FEATURE: Modern Heroines: Part Seven: Florence Welch



Modern Heroines



Part Seven: Florence Welch


THIS was a tough one to start off…

PHOTO CREDIT: Kathy Lo for The New York Times

as I was not sure whether to dedicate this feature to ‘Florence Welch’ or ‘Florence + The Machine’. The former is the lead of the latter; the ‘Machine’ element of the band, I think, refers to her musicians – there are other people who play with her (keyboardist Isabella Summers, guitarist Rob Ackroyd; harpist Tom Monger and others). Rather than cause confusion – if I haven’t done that already -, I thought I would just keep it to Florence Welch herself. She is, as I said, the heroine behind the moniker; one of the most arresting voices this country has produced. As the primary songwriter and vocalist of Florence + The Machine, Welch is this flame-haired spirit who, I think, is among the finest live performers in the world. I shall come to the present day in time but, for now, let’s start at the beginning. I think Welch will be considered an icon of the future because, right from her debut album, she stood out and stunned. There is a lot to uncover through this feature – I shall try and get to the bottom of a rare and stunning artist. Florence Leontine Mary Welch was born in Camberwell, London on 28th August, 1986 to parents Nick Russell Welch, an advertising executive, and Evelyn Welch, an American emigrant from New York City who was educated at Harvard University and the Warburg Institute, University of London.

Whilst her home life would have inspired a creative spirit, it was her paternal grandparents who encouraged her most. They inspired a few songs on her debut, Lungs, and were crucial when it came to Welch going beyond dreams to chasing a music career.  Welch’s teenage years were quite turbulent. Her parents divorced when she was thirteen, and her maternal grandmother ended her life around the same time. Welch developed an eating disorder as a teen, and it seems that, among happier days, there was a lot of struggle and darkness. One can say many teenagers experience similar, but there was a lot of change and upheaval that affected Welch. Having her parents split and a dear grandparent die…these blows were huge indeed. Life before starting a band consisted of modest gigs and a lot of writing. Performing gigs with Isabella Summers (who has been in Florence + The Machine from the start) in 2006, the duo was appearing in small London venues; some of the tracks that appeared on Lungs were in their early stages, and Welch was working her magic. Although those early gigs and recordings were quite modest, there was a lot of buzz – it was clear Welch had a natural talent and hunger. Although ‘Florence + The Machine’ started as a private joke – kind of goofy and random -, the debut album arrived in 2009. Things were not instant and fully-formed before 2009. Welch had tried a number of guises in terms of sound and direction.

It was when Welch began writing with Isabella Summers that she discovered her sound and found her direction. Inspired by the breakup of relationships – not untypical for most songwriters -, Welch hit the studio with a great deal of enthusiasm and desire. Although she was not necessarily a skilled musician by this time, the fact she was relying on her vocals and words gave her a freedom that might not have been there was she a guitarist or pianist. Slowly, the band started to come together and form into this finished product. Robert Ackroyd (guitar, backing vocals), Chris Hayden (drums, percussion and backing vocals); Mark Saunders (bass guitar, backing vocals) and Tom Monger (harp) were recruited – and Florence + The Machine was born. Signing to Island Records in 2008, Welch had come a long way since the early days – where she was still trying to find her voice and playing with different ideas. Ready and honed, Lungs is a fantastic debut that heralded in a huge and intoxicating voice. We have witnessed a decade of Florence + The Machine, so there is this familiarity; we have seen Welch develop and flourish. Looking back, it is amazing Lungs is filled with so many hits; ripe with some of the band’s biggest numbers. Dog Day Are Over and Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) opens the album – if you are going to open your musical account with a bang, these are the songs you want up there! Kiss with a Fist and Drumming Song are in there. Perhaps her most famous song of the time, You’ve Got the Love – a cover of the Candi Staton classic – was a song Welch was very familiar with and keen to explore. Her version ups the passion of the original and adds new dynamics.

