When Florence Welch, the charismatic frontwoman for orchestral rock band Florence & The Machine, performs, she takes on a regal, shape-shifting, almost androgynous form, prowling around the stage with Mick Jagger’s louche gait one moment, then twisting her arms into witchy spirals like Stevie Nicks the next. Welch, 28, will use her long, delicate fingers to air-pick a harp, as if she is coaxing the notes out from the instrument with a magic spell. She wears giant capes with wings and jackets dripping with tassels, and covers herself with blooming roses onstage, signature flaming red-dyed hair flying. Her shows -- she’s making the festival rounds this summer, from Bonnaroo to Governors Ball -- can feel almost like tent revivals, as each song builds to a climax and her booming vibrato cuts through all the noise.
This is exactly what Welch was doing on April 12, the night she gave yet another part of herself to her live show: her metatarsal bone. She broke her foot opening for Drake on the main stage during day three of Coachella, while the sun was setting. Welch, who lives in London, tells the story a few weeks later, early one Thursday morning in a sunny corner of Balthazar restaurant in Manhattan. (After breakfast, she has to run -- or rather, hobble -- off to rehearse for Saturday Night Live, where her band will be the musical guest that weekend.)
At Coachella, Welch felt too far removed from the crowd, so as the band pounded out “Dog Days Are Over” (an early hit and still its biggest in America, reaching No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100), she yelled at the throng, “Take off your clothes!” She laughs, gesturing wildly with hands covered in turquoise rings. “There were naked girls -- I was like, ‘If they’re doing it, I have to do it too.’ ” She stripped down to a delicate white bra and flared white pants. “I realized no one else in the band has taken their shirts off. It’s just me up here. I needed to get down with the other naked people. So I jumped pretty fast and hard, and as I landed I just went, ‘Ahhhh!’ I just knew -- I heard the crunch. But out of fear and adrenaline, with clothes flying everywhere, I kept running around, and then finally collapsed on the floor. And it looked like a big rock’n’roll fall for dramatic effect, but the truth is I just couldn’t walk anymore. I crawled off the stage the wrong way. And there I was, crumpled behind a speaker, hugging my shirt, needing to be carried away.” Peering up through her shaggy bangs, Welch adds: “And I wasn’t even drunk.”
The Coachella performance was only Welch’s third show back after a year off from touring, and in a way, she thinks snapping the bone may be the best thing that could have happened to her. On June 2 the band will release its third album, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, and Welch will be on the road for the summer and likely beyond. The injury reminds her that her last touring excursion -- almost four years of endless, alcohol-fueled gigs -- nearly ended in a breakdown. “I used to drink before every performance,” she says. “I’m quite shy, really -- that’s probably why I used to drink a lot. But I don’t anymore. When I finally took time off to make this new record, I had time to strengthen. And when I was coming back into the fray, I really didn’t want to lose that. I thought I could go dive-bomb back into it, but look what happened. I dived into it and literally broke myself.”
It’s partly her live performances that have made Welch a favorite among other artists -- Beyoncé, Usher and Ellie Goulding are all fans. (“There’s no one quite as fearless onstage as Florence,” says English singer Jessie Ware. “She is a dream to watch.”) Her daring, graceful fashion sense hasn’t hurt, either. Taylor Swift, a friend whom Welch says she visits at home whenever she passes through New York, sees Welch as a total package. “What sets Florence apart? Everything,” Swift tells Billboard. “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.”
In the United States, Florence & The Machine’s 2009 debut album, Lungs, reached No. 14 on the Billboard 200, selling 1.3 million copies (according to Nielsen Music); its 2011 follow-up, Ceremonials, went to No. 6 and moved 1 million. But the band has yet to score a top 10 Hot 100 hit. If you hear Welch on American radio, it is likely her singing on the Calvin Harris song “Sweet Nothing,” which peaked at No. 10.
Welch demurs when asked about the commercial pressure surrounding the new album. (Says Jim Roppo, executive vp marketing and commerce for Welch’s label, Republic Records: “We’re aiming for a No. 1 album.”) “I try not to think about it,” she says. “I’m a strange kind of ambitious, because I never cared about having a No. 1 single.”
Shows have been the focus. “I remember being 20 at the Glastonbury festival. And I had been invited to come and play the Sunday Tea Tent, and I was in my anorak and I had no Wellies, and it was one of the muddiest Glastonburys of all time. I remember looking at the Pyramid Stage and thinking, ‘I wish I could perform there just one time.’ ” And in fact, Welch will play the Pyramid this June, as one of her first sets after her foot is healed. “It’s hard to imagine that you think about something you’d like to have happen in your life and it happens,” says Welch. “For a pessimistic British person that’s very hard to deal with. Whereas in L.A.,” she continues, referring to the city she retreated to while she was off the road, “they would say, ‘You’re manifesting.’ But I obviously wasn’t there long enough to feel I deserve any of this.”
Welch honed her voice singing in her small bedroom in Camberwell, London. Her father, a British advertising executive, and her mother, a Renaissance Studies professor from Boston who moved to England in 1981 and still lives in London, divorced when Welch was 11. When her mother began dating another man, Welch and her two sisters moved in with him and his children down the street. Her maternal grandmother, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide when Welch was 13. Welch responded to all this upheaval by retreating back into herself, inventing fantasy worlds and warbling in her room. She also suffered from dyslexia and anxiety, and poured her frustrations into songs.
