Premiere: 404’s ‘Fearful’ makes use of the British Transport Police’s surveillance slogan
It’s Monday lunchtime when I meet the photographer Mikael in a rather cold and lifeless Islington pub. We’re ushered upstairs to wait for Florence Welch , who – sans Machine – has already been doing back-to-back interviews all morning. When she arrives she seems tired and hasn’t eaten all day, but insists she doesn’t find the press parade tedious (“it just feels a bit like a normal job”). However, her nearby PR and attentive make-up artist suggest that her job is far from mundane.
Momentum has been building in earnest since the start of the year, with the debut album ‘Lungs’ hitting number two when it was released back in June. This summer’s slew of festival dates and a recent Mercury Music Prize nomination suggests the pace looks set to continue.
Despite the critical acclaim however, spend a few minutes with Florence and her music and you’ll find that she’s an odd candidate for mainstream approbation. Underneath the glossy production, ‘Lungs’ is full of witchy-woman weirdness and demented gothic fantasies: there’s something wonderfully vivid and violent about the noise she makes, most evident in the gleeful savagery of “Kiss With A Fist” and “Girl With One Eye”. She’s far more willowy and slight in the flesh than one would imagine, even having seen her on stage, and it’s hard to equate the soulful bellow with the porcelain girl perched on the sofa.
We get off to a guarded start – she seems a little aloof and polished, with a whiff of media-training, but she brightens up as the interview moves from small talk to art and angst. Once the conversation flows, she reveals an enthusiastic and scattershot brain, her mind wandering mid-sentence, gesticulating at random as she jumps from top to topic. By the time we’ve finished she’s bursting into spontaneous song sprawled on the pub floor. Her exuberance is infectious, and, as she leaves the room, I get the feeling that, at her very core, Florence cannot help but make music.
I know this sounds obvious, but I want to talk to you about the music. I think there is a really epic quality to the album…
Yeah, I think that’s a good word to use!
It’s not trivial kitchen sink observations, it seems to be far grander…
Y’know what, I think I have always had trouble writing – I can’t even write a diary – I’ve always found it hard to document real life. I try to remember things by items of clothing or strange things that happen. I think it comes from reading a lot – reading a lot of poetry and being interested in language and phrasing and things like that. I think I wanted to make things that wouldn’t stick out as a point in time, d’you know what I mean? Something that was more all-encompassing, more trying to create a landscape or feeling, or a nightmare that someone could walk through.
Something that would stand the test of time?
Yeah I think so. I wanted to make something that was classic rather than of the moment.
Is there a difference between the ‘real’ Florence and the on-stage persona?
I think so. I mean, it’s quite scary in life when I’m not onstage and the Florence persona takes over. I find that quite, woah… It’s usually when I’ve just come offstage, and then the adrenaline’s going and it’s really hard to switch off that side of yourself. It’s kind of… you lose all fear – you have to, because you’re standing up in front of so many people and you just have to be resilient and just get involved in the music and try not to care so much about anything else. But then as soon as you step offstage y’know, you’re still that character and it can get me into all kinds of trouble!
Oh really? Like what?
Oh, I don’t know, not serious trouble. Just being er, over enthusiastic I suppose…
I love your idea of a nightmare that you can walk through, and there’s certainly an underlying darkness on the album. The very first line is “happiness hit her like a train on a track”…
Yeah, my Dad wishes I’d write some happy songs! I think like you said, it’s the two aspects constantly fighting – the euphoria I get from music and that internal conflict both battling it out. It’s like with Rabbit Heart: I was trying to write something that sounded like a metamorphosis; that sounded like spring. That was euphoric and blissful and then y’know, my brain went to terror town and it was like “what am I giving up? What is this sacrifice? What life could I have had, and now I’ve got this crazy whirlwind! What am I doing with my life?” Y’know, it’s always that… I get happy from music and then my brain goes “well, there’s this to worry about!”
Self-doubt is obviously universal, but the violent imagery is something that’s often associated with male artists – like Nick Cave or Tom Waits. Are you conscious of being a ‘female singer’ at all?