Although a lot of critics did not know what to make of Florence + The Machine – there were instantly connections with and parallels to Kate Bush -, there were some positive reviews for Lungs. It is a very big and passionate album so, perhaps, some needed a bit more time to take it in. I was moved the first time I heard it, and I was stunned by this singer who bled emotion and had this incredible power. It remains this intoxicating listen that has this primal physicality and sense of the mystical. AllMusic, in their review, had this to say:

Precocious Brit Florence Welch fired a bullet into the head of the U.K. music scene in 2008 with the single "Kiss with a Fist," a punk-infused, perfectly juvenile summer anthem that had critics wiping the names Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Kate Nash from their vocabularies and replacing them with Florence + the Machine. While the comparisons were apt at the time, "Kiss with a Fist" turned out to be a red herring in the wake of the release of Lungs, one of the most musically mature and emotionally mesmerizing albums of 2009. With an arsenal of weaponry that included the daring musicality of Kate Bush, the fearless delivery of Sinéad O'Connor, and the dark, unhinged vulnerability of Fiona Apple, the London native crafted a debut that not only lived up to the machine-gun spray of buzz that heralded her arrival, but easily surpassed it.


PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley/NME 

Like Kate Bush, Welch has little interest (for the most part) in traditional pop structures, and her songs are at their best when they see something sparkle in the woods and veer off of the main trail in pursuit. "Kiss with a Fist," as good as it is, pales in comparison to standout cuts like "Dog Days Are Over," "Hurricane Drunk," "Drumming Song," "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)," and "Cosmic Love," all of which are anchored to the earth by Welch's knockout voice, a truly impressive and intuitive trio of producers, and a backing band that sounds as intimate with the material as its creator. [Lungs was also released in a Deluxe Edition that included Lungs: The B-Sides, a bonus disc featuring studio tracks like “Swimming,” “Falling,” and “Heavy in Your Arms,” the latter of which appeared on the soundtrack for Twilight Saga: Eclipse, as well as live cuts (“You've Got the Dirtee Love"), demos (“Ghosts”), and remixes (the "Yeasayer Remix" of “Dog Days Are Over").]”.

If Florence Welch was largely unknown before Lungs, her debut with Florence + The Machine definitely changed all of that! Ceremonials is an album that possessed a lot of similar strands to Lungs, but expands her voice and lyrical narrative. Produced by Paul Epworth, Welch and the band began working on the album shortly after the release of Lungs. Although there are, perhaps, fewer standout hits on Ceremonials, I think it is a more nuanced and complete album; more of personal statement. Welch worked with several others on Lungs’ songs – including Isabella Summers -, but the majority of the tracks were written by Welch and Paul Epworth. Perhaps the comparisons to Kate Bush were inevitable. After all, both were born into middle-class families and this ethereal, cosmic quality; both have incredible voices and a rare beauty. Ceremonials fared better with critics than Lungs. It was nominated at the Grammys for Best Pop Vocal Album; Shake It Out was nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group performance. The album debuted at the top of the U.K. charts and it was clear a star was born! The album was a huge success and sold over two-and-a-half million copies. In interviews, Welch stated she wanted Ceremonials to sound sort of like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet: a mix of the classic Shakespeare and the tragedy. The Chamber Soul feel of the album combines some classical with the modern; it is a bigger album than Lungs and one that experiments more.

This is how AllMusic assessed Ceremonials:

It’s a contest that plays out at least once on each of Ceremonials' immaculately produced 12 tracks. Such carefully calculated moments of rhapsody would dissolve into redundant treacle in less capable hands, but Welch does emotional bombast better than any of her contemporaries, and when she wails into the black abyss above, the listener can’t help but return the call. Bigger and bolder than 2009’s excellent Lungs, Ceremonials rolls in like fog over the Thames, doling out a heavy-handed mix of Brit-pop-infused neo-soul anthems and lush, movie trailer-ready ballads that fuse the bluesy, electro-despair of Adele with the ornate, gothic melodrama of Kate Bush and Floodland-era Sisters of Mercy. Producer Paul Epworth (Bloc Party, Friendly Fires) knows that the fiercest weapon in his arsenal is Florence herself, and he stacks her vocals accordingly, creating a fevered, pagan gospel choir on “What the Water Gave Me” and “Leave My Body,” a ghostly, Phil Spector-ish chorale on the surprisingly Beatlesque “Breaking Down,” and a defiant, uplifting horde of merry pranksters on the spirited “Heartlines,” resulting in that rare sophomore outing that not only manages to avoid the slump, but bests its predecessor in the process”.

