Ghosts haunt Florence Welch. Forsaken spirits and old heartbreaks inspired the London songbird's massively successful first two albums as Florence and the Machine. "There's a ghost in my mouth and it talks in my sleep, wraps itself around my tongue as it softly speaks," she sings, and it's a typical Florence lyric: raw, bedevilling.
If the alabaster-skinned, crimson-haired chanteuse herself was a ghost, however, she'd be the sort that seeps into old homes to buckle the floorboards and rattle the dishware. Her music – turbulent drums, roiling orchestral lashes, and cathartic songwriting – is the stuff of storms.
But if Florence onstage is a brooding banshee, the one with the pixie-like, halting voice speaking over the phone from Denver between stops on her North American tour sounds like someone else entirely.
For all her world-weary musings about love, the 25-year-old Welch is more precocious than you might expect, an unusual statement about someone who deals in elegies, with the aforementioned lovesick albums, 2009's Lungs and 2011's Ceremonials, both going platinum.
"I think it's just a heightened version of me," she says about her wild-eyed onstage persona. "When I'm in rehearsals and no one's there, I'm still twirling around and jumping around on speakers. The me onstage is the unselfconscious me. It's almost like the stage is a place where there are no boundaries, there are no social restrictions. That's the me that I want to be all the time, but there's that other side of me that is quiet."
Indeed, introspection seems symptomatic of introversion. And given that Florence and the Machine rose alongside Adele, Laura Marling, and Lily Allen – other British songstresses with powerful pipes who treat the studio as confessional – maybe her shyness isn't so surprising. "We're completely incapable of expressing our emotions on a regular basis because of our English upbringing ... stiff upper lip and reserve and all that," she says. "I'm incapable of saying how I feel. I become just a wreck, I can't get any words out. It's almost easier to sing how I feel to thousands of strangers than to say it to one person face-to-face."
While some insist the blues must be earned with age, the soulful Welch proves young love can be just as wrenching. Both Lungs and Ceremonials were inspired by two splits with the same ex-boyfriend. And the first song she ever wrote, at 13, was about a dreamed-up breakup. "I had never even had a boyfriend then, but I was already writing about it," she says. "No boyfriend, but straight to the bad things."
"Our heartbreak, it's rawer, it's new, it's the first time. You can't believe you could cry this much, and when does the crying stop?" she says. "And even if it's the second time, you're still so shocked at your capacity to feel, of some veil being removed, and you didn't know you could feel like this."
These are her ghosts now. As a child, she says, her overactive imagination took her to dark places. "You still have those fears, of the things that go bump in the night, but they're more about relationships or guilt or doubt. It's as if you take those things as an adult and transform them into the demons of your childhood as a way to get out the adult ones."
She even worries her lyrics are maledictions, sorceries writ in song. "I'm a chaos merchant. I'm always kind of inciting this disaster," she says. She cites the biography of Marianne Faithfull, the drug-addled diva famously linked to Mick Jagger who wrote dark songs about exquisite – and highly public – heartbreak. "She said it was almost as if she'd willed it upon herself. Be careful what you write, because it often comes true, as if you're kind of cursing yourself."
These are the two sides of the spellbinding Florence Welch – the one that's a fashion icon and brassy front woman, and the one who seems to believe in magic and squealed with delight when a 30-metre inflatable Voldemort appeared in the Olympic opening ceremony. There's the Welch who says her interests include all-night parties, and the one who added she also likes to read, be quiet, and "walk and look at things."
Both Welches, though, believe in ghosts. And somehow, that makes perfect sense.
Florence and the Machine plays Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre Aug. 2 and Montreal's Osheaga festival Aug. 3.