Well, I think that throughout history there has been something really intoxicating about female performers. I know from having watched and being really inspired by them. I think it’s that mix of being really powerful and very vulnerable which is I think something that women can convey perhaps better, or perhaps it comes across better in women because we’re more emotional creatures. But that strength and fragility in one package, which I think is wonderful. I mean, going all the way back to Ma Rainey and early blues singers, I think people have always been interested in female singers.
Are there particular female singers that you’ve been inspired by?
Well, vocally Etta James and Eva Cassidy. I think Alice Glass from Crystal Castles, like, her performances just blow me away! It’s like this tiny little creature with such demonic presence. She’s completely mesmerising; terrifying and wonderful. I really though she was incredible. She seems like this really strong female presence and again it’s like that masculine and feminine conflict – taking yourself apart. The thing is a lot of my performance comes from watching male artists and like punk bands; that sense of domination, of controlling the stage and it being your domain. So it’s a real mix. It’s like an internal battle onstage, an exorcism thing.
These are obviously your musical influences, but on a wider artistic scale, where do you draw inspiration from?
I think it’s things that are beautiful and sad. Like the model for Millais’ Ophelia – what was her name? She died of pneumonia from modelling in the bathtub. [PR, helpfully: “Lizzie Siddal”] Lizzie Siddal! Thank you! I’ve been trying to remember that for as long as I have been talking about her. It’s a really great back-story to that – she was like a muse for a lot of the pre-Raphaelites and they were all really into lithium, and she was doped up in the bath and the candle went out and she didn’t want to move because he was so into his painting, and she got pneumonia and died. And it’s just that sense of beauty and sadness behind everything.
If you were trying to describe the feel of your music to someone who couldn’t hear it, is there a particular painting or image that you could point them towards that best describes the atmosphere you’re trying to create?
Oh… um…[pauses for thought] probably a mix of that woman who did the Exploding Shed , Millais’ Ophelia and that Jenny Holzer painting. Have you ever seen that one where it’s like “Don’t talk down to me. Don’t try to be nice to me. Don’t…”
Yeah, I know the one.
It’s just a bright pink painting – I’ve got a postcard of it – but it’s just so amazingly aggressive. It’s great!
You’ve got a background in art. What kind of thing did you specialise in when you were at studying at Camberwell?
I was quite into making environments.
Like installations or sculptures?
Yeah, like collecting stuff has been my big passion. I was really into fake flowers and Day of the Dead stuff – sort of gaudy, macabre stuff, and, y’know, shrines, sacrifice and death. The usual subject matter! I made worlds within worlds. It’s strange because I think that’s what Bat For Lashes was into – making tiny microcosms, which I don’t know, maybe that’s something to do with being a singer. But I was into making like scenarios or events within tiny things like a cereal box – sort of mini statements.
You mention this sense tragedy and existential angst that creeps in even when you’re trying to write a nice happy song. Has that been alleviated at all by success and The Industry telling you that “you’re great”?
Ha, no, you’ve still got your internal voice telling you you’re a dick! [Laughs] You just wake up and it’s like, “Oh, I’m me again … Still me.” It’s such a chaotic time that it’s hard to be… Maybe in å few years time when I’m married and living in the country I’ll be writing happy songs about bumble bees, but right now everything’s still so up in the air and there’s so much chaos. I don’t know, I think I’m still definitely in the woods.
Yet the album ends on such an exuberant, upbeat note with your cover of “You’ve Got the Love”. Although obviously you didn’t write that …
Yeah, but it’s kind of sad as well: “Sooner or later in life the things you love you lose”. I think it’s got that gospel sadness to it. Which is quite attractive…
Is that why you chose it?
I think it was just something fun. It’s like two years ago at Bestival we played the last set in the dance tent and we thought “oh, what shall we end on?”, and I said “Oh, we’ll just do this”, on a whim because you know me and my best friend had always been like [does as good an impression of arm-flailing carefree abandon as you can do whilst still sitting on a sofa] at clubs. It’s just that fall-to-the-floor moment, arms in the air, “everyone loves everyone”. So we thought we could do that, and the fact that it worked was just bizarre, and then we recorded it on a whim, and it just took on a life of it’s own…
Are there any particular songs that you hear and think “God, I wish I’d written that”? For me it would definitely be Elvis Costello’s “I Want You”.
It just slays me every time.
Yeah. I think I wish I’d written that Tom Waits song called “Green Grass”.
Oh yes! I love it!
