Florence & The Machine: The Billboard Cover Story
It was a highly tempting offer. But ultimately not quite tempting enough.
Such is the confession of Florence Welch, 25, the flame-haired siren who fronts Florence & the Machine.
About 18 months ago, when the Grammy Award-nominated Brit was in the early stages of prepping her eagerly anticipated second album, the idea of going to Los Angeles to work with some of the hottest writer/producers on the planet was briefly and tantalizingly dangled before her. She declines to reveal their names, but says the opportunity was one that held an instant attraction.
"I love Lady Gaga, and I love Katy Perry and R&B and rap music," Welch says, the words tumbling from her mouth in rapid succession-like an excited, albeit highly well-spoken teen. "I love big, American pop music. I'm a total sucker for it. So the label said, 'Do you want to go over to America to work in that scene?' And I was like, 'Yeah, OK. Maybe I could bring my own take on it.' It got put in the diary to go out for a week, to start writing the new record. And then the diary got sent to me and I looked at it and just went, 'No. No. No. No. No! I can't do that. This is too weird. I can't just suddenly leave behind everything that made [2009 debut album] 'Lungs.'"
The first demo sessions for "Ceremonials" took place in January 2010 at a modest studio in London, with just two people present: Welch and Epworth, who co-wrote three of the tracks on "Lungs" and produced four of its finest cuts, including fan favorites "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)" and "Cosmic Love." Pleased with the results and keen to avoid the disjointed nature of her debut, which featured four producers, Epworth -- who Welch affectionately likens to a shaman -- was asked to sit in the producer's chair.
"There were a lot of people who wanted to work with her," Island Records senior A&R manager Ben Mortimer says, "especially as her success grew in America. But Florence's general feeling was, 'I just want to do 'Lungs' but I want to do it so much better.'"
"I had an idea of the sound," Welch says. "I wanted it to be more dark, more heavy, bigger drum sounds, bigger bass, but with more of a whole sound. So it sounded like a whole project rather than a scrapbook of ideas, which, for better or for worse, the first one was. That was a real specific thing: I wanted to work in one place with one producer."
There was one small, if not unwelcome, obstacle to overcome first, however: the ongoing success of "Lungs." First released stateside in November 2009, when it debuted at No. 179 on the Billboard 200, "Lungs" was a slow-burning success that peaked at No. 14 in October 2010 following the act's breakthrough performance of "Dog Days Are Over" at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. The song was subsequently covered on "Glee," with the cast recording hitting No. 22 on the Hot 100. The track also benefited from some high-profile synchs, most notably the trailer for the Julia Roberts film "Eat Pray Love." To capitalize, the band maintained a heavy live schedule throughout 2010 and 2011, including multiple U.S. tours and a succession of sold-out European runs.
Video: "Dog Days Are Over," Live at the 2010 VMAs
The result was that the follow-up to "Lungs" was put on the back burner. Intermittent songwriting sessions still took place throughout 2010-including a fruitful all-night tour bus effort by Welch and longtime musical partner Isabella "Machine" Summers (while in Amsterdam) that resulted in one of "Ceremonials'" best tracks, "No Light, No Light." But the bulk of material was written between January and March of this year.
In addition to Epworth, who co-wrote seven of "Ceremonials'" 12 tracks, several other British writers share credits on the record, including Summers, Kid Harpoon, James Ford and Ivor Novello Award-winning composer Eg White (co-author of Adele's "Chasing Pavements"). Recording took place during five weeks in April at Abbey Road's Studio Three, followed by a return trek to the United States, where Florence & the Machine played headline dates, summer festivals and a handful of support slots on U2's 360° tour, an experience that Welch likens to "open-air gladiatorial combat. It was amazing."
During this time, Epworth continued to refine the music at his own Wolf Tone studio in London, while Welch would spend off days visiting U.S. studios, such as New York's Stratosphere Sound and Miami's South Beach Studios, to record vocal tracks, which the producer would supervise via Skype. A final session featuring Welch, her band, Epworth and engineer Mark Rankin took place in July at Wolf Tone.
The final tally was approximately 40 tracks, later cut to the 12 that make up the standard version of "Ceremonials." A digital and CD 20-track deluxe version, featuring additional songs and demo and acoustic numbers, will accompany the release.
"I'm pretty surprised at how prolific I've been, to be honest," Welch says. "When making the first album I think I wrote a song about every six months." She credits her band -- Summers (synth), Chris Hayden (drums), Tom Moth (harp), Rob Ackroyd (guitar), Rusty Bradshaw (piano) and Mark Saunders (bass) -- with giving "Ceremonials" a fuller, richer and more powerful sound than its predecessor.
"The first album was so much about the vocals carrying it. This time I really wanted to give the music space to breathe and for the band to be able to experiment," she says. Key tracks include the majestic opener "Only If for a Night"; "Never Let Me Go," an impassioned midpaced ballad; "Breaking Down," a dreamlike pop symphony with stirring strings; and the retro soul thrust of "Lover to Lover," where Welch's vocals soar to previously untapped heights.
"There's always been a criticism thrown at Florence that she shouts rather than sings, and I dare anyone to level that at her after they have listened to 'Ceremonials,'" Island's Mortimer says. "The way she sings on this record is delicate and beautiful and full of melody."
