Despite two Number 1 albums and 18 awards, Florence Welch is a reluctant star. Stylist’s Debbie McQuoid tries to unravel the enigma
Photography: Frederike Helwig Fashion Director: Alexandra Fullerton
Halfway through the shoot with one of Britain’s most exciting musical talents, something feels awry. It’s just so quiet. The tone of the day was set when Florence Welch arrived this morning. Polite and perhaps shy, she introduced herself around the room before happily retreating into the safe hands of her regular hair and make-up team, Alex and Tom.
Since being awarded the Critic’s Choice at the Brits in 2009, Florence (+ the Machine) has been steadily picking up pace. Her debut album Lungs in the same year produced hits Kiss With A Fistand Dog Days Are Over and a return to the Brits in 2010 saw her perform Candi Staton’s You Got The Love with Dizzee Rascal. It brought the house down and rejuvenated sales of Lungs. Her latest album Ceremonials is already on most of our iPods, and her UK shows, prior to jaunts to Australia and the US later this year, is keeping her more than a little bit busy. In short, her career feels very, very exciting.
We move into the studio space next door where photographer Frederike Helwig starts shooting; a blur of Gucci and red hair warm up the atmosphere a touch. Shoots are always slightly awkward to begin with; a bunch of assistants, stylists and a journalist uniformly cross-armed and watching one person perform outside their comfort zone. Against the industrial white brick of an east London studio, we could be her firing squad. Feeling awkward, I go next door to speak with Florence’s sister Grace. An excitable light relief, Grace is about to leave her position as her 25-year-old sister’s PA to go to law school. During breaks and outfit changes – Julien MacDonald, Lanvin, Burberry Prosum – she keeps Florence entertained with YouTube clips. The silence in the room is intermittently punctuated with a squeal of laughter and I’m relieved by her presence.
Dress, £3,150, Gucci (020-7235 6707)
Dress, £3,395, Antonio Berardi (0800-123 400); necklace, £315, Dannijo (dannijo.com); rings, Florence’s own; shoes, £795, Jimmy Choo (jimmychoo.com)
Dress, £1,895, and jacket, £1,495, both Burberry Prorsum (burberry.com); purple ring, £64, Ottoman Hands (ottomanhands.com); remaining rings, Florence’s own
The True Artist
After the shoot Florence changes into a Jason Wu top, Camilla and Marc tuxedo pants, and Rupert Sanderson shoes – assembled into a sort of oriental look; part of the Wallis Simpson phase she’s slowly coming out of. We sink into a small, battered sofa in the studio, still surrounded by people. It’s far from ideal and it’s clear neither of us are comfortable about opening up in front of an audience.
“We do get on each other’s nerves,” she says, when I ask how it is working with her sister, who has just handed her a bottle of water. “It’s hard working with family because you don’t hold back. But I really will miss her. She’s like my best friend. But I’d rather keep that relationship than [ruin it with] a working one.”
How will Florence cope? “I don’t know,” she says. “It can be isolating.” I sense that this is not a conversation she wants to have in front of a group of people and we move on to the tour. She lights up. “With this record, with the set-up, with the band I’ve always wanted; it’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” she says. She’s prepared herself by keeping healthy, not getting run down. Is she disciplined? “I can be,” she says. “I can be really disciplined up to a breaking point and then I’m complete chaos. I’ll be really straight for three weeks and then I’ll be gone for three days, which drives my mum mad. I’m trying to find a balance but I guess it’s one way or another with me.”
How do musicians recover from hedonism? The same way we mere mortals do, with bed, food or movies? “All three,” she considers. “Or perhaps a movie in the bath; that’s my favourite thing.” After a brief discussion among the group about the health and safety aspects of this – “What about electric shocks? Where do you balance the TV? Or is it your laptop?” – we get back on track and discuss the fact that she’s known as a musician rather than a ‘celebrity who sings’… and she seems pleased.
“That’s nice to hear,” she nods. “When I first started, especially because I got the Critics Choice before I’d released an album, there was a lot scrutiny on what my character was, what my background was, what colour my hair was. I fought quite hard for the music to overtake the personality aspect. I didn’t want to become a personality, I wanted to be a musician, but because I didn’t have an album to stand by yet it was hard for people to see that. But now, two albums in, I’m happy with things.”
Her ethereal look and the storytelling side to her music has even been likened to Kate Bush, something she recognises herself. “I definitely have a strong sense of aesthetic,” she muses. “I’m a sensory control freak; what I see, what I hear. I’m restless and always want things to be perfect, magical or exciting. Things can’t be that way all the time so I’m constantly disappointed as well.”
