Now here’s one I’m particularly proud of… my interview with Florence Welch for the cover of Clash magazine in November. She was as charming, amusing and kooky as ever. (Photography by Matthew Stone, art shaman)
Discussions of animal entrails, ghostly appearances and shamans can only mean one thing: Florence Welch is back, and preparing to take on the world yet again
“You know when you’re just getting tired of yourself and you’re falling into the same patterns of behaviour? It’s a bit like, ‘I’m gonna be myself forever. That sucks.’”
Many people would disagree with the idea of becoming Florence Welch as being a sucky existence. But the pop star persists with the concept. “I like the idea of being able to get outside of your own flesh and leaving it behind. I always get this sense of being stuck in your own head, like you don’t have enough eyeballs, or something.”
You have to hand it to her, Florence has a unique way of seeing things, and a morning spent with her is like stepping into the starlet’s very own twilight hour.
Earlier in the day, without fanfare, she quietly appears in the photography studio, fragile and birdlike, every inch the gothic ingénue with her red locks and alabaster skin. Politely saying hello to everyone, she pounces on friend and photographer of the day Matthew Stone, the founder of the !WOWOW! art collective whose south London warehouse parties so influenced Florence’s teenage years.
They begin comparing bruises from a recent night spent partying together that saw them both run into a parked car, with Florence ending up on its roof.
“It was somewhere between parkour and planking,” quips Matthew, while Florence sits down, giggling. “We were having a moment of freedom,” she says.
Sporting a mustard-coloured coat from Zara, a black roll neck top and cigarette trousers, topped off with a wide-brimmed hat, she looks effortlessly chic.
Gone is the awkward girl from our last meeting who turned up just over two years ago in the grungy jumper and tea dress. There’s no hint of the pent up energy and wild, almost manic behaviour that previously saw her leaping around in front of the camera and switching between whispering and shouting at the drop of a hat.
In her place is a woman who has grown into herself and the world she occupies, delicate, demure, and otherworldly.
A lot has happened in the 28 months since we last properly spoke to Florence. Debut album Lungs reached number one in the UK charts, won the Brit Award for Mastercard British Album, and peaked at number 14 in America’s Billboard chart.
She has wowed audiences worldwide with performances at the Oscars, the Grammys, and even the Nobel Peace Prize. Florence + The Machine have been nominated for countless awards, and won more than a few.
The extent of her success is evident from the moment you walk into the studio today: a massive team sets up for the shoot, while a frantic PR tries desperately to keep everyone to the carefully plotted time schedule that sees Florence be photographed and interviewed by Clash, before moving on to another interview, a dinner, and an appearance at a Moët & Chandon party for Mario Testino that evening.
All of this carefully constructed schedule collapses like a pack of cards as Florence turns up late and a camera crew unexpectedly appears to film a quick interview with her.
Snatching fragments of opportunity to chat while make-up is applied, our interview proceeds.
We’re meeting to discuss the follow-up to Lungs, the aptly titled Ceremonials.
The LP boasts a collection of songs so massive that they’ll only serve to cement Florence as the most exciting art-pop singer to appear since Bjork. It’s a very comprehensive album, and deliberately so.
“I think that halfway through making the first record, I found my sound,” she muses. “But there was so much old stuff to incorporate, and I didn’t want to not use any of that, because it had been a big part of how it started.
“For better or worse the first record was slightly confused because there was so many different influences and some of it was written when I was 17 and some when I was 21. The difference is enormous.
“With this one I really wanted to make it whole and give it an overall sound. The first one’s like a scrapbook, I guess, and this one I wanted it to be more like a story.”
To gain that cohesive sound, Florence, or Flo as she is known to her friends and family, shunned offers to go to America and write with some of the best songwriters in the industry, to go back to where it all began; her friend and band member Isabella Summers’ studio in Crystal Palace to “bang some pots and pans”.
“I think people might have been expecting me to go and make a more Americanised sound,” Florence says, “And one day I’d like to experiment with it, a massive big pop song, but for this record it didn’t feel right. I freaked out and was like, ‘No, I’m not going!”
Writing done, and it was off to Abbey Road to record with uber producer Paul Epworth, one of the four that collaborated on Lungs.
“I wanted to do [Ceremonials] in one place and with one person, and I chose Paul because of the way Cosmic Love turned out on the first album. I was so happy with it, it exemplified what I wanted the sound of my music to be, so it made sense to move forward with him,” she says between sweeps of the make up artist’s brush.
“He’s such a shaman. We got Indian headdresses from Soho fancy dress shops, and I turned up in a big velvet cape and some chainmail. He’s got a studio that’s full of dear heads and skull candles, and he really loves wolves. He’s half spiritual guru and half lad.”
