The success of Florence + the Machine’s debut album Lungs on both sides of the Atlantic has shown yet again that a singular vision and commercial success do not need to be mutually exclusive – even when the band prominently features a harp, an instrument as unwieldy and seemingly old-fashioned as they come … Florence’s first album centred around the feelings of loss following the end of a long relationship. Her second one, the flame-haired pre-Raphaelite lookalike explains, reflects on her feelings as the relationship is rekindled.
Sublime: I couldn’t help overhearing that tomorrow morning you’ll be off to Paris for a photoshoot with Karl Lagerfeld. Are you looking forward to it?
Florence Welch: I’m really excited. I’ve met him before, and he’s always been very warm. And he knows everything about everything. He’s such an interesting person to talk to.
S: He only photographs ’iconic’ faces, doesn’t he? Isn’t it a bit strange, being seen as an ‘iconic face’?
FW: It’s just my face. Ha! I have to look at it every day! He’s got a really nice way of dealing with things. I’ve been photographed by him a couple of times and I’ve enjoyed it very much.
S: Who’s your favourite photographer?
FW: Maybe Tom Beard, if not Karl. I think Karl’s at the one end of the spectrum, and Tom Beard’s at the other. I’ve known Tom since I was 17. We met at a festival and he took some of the first photos of me, up for three days in a stolen party frock by a lake! We’ve been friends ever since. He shot both my first and second album covers, and he was involved in directing two of my first music videos.
S: The way you dress, the way you present yourself, is clearly different to most other modern-day artists. How do you think your aesthetic was formed?
FW: I’ve always been into books and been interested very much in fairy tales and fantasy, and loved musicals and theatre and performing. But I was also a total daydreamer. I wanted to be a witch for a while as a kid, but I also had a great fascination for the Little Mermaid and stories like ‘The Water Babies’. I read a lot of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales.
S: When did the more gothic elements creep in?
FW: I was fixated on ghosts and werewolves. I was a completely scared child but totally attracted to horror stories, which probably wasn’t helpful. I’m fascinated too by antiques and Victoriana and junk shops. I collect things – oddities.
S: There are a lot of ghosts in the lyrics of the new album.
FW: I love a good Victorian ghost story like ‘The Beating Heart’, where you can hear the heart beating from underneath the floorboards! And that one about the boy who keeps seeing the ghost of the girl in the garden, and her heart’s been taken out and he can see claw marks on the walls. I was also very into the Greek myths. I had a book of Greek myths – all that gore. Kids love that.
S: And what sort of books inspire you now?
FW: I’m going through a real Bloomsbury Set phase at the moment. I actually went to Charleston, the Bloomsbury Set house, and I’ve just bought myself a lovely old copy of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I was talking about her so much recently, I thought it was time to get reacquainted. If you’ve any spare time, there’s an Oxfam bookshop in Portobello Road that stocks loads of amazing old editions.
S: Creating your second album after the success of the first would have been a completely different experience. Can you describe the shift?
FW: It was very different. I was kind of on tour in America at the time. Things kicked off for us in America at just about the same time we were supposed to be home doing nothing but writing. There was one point about a year ago when I was told I was going to have six months off. Ha! I’ve had about three weeks off, maybe two. I’d go off on tour, and then come back and do a block of writing. Writing became like a nice sanctuary, a sort of port in a storm. I did a lot of writing back in London, in a little studio in Soho. I love Soho so much. To be surrounded by the hustle and bustle and all the characters, right in the centre of town, was exciting. I wrote a lot with Isabella (the ‘Machine’). We went back to her little shack of a studio next door to an antiques market. The studio’s covered in bits and pieces, mementoes from all our travels.
S: Was it hard to come up with new ideas?
FW: Do you know, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. You never know if you’ve got anything left to say. But the music informs you. You come back and listen to a set of chords, and it conjures up images in your mind, or feelings, and you just have to describe what you’re seeing.
S: What would you say is the major difference with this album, musically?
FW: My main aim was to make it sound of a piece. The first album, for better or worse, was more a scrapbook of influences and ideas, with so many different producers and places it was recorded, and different styles. For the new one I wanted to take all that and make a whole – one producer, one recording venue, one period of time.
