Florence and the Machine opt for straight-ahead third album
Florence and the Machine adopt a stripped-back approach on their third album that marks a milestone for the British band
Florence Welch flung open the door to her suite at the Chateau Marmont last month like a woman in the middle of an important task. Inside, designer gowns, maybe 100 in all, hung on several racks awaiting the singer’s careful inspection. Shoes and accessories sat in piles on the carpeted floor nearby.
The job she was doing, it turns out, was important: these were wardrobe options for one of music’s most style-conscious events, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival near Los Angeles, where Welch – one of music’s most fashion-forward stars – would perform in about a week with her popular British band, Florence and the Machine.
“Someone sent me this; it’s a pretty strong look,” says the 28-year-old, fingering a jadecoloured number with a fur-lined neck that looked like something from Game of Thrones. The dress had a pair of matching fuzzy boots – less than ideal for Coachella’s sunbaked desert setting. “They might be quite hot,” Welch admits with a laugh. “I could die if I wear them.”
In the end, the singer wore a crisp white pantsuit comfortable enough that at one point she leaped into the crowd – and promptly broke her foot. (More on that later.) Yet the outfit choice wasn’t merely a concession to the climate; it also reflected the streamlined vibe of Florence and the Machine’s new album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. The record takes a step away from the ornate sound and high theatrics of the band’s earlier work, which presented the redheaded Welch as a quasi-mythical figure in sweeping, harp-laden songs such as Dog Days Are Over and What the Water Gave Me.
“It’s less ethereal now, with more of a rock edge,” says Lisa Worden, music director at an LA radio station.
“And the songs seem more personal”, she says, referring to What Kind of Man, the album’s driving lead single about an unreliable lover, and Ship to Wreck, in which Welch considers her selfdestructive impulse.
Other tunes describe an emotional bottoming-out in language that sets aside the elaborate metaphors of yore.
Curled on a sofa as she takes a break, Welch says the record dispenses with the mannerisms she once used to protect herself. “I feel like there aren’t any tricks on it,” she says. “It just is what it is.”
But it was tricks that propelled Florence and the Machine to quick success. Raised in London amid an artistically inclined family – her mother is a professor of Renaissance history – Welch formed the band in 2008 with keyboardist Isabella Summers, a friend since they were teens. The group released their debut album, Lungs, the next year and found themselves with a worldwide smash in Dog Days. The band’s follow-up, Ceremonials, came out in 2011, not long after they opened a string of stadium concerts for U2. The platinum-selling album cracked the top 10 on the Billboard chart and earned two Grammy nominations.
In those days, “the studio was the place for the wrecking ball to come out”, says Summers, who explains that making music gave her and Welch the chance to “be weird and emotional and dramatic” – qualities that combined with Welch’s good looks to form a potent public image at a moment when mainstream rock wasn’t producing many new female stars. Soon the singer, who’d dropped out of art school to pursue music, became a fixture on the international fashion scene, turning up at runway shows and performing at a Chanel event in Paris at the behest of Karl Lagerfeld. Musicians tapped her for collaborations as well, including rapper ASAP Rocky and mega-DJ Calvin Harris, who teamed with Welch for the 2012 hit Sweet Nothing.
In the process, her larger-thanlife persona “became like an armour”, Welch says, dressed at the Chateau in flared jeans and a filmy purple blouse. “It made me powerful.”
Part of what that armour was guarding against was despair over the end of a relationship; her image also made it easier to maintain the hard-partying lifestyle she’d developed over years on the road. So when the time came to begin work on the band’s third album, Welch’s initial instinct was to stick to it. She and the band took up residence in LA, living in what she called a “big concrete doll’s house that had an elevator in the bathroom”. Songs started coming together for a concept album about a witch who goes on trial for murder in Hollywood – “like The Crucible: The Musical,” Welch says.
Yet the plan changed after she returned to England to work with Markus Dravs, whom she’d selected to produce the album after his work with Coldplay, Björk and Arcade Fire. “I was handing him songs like Which Witch [which survive as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful] and he was like, ‘No, no, you can’t do that’,” Welch recalls.
“I just felt that she’d done the whole drama thing on the first two records,” Dravs says. “And I was sure she had another side that hadn’t really been displayed.”
Pushing away the witch-hunt material, Dravs got Welch to focus on smaller-scale songs she’d been writing about her break-up. He advised keeping the arrangements simpler, which Welch admits was a struggle. She’d told the producer she wanted to make a record modelled on the stripped-down music she’d listened to driving around LA – Neil Young, in particular – but baulked when she realised how vulnerable the sound made her feel. “I was saying: ‘Don’t we need more reverb? Can’t we have more backing vocals?’” she says.
Not everything turned out so minimal: Third Eye builds to a euphoric climax; the title track, inspired by the California sky, shimmers with strings and horns.
But in Various Storms & Saints, Welch sings with little more accompaniment than a lone electric guitar about “teaching myself how to be free”.
“I wanted to take that off the record right up till the last minute,” she says of the song. “It was so frightening.”
Yet Dravs convinced her that letting go – not hiding behind the band’s old wall of sound – could be another form of empowerment.
“And that was such a relief,” she says. “Keeping that poise and that grandeur was hard.”
Welch certainly embodied a sense of newfound freedom in her performance at Coachella, where she repeatedly ran barefoot from one end of the gigantic main stage to the other. For Dog Days Are Over, the singer urged people in the crowd to take off their clothes then joined in by stripping down to her bra and jumping offstage. She knew immediately she had hurt herself, but finished the concert with few aware of what had happened. Since then, Florence and the Machine have been playing acoustic-style gigs with Welch seated on a stool, as she did recently on Saturday Night Live.
Watching Welch perform that way reminds Summers of a “caged animal”. “It’s frustrating having to watch her being frustrated,” says the keyboardist. And, she acknowledges, the quieter concerts have led audiences to “listen super-intently” – which suits the new material.
Welch was healed in time for Florence and the Machine to play at Bonnaroo last weekend in Manchester, Tennessee, and they are also booked for Glastonbury, which starts on Wednesday, and Lollapalooza in Chicago, which starts on July 31. But despite the foot injury – and therefore her ability to support the album as she’d like – Welch says the experience of making How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful has been its own reward.
“It’s like self-acceptance on a grand scale,” she says. “If you’re going to put these songs into the world, you’ve got to be OK with them yourself.”
The unguarded music allowed her to “come back to the person I was before all of this”, she says, waving at the luxury goods in her room. “It made me more comfortable in my own skin.”
Los Angeles Times