"Writing songs has helped me to get over the lows in life"
With a new album and a new outlook, Florence + The Machine singer Florence Welch tells Barry Egan how she's put those dark days behind her
Taylor Swift recently told Billboard magazine about her friend Florence Welch: "Every time I've been around her, she is the most magnetic person in the room - surrounded by people who are fascinated by the idea of being near her.
But when she meets people, she pays them a warm compliment and immediately disarms them. There are very few people I've met in my life who are truly electric, and Florence is one of them."
"What sets Florence apart?" Miss Swift asked rhetorically. "Everything."
In person, what sets Florence Leontine Mary Welch, lead singer of Florence + The Machine, apart is that she looks like she has just stepped - androgynously, gorgeously - out of an English Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Florence's signature shock of long, bright red hair is worn under a big, black, floppy hat. Her svelte figure is held tightly inside a black Spanish-style suit teamed with pointy purple velvet boots by Yves Saint Laurent.
She talks about channelling the subconscious, about not knowing the place in her subconscious where some of her lyrics come from, or even where the feelings that brought up those lyrics come from. She believes that when she's singing, she can suddenly understand what she's feeling. "To say something to one person I have to sing it to a thousand strangers," she has said. "It's sort of deep-seated emotional repression!"
Even allowing for exaggeration, she is a supremely fascinating woman. When Florence - who was born on August 28, 1986 - was a kid she used to believe she could breathe underwater. "I think it was a dream, but when you're a kid it's hard to separate dreams from reality."
Her parents broke up when Florence was 11. Then her mother fell in love with the widowed neighbour in Camberwell, south London, and the two families moved in together. The elder of two sisters, Florence gained two older brothers and a sister, and was in the middle in terms of ages. "It was like The Royal Tenenbaums with more swearing," she told the LA Times, referring to the Wes Anderson movie.
Her maternal grandmother took her own life when Florence was 13. "It was hard to be close to her, because she was on a lot of medication. For most of the time that I knew her, she wasn't very well at all," she said once of that troubling time in her life.
Florence's artistic side was clearly inherited from her American mother, Evelyn, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London.
Her first album, 2009's Lungs was all about her first big break-up. It was pretty honest, and painful, stuff to put to music.
"It's like what Iggy Pop said, isn't it?" Florence tells me. "That he used to go out with girls so he could write songs about it. But I definitely don't think I do it on purpose!"
So she doesn't go out with guys for songs then?
"I don't. But song-writing is how I understand things, and when things are hard and difficult it is kind of a medium to piece yourself back together," she adds.
"Songs are so healing and restorative," she continues. "And then, once you give them away, it's like 'Oh, the genie is out of the bottle.' They're like talismans. It is like a release."
What was the lowest point in her life?
"When you get on that fame roller-coaster there's a lot of real highs - and what comes with that is lows," she answers, "I think I'm a lot more balanced now than I was at the beginning of my career. I think I was quite low when I started. But when I came to make this record, which was the beginning of February last year, I think it was difficult," she says.
Her band Florence + The Machine's brilliant new album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is everything the title makes it sound like. Beautiful, textured, soulful, romantic, left-of-centre, operatic indie-pop with lyrics that no one other than Florence Welch could have written.
She appears on the cover of the current Billboard magazine under the headline: 'Florence Welch on Bouncing Back From a Near-Breakdown and the Life-Changing Advice Taylor Swift Gave Her.'
The latter guidance that Ms Swift, who is much given to writing about her ex-boyfriends in songs, gave her was: "You must sing about what's happening in your life."
Following the advice, Florence made the new album effectively about her on-off beau, Hull-born events organiser James Nesbitt. "It's not about trying to be vindictive. It's about being honest. This could've been a break-up record. But it was much more about trying to understand myself." As for the near-breakdown (when she took a year off to decamp to Los Angeles before this new album was recorded), it would be easier to get state secrets than to get Florence to discuss breakdowns of any description.
"This year that was really chaotic," she says. "When I came to start making this record I was in a bit of a heap. And actually I think it was kind of like trying to come to terms with figuring out all that kind of stuff."
But she has dealt with that kind of stuff?
"Oh, yeah. I've kept it under my hat," she laughs as her big, black floppy witch's hat practically falls off with the joke.
Florence + The Machine's new album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, is out on June 2 on Universal