With that, she distractedly gets up and puts her coat on and it’s clear our conversation is over. She’s off to rehearse for her performance of No Light, No Light at the Brits and prepare herself for a string of other commitments; the NMEs, the tour…
Jacket, £1,419, shirt, £905, and trousers, £776, all Julien MacDonald (net-a-porter.com); rings, Florence’s own; shoes, £850, Manolo Blahnik (020-7352 3863)
Jumpsuit, £1,010, Emilio Pucci (020-7201 8171); necklace, £174, Amanda Marcucci (amandamarcucci. com); ribbon (worn as belt), £1.20 per metre, VV Rouleaux (vvrouleaux.com)
Life on the Road
Two weeks later, I meet Florence at London’s Groucho Club. She’s just returned from the first leg of her UK tour in Dublin. Her energy is different; she has more of it for a start and at the moment it’s being channelled into picking the discarded orange peel in her hands into lots of tiny pieces.
Feedback from her performances has been phenomenal. An almost operatic piece of theatre, Florence and her team have created a show that’s at times baroque, at times intimate. A blow out after the NME Awards (she won Best Solo Artist and Best Track for Shake It Out) means she spent her post-gig come-down watching movies in her Dublin hotel room. “I felt so bad after that,” she shakes her head. “I was like, ‘I can’t.’ I’m just not the girl I used to be.”
She orders food (an avocado, artichoke and wild mushroom salad), drops the completely shredded orange peel and puts her nervous energy into her cutlery. It becomes clear. All these distractions; shoots, interviews, awards, they corrupt what she truly loves doing: performing.
“When I’m on stage, no-one can ask me to do anything,” she tells me. “Even on the way to the stage, there’s still someone who wants an interview, or people taking my picture. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Get me onto the stage.’ It’s like freedom.”
Does she view these by-products of her success as necessary evils? I promise her I won’t be offended. “It’s not that I’m not enjoying them, it’s just the scale of them,” she says, not looking at me. “It’s a strange process. When you’re talking about yourself, the whole idea of it is quite isolating. There’s no escape from yourself. Being so introspective, it’s not actually one of my happiest places. I really love talking about work and my experiences but I don’t like being too inside my head. “It’s like photocopying something again and again and again. After a while, the edges become really blurry. That’s how I feel.”
The honesty of her answer makes me want to change the subject; I don’t want her to lose her edges. She has tomorrow off. How’s she spending it? “There’s nothing more exciting and rejuvenating for me than going to galleries and seeing new shows,” she says, relieved we’ve moved on. Recent favourites? David Shrigley and Jeremy Deller. She loves the Hayward Gallery and both Tate Britain and Tate Modern. She doesn’t own any ‘real art’ yet – just Victorian junk shop paintings – but plans to invest when she has walls to hang it on.
Dress, £2,715, Lanvin (lanvin.com); rings, Florence’s own; shoes, £1,410, Roberto Cavalli (020-7823 1879)
Dress, £34,130, Chanel (020-7493 5040); leather jacket, £2,500, Giles (joseph. co.uk); shoes, £1,395, Charlotte Olympia (charlotteolympia.com)
Literature is a passion too; she brings it up both times we meet. She’s just finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and is reading The Help.
“I’ve always been a voracious reader,” she says. “I read in the strangest of places; a speedboat in Mexico, I’m reading; trekking in Brazil – we’ll stop at a waterfall, I’ll read.” I begin to wonder if she has any aspirations of being a writer. “Perhaps I’d write a poetry compilation,” she muses. “I collect poetry and short stories that have influenced me. My life is a scrapbook. I’m a collector of information. Even down to ticket stubs.”
We talk more about her life. She’s intelligent, eloquent and interested in the world and I’m surprised at her disinterest when we turn to politics. “I’m not the most politically minded person,” she admits. “There’s nothing inspiring at the moment in British politics. [My interest] might change when I have a family though.” Is that on the cards? Her latest album was inspired by her split with Stuart Hammond, but she was recently seen on holiday with events organiser James Nesbitt. “I do really want to have a family at some point,” she says. “And have a relationship that actually works.” She smiles. “And stay in the same place for three months. Being a performer is so much of who I am but I really want to live in Rome. I’d like to feed my brain for a bit, see some art, learn Italian. Or get an English literature degree. Or go back to art college.”
Just a couple of ambitions then… Our time is running out and, although we’ve had a good chat, I still don’t feel like I know the real Florence, so I reach for the back-up interview question: how would your friends describe you? She turns to her manager and asks her how to describe her. I’m feeling bold and tell her to stop cheating. She considers for a while before answering.
“Excitable, easily distracted, sometimes vacant, prone to gloominess and also extreme euphoria; I can’t be generous with time, but I try to be generous with affection. I’m really lucky to be able to be in some of these situations and it feels really nice to be able to take people along with me for the ride. Oh, and I’m a pain in the ass as well.” I leave, finally feeling like I’ve got a glimpse of the real Florence…
Florence’s single Never Let Me Go is out this week. Her MTV Unplugged CD & DVD is released 9 April
Fashion assistant: Olivia Phillips; Hair: Alex Brownsell; Make-up: Thomas de Kluyver, both at dandv management.com; Nails: Ange&Vernice Walker using Rococo Nail Apparel, OTT and Gold Leaf Lacquer ; Set design by David White at The Magnet Agency; digital artwork by Postmen