With the help of producer shaman Paul, Florence + The Machine have recorded an album of epic proportions. They’ve taken the magic mix of her distinctive voice, arresting melodies, cavernous drumbeats and twinkling harp, and amplified it with the help of gospel choirs and full string arrangements.
What has been tempered on some of the songs is Florence’s voice, which has a more soulful edge. “I went through a total Stax soul phase. I was obsessed with watching the live performances on YouTube when I was on tour, and when it came to writing this album I really wanted to write a song like I Heard it Through the Grapevine. I wanted that same raw energy,” she remembers.
“On this record I was thinking that I’m going to have to perform this record live for two years, and subconsciously I was finding a register for my voice that would be comfortable to sing in.”
Two years is a long time to tour. Many bands split, and meltdowns occur. Somehow Flo managed to keep her head when touring Lungs. “It was funny, there was a bit in the middle that I was, like, totally over it. And then I really started enjoying it again. I remember last year I was in Ibiza, it was supposed to be the end of a tour, and I was just a totally broken person. Everyone was relaxing in the sun, and I was shaking in my bedroom refusing to come out. But then when I started going back out to American, it was fine. I never once got bored of the record.”
“It’s just been a sort of tidal wave that hasn’t stopped. The [MTV] VMAs seemed completely out of this world. It was my first experience of doing an American TV show, and it was so big. We were painting 15 people blue, there were all these tribal drummers with masks, and I had to do a dance routine on a spinning podium whilst singing. That seemed an almost impossible feat that was so far removed from reality. But we did it. Then the Oscars and the Grammys came. “Every week it seemed like there was something really massive to do. That felt pretty overwhelming. But you couldn’t dwell on it. It’s kind of a do or die moment. You just go into this weird sense of almost battle mode.”
Battle commenced for Florence’s latest offensive on the airwaves with the sudden release of teaser track What the Water Gave Me this August. Garnering critical approval, it was a curveball rather than an accurate indicator of the direction of Ceremonials’ sound.
Much more on point is Shake It Out, the album’s first official single, a post-millennial power ballad sang with such passion that only the hardest of hearts can resist its charms.
Ceremonials’ opening song Only If For A Night sucks the listener into the album from the off with its unique lyrics about the appearance of her dead grandma in a dream: ‘The grass was so green against my new clothes/ And I did cartwheels in your honour/ Dancing on tiptoes, my own secret ceremonials/ Before the service began in the graveyard….’
“It was a normal dream and then she was there,” she remembers. “There’s this amazing Thom Gunn poem that talks about seeing a dead lover in a dream, and it was as if death was undone because it’s so real, and you’re like, ‘Fuck, you’re here. This is amazing.’ You have this realisation that you’re having this unbelievable experience. I’ve never seen her in a dream before or since. I woke up weeping. It was so intense.
“I think this album focuses a lot on England and family ties, and that song starts with these church bells that really reminded me of going to visit my grandma and hearing the church bells and wood pigeons, and then going to her funeral at that same church…” her voice trails off as she’s lost in her own thoughts.
Subjects of shamanism and spirituality rear their heads repeatedly both in conversation with the flame-haired maven, and in the lyrics of this album.
Ghosts and devils creep out from nooks and crannies, while the tribal anthem Heartlines even includes the line ‘The entrails of the animals’.
“Oops, there I go again!” she laughs. “In Heartlines I was thinking about soothsaying. Sometimes I’ll just get really interested in one line or a concept for the song. Heartlines is about being tied to someone emotionally, so this soothsaying imagery came into my head. I like how soothsayers read the future in things like animal entrails.
“I was trying to go for more themes of light [on this album], but I always end up bringing it back to a darker side. ”
So how does she come up with such interesting lyrics? Her talent for painting vivid pictures with her words is one of her main strengths. Does Florence hide herself away in a cave and slog at the rock face of lyrical craft night and day? Perhaps not.
“I like to have loads of books around me in the studio. I pick up lines from here and there. I’m such a word magpie. I’m a collector of phrases, really. Anything from a random poetry book I’ve brought in, to street signs or the title of a fashion shoot from Vogue.”
Speaking of Vogue, fashion is important to Florence. In spare moments during the shoot she sits at her laptop flicking through Vogue.com’s catwalk coverage, and exclaims in delight at a bright, sequined Prada jacket that’s carried past us. She has become a style icon with her maxi dresses of flowing fabrics, carving a distinctive look for herself without resorting to the shock tactics and exposed flesh of other female pop stars.
Just days after we meet, she performs at the Chanel show in Paris, emerging, Venus-style, from a shell, further cementing her style status. Afterwards she thanked Karl Lagerfeld profusely for “fulfilling my childhood dreams of becoming a mermaid.”