At 18, Welch began writing music with her younger sister’s babysitter, Isabella Summers, who is six years older and remains Welch’s co-writer, keyboardist and best friend. They called themselves Florence Robot/Isa Machine before settling on Florence & The Machine, and recruiting the current core of the band (guitarist Robert Ackroyd, drummer Chris Hayden, bassist Mark Saunders and harpist Tom Monger). Welch dropped out of college to pursue music full time, playing London’s bars and clubs, and convinced her now-manager, a London DJ named Mairead Nash, to book her for a big industry Christmas party after she tipsily sang Nash a few bars of an Etta James ballad in a nightclub bathroom. After getting signed in 2008, Welch went to South by Southwest to play showcases and met MGMT, who brought Florence & The Machine on tour as an opening act and helped kick off the band’s first major run of shows. In the run-up to releasing its debut, Welch dyed her hair a fiery red (she’s naturally a brunette) and began to experiment with glamorous costumes. The band made its first big splash stateside performing “Dog Days Are Over” at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010; in 2011, Welch joined such stars as Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Hudson for Aretha Franklin’s Grammy tribute.
“She’s one of the few amazing musicians who has a strong eccentric streak,” says producer Markus Dravs, who worked with Welch on How Big How Blue How Beautiful. “I would put her next to Stevie Nicks, Bjork, Kate Bush. What struck me over the years is the commitment and conviction that she has in her art. It goes beyond the songwriting into her visuals.”
Welch admits that a lot of her early costuming and theatrical flair was a sort of defense mechanism. “I did my first press shot when I was 20, and it was the first time I ever saw myself in a newspaper,” she recalls. “I was in shorts, with a goofy grin, and I was terrified. I saw that and was like, ‘No way.’ It was too raw, too exposing to be that real. And so over time, I found ways to protect myself: The hair went bright red, my eyebrows went bleached off, my clothes were completely black and goth. I had a Siouxsie Sioux phase -- I looked like a kind of bat. I was always climbing the rigging, always super drunk, yelling and crowd surfing. It was my way of dealing with all the attention.”
Welch’s striking image caught the eye of fashion designers. She performed at a Chanel runway show in 2011 and even served as a muse to Mulberry -- models wore red wigs for a Welch-inspired show (also in 2011). She was devastated to miss the Met Gala in May due to her foot -- she had planned to wear a “gorgeous red lace dress from [Alexander] McQueen.” (The heavy boot she has to wear while healing, though, “kind of looks like a Birkenstock. So at least it’s chic.”)
But Welch increasingly feels like “there’s something about me that’s more feral and unhinged than a gown. I love gowns, I love dressing up -- but there’s something about a cape or a gown that almost dictates how you will move and stand, and you feel like you have to live up to the dress.” And on How Big How Blue How Beautiful, she wanted to dig deeper. “This new album comes from a quieter place, one that is less grand and more vulnerable, and it wouldn’t feel right to try to put up walls again,” says Welch. “Although I love all that fashion stuff, it is also a way of guarding myself. I decided f--- it, it was time to let it all go.”
For Welch, the break from touring in 2014 was “supposed to be when I rested and had a lovely time” writing the band’s third album. She decamped to Los Angeles with Summers. “We lived in a crazy doll’s house on a mountainside,” she says. “L.A. was all big blue skies, driving and listening to Neil Young. I got fully into L.A., the way I go full throttle with everything.” But the downtime left her at a loss. “I had kind of a breakdown and washed up a bit of a mess to the studio. I had just wore myself out.
“Without the structure of touring, you have to face your own chaos,” says Welch. “I was playing gigs nonstop since I was 21. When I was left to my own devices, I realized I was f---ing everything up. I was in and out of a relationship, in and out of drinking too much. It was like constantly picking yourself up and then dropping yourself, picking yourself up and dropping yourself. And that was exhausting.”
Florence & The Machine’s ethereal last album, Ceremonials, referenced mythology and Virginia Woolf. With this record, Welch was finally ready to tackle her personal life. She says Swift made her more comfortable putting her own experiences into song: “Taylor said that you must sing about what’s happening in your life.” (Says Swift: “She’s the most fun person to dance with at a party, but then five minutes later you find yourself sitting on the stairs with her having an in-depth conversation about love and heartbreak.”) “It’s definitely not about trying to be vindictive,” says Welch. “It’s about being honest. This could’ve been a breakup record,” she adds, presumably referring to her longtime off-and-on relationship with well-connected British event producer James Nesbitt, which was closely followed by the U.K. tabloids. “But it was much more about trying to understand myself.”
You can hear Welch honing in on this pain in the crackling recent single “What Kind of Man.” Its video shows her naked and dripping on a bathroom floor, crawling out of a crashed car and being tossed around a dingy hotel room by a surly group of men. “For that video, we were thinking about ideas of purgatory and Dante’s Inferno,” she says. “Because I was in this purgatory with this man. That push and pull thing where you are just stuck and you’re like, ‘Why do we keep doing this to each other?’ ” Welch shakes her fists, causing her jewelry to clatter. “It’s an aggressive song, but I can see my own part in the whole process. I was just as crazy as he was. People think the men in the video represent my ex-boyfriends, but they really represent a lot of different forces that weren’t working for me.”
As Welch gathers her things up to head to the SNL rehearsal -- she says she really wants to stand for the performance; ultimately she sat on a stool, seemingly fighting the urge to leap up -- she reflects again on her bum appendage as a metaphor: for her new rawness, her need to connect to an even wider audience on a yet more intimate level. “I don’t know why the foot break happened,” she says. “But it forced me in a way to slow down and have the same person who wrote this record to show up and sing those songs.”