I MADE PEACE WITH FLORENCE
Interview by Mario Bonaldi
Photos by Tom Beard
As I am about to get into the elevator that will take me to Florence Welch’s room, I come across Sarah Jessica Parker: things that happen in the cool hotels of central London. […] A few floors higher, still happily disturbed, I open a door and there she is, facing away, backlit, very tall, with a long vintage dress, made of the material which vintage clothes are made of: Florence. She turns around and her copper-colored hair create a small wheel around her face. As a dramatic entrance, it’s not bad. I suppose she does that at every journalist, with an apparently natured script, actually tested.
Florence Welch was born in 1986: practically everyone I talked about her, before and after this interview, told me that they believed she was much older. Me too, I confess. In person, be it her voice, her laughter, or being able to closely observe the elasticity of her skin, I immediately see her as the girl she is.
At the end of June she will release her fourth album, High as Hope: anticipated by some powerful singles – especially Hunger -, it seems a return to the simplicity of her debut album, Lungs (2009). 2018’s Florence seems a painfully serene artist. “Serene? Nobody ever says that to me! Cool!”, she replies with a laugh, picking out only the part that interests her from my description. The enthusiasm with which Florence will respond throughout the interview should force me to always use the exclamation mark, but I will spare you.
“I think I was able to understand myself better in this album than my last one (How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, 2015). That was sort of a long scream, while High as Hope was written in a much better condition. I’m glad that it’s evident”. The whole album seems conceived from an adult’s point of view, who looks back and observes his own younger and immature self with a sort of relief – since he has changed – but also of tenderness. Florence explodes in another laugh: “The young me was definitely more stupid! It is a very thoughtful record. Being immersed in chaos, as I was until some time ago, does not give you a chance to think about the past, and understand why you acted in a certain way … It’s a happy feeling and melancholy at the same time. When you are not busy making your life dramatic, you can allow yourself to reason”.
The point of High as Hope can be summarized in the verse “Hubris (the man’s arrogance in Hellenic culture) is a bitch” from 100 Years, one of the last tracks of the album. “Hubris is a bitch!” repeats Florence, amused, as if I had written it. “It could have very well been the record’s title. It came to life from a poem I was writing. I thought about all the things that happen and it came to me spontaneously: Hybris is a bitch! As if the world was a great Greek tragedy, in which the power’s structures collapse on themselves. I thought: what the fuck is going on?”.
Certainly this new Florence + The Machine seems to complicate their life less, even from a musical point of view: the new tracks are pleasantly sober.
“I like to think of this album as an older Lungs with ten years of experience.”
“Ceremonials was born because I loved Cosmic Love, and I said, ‘Let’s make a whole record like that!’. I had built a such big cathedral, with such intense sounds… it’s hard to do something more pompous than Ceremonials! The only thing I could do was try to bring my music back to Earth. Marcus Dravs, my producer, was very good at helping me slow down. My tendency is always to add. I always start by saying: let’s do a minimal thing, then I say ‘Well, a chorus of children could sound good here’. In How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, which was already more controlled, sections of horns continually jumped out! I always came back to being myself: I am attracted to strong feelings. Today I think I have perfected my work, I no longer feel the need to increase more”.
The previous album was full of pain, and made her feel vulnerable. “When I started working at High as Hope, however, I managed to put others expectations aside, to go back to the fun of making music, even just hitting a note on a piano, a drumstick on the wall… It’s the same energy with which I recorded my first album. The second and third ones were fun, but I was under too much pressure. I love them equally, but they have been excessively intense. If this record seems natural it is because it expresses the essence of what I am, as perhaps it had only happened with Lungs”.
One of the most explosive songs on the album is Patricia. Who’s it talking about? “I am surprised at the success of this piece. Obviously it is inspired by Patti Smith, which has always been a source of inspiration for me. A creative “north star”, as I say in the lyrics. I’m in love with her writing, how she manages to make the everyday life magical. I could read for hours about her eating toasts and drinking coffee. And to think I’ve never met her: I went to hear her a couple of times, but I’m too shy to introduce myself”.