S: The sound generally seems bigger; the banjos and harmoniums are more part of the weave than frontispieces.
FW: There’s a bassy sub-undertone behind the whole thing. I like to think there’s an overall thread running through it; that was pretty much the idea. I got interested in the organ sound and the bass element. It was almost like a churchy sound.
S: Do you go to church just to hear the music?
FW: I love music performed in churches. I love performing in churches because they’re built specifically for acoustics. And I love choirs. I’d like to do more in that direction; there’s nothing else like it. If I could, I’d have a 60-strong choir with me on tour at all times. A lot of my music – the melodies – I’ve made, in my mind, to be sung by a choir eventually. That’s a dream, but it’s [whispers] way too expensive.
S: Quite famously, lyrically your first album was supposed to have been inspired by troubles with your then boyfriend ...
S: … So when those troubles were out of the way ...
FW: You get a whole new kind of trouble!
S: Peace is trouble too?
FW: Yes, ha! The first album wasn’t specifically about a break-up. It partly came out of that feeling of desperation, of being completely at a loss and longing for something you can’t have. This album is a response to the question: ‘You’re at peace, so what’s the matter now?’ Do you know what I mean? If everything is so calm, why do you feel so chaotic again? It’s about that conflict between wanting things to be chaotic and at the same time wanting to be settled. Trying to grow up, but also wanting everything just to be free. It’s that eternal conflict – am I a grown-up? Or am I still just the same?
S: Your music is so very English in approach, musically as well as lyrically and melodically. But didn’t people tell you you were completely mad when you turned up with a harp?
FW: The harp got in by a fluke. Tom, the harpist, was passing through Issa’s tiny studio with this thing, it looked like a telephone box wrapped in a blanket, and we both went, ‘What’s that!’ Then he just got to play it on every song we had. So we needed it in the band, and the rock ’n’ roll harpist was born. I never felt that worried about it. The harp is such a beautiful instrument. It’s versatile in a way you wouldn’t expect it to be. You can make it sound like the coming of the apocalypse with these electronic pads. You can create huge great swirling electronic sounds with it, too. You can sound both demonic and angelic on one instrument.
S: Have you heard of a guy called Robin Williamson? He used to be in The Incredible String Band. Since the 1980s he’s been doing concerts, just him and his harp. He’s a sort of modern-day bard; he plays harp and tells stories along with the music.
FW: [Writes down the name] The Incredible String Band is my father’s favourite band. I’ll have to ask my harpist about him. There’s a real community out there, of harpists. Every town or country we go to, he’ll know a harpist or two. If he needs to borrow a harp, he knows where to go. It’s a very tight-knit community, and he comes from generations and generations of harpists.
S: Given your very english identity, you must have been rather surprised that you were also hugely successful in the US, so successful they gave you a Grammy for Best Newcomer.
FW: Performing at the Grammys was very strange, especially alongside so many other strong, very American, powerful female performers. There I was, the palest, most English girl in the room! That was bizarre. I did feel very odd. When I go to these American awards shows, I feel pretty much like a fish out of water. But it’s quite nice. The first time I went to the VMAs (Video Music Awards), I turned up on the red carpet and there was no pressure; I could just observe the spectacle because no one knew who I was. I was able to look at it from an outsider’s perspective, and that made it fun. After that, I was catapulted into the American, ahem, ‘consciousness’.
S: Do you encounter many strange expectations rooted in misconceptions of British culture?
FW: I don’t know if I typify what people expect of Englishness. I haven’t really thought about it. Maybe I become more English as I get older. I’m settling into my Englishness, especially when I go over to America. It’s true, you know, the idea that you’re never more English than when you’re away from home.
S: Was there also a danger, maybe, of getting typecast as the madwoman who gets away with anything?
FW: At the start, perhaps, because I came under media scrutiny so quickly. There was a lot of attention even before I’d released a record. And since there was no music, the only things people had to write about were my personality and what I wore.
S: That must have been weird.
FW: Super-weird! People have a tendency to blow things up. To make the story more dramatic, you have to be this crazy person, when actually you’re not. But I probably was a bit more mental when I was younger, so perhaps I had it coming. Over time, I’m so grateful that the music itself has come to the forefront. And that’s something I’d fight to keep that way.
Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials (Universal)