This charming attitude of always remembering to say thank you is important to her. There are so many people in our little studio, all focusing on the singer, that even Clash begins to feel a little claustrophobic, but Flo is lovely to the end. How does she do it? “You have to try to remember good manners,” she says. “I think it’s so easy to get irritable, ‘cos so much is going on, and you’re poked and prodded. I just try and be polite and not take things for granted. Especially on shoots I’ve developed some sort of weird inner calm.”
So is she ready to take up arms and head out into the fray again?
“I think so. The release of Lungs was so hard. It was terrifying, because it was the first time doing everything. The first experiences of media exposure were almost paralysing. I spent a lot of time crying on the floor of the studio – it sent me a bit mad. This time I feel a lot more ready to cope with it.”
And with that, she is whisked out of the building onto her next commitments. Florence’s second coming will see her star rise into the stratosphere. Maybe she’ll come to realise that being herself forever isn’t quite as bad as she first though.
Florence and photographer Matthew Stone go way back. They spoke about their longstanding friendship…
Clash: You both went to Camberwell Art College, didn’t you? Did you know each other from there or the !WOWOW! squat parties?
Florence: It was both. Matthew knew my first boyfriend’s band really well, and they played a lot of shows for him. I would end in the basement of where Matthew lived wailing into a microphone, rolling around in bubble wrap.
I just threw myself into the art college scene headfirst before I’d even got to art college.
Matthew: I think that was art college. I graduated and we made this ramshackle art school inside squats. I really think that the thing about art school is it’s not so much about learning necessarily from teachers in a traditional way, it’s about forming a community of likeminded people who push you but in a really fun way.
Florence: Yeah, I think I definitely learned a lot more from being part of that experience than I did at art college, actually.
I was still at school when I discovered this thing, and I was like, oh wow, this is amazing. It was ok to turn up in a Victorian child’s dress and a curtain.
I think a lot of my first performances were probably really influenced by seeing these strange, visceral, half-performance, half-art pieces, and that idea of the ritual and the shamanic quality to it. It’s really good to scare people as a performer, I think.
A lot of my gothic, voodoo aspects came from seeing Matthew jumping up and down on a roof in these huge feathers like some voodoo art priest. He was a strong presence in my teenage years.
Clash: Do you still describe yourself as an art shaman, Matthew?
Matthew: Embarassingly. It’s something that I force myself to do. But I really think that there is an interesting way to understand the role of an artist, if you think about the role of a shaman, because I think that it’s psychologically more healthy to be looking at the artist as somebody who is a sort of… healer, in a sense, rather than somebody who is making objects to be sold on a market.
It’s fine to sell things, but really I think for creative people at the core of it, there is a sort of attempt to go beyond the mundane, whether that is in art or music.
Florence: When me and Matthew did our first shoot, it was one of my first photo shoots, and Matthew was like, I don’t wanna do a shoot, I think it has to be a ritual. There was no real planning, we went to a wood. I think if you’re planning everything then it loses that sense of freedom.
Matthew: I think it was actually about creating a situation and documenting it. And it wasn’t a documentary in the sense that we were documenting things that were already happening, it was about the desire to make something happen, and for that thing to be full of energy and alive as a real thing.
It had to be real, and it had to be visceral, and I think that intensity is something that we both chase.
Florence: Yeah, to feel the moment… especially singing, I can’t ever go through the motions, in rehearsals I always fuck myself, because you can’t help becoming completely involved in it. People say, ‘Why can’t you just sing it casually?’ It doesn’t feel casual, it’s such a physical thing, you’re using your whole body. It’s so hard to hold back because you just feel it so intensely, and I don’t ever wanna go through the motions.
Matthew: I think that links back to what I was saying about making something that’s real. I do think that we have a sort of connection in terms of wanting to achieve or capture the same thing; and I think when I see you sing, the place where you go to in your mind is something I feel like I understand sort of beyond thinking, it’s this abstract realm.
Florence has always had this boundless energy. I get a feeling that we experience euphoria more than most people. It’s kind of like chasing that feeling and finding ways to make that happen for other people.
I wanted to ask you, Florence: what goes on in your head while you’re singing?
Florence: I think the perfect place to be in your head is, like, total clarity. The ideal state is to live like you have absolutely no future, and no past, and you’re living entirely in that moment, and that’s the one total oblivion, but you’re completely connected with everyone in there.
Even though you’re making the loudest noise ever, I think it’s quite a peaceful place, ‘cos all the wittering that’s going on all the time… onstage it comes together, and it’s like, ‘Ah, thank you! Quiet!’
To see the abridged version of this interview on Clash’s website, click here.