The impression is that this new Florence feels less pressure to give people – and record labels – hits like Dog Days Are Over and You’ve Got The Love, which have become hymns: “The funniest thing is that I don’t conceive songs this way. Dog Days was born as a little experiment, the second song I wrote in my life. A simple piano upward scale, played, however, very strongly!”. And with lyrics a bit nonsense, to be honest. “I said: ‘I’ll write a song’. I put the notes and sketches from my diary together. It meant a lot to me, even though It was not clear why. I was free. Maybe that’s why so many people have grown fond of it. I do not worry about creating hits: being first in the pop chart has never been my ambition”.
I have read in some interviews that Florence is shy in an almost pathological way. But the person in front of me seems confident, except for an excessively high note in her voice. Perhaps, I suggest, compared to the past, today she manages to take the best from fame and success. “Sometimes when I’m by myself I think ‘I can’t believe it, I really succeeded as a musician’. My ambition as a child was to enter the cast of Starlight Express, you know? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical”. Never heard of it. “I wanted to be one of the singing trains. Unfortunately it was cancelled. Has it even arrived in Italy?”. I really do not think so. “It’s a glam rock musical, with skaters that impersonate singing trains”. At this point I am almost sure that it has never arrived here. “Thinking about it, it’s crazy how someone decided to really make it happen. In short, my dream was to enter a musical. But I was a kind of awkward bookworm. I could sing, but I was too shy. I wanted my mother to send me to acting school, but she said “Let’s not talk about it: you’re awful in math and grammar, it’s on the school that you have to concentrate!”, she laughs again, heartily. “Now I have to thank her because studies and the university have shaped my art more than an acting school could have ever done. Today I am grateful to be able to do what I do without compromising. At the same time, however, I am an anxious and shy person, and I want my life to be private, I do not want to constantly draw attention”.
This is why she ensures her profile to stay low, which keeps her away from photographers. “I always say to my manager: ‘This level of fame is good,I do not want more, I trust you!’. I do not want to be more famous than that!”. Florence literally burst into laughter, perhaps aware of the strangeness of what she just said. She’s a global star, but, like any other statement in this interview, she seems totally genuine. “At each album I’m afraid that something will change, that conditions will suddenly change. I need to maintain a semblance of normality, I could not live otherwise”.
I confess that I don’t understand what is the distance between girl-Florence and performer-Florence. An old question, okay, but there are artists who have fallen into an abyss, if not worse, by dint of questioning on this subject. “To begin with, I have never understood if Florence + The Machine is a solo project or a band! I have specifically maintained this ambiguity, it is very useful. Sometimes it is good to be a “us”, it’s a form of protection, an hiding place. Over time the person singing on the stage and me started to bridge the distance. Nick Cave said something fantastic: “I’m Nick Cave now, and I cannot go back to being what I was before”.
Florence explains that she read this sentence during the making of How Big, when she wanted to “strip my character to reach myself”. “I did it to keep moving forward: the two personas must unite, at some point in my career. I had to come to terms with me being Florence from Florence + The Machine, and the way this is reflected in my real life. At the same time I want to make people get along with my most vulnerable and human side. I’m not very good at reinventing myself: I prefer evolution”.
Time has flown, I still have only one last question: the most difficult.
What is Florence’s greatest fear today?
She thinks about it a little bit, answers a couple of times, then stops. “Of… Collapsing. Of breaking. My connection with reality is tenuous, and I am worried that one day I might find myself in a place from which I cannot return. I had a very difficult time last Christmas, a combination of health problems and more… I slipped into a really dark place. It’s something I’ve been able to keep away from for a long time by taking care of myself, through meditation. But I know it can always happen again”.
With the pressure of an album coming soon, of a departing tour, it happened. “And I was very scared, I know that this dark side of my psyche exists and is lurking. I am afraid to push myself too far, to wear out, like someone who is always with his head in the clouds and feels he has two possibilities: to find peace, or to disappear within them. The hardest thing is to keep on creating, connecting with people, making me vulnerable and showing it. And at the same time to keep away this danger of sinking.”