The album turned eight on 28th October, and Welch was keen to mark Ceremonials’ birthday. She is an artist who takes great pride in her work and is grateful for the love it has been shown and how it resonates with fans. Having enjoyed a sense of anonymity before her debut album, Welch was definitely in the spotlight by 2011.

More and more people were taking an interest in her music; her gigs were getting bigger and, invariably, there was the usual press adoration and scrutiny. Before I move on, I want to bring in an interview Welch conducted with The Guardian back in 2011. Not only do we sort of capture an essence of her personality and uniqueness, but it shows how far she came as a performer and interviewee since the start of her career:

Welch seems to have become more disciplined since emerging, three years ago, as a 22-year-old who would sing through her photo calls, then cheerfully babble to interviewers about believing in werewolves or collecting Scottish broadswords. In her very first interview, conducted in an east London pub, she continued speaking into the reporter's Dictaphone even while he was at the bar getting drinks… Inevitably, there followed one or two mean write-ups, mostly from music journalists knocking her un-rocky way of speaking (posh vowels, girls' school cadences) and too-trendy affectations. "Florence listens to music through a Walkman," wrote one early blogger. "Well of course she bloody does."

Three years at the industry's front edge seems to have taught Welch to hold herself back a bit; to get through each promotional marathon by staying quiet when she can. In the same self-governing spirit she's trying hard not to get as almightily pissed as she used to. A recent month-long tour in support of U2, she says, passed totally soberly. "I used to think it was all part of the performance to go out there, go on tour, and get as drunk as possible. Like, oblivion. Oblivion. Living almost out of control. And I think, now, I feel a bigger sense of responsibility to the fans. To the people who come to see me play."

PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley/NME 

This is second-album talk. Because it can go either way at this point; look at the example of her contemporaries. Adele's second effort, last spring's 21, confirmed her as music royalty. Duffy's second, the desperately ho-hum Endlessly, seems to have stunted, if not sunk, a promising career. "I'm more satisfied with this one than the last," says Welch. "But I'm still nervous about it. You're never completely happy, otherwise you wouldn't ever make the next one." Earlier, recalling her summer on the under-card of the big U2 tour, she'd said: "It's funny, in a way, I almost prefer being the support band. There's just less expectation."

She'll be fine with Ceremonials. My nerves, if any, are that fans of Lungs, that great dossier of discontent, must have been fans of its fury, its tartness. And on Ceremonials, Welch sounds really quite chuffed. Track one kicks off with a muffled giggle. By track five's foot-tappy harpsichord twangs, the mood is absolutely jaunty. The video for recent single "Shake It Out" even cast a giddy-looking Florence in the middle of a game of blind man's buff.

"I think the first album feels almost desperate. Being really desperate for someone. I was definitely in a more settled place for the second, which was helpful for my concentration because I wasn't, like, crying all the time."

One can definitely feel more confidence in Ceremonials. By the time How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful arrived in 2015, Welch and her band were world-famous and there was a lot of eyes cast their way. It is clear the time before the album’s recording was pretty full-on.

