The last few years have been “physically and emotionally chaotic”, but Florence Welch has finally learned to embrace the calm. Andy Welch finds out how.
It’s a rare day off from The Machine for Florence Welch.
If, of course, you can consider a day of interviews a day off. Compared to recent years though, when an average day might have consisted of travelling, soundchecking and performing, a TV appearance, or writing and recording for a new album, sitting and talking about herself is a walk in the park.
“It’s kind of oppressive, the amount of work I have,” she says.
After the release of her debut album, Lungs, in 2009 - when she won the Brits Critics’ Choice Award and was among the most talked-about artists in the country - Welch barely stopped. Lungs was a huge success both here and in the US, selling around three million copies, and her follow-up, 2011’s Ceremonials, propelled her to even more dizzying heights. Welch was lifted to a whole new level of fame, the sort that doesn’t stop at the music world but stretches over into TV chat shows, fashion parades and paparazzi photography.
“I do and I don’t enjoy that hectic life,” she says. “There’s a bit of me that’s excited and excitable, that loves the travelling and moving around, but I’m actually quite a home bird. I am a creature of habit and I like being among my things and my books.
“It takes a lot to make me leave my house.”
A lot - like a new album and the beginning of a world tour?
“Yes,” she says, laughing, “that sort of thing. People get upset if you don’t turn up.”
Thanks to that hectic workload, and more importantly, the huge success, which culminated with Grammy nominations in 2013, Welch was given as long as she wanted to make her third album, the positively titled How Big How Blue How Beautiful.
She says she was given free rein to live how she wanted to live and do whatever she wanted to do - but much of the time was spent working out what exactly that was.
“I was just trying to navigate my 20s, after having been in the hermetic bubble of touring,” she explains.
“You don’t have to deal with anything when you’re on tour. As long as the show is good, everything else is too. And then when you’re not on tour, there’s no big show at the end to absolve you or to reset you, and you just have to sit with whatever’s left and dwell on it.
“I had never had that, or hadn’t for a long, long time at least. My chaos was completely catered for on tour, but off tour, I have to deal with myself. I’ve now realised that I want a bit of calm.”
Much like many of Welch’s songs - which often feature water, particularly storms or drowning as recurring themes - her conversation is peppered with allusions to the sea.
She talks of being fully in control of her life as “steering the ship”, and the possibility of things not going to plan as “crashing on the rocks”.
Needless to say, after some rest, including some time to reflect on both her staggering fame and the break-up of her relationship with a long-term boyfriend, Welch needed a project. She says she travelled, but not much, learned to dance properly, having become obsessed with German modern dance performer Pina Bausch, but left to her own devices, she soon craved the routine of work.
So work is what she did, although a little sooner than she expected.
Producer Markus Dravs was named as a potential collaborator, largely because Welch liked his previous work with brass instruments on records by Arcade Fire and Bjork, among others. Rather than test the water with a couple of days in the studio to see if they gelled, Welch says Dravs “tricked” her into starting recording.
“We had never hung out, so he wanted to meet, but I was all over the place physically, and emotionally all at sea,” she explains. “I was living in chaos, and he wanted to do a month trial run in the studio to see if we liked each other, but when I got to the studio, he literally locked the door behind me and said, ‘We’re making the record now’, and that was that.
“We were still feeling each other out, and it was on the title track, How Big Blue How Beautiful, when I heard what he’d done with my ideas, that I cried, because he knew exactly what it was that I wanted, and it set the precedent for the whole record. It’s my favourite track.”
Welch talks about how she kept on retreating to the comfort zone of huge arrangements, the kind that have characterised bombastic, multi-layered hits such as Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up), Dogs Days Are Over, What The Water Gave and Lover To Lover, only for Dravs to remind her what she wanted to achieve with her third album. And that was to create more intimacy in her music, and directness.
“I was looking for a sense of space, to allow the instruments to breathe and for the songs to have room around them,” she says. “I love stuff, I love to layer instruments on top of each other, and I had been writing all these mad songs about witches with football chants for choruses, and Markus made me get rid of all of it.
“St Jude and Ship To Wreck on the new album hadn’t been big labours of creation and I didn’t really think that much of them or have much faith in them, but Markus treasured them and their simplicity. Now we’ve recorded them and I’m performing them, I can see he was right.”
Her claims these songs are “stripped down” are slightly overstated - they still feature more instruments than most bands manage in a career - but they’re not quite as kitchen-sink as her previous creations.
“I didn’t want to get stuck with myself,” she says. “I think this new album is me keeping the sound of my very early songs, like Kiss With A Fist, and mixing it with all the new things I’ve learned.
“There’s more of a flow to this record, and it’s definitely more refined.
“I’ve finally learned not to overcomplicate things. Which I love to do, in all aspects of my life. Just when things are clear and simple, I get scared and want to put on a cape and cover everything in glitter,” Welch adds.
“Now I know I don’t need to do that. I can appreciate the quiet.”