She opens the front door to her unassuming south London house herself, no assistant or minion in sight, squinting into the early evening sunlight as if surprised by its very presence. “Come in, come in,” she says, leading me through the cluttered hallway, past her bicycle and into a kitchen piled high with books on every available surface. “Cup of tea?” she offers, then takes me into the front room, where more books — on art, on music, memoirs piled haphazardly on top of novels — sit on impeccably distressed, boho-chic furniture. It’s dark in here, with low ceilings, the heavy curtains drawn. Framed artwork hangs on every wall.
Florence Welch is still jet-lagged from the previous day’s flight back from the United States, after headlining day two of Denver’s Grandoozy Festival with her band, Florence + The Machine. Yet even in this crepuscular atmosphere, and given her current exhausted state, Welch, wearing a silk blouse and skinny trousers, is radiant. Her auburn hair cascades over her shoulders. But her smile wavers. “Today is an anxious day,” she announces. “Most days are anxious, but this one feels particularly spiky.”
She has spent