Welch suffered because of it – she told Zane Lowe in an interview how she had a bit of a breakdown -, and she wasn’t that happy. The first two albums were fairly close together and it was a whirlwind of promotion, recording and touring. It was clear Welch needed a rest and a chance to recharge. Maybe the glare of celebrity or the pressure of the industry was taking its toll. Time off was rare, and Welch found herself in this odd state where she was pretty unhappy and unwell. It is not a shock that the tone for How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a lot more personal. Whereas there is more literature, fantasy and the colourful on the first couple of albums, her third still sound passionate but looks more into the self. It reflects the hard times and sense of rush that preceded How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. There were definite themes shaping Ceremonials. Death and water were subjects explored through that album. Although How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is more personal than anything before, there is this sense of a woman looking forward and trying to tackle her problems. Producer Markus Dravs was credited as bringing out a more vulnerable side to Welch on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, but it is obvious she needed to reflect what was happening in her life; open up more to the listener. The mark of a truly evolving and wonderful artist is one who can develop but keep their identity.

What I mean by that is (that) Welch was exploring herself more on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, yet she kept a lot of the same elements we heard on the first couple of Florence + The Machine albums. With every album, critics were opening themselves up more to the incredible and powerful brew of Welch’s music. I think the fact that she was so different to everyone out there meant that many took quite a while before they truly appreciated her music. The Telegraph reviewed How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and had a lot of love to give:

But you can be taken right back there – arms aloft among the floral head garlands that had not yet become so ubiquitous – by first single What Kind of Man. Those thunderous tribal beats – battered out as if from mammoth bones – are classic Welch. As are the chunky, punk guitar chords and fearless warrior vocals – don’t forget this is a woman who got her break after being overheard belting out an Etta James song in a club lavatory. What’s new is the more spacious and controlled tone Welch finds in the long, dreamy, organ-washed introduction. She builds her anger carefully as her man “wonders what to do with life” so that when those sternum-shaking beats kick in you’re really waiting for the release. When Welch berates the guys for letting her “dangle at a cruel angle”, she is suddenly the one with all the power. Like Kate Bush on Hounds of Love, she proves the heartbeat of the hunted victim can be more vital rushing through the ears than that of the hunter. There’s more at stake”.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Naturally, with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful being this more personal and revealing album, Welch was asked about her lyrics in interviews. Having taken some time out to rest and take stock, she put out this incredible album that garnered a lot of interest and appreciation. She gave an interview to NME and was asked what inspired How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful:

Musically, ‘How Big…’ was inspired by her songwriting trips to Jamaica and to LA, where, like many before her, the sense of space and warmth and light seeped in (“We’ve opened our eyes and it’s changing the view”, she sings on the title track). She knew she wanted something that sounded “big, but not heavy”, inspired particularly by a late conversion to Neil Young (whose Bridge School benefit concert she also played at in October last year), plus listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and Springsteen, in search of a “tougher” sound. Also key, though, was Fiona Apple’s last album, which Florence admired for the mixture of strength and vulnerability in its emotional frankness.

“Relationships not working out, trying to figure out how and why your relationship with yourself isn’t working out. That stuff humbles you and it’s human, things that everyone goes through,” says Florence. “That was the perspective I was writing from, whereas ‘Ceremonials’ was about imagining this thing I wanted to be… And it was funny, perhaps Markus was expecting me to come in, like, riding a chariot with a broadsword. And we did have moments where he was trying to get a push-through power chorus out of me and I was like, ‘Dude… I’m not in a very good place. I can’t pretend to write a like “IT’S GONNA BE AMAZING NOW, IT’S ALL GONNA BE FINE!” chorus. Like, I think it’s all gonna be fine, eventually. I don’t fucking know right now, though…”.

By 2017, there was word that Florence + The Machine were working on a new album. Welch made the announcement on 27th May, 2017 and, on 28th February, 2018, the band’s drummer, Christopher Hayden, announced he was no longer part of the clan. Of course, there was a lot of buzz around Florence + The Machine in 2018; the news that an album was due and what it might contain. Welch talked about what was being explore on High as Hope. I am not sure whether a fifth album is being worked on as we speak, but it is clear there are two halves to Florence + The Machine’s work. Lungs and Ceremonials are less personal and explore a variety of themes, whereas her third and fourth albums are more personal and focus more on subjects such as personal anxiety and relationships. That may sound simplistic, but it is evident a transition occurred following Ceremonials and how Welch felt following the album – and the busyness and pressure that greeted its success. Although Welch explores love and loss on High as Hope, there is a lot of positivity; her moving from a bad love a into this new phase where she was re-evaluating and rebuilding. I love how strong Welch is and was back then. I think she is more than an artist. She is an inspiration to a lot of people who have suffered setbacks and losses; a woman with a fantastic sense of style – Welch is renowned for her fashion and incredible looks – and a wonderful mind.    

