lungs shine through, but it’s not a set up that’s reflective of how the record was put together in the studio. The recording process was minimal with ‘not a lot of musicians,’ Welch says. ‘It was very much doodling on it myself or with one other person. The layering actually comes from not having that much experience or that much skill. It started off very small, like not having equipment and having to use everything and layering it up and my voice being the only thing I could really control. So it was just endless harmonies upon harmonies and using my voice as an instrument really.’
And what about that instrument, capable of bellowing out huge notes but also showing the tenderest fragility. Welch’s talent has depth beyond her years, indicative perhaps of a young life full of emotional strain? ‘I think it’s more about being emotionally intuitive of music than going through serious trauma.’ Welch clarifies. ‘It’s about being able to access some part of yourself that maybe you normally wouldn’t want to but its all there even if you’ve gone through a hard time or not.’
Welch might go to that process of dark introspection a little too often, but it’s only to the benefit of her music. If, as she fears, the roof is about the cave in, then it’s still irresistible to stay with her as the blackness engulfs her.