Florence Welch: I had a broken heart and I just poured all that into the record
Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine tells Julia Molony how she's left behind the destructive wildness of her 20s
She's the wildcat of pop, but today Florence Welch is as soft as a tabby. She's made herself at home in the Covent Garden Hotel suite, where she ushers me in and offers a drink.
She's also playing down her witchy beauty in jeans and boots, a boho shirt, an embroidered gilet and lots of gold jewellery. With her trademark auburn fringe, long, lean legs and sharp cheekbones, physically, she seems all edges. But her voice is velvety and round.
Welch was a spirited south London girl from an intellectual family in arty, left-leaning Camberwell when she exploded onto the rock scene as Florence + The Machine almost a decade ago, swiftly becoming a global star.
Since childhood, creative output has been a reflex for her - drawing, singing, writing poetry; she's always needed an outlet for her "big feelings", which she translates into anthemic, poetic, gothic pop.
"I was always very sensitive and kind of afraid of the world in lots of ways," she says. "Really brave in odd ways, and then terrified in others. I didn't really understand myself, but I was also in wonderment a lot of the time.
"I think making stuff is a way of making sense of perhaps being quite a sensory person who is quite overwhelmed by things like colours and sounds - living things quite Technicolour-ly. I still have that. I don't even take drugs anymore, so I can't even imagine what I was like when I was on them."
Her debut album, Lungs, reached number one in the UK charts, but the desire to live everything at full-throttle intensity had its drawbacks.
With fame, came the mad storm of her 20s, and the associated wreckage of broken hearts and broken bones (she snapped her ankle crowd-surfing at Coachella) provided no end of material. Her last offering, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, was a howl of pain after the break-up of her relationship with events planner James Nesbitt, and her first album to go platinum in the United States.
"I was in such a bad place. Every part of the last record was like, dragged out of me," she says, though she admits that making it may have ultimately been the saving of her, "It definitely helped me so much, that record, and Markus Dravs (her producer) gave me structure when I needed structure, and the whole thing kind of pieced me back together." But it wasn't an easy rehabilitation: "Every bit of it was painful."
Touring the record proved the real salve. "I had a broken heart. I had poured all of that into this record, and it felt awful." With performing it came the following realisation: "Oh! I can give people the worst parts of my life, and they will embrace it and protect it, and carry you and support you, and it was so healing. I've been thinking about this pact that I have with the listener where I will be more honest with them than anyone else in my life.
"You kind of make these offerings, like, 'These are the things I'm ashamed of, these are the things that have hurt me. Can you keep this safe for me, and can you embrace it?' And people have."
She's given up booze and drugs: "That self-destructive energy is incredibly powerful. If you pour drugs and alcohol onto that stage energy... all bets are off. It's probably going to be fun, but it's definitely going to end in disaster. Hold on tight."
She sees the turbulence of her 20s with a new perspective now, which became the starting point for her new album, which is more mature in tone and scope. While writing it, she was thinking about family and history.
"There's this apocryphal family tale that we have," she says, relating a yarn about her American ancestors, who were living in Galveston, Texas, in the early 1900s, when the town was destroyed in a flood. "I might get all the facts wrong," she says with a laugh, "but as an artist it's much better to deal in myth than, like, to fact-check. But there was, like, an enormous flood, and in the early 1900s we had a house in Galveston, and there's this family myth.
"Our great-great-grandfather was a sea captain, and he knew that if there's a storm, you break up the boards at the bottom of the boat so that the water can rush in and rush out, and won't wash the ship away.
"So he broke up all the floorboards in the house and hid the family in the attic, and the water rushed into the house and rushed out. A lot of the houses were just washed away, but their house survived and the family survived. Hence I am here today, speaking to you. So I guess I was thinking about the weather and floods in general and everything from the past seems to creep into the future.
"I was thinking, 'Right, so there's your 20s. You're a kid and the flood is coming'. Then it's your 20s, and then the flood hits. And the water rushes into the house but you, or your psyche, is in the attic and you're like, 'It's okay, I'm okay. I can survive this'. And the water is rushing around and it's chaos and then it finally leaves and your are in your 30s, and you're like, 'Okay, I think I got through this'."
The new album was written in a pared-down way, in her local studio with minimal outside involvement. One of the songs is a beautiful, heartfelt apology to her sister, Grace, in which she sings, "You are the one I treated the worst - only because you loved me the most. We haven't spoken in a long time. I think about it sometimes. I don't know who I was back then. And I hope on hope I would never treat anyone like that again. This is the only thing I've ever had any faith in".
It sounds, I say, like she was being quite hard on herself. "Super hard on myself," she agrees. "It used to be worse. It used to be that I would rip myself to shreds internally about stuff. And it's definitely got better over time."
But apparently, whatever the transgression was, some grovelling was warranted. Her sister agreed it "was pretty bad," she says with a laugh. "But she was like, 'It's fine now, you've apologised, you don't drink any more, you're figuring it out'."
Welch grew up one of five children in an intellectually lively family. Her mother is a professor of medieval literature and her father is a writer. They split when she was small.
"We come from a family where you kind of hide behind humour, and it's all kind of cerebral and intellectual and lots of chatting, but the deep feeling gets batted away with a joke."
She's aiming now to think of love "in a bigger sense, in a collective sense. In a sense of wanting to encourage connection in some way, and by maybe making myself vulnerable in a way. And to say, like, 'I have this sense of loneliness that has plagued me since I was small and doesn't seem to ever really go away, and maybe everyone else has that too?' I'm just as likely to be in on a Friday night, crying and eating crisps and looking at my phone as anyone else. But what is liberating is when you say that to someone else and they say, 'I feel that way, too'. If by making myself vulnerable, I can encourage connection in that way, then, I don't know, I think there's a purpose to that."
High As Hope, the new album from Florence + the Machine, is out today from Virgin EMI and is available to buy on LP, CD and download at florenceandthemachine.net