High as Hope is the best-reviewed album of Florence + The Machine’s career. I think it has all the best elements of the earliest albums – Welch’s powerful voice and hugely variegated songcraft – but there is more focus; a personal aspect that connects you closer to her and makes the songs more relatable. It is the hope and sense of betterment that means the tracks have that positive nature and get right into the heart. When they reviewed High as Hope, The Times were intrigued and moved:

Sorry I ruined your birthday,” she sings on Grace, a letter to the sister she has overshadowed for the past decade. Hunger is a pretty, string-laden song on which she sings about starving herself as a teenager, taking drugs and living for that moment on stage before concluding that all these things create a bigger hole than the one they were meant to fill. And High As Hope utilises restraint, something Welch, whose singing approach has in the past evoked the battle cry of Boudicca, is not generally known for.

Big God, a slow crawl of a song about waiting in vain for a lover’s text message, shows her capturing pain through subtle intonation. No Choir, on which Welch surmises that happiness is uneventful and therefore hard to write about, is an intimate and gentle reflection on turning inner turmoil into public product.

Throughout there is a feeling of someone trying to make sense not only of her life choices, but also of the impact those choices have had on the people around her. Aligned to florid, string-laden music, it makes for an album of depth and character from a woman with excellent taste, as her wardrobe of ornate vintage dresses — and choice of postcode — proves. South London for ever”.

When I think about Florence Welch, yes, there is someone who has battled demons and addiction, but here is also an incredibly strong human who puts her thoughts and battles into the music and seems to emerge stronger and more focused. I also think about her life away from music and how her London home must be full of wonder and charm: old books on shelves and an old bicycle in the hallway; lots of sweet smells, candles and this feeling of a modern woman living in this classical and bygone setting. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but I have this romantic vision of Welch (in fact, this video does take us inside her gaff). Maybe I am wrong, but Welch definitely stands out from the pack and is a lot more fascinating than most artists out there at the moment. I am excited to see where Florence + The Machine go next and what a fifth album might contain. I think Welch is a fascinating artist and someone who is influencing a lot of artists coming through – not just in terms of her voice and songs, but the way she approaches creativity and how she has overcome hard times. I will round off soon, but I want to bring in a couple of interviews from 2018.

In 2018, Welch was interviewed by The New York Times when promoting High as Hope. She talked about discovering her voice and the nature of her on and off-stage persona:

 “Florence has definitely gone through a transformation,” said her bandmate Isabella Summers, with whom Ms. Welch began playing music in her teens in South London, where she grew up. Ms. Summers, who plays keys in the group, went on to help produce and write some of Ms. Welch’s early work, including the 2009 breakout “Dog Days Are Over.”

“The first time I really found my sound was working with another woman, working with Isa,” Ms. Welch said. “As a young artist, you can struggle to find your voice, and it takes a while to say, ‘No, I want it to be like this.’ ” Now, she added, “I’m very O.K. with being in charge. Because I know that I know what I’m doing.”

For the tour following “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” Ms. Welch experimented with a more androgynous (for her) style, all angular suits. It was, she said, a reaction to her heartbreak: “I was almost angry at the more vulnerable, feminine sides of myself, because they seemed weak.” But it felt like a pose.