"Through touring, my voice has matured and strengthened," Welch says. "[Epworth] was really helpful as well. He encouraged me to relax and just let it happen instead of forcing it all the time."
Asked if the massive success of "Lungs" brought added pressure when making its follow-up, Welch gives a small chuckle and notes that she has been here before.
"Nothing could have been harder than making the first record, so I was prepared for the onslaught this time," she says, citing the "terrifying" expectation that birthed her debut. The cause of her anxiety back then was the fervent media buzz, which begun when Florence & the Machine, like Adele the previous year, won the 2009 BRIT Critics Choice Award, prior to releasing a record. "There was a huge amount of media scrutiny on me," she recalls, citing numerous times during the making of "Lungs" when she could be found "lying, crying on the studio floor."
"Those conditions of people waiting and waiting, that expectance, everyone talking about you, getting pre-album awards-those are the conditions that I did my first album in. This one, by comparison, is much easier," Welch says. "I came into it having a much clearer idea of what sound I wanted to make and a much clearer idea of what was going to happen after the record was finished."
"Florence did her job. She delivered a masterpiece. Now it's on us," Universal Republic's Lipman says.
To that end, the label is taking nothing for granted, shifting the record's street date to stand in line with the rest of the world. (Its North American bow was originally set for Nov. 15.) "There's tremendous interest built into the release and there's a strong fan base out there and a certain anticipation that you can operate within and capitalize on, but we still have to hit the marks," Lipman says. "We have to be aggressive and make sure we seize every opportunity."
The first of those markers came Aug. 23 when a video for setup track "What the Water Gave Me" debuted on the band's website. The previous night, Welch alerted her 83,000 Twitter followers (@flo_tweet) to "pop over to my website at 5pm tomorrow for a peek at something very special." The response exceeded all expectations, says Island Records marketing manager Tom March, who says the video drew 1.5 million views in two days. Despite its five-and-a-half-minute running time, radio has given the song a warm welcome, with the track receiving plays on a number of alternative stations, including strong support from Los Angeles' KROQ, according to Lipman.
The radio push, meanwhile, begins with first single "Shake It Out," a rousing pop-rock number in the spirit of "Dog Days Are Over," which Lipman envisions as "an anthem in every gym in America a year from now." Due for domestic release Oct. 11 (the same day as the preorder album release), "Shake It Out" has been serviced to top 40, triple A, alternative and R&B formats.
Video: New Single "Shake It Out"
It is at R&B radio where Universal Republic has succeeded in breaking idiosyncratic British female pop singers. Several years ago, it was R&B that first jumped on Amy Winehouse. After all, "there's no station for choral, gospel chamber pop with heavy tribal drum stylings," Welch jokes. Internationally, "Shake" is already making waves. In Australia, it's playlisted at Triple J and Nova, with strong airplay in Scandinavia, Italy and Canada, according to Universal.
TV spots will additionally form a major element of the domestic push, says Lipman, who cites the artist's strength as a live performer as a key sales driver. "The greatest catalyst to sell Florence & the Machine were her TV performances. That's what ultimately broke Florence," he says.
To that end, Welch will visit the United States on three separate occasions this year to do TV, press and radio promotion. Exact details are still being scheduled, although the artist is confirmed to appear on CBS' "Sunday Morning." International TV spots include "The Late Late Show" in Ireland and "Skavlan" in Norway and Sweden, with many more to follow. "This is a wonderful album that has the potential to explode Florence internationally, and we are targeting platinum in all markets," Universal U.K. director of international Chris Dwyer says.
An extensive international live plan is also taking shape, with Universal hopeful that "Ceremonials" marks the point where Florence & the Machine step up from theaters to larger venues. "That's what we're all striving for," Lipman says. "I know someone like Florence could certainly play somewhere like [New York's] Radio City Music Hall. It's just a question of how many nights." Confirmed live dates for 2011 include a run of U.S. radio shows and a solitary U.K. concert on Oct. 25 at London's 1,700-capacity Hackney Empire.
"I love playing live and I love making music, and where that takes me is what will happen. I'm not really doing it for another reason," Welch says in friendly, self-deprecating tones. "Things just happen the way that they happen. I don't have a goal." Quizzed on how her self-confessed love of fashion and distinctively bohemian visual style influences her creativity, the singer's relaxed, jovial exterior momentarily slips, if only for a second.
"Music to me is so internal. It's physical and it's emotional. Whereas fashion is so much about the external that it's almost like a break. It's not inner turmoil. It's total escapism," says Welch, who counts Anna Wintour among her many fashionista fans. In return, Welch personally sent her a copy of "Ceremonials" as soon as it was finished. ("She really liked it," Welch says.) Karl Lagerfeld, meanwhile, collaborated on the press shots that will dominate the forthcoming campaign.
"Music is so much about the battling out of two sides of yourself, and with fashion you can put something on and you feel a certain way," Welch says. "You're not trying to exercise a demon." So what demons is she addressing? "I'm just being overly dramatic," she adds. "I'm not really possessed. Maybe I am? I don't know. I'm still figuring it out."