Florence Welch: 'I have a very self-destructive, chaotic, impulsive side'

"I was so lost in my imagination and it would always take me to pretty dark places".

"I was so lost in my imagination and it would always take me to pretty dark places". Photo: trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media

By her own admission, Florence Welch had a very unusual childhood. Her father, she says, was "a frustrated performer" who took her touring across Germany at a young age, her mother an academic whose passion for the Renaissance left young, impressionable Florence with a love of all things gothic.

"It was quite a chaotic childhood," she says, pausing to let her mind wander back in time. "I was out of school and out of the house and into the art scene, the punk scene, of London pretty early.

"But I wouldn't be doing what I do now without it," she adds. "I was always restless, excited about new things and new places, wanting to dress up. I still have that feeling."

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Florence Leontine Mary Welch, born in Camberwell, London, in 1986, is now better known as the singer of Florence + the Machine. (The "machine" is her collaborator, Isabella Summers, with the pair joined by a revolving door of contributing artists.)

The band has just two albums to its name - 2009's Lungs and 2011's Ceremonials - with a third, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, due out in June. But it has become synonymous with layered, intriguing music. One critic called the band's work "dark, robust and romantic", while a review of a live performance referred to Welch's "infectious joie de vivre".

It is perhaps too easy in music to presume that each album becomes a chapter in a larger text, and that every artist either consciously or unconsciously, produces an autobiographical narrative in texture, tone and flavour. Yet it is proven true more often than not - particularly in music, where each album seems to serve as a snapshot of a moment in time.

Welch agrees with the idea but describes Lungs and Ceremonials as scrapbooks rather than chapters in a book. The new album, however, is more personal. "This album kind of laid me bare," she says. "It's always been about hiding in plain sight with me, wanting to say things without actually saying them."

Singing, however, has never proved to be a challenge for Welch. As a child, she loved to sing so much that she found herself frequently in trouble for singing at times, and in places, she wasn't supposed to. It's an admonishment reminiscent of The Sound of Music's sonorous novice, Maria, who could not stop herself from singing.

Welch laughs at the comparison. In truth, she says, she was compelled to sing because she found a solace within the sound of a note that she had never found anywhere else. "I think you find peace," she says. "When I find a song and I know it works, I sing it to myself and I can follow its rhythms and its notes, and then the rest of my mind is quiet. You can just be with the song."

Singing also allowed the younger Florence to escape herself. "You look at your face or you look at your body and you think, 'This is so weird'," she says. "You know there has to be something more than what you see, and I guess singing is that connection, that sense of being in touch with yourself and with something completely outside of you."

Welch chooses her words thoughtfully and considers questions genuinely. It's a rare thing in show business, where artists are frequently coached into bite-sized, G-rated parcels of thought. Welch is just the opposite. She's candid, and sometimes raw. She speaks without self-filtration. And fame is not a space she inhabits easily, largely because of the caveats which seem to come with it.

In the past, Welch has touched on her battle with depression and how the sudden whirlwind of celebrity hacked into the much simpler desire to make music. That said, she acknowledges the nexus between those darker emotions and making music, a sort of creative takeaway from depression and anxiety.

"It's weird, because it can kind of turn on itself," Welch says when the connection between the two is put to her. "To rise to fame quite quickly, to be successful, it maybe creates this idea of, 'Do I deserve this?' It's like having to live up to this thing, this creation. It can become quite terrifying."

Worse, she adds, there is no period of mourning when you return from the maelstrom to ordinary life. "It was a bit of a crash-landing back into reality. It was like, how to live and love, be outside of touring, outside of stages?

"You realise that part of your growing up has been missed out on slightly and now you're going to have to learn."

For Welch, depression became something not to escape, but to learn to live and work with. She is, she adds, "quite comfortable" with the darkness.

"I guess I've always been. You're drawn to complicated situations because you're an artist, or you're an artist, therefore you create complicated situations. It's like the chicken-or-the-egg thing."

Working on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, she says, was a turning point. "Realising I do have these two extreme sides in my character. One side is quiet and nurturing and calm, then I have a very self-destructive, chaotic, impulsive side. They contradict each other and I guess the album was a way of trying to make sense of that and bring things back together."

Welch is talking to Sunday Life in Los Angeles, a city which has become a second home for her. (She is mostly based in London.) Though the city and its unique confluence of ego and artistry still perplexes her in many ways, she acknowledges that LA is the inspiration, and in some ways the representation, of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.

"This is where it started," Welch says of the album's title track. "That song was the first written for this album, it was written here in LA, and it's about the LA skyline. It's weird. Coming back here now with it finished ... I'm still sort of surrounded by it all the time."

Welch's two lives - her London life and her LA life - seem very different. The two cities have vastly diverse climates, and very different skylines. "That year I had off [in LA writing this album], I lived out here for months, just thinking I'd do some writing. We lived in this strange house, almost like a concrete doll's house. It was all the way up in the hills, and it was quite a strange life for a bit."

Returning to an earlier theme, she adds, "LA is wonderful and it's kind of dreamy but there's something in my English sensibility that says, 'I don't deserve this.' It's so nice, it's really sunny all the time and there is nice food. It's not cold, everyone is nice to you and, after a while, maybe being British, it starts to turn on you a bit and you go, 'I don't deserve this.' "

Despite music being such a personal experience for Welch, her body of work is almost defined by a series of powerful collaborations with other artists, including Fatboy Slim, Drake and Calvin Harris. Such transfusions are, she says, vital to the creative process. "To bounce off other people and to have that creative back-and-forth is like lifeblood," she says.

"I'm not a trained musician and I do things instinctively and I guess maybe I never really trusted myself to just sort of do everything. For this record, the people I've worked with are mostly people I've known since I was 17. To go in with people you trust, that's quite exciting."

She has also collaborated with some of the world's great fashion and design houses, including Gucci and Chanel. "Sometimes it's like your clothing and the music you're making, they tend to bleed into one another. As the stages get bigger, you want something to fill that and you want to embody the sound of that record visually."

In 2015, and at the age of 28, Florence Welch seems at ease in her own skin, a far cry from the little girl who adored playing in the shadows and searching for herself. Yet it could be said the adult woman was set in stone while still a child.

"I don't know," Welch says, considering the idea. "I was a quiet, dreaming kid who was scared. People forget the fear of childhood. I was just scared of everything.

"I was so lost in my imagination and it would always take me to pretty dark places," she continues. "I was convinced vampires were real, ghosts were real, [that] my dad was a werewolf. I was quite scared of the dark. I would read books and novels and be kind of frustrated at what I felt was my own mundanity; I felt mundane and ordinary."

She pauses. "I sometimes feel like I'm having a Renaissance childhood, in not being afraid and being more excited about the world and having these adventures. Maybe I'm trying to be the girl that I was dreaming about when I was a child."