Florence Welch, singer, daughter, girlfriend, pop star and self-described “South London pirate” is curled up on a gold tufted sofa in the grand sitting room in the Dorchester Hotel in London. She is dressed in a vintage paisley blouse, burgundy Victoria Beckham trousers, a mustard Topshop blazer and the shoes of an English schoolmarm. “I was going for a new-romantic teddy-bear thing but I think I accidentally ended up looking like Willy Wonka,” she says cheerily, plucking at the silk pussycat bow at her throat.
She is, of course, the sort of young woman who can afford to be self-deprecating. At 25, with a string of hits under her belt and another album on the way, she radiates the cool confidence of an artist in total command of her craft. In person, Welch betrays none of the Lady Gaga-esque split between diminutive “real girl” and dazzling public persona. Instead, she is every bit as ethereally glamorous in private as she appears onstage
Her long, pale, willowy body is topped by a head of iconic red curls and a face that manages to be both androgynous and delicately feline. Her manner, at once ingratiating and oddly remote (a posh London hipster specialty) veers from girlish excitement at her relatively new-found fame (“The artist Matthew Stone wants to film me running down Oxford Street barefoot with a bunch of Hare Krishnas. What do you suppose the paparazzi will make of that?”) to the kind of fey introspection one might expect from an artist The Sunday Times once described as “the most peculiar and highly acclaimed female singer of her time.”
Welch’s new album, Ceremonials, being released this week, is unlikely to disappoint fans of Florence and the Machine’s soul-baring, melodic, anthem-heavy debut album, Lungs. But while that first collection was an unabashed breakup album (written and recorded while Welch and her long-time boyfriend, a bookshop clerk, were on a temporary hiatus), Ceremonials is a more mature and eclectic production. “This album is more introspective than the first one, which was all about just desperately wanting one person. This one is the result of me thinking about my family history and England and the things that tie you to home.”
She mentions the pealing church bells at the beginning of the first track, Only If for a Night. “That came from memories of staying at my grandmother’s house and doing handstands in the churchyard next door. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the fields of England while flying on a plane to somewhere far away.”
Water imagery and literary references figure heavily in the songs on Ceremonials, both in their romantic, oceanic sounds and their emotionally expansive (occasionally verging on melodramatically tortured) lyrics and vocals. During our conversation, Welch manages to work in references to both Virginia Woolf and Frida Kahlo, revealing a bookish side that’s no surprise given her cool-meets-clever genetic history – she’s the daughter of an academic mother (a professor of Renaissance studies at the University of London) and an advertising-executive father.
Lungs reached No. 1 on British charts and sold respectably in North America, establishing Welch as an instant star in her home country. With Ceremonials, the challenge will be topping that success without alienating her romantic, nerdy-girl core fans.
Welch describes how she struggled with second-album syndrome during the songwriting process. “In a way, it was smoother because I had a more clear idea of what to do, but then it all fell apart. I was supposed to go to L.A. and do a big studio recording – I was excited ’cause I’m massively into that kind of music, I like big pop sound. But when it actually came to it, I just felt like ‘I can’t do it.’ I just went back in my little London studio with Isa, and banged pots and pans and eventually came up with this album.”
The little London studio she’s referring to is the historied Studio 3 in Abbey Road Studios and Isa is Isabella Summers, her long-time keyboardist, backup vocalist, best friend and onetime co-writer, a.k.a. the Machine. (The rest of the band is composed of a rotating group of sessional musicians.)
Once the album drops there will, undoubtedly, be another world tour in store for Florence and the Machine. (She’s flying into Australia for a Sydney show in November). And while she admits to missing her boyfriend on tour, she says it’s usually better if he doesn’t come along. “It’s quite hard having loved ones on tour. You can’t switch back to being your home self after you step off stage. All that energy and that madness, you are owned by the audience, and it affects you.”
She curls her schoolmarm shoes beneath her and leans her fiery curls back into the sofa’s golden arm. “But at home, in private, I’m not intense like that at all. I’m just more … normal.” It’s a pretty thought, but not an entirely easy one to believe.