Now, she said, as she’s collapsing the boundaries between her on- and offstage life, she wants to wear more real-world clothes — even sleepwear. “On this record, I was embracing the femininity, embracing the things I really liked, embracing that you can still be powerful and strong and scary in a pink nightie,” she said”.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Vincent Haycock

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Welch discussed addiction and the fact that, after a tough time, she realised what her closest relationship is: the one with music:

You recently got a tattoo that says, “Always Lonely.” Why would you want that on your body?

Oh, ’cause I was super sad. Mixing High as Hope was a really lonely time in my life. I was in New York, and I had just gone through a breakup — one of those sad ones where it’s not very dramatic: You’re trying to do what’s best for both of you. You’re just getting on with stuff, which is oddly lonely in itself. I was thinking about the end of this relationship and “Why do I feel like the album comes first before everything? Are you perpetuating your own loneliness?” The closest relationship I’ve had for my whole life is with my music. Also, I guess, I thought it was funny.

At what age do you feel you were done with the eating disorder?

It’s not an overnight thing. It’s funny ’cause it’s one of the most insidious things you can have. I have a healthy relationship with my body now more than I ever did before, but it took me a long time. And it stays with you in really weird ways. So it’s hard to say, “When did you overcome it?” Because you would have overcome some of the behavior a long time ago but the head stuff, it takes a while. It comes back in really strange ways, which I was looking at in this record. It’s very hard to accept love. If you’ve been denying yourself nourishment in some way, you also have a tendency to deny yourself emotional nourishment.

You’re sober now. When is the last time you had a drink?

February the 2nd, four years ago. Being an extreme drinker was a huge part of my identity. Music and alcohol are sort of my first two loves. When I stopped, there was this sense that I was letting some ghost of rock history down that I just couldn’t cope anymore. It was monumental. It wasn’t like, “I want to be healthy and I need a change of pace.” It was like, “I’m going to die. I need to stop”.

I wanted to include these interviews, because it shows how open Welch is; the fact she has been through the wringer and transition. High as Hope seems like a sort of precursor to, perhaps, her most extraordinary album. High as Hope was nominated for a Mercury Prize last year (but lost out to Wolf Alice), and it is a remarkable album. Not only is Florence Welch a sensational writer and singer. Her live shows are also the stuff of legend. The difference between this fairly quiet and shy woman away from the stage and the fiery, dancing idol that has an adoring fanbase. Welch is a phenomenal live performer and puts her all into every show. Just before ending this feature, I want to bring in a review from a show she played during her High as Hope Tour last year:

At her live show, it’s all about the theatrics, and she shows extraordinary stamina, appearing to gain a deeper warmth and strength as the night goes on. The opening lines from “Hunger” off High as Hope are as affecting as ever – “At 17 I started to starve myself/ I thought that love was a kind of emptiness” – but live you really see how the song builds in momentum to a rousing chorus, as Welch stretches out a hand to her violinist to signal those first, yearning notes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lillie Eiger 

It’s quite something to watch her skipping and twirling her way across the stage in bare feet in a diaphanous gown of pale pink, with her vivid red hair flying behind her. In his wildest dreams, Dante Rossetti couldn’t have conjured up such a pre-Raphaelite vision as Welch. There’s a childlike innocence to the show in how it encourages you to use your imagination: giant folds of white material billow from the ceiling, evoking memories of a parent hanging washing on the line, or the sails of ships.

Welch is a heroine who is putting out some simply wonderful music. I think she will become an icon in years to come, as she continues to explore and take her music in different directions. Whether she is expressing from the stage, talking in interviews or recording in the studio, she is an artist impossible not to fall in love with. I think 2020 will be a big year for Welch and the band. High as Hope only came out last year, but I think Welch is in a better head-space now compared to where she was in 2018. Maybe that will lead to a new record; there will be tour dates for certain. If you have not investigated her music, I have prepared a playlist at the bottom that collates her best songs. You can feel a real change from some of the tracks on Lungs to what we find on High as Hope. Listening to Florence + The Machine’s music is like being brought into this new universe; a very tangible experience where you embrace the music and the visions Welch puts forward. There is nothing to it: play the music loud and…

FOLLOW her lead.