Florence Walsh is brimming with a girl-next-door charm as she talks to Ed Power about fame and fortune, but her family life is strictly off-limits
POP star Florence Welch cuts a surprisingly understated figure. She is dressed simply, plainly, her speaking voice so low you have to strain to hear. Of the flame-haired, rock Valkyrie, an overnight success who has sold four million albums, there is little trace. If you didn’t know better, you might suspect she’d sent an introverted double in her stead.
Not that Welch, who performs as Florence and the Machine, is a recalcitrant interviewee. Hours before her biggest headline show to date, down the road at a sold-out O2, she speaks forthrightly on a variety of topics. The only time she withdraws is when conversation turns to her fashion-world chum, designer Karl Lagerfeld, and his claim that Adele is ‘fat’.
Otherwise, Welch is a delight, brimming with a girl-next-door charm you hadn’t expected.
“It does seem that fame has kicked up a gear for me,” she says, contemplatively. “That’s strange, because I don’t feel any differently.
“I know I haven’t changed as a person. Things were on the same level until very recently. And now it has started to feel bigger somehow.”
Florence doodles as she speaks. Before her is an art folio, upon which she has pencilled into existence a phantasmagorical family of butterflies, trees and gothic frocks. Art is her way of coping with the pressure of life on the road (she cut down on boozing after a few unpleasant escapades in New York). It is a sounding board for ideas. It was through idle sketching that she conceived the look of her current arena tour, which features an enormous art nouveau set and a rippling Batman cape designed in collaboration with Lady Gaga stylist Alex Noble.
“It’s funny — everything is chaotic organisationally and yet I am a sensory control freak,” she says. “I like things to be a certain way.
“Even the manner in which hotel rooms are decorated. I have to have a lot of shawls and cloaks hanging about. I do have a very strong aesthetic in terms of what I am drawn to.”
A super-size mix of Kate Bush and Ziggy Stardust, Florence arrived with a splash in 2009. Combining epic tendencies and an ear for a catchy hook, she created a stir with early smashes such as (Raise It Up) Rabbit Heart and Dog Days Are Over. You could describe her as the anti-Adele, a human fire-cracker liable to finish a show by jumping head first into the audience or inviting the front row to join her in vodka shots.
Now that she’s playing arenas, has she curbed her wilder instincts? “The venues are getting really big, aren’t they?” she says. “I was just doing sound check and had a look at what a huge number of people will be there. It goes all the way back. It was daunting. But I’m looking forward to it. I don’t choreograph my shows. I let things happen.”
In October, Welch released her second album, Ceremonials. A super-sized retread of her debut, with hindsight it was always going to be a massive hit. It is exactly such an attitude that has caused many an artist to come a cropper (Duffy, are you still out there?). Did Welch worry that her fans might have gone cold in the 12 months she took off to write Ceremonials (with production and song-writing from Adele collaborator Paul Epworth)? “You are always nervous releasing a new record. Ceremonials is a big album, an ambitious album. It was easier for me, in a way, because I know it represented the kind of music I wanted to make. It had a cohesive, over-arching sound. I certainly related to it. Of course, you never know how people are going to receive it,” she says.
Lungs was written after a temporary split from her boyfriend. Welch said she needs drama in her life to fuel her song-writing.
What traumas informed Ceremonials? “Well, everything you go through in life … it all comes out, even if you don’t mean it to. I wouldn’t say I ever go into a song thinking I have to write about this or that. Whatever’s going on inside your own head — it’s always going to come out in the song-writing. It never gets into the music on purpose. I suppose it’s a subconscious thing,” she says.
Welch says celebrity hasn’t changed her. Those who remember her from before her mega-fame might differ. When this reporter spoke to her in 2009, just before Lungs broke, she was motor-mouthed, irreverent and indiscreet. In the four times we have talked since, she has been building her defences. Welch is no longer especially eager to talk about her unconventional family life (her parents split shortly after her 13th birthday, her mother eventually getting together with the neighbour several doors down).
“You learn from painful experience to share what you are comfortable with,” she says. “You hear things repeated and rehashed and it hurts.
“So it’s about coming to terms with what you are happy with. You can’t go through your life constantly worrying about what you’ve said or what you’ve put out there. You learn to protect yourself.”
The shutters come down when I mention fashion designers putting their feet in their mouth. Welch is friends with Lagerfeld, whose intemperate comments about Adele have caused a firestorm.
Going into a mumbly tailspin, she doesn’t have much to add to the furore. But she does say she is comfortable being perceived as part of the fashion world.
As a kid, she worshipped designers rather than pop stars.
“I don’t feel I’ve had to compromise who I am to exist in that universe,” she says.
“As someone who read fashion magazines before they read music magazines, the escapism that fashion brings has always attracted me — that sense that you can put something on and feel completely different.”
The O2 date is the first night of a tour schedule that will see her perform through the summer (she’s back for a date with Snow Patrol in July). Despite a heaving calendar, she’s already thinking about her next album and hopes to start laying down some demos while on the road.
What can Florence fans expect from her third LP? “I’m not sure it’s going to be possible to get any bigger than Ceremonials,” she says. “It’s funny — another journalist just said to me, ‘well your third album, that’s the really difficult one.’ I thought, ‘hang on, isn’t my second album supposed to be the difficult one? When can I make the easy one, please?’. I’m still waiting to find out.”
* Ceremonials is out now. Florence and the Machine play Phoenix Park Dublin with Snow Patrol on July 5.
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