Yeah, listen to that one in the middle of the night when you’re in bed by yourself, and it’s just like so spooky. You feel like you’ve been buried. It’s on Mule Variations. I wish I’d written “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” [Simon and Garfunkel] – I love that song. I also wish I’d written “The Rat” by The Walkmen.
Oh that’s a fucking brilliant song! It’s just such a shame that the rest of the album doesn’t live up to that one track.
[Howling] “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favour!”
You should cover that on the next album.
I have done it at gigs before, but I haven’t recorded it. I don’t think I’m going to record any more covers for a while. I’ve got enough covers to make a whole album!
Is there a particular track on the album that you’re most proud of?
I think probably “Cosmic Love” is my favourite. I think that one feels like it just happened so naturally out of half an hour. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I mean it didn’t even exist before that half an hour; none of it existed. Not on the piano, or going round in my head. It just suddenly appeared and it was perfect. Well, I thought it was perfect. At first I thought it was a bit too romantic even; but it’s not that romantic, it’s quite dark. But yeah, that’s my favourite one.
Are you working on anything new at the moment, or are you still just processing the album?
I’ve sort of started. I’ve written some other stuff. I’m just looking forward to getting back in the studio. I feel like this album’s out there, it’s doing its job and I’m getting to play it, which is really fun. But there’s this ‘dissatisfaction with self’ – “must create” – “I’m unsatisfied, I must make something, I must verify myself!” I feel like every time I come on stage those two sides of myself get put back together and it all makes sense. For a minute.
Can you be creative on demand? Do you think, “right I’m going to sit down and write an album over the next three months”, or is it a continuous process?
I think sometimes in my life I was most creative when I was doing other stuff, y’know, when I had a job, and went to Art College. It’s quite good to have it as a sideline I think. I might go and get a job! You get inspired by daily life more. This [the attendant PR and make-up artist and the back-to-back interviews she has already done this morning] can be a circus…
I imagine the process can be a bit too cerebral otherwise…
Yeah. It’s like, hmm, inspiration…[twiddles her thumbs]
Our photographer, Mikael, then proceeds to lie her on the carpet, where she looks suitably dead and tragic, and we continue the interview with intermittent breaks to accommodate Mikael’s directions and Florence’s spontaneous outbursts of song.
Mikael: Has anyone every told you that you look like Kate Bush?
[lying on her back] A couple of times, yeah.
Me: Do you get annoyed by comparisons to other people?
No. I mean, I think it’s just a way for people to understand it, and determinate if you like this you might like that… Thing is, my voice isn’t anything like Kate Bush’s. I think it’s the… well, she uses a lot of drums.
Perhaps it’s the persona. She’s got this whole – I hate to use the word – kooky thing going on…
Ah, the [mock American accent] ‘K word’… I’ll be like serious one day and not serious the next and everyone’s the same. Some days you’ll be tired and some days you’ll be… no-one’s ever one thing all the time, so it’s strange to be put into one persona.
Following a break in which she and Mikael compare tattoos, Florence is now posing for photos in front of a mirror on the wall
You said you couldn’t play any instruments when you first started out. Was it frustrating trying to communicate what you wanted to your band?
Well, I think because I can sing, it wasn’t frustrating. Making music was more like improvising, so it was such a rush when I found something that worked. So it was all about the feeling, and I think that comes across in the music. You can hear this absolute joy at being able to make sound. And building things out of my own ideas of what a song should be like was exciting. It was like building and experiments, y’know? With rhythms and chords. That’s why everything’s like “bang, bang. Stop, start.” It’s because I have no skill, I just have [theatrical whisper] enthusiasm!
So you try to convey your enthusiasm to the band and they interpret it?
Well yeah, but it’s kind of hard because you tell a really skilled drummer “well, you know, I want you to play the drums worse. Play it more like I play it!”. And then there’s no guitar on the album, so my guitarist has to make all these pedals to play like cello, or make a big weird electronic noise. But yeah, I think they understand it. They understand the passion…
Yeah I think that passion definitely comes across. Well, that’s it, we’re done. Thanks so much.
Thanks, it was nice to meet you.
Yeah, really nice to meet you too. Good luck with everything!
Another excellent, bombastic singer is Antony Hegarty, we interviewed him here.