“There have been so many bizarre moments,” flame-haired songstress Florence Welch laughs as she recalls the whirlwind that has been the last couple of years of her life. To illustrate this, she recounts her appearance at this year's Met Ball in New York. “Coming out of the Temple of Dendur with bleached eyebrows dressed as David Bowie, doing some sort of strange jig with Paul McCartney and then spinning around next to Madonna was one of those moments where it was like, 'My life has become irrevocably weird and I doubt it will ever get back to normal.'”
Indeed, from winning the Critics' Choice Award at the 2009 Brits before she had released an album, to her debut record Lungs receiving worldwide acclaim and selling by the bucket-load, to recently having been cited as an influence by none other than Beyonce, it's fair to say that things have been pretty surreal for Florence Welch since she burst onto the scene. Forever in the media spotlight and with an army of fans hungry for new material, one might think that the English singer/songwriter would have been under a huge amount of pressure to deliver the goods with her new long-player, Ceremonials. In fact, compared to her first album, the opposite was true.
“I didn't really think about it. I was just happy to be writing,” the charmingly polite and well-spoken 25-year-old explains. “The pressure I was under, writing the first record after winning that Critics' Choice Award and still being at such a raw stage, was so intense. I'd say it was almost a negative thing because it really put me under a microscope before I had anything to be protected by. People really went for how I looked or my personality because that was the only thing that was there. There was no album, and to be picked apart like that before you have any music to stand by is terrifying. It was a baptism of fire. I'm really grateful for having got that award; it was a great opportunity and it really helped me in the long-run, but at that point it was pretty hard to see the benefits because I was just freaking out the whole time. This time round, with a clearer idea of what I was doing, it was almost easier.”
Working once again with award-winning producer Paul Epworth (who also co-wrote and produced Lungs) and Isabella 'Machine' Summers (songwriter and member of the band), Welch recorded Ceremonials with her group over five weeks in the English summertime at Abbey Road's legendary Studio Three. The result certainly doesn't sound like something that was created under an especially heavy weight of expectation. “I was really lucky because I was working with some amazing people. Working with Paul and Isa, we have such such a musical connection. They had all these amazing drum patterns that I could get excited by and Paul would have these great chords. They made it easy to get back into the swing of things. We'd been speaking about it for a year and I had a really clear idea of what I wanted: big drum sounds, big bass sounds, big choral sweeps. When we got back into the studio, everyone was just excited to be there.”
To call the record 'big' is an understatement. This album is unapologetically huge. Massive. With layered instrumentation and Welch's trademark howl, it is an impressively bold and expansive second-coming. “I think you can't help being incorrigibly yourself,” she explains. “I've always been interested in big drum sounds and I'm drawn to big orchestral sounds. I'm obsessed with this choral thing. I'm interested in hymnal music and Georgian choirs. It's like heaven and hell in one.”
Aside from its enormity, the other noticeable thing about the new album is that it is much more cohesive than her debut offering. “I'm really glad you said that,” Welch beams when Drum brings up the notion that, if the excellent Lungs was an eclectic collection of songs, Ceremonials is a progression in that it sounds very well-rounded. “That's what I was aiming for. It was really important to me that it had a cohesive, overarching sound and it didn't fluctuate from one song to the next. For better or for worse, the first album was always going to be an experiment. I'd been through a lot of musical phases from the age of 17 and 22, so it was an overview of that period. This one, because it was a shorter period of time, with one producer [Paul Epworth] and one place, was more just a body of work. A story, I guess, rather than a scrapbook.”
When talk turns to the way in which the songs on Ceremonials were pieced together, Welch finds it hard to put her finger on exactly how she created them. “There's no methodical process. I'm not a technical songwriter so everything has to be quite instinctive. I don't write in a linear way. Paul would come up with chords and I would sing any random phrase that came into my head. That's often how I write melodies. It's like a séance. You just have to let whatever is in your head come out. It's almost as if you have to stop thinking. You can't be afraid.” As with melodies, Welch likes to allow lyrics to flow naturally from her, garnering inspiration from words she has chanced upon in books, art installations and everyday life. “Sometimes the words come easily and sometimes you have to work on them for a while. Images come and go and thoughts go on a tangent. I think it's nice to have mixes of random phrases. It creates this new kind of poetry and you don't really know what sense to make of it until it's finished. ”
A lengthy worldwide tour is scheduled to promote the record and, when she takes to the stage each night, there are bound to be plenty of fans drooling almost as much at her chosen outfit as they are her music. It's fair to say that Florence Welch is nearly as well-known for being a fashion icon as she is for her incredible voice, and can be seen within the pages of the monthly glossies as much as in the music press. “As a performer, what you wear is such a huge tool. It affects the way you feel and the way you move. It's like thinking of it in terms of an art piece or a dance piece.” However, her image isn't a contrivance, created by some record company executive. She has enjoyed dressing up since she was a child and, even before fashion designers were swooning over her, she put a huge amount of thought and effort into her onstage attire. “When we first started playing, we'd be given ten pounds for food and I'd spend it in a charity shop or a vintage shop and create these Frankenstein outfits: bits of feathers, lace, a red riding hood cape and glitter all over my face. So to be embraced by the world of high-fashion, for a girl who loved dressing up and was constantly in the fancy dress box, is an absolute dream.”
With her aesthetic sensibilities an extension of her natural desire to constantly be creative, Florence Welch is not the kind of person to let the dust settle and, even though her new album has only just hit the shelves, it inevitably won't be long until she begins to think about the shape that record number three will take. Feeling that she has honed her distinctive sound with Ceremonials, the question now is, where does she go next, sonically? She ponders for a moment. “I'm thinking either more orchestral or minimal... Take it as big as I can, or go small. I don't know.” She pauses, before joking, “Maybe minimal orchestral.”
Whichever musical direction Florence Welch takes in the future, if she walks the road with the confidence and gusto that she has displayed on the fantastic Ceremonials, then the world will surely remain her oyster.
Interview and live photo by Bobby Townsend. An extended version first appeared in Sydney's Drum Media. Edited by Heidi Pett.