Florence + the Machine
What happens when your dreams come true?
First, you spend a bit of time enjoying that fact. Florence Welch grew up in South London and spent her teens partying with art students and boys from bands, quietly longing to make music herself and believing that the best way to join those boys onstage was to first prove she could out-drink them all. So her response to the massive, world-wide success of her extraordinary debut album Lungs in 2009 and the equally huge follow-up Ceremonials in 2011 was fairly predictable: she worked hard, she toured hard, and she partied even harder.
‘I never do things half-heartedly, so I just totally dived into that world of parties, awards ceremonies, and yes of course I’ll come out of a clam shell and open the Chanel show! The parties and the video shoots and the madness all just blended in to each other and it was fun. But underneath, there was a lot of darkness, and Ceremonials is actually a very dark record when you listen to it. Lyrically, it sounds like somebody who is very overwhelmed. It was underneath this huge cathedral of sound - and I felt like I had to just become as big as the sound. But then it all cracked.’
She regrets very little of this – ‘Maybe some of the outfits,’ she says drily – but eventually, you have to adjust. There comes a point when you realise that your dream is no longer a dream, it’s your reality, and you need to make it work for the long term. For Florence, this meant establishing a new way of working that was fun, but also sustainable and free of drama. ‘I’ve come back to the work, now,’ she says. ‘That’s what I like.’
Her third album was more restrained and pared-back (relatively speaking, because Florence knows herself well enough now to declare ‘I’m never going to be minimal’). As always, it was inspired by what was going on for her at the time. Released in 2015 and following her previous two albums straight to the top of the charts, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a gorgeous album about heartbreak, neediness and longing. Over a long world tour, she says those songs changed as they often do when repeatedly played, and finally taught her that everything she really needed was already inside her.
‘It was a low, low period of my life,’ she explains. ‘The songs were incredibly cathartic, but the process of making it was so painful. Then touring it, I somehow came back to myself.’
Towards the end of that journey Florence was in New York, a city that has always had a special place in her heart and in her family history. It’s the city where her mother grew up; where Patti Smith – a performer Florence lauds in the new album track Patricia as ‘My north star’ – was at her creative height; a city built on optimism, with its population of immigrants and its soaring skyscrapers. In the summer of 2016, it was also alive with an urgent, crackling energy, with the race for the US presidency heralding a huge shift both in the US and – soon after – in the UK.
‘It was a crazy time in New York. It was only a few days, but it crystallised somewhere in me, I guess because no one knew what was going to happen, we were all on the edge, trying to hold on to each other. I found myself walking the streets talking to strangers, and the shows seemed to take on a bigger meaning. Everyone was reaching in the dark, trying the figure it out: my friends and I in small personal ways, the world in huge ways, but it somehow all felt the same. I came home with a lot to write about!
'You couldn’t help but feel real sense of collective heartbreak over the last few years, about so many things, but I could see that people wanted to reach out to each other. Those moments of human connection seemed important, and inspired a lot of the songs. So there’s despair and anger, but the underlying feeling is that of wanting to hold and embrace people. There’s a lot of love.’ I guess also I was thinking of love in a bigger sense, bigger than romantic love, which for me is usually painful. If before I thought perhaps someone else could fix me, or make it better, this album kind of deals with the deeper issues underneath that. If the last albums have been a cry of, “ITS YOU, IT’S YOU, IT’S YOU!” This is more an acknowledgment of, “Oh, it’s definitely me!"’
In contrast to the previous album, this one came easily, naturally, with songs arriving in a rush, often almost fully formed. ‘It was a really creative period for me. I was reading a lot, writing a lot – poems, as well as songs. Although a lot of them then got eaten: Hunger, Grace and No Choir all started as poems, but got absorbed into the songs.’
It’s as raw and honest as ever, made up, she says, ‘of joy and fury’ – with the joy winning out, in the end. After working on it in London and LA, she returned to New York to do the final mix, and it was the daily view of that iconic, soaring skyline that gave the album its upbeat title. ‘I was staying in Brooklyn, and I would drive over the bridge every day and see the city. That view is just so full of hope - you can feel the possibilities.’
High As Hope is an album made by an artist who now feels far more certain about what she can do. She sings about New York and South London, looking back over her teens and twenties from a new, more mature perspective, and to the future with a fierce optimism. She sings about her relationship with Grace, the younger sister who, she says ‘has always been the one in our family who tried to take care of everybody – including me’. But then there’s also Big God, which is about having her text messages ignored: ‘I try and mix high and low,’ she says with a laugh.
Above all, it’s about acknowledging, as she sings on one of the album’s standout tracks, that ‘we all have our hunger’, holes in our psyche that we try to fill with love and hate, addictions or obsessions. And realising, as she sings in the unusually fragile a cappella opening to No Choir, that happiness doesn’t always have to be big and dramatic – it can often be found in the most mundane routines and moments, in everyday things that aren’t usually celebrated in songs.
‘I did a double interview with John Cale recently, and he said, “Work is more fun than fun.” And he’s right. I don’t get FOMO any more, I don’t care if I miss a party, I don’t care if I’m not at an awards ceremony, and making this record was one of the happiest times. I’d just ride my bike to the studio in Peckham every day, and bang on the walls with sticks. It was going back to the way I first made Dog Days, Between Two Lungs and Cosmic Love. I totally found the joy in it again.’
For the first time, Florence has also taken a production credit. ‘I’ve been involved in every single part of it,’ she says. ‘I’ve always very much been in control and I’ve always essentially co-produced, but it was about naming that, saying, “This is my sound, this is what I do.” So this time, I wanted the title.’
She then took these tracks to Los Angeles for a final polish with her friend and co-producer, Emile Haynie, and added texture by bringing in musicians such as jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and 2017 Mercury Prize winner Sampha. A lot of songs are pretty much as they are on her original demos, she says, with her guests adding a final sprinkle of beauty. ‘It’s odd because I made a lot of this album alone, yet it’s also the most collaborative record I’ve ever made, because I just got friends in to play on it. Which was a fun way to make a record.’
It's a sign of Florence’s new confidence as an artist that she is branching out into new areas. Her first book, Useless Magic— a collection of her poetry, lyrics and artworks—will be published by Penguin in July, and she knows now that she’s in this for the long term. ‘The people I really respect are people like Nick Cave, Patti Smith and PJ Harvey who have consistently put out excellent work, but also managed to retain their lives and some semblance of normality,’ she explains. ‘They’re the people I look up to: they seem to have very much retained a solid sense of self, and a life, while continuing to make great work.’
So High As Hope marks a new chapter, the beginning of a far longer journey for Florence Welch. ‘It’s always a work in progress, and I definitely don’t have everything figured out. But this feels like quite a pure expression of who I am now, as an artist, and an honest one,’ she says. ‘I’m just more comfortable with who I am.’