Florence Welch chats about resolving what was started on her debut album with its follow-up Ceremonials, the action of singing to give something reverence, and venturing into the arena of the slightly famous.
How’s the voice?
It’s much better, actually. Yeah, it’s much better. I’ve been talking all day, so I feel a little bit tired in the throat, but it’s fine. I sang this morning. It was very nice to sing, actually. It’s funny because I started having problems with it in Ireland and I have Celtic roots. You know, red hair. I’m kind of a full-blown Celt. I think maybe it’s like when Superman goes back to his home planet he loses all his powers. I went back to Ireland and I lost all my powers, but now they’re coming back. I love Ireland so much. It’s quite sad that it’s my kryptonite.
Have you ever lost your voice like that before?
Once, years and years ago at the very start. I did a gig and it kind of cracked again, but I sang through it in a really bad way. I couldn’t speak completely. This one I kind of felt it go, and I adjusted and then rested for a while. That was in the very beginning when I was doing no warm-ups and I was shitfaced all the time. I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often, but yeah, it only happened once back then. I lost my voice completely, and luckily that didn’t happen this time around.
In many ways your sound is almost the antithesis to what is popular these days. You use real instruments, no electronics or Auto-Tune. Are you surprised at how your style has been able to catch on? Do you think it’s maybe been to your advantage that because you’re so unique it allows you to stand out really well?
I always was going to make the kind of music I make. Do you know what I mean? I wasn’t really thinking of it in terms of what was popular or what was radio friendly. It was what interested me and what felt good. I’m attracted to the big operatic sounds, to the drama, to the choral sounds, to the big drums. I’m lucky that it seems to have caught people’s imagination, but whether or not it did catch on, I always would have made the same record.
Your last record, Lungs, was very diverse, so you could have gone in a number of directions for the follow-up. How did you ultimately decide where you went on Ceremonials and what was the most challenging aspect of doing the record?
It’s funny. There was this sense that Lungs was caught between two worlds a bit. It was like a scrapbook of my past, and maybe what my future could be and the growing up. Songs like “My Boy Builds a Coffin” were written during my first punky, folky days on the London open mic circuit. They were relevant, but then there was the new stuff that I was writing, like “Dog Days” and “Cosmic Love,” that opened me up. That’s kind of where I found my sound.
It feels like Ceremonials was a resolution of that. I kind of got to a point in Lungs, but I couldn’t keep going and had to put a stop on that period. Ceremonials is like the sequel to that, the resolution of all these ideas that had started on Lungs. It was taking everything I was experimenting with and making it whole, giving it a whole sound. Whatever the sound was, I just wanted it all to fit together in order to make a whole album and not a collection of different songs.
What does your writing stage look like and how do you usually come up with the original musical ideas?
From mucking around, really. From fiddling and playing around with the piano. For Ceremonials, I worked a lot with Isabella and Paul. They had chords they would send me when I was on tour. These would conjure up lyrical ideas or melodic ideas, or I had a chord I would play. It’s quite a natural process. It’s almost as if you just have to let whatever’s in your head come out. Go with your gut feeling.
Many of your songs reference water and drowning, in addition to spiritual stuff like devils, heaven and hell. What fascinates you about those things and have you always been drawn to that kind of stuff?
I think so. It’s much more the imagery than the spirituality of it that I’m interested in, the drama of it, the big things, and also the timelessness of imagery like that. The romance of it in a way, the feeling that it will be relevant still. There won’t be an updated version of death or the ocean. It’s kind of ancient and forever. Things like that fascinate me. I like writing songs that feel like they could have been written at any point in time, but then it’s good to mix up mundane with the big stuff.
The thing I like about music and songs, I’m obsessed with the idea that just to sing something is to give something reverence. To me, it’s not the typical idea of what is revered or what is sacred. To sing about something completely mundane, you give it this power. I think mixing the magical with the mundane is really important. To throw something in there, like a random phrase, just to attach. I like this idea. You can make a shrine of anything.
Do you feel there’s things out there you would consider too dark to write about, or is there nothing that’s off topic for you?
I don’t know. It was funny. In “Only If For a Night,” there was a word we replaced. We replaced “suicide.” The word “suicide” was in there. I ended up replacing it for a more triumphant lyric because it did feel like perhaps it ventured a bit too dark. Now thinking about it, maybe I feel like I should have stuck with it [laughs]. You get these thoughts, but it just depends. I like the way that it is now because it’s more like a battle cry. I guess maybe it felt like I was being too defeatist for using that word, so you do have these thoughts.
You’ve developed an onstage persona that’s really theatrical. Is that really different than who you are off the stage, and if so is it easy for you to switch in between the two?
I feel like I suddenly come back to myself onstage. During the songs, you transcend yourself. The best way to be in the performance is to be without pause and be essentially in the moment, in that moment of expression. I always find it’s really cathartic and it’s almost like an exorcism, but then zip, I’m always just back to myself. I think I should get a bigger between-the-song persona [laughs], so then I’m not wandering around the stage like some mad old auntie that’s saying hello to people and falling over.
Is there a song you’ve done that you feel is often misinterpreted?
I don’t know. Still no one really knows what “Dog Days” is about. I still don’t. Again, it’s like that thing I was talking about. People will come to me asking if it’s about the apocalypse, or is about the recession or is it about leaving a bad relationship. It’s kind of about none of those things and all of those things at once. It’s a collection of random phrases that have been given reverence through singing. Things that are open like that can mean so many different things to different people. It’s always interesting to me to hear what people think it’s about, because I still don’t really know. It was just a collection of things that were in my head.
You’re one of the only artists I know of these days that uses the harp. How did you get hooked on using that instrument?
We found them in the studio. I wrote the harp intro for “Dog Days” by just banging one key on the harp effect keyboard. So when we were in the studio, one day this guy walked by holding what looked like a telephone book strapped in a blanket. We were like, “What’s that?” We were hanging out in a tiny studio, and he’s like, “Uh, it’s a harp.” We got him to come in and we put harp on everything. That was Tom, and then we had to get him in the band because there was harp on absolutely bloody everything.
In addition to the music, you’ve worked on developing your own aesthetic via the music videos, artwork, costumes and live show. What goes into creating and developing all that and how planned out has it become?
It’s important because you want people to feel completely immersed in the show. The album artwork, the songs, the staging – you want everything to connect and feel like a whole experience. You want to take people into a different place, I think. I like the sense of communing with the audience, for people to feel like they’re really participating. We’re pushing people out of their comfort zone.
We’ve got these beautiful art deco screens. We worked with a lot of art deco artists, like Erté, Klimpt and Tamara de Lempicka, so we’ve translating their shapes into the costumes and staging sets, but then using modern technology so we can project stained glass or tapestries. So, it really kind of mixes these two worlds. It’s something that can seem quite old, but at the same time it’s pretty new.
There’s not a ton of female-fronted rock bands around today, so it’s really cool when a really good one comes along. Do you view yourself as a role model at all for young girls or up-and-coming musicians?
I think I’m still figuring myself out. You’re reaching the stage where you have to figure out if you’re a grown up yet and what your morals are. That thing of safety or freedom, chaos or control. It would be too frightening for me to consider myself a role model [laughs]. But I like the idea of not being afraid of letting your imagination rule you, to feel the freedom of expression, to let creativity be your overwhelming drive rather than other things.
As you’ve gotten more popular and well known, has it been more of a challenge to let creativity and artistic integrity be your guide?
I guess. It gets grueling. Interviews. You get exhausted venturing into the arena of the slightly famous, and there’s that change for you. In a way, because of being such a daydreamer, I feel slightly oblivious, but maybe that’s me just kidding myself. I try to stay inspired. Going to galleries is a big thing for me. Reading and trying to think outside yourself. If you keep thinking outside yourself, keep being excited by the world, just walking in galleries, the world is an exciting place. You shouldn’t get too wrapped up in yourself, I don’t think.
I remember reading when Ceremonials first came out that you had been offered the chance to work on that album here in L.A. with some big name pop producers, which you considered for a moment before ultimately turning down. What about that did you find tempting? Do you ever see yourself actually following through and doing something like that?
Well, I’m into big pop music. I love those sounds. There was a particular sound that was coming out in America at that time that was exciting. There were these big euphoric chords, that massive sound. There was that song “Battlefield” by Jordin Sparks that was bloody amazing. I was into that. I did consider it, but like I said I felt there was just a lot more to finish on Lungs. I felt like there was a lot more that I hadn’t explored on Lungs, so I just went back to work with the people I had worked on Lungs with to see if we could make it whole.
Looking ahead to the next album and the upcoming years, where would you like to see yourself progress as an artist?
I’m excited for the third record. It’s been a grueling couple of years, but I’m glad I got the second one out because it was ready and it did feel ready. It felt like a sequel almost to Lungs that needed to come out for me to let people know what I was about. Lungs, for better or worse, was maybe a slightly confused record. That was the good and bad thing about it. It was more like a scrapbook. With Ceremonials, it was as if I had averted the sound. I pinned it down and controlled it. Now it feels good because it feels like there’s a lot of options right now.
You mentioned earlier how you’re almost like a semi-celebrity now, and I’m sure you stay constantly busy and find yourself always in demand. What’s that like for you to experience firsthand and do you feel an increase of pressure on you personally?
It’s weird in some ways, and in some ways I don’t notice it, really. Who wakes up and feels the same? I don’t know anyone who does. Just the work and being away from home so much, I think that’s hard. I don’t know. So far I think I’m able to keep it at a level that is manageable. I feel like this is a scale I am comfortable with. I’m not gunning for world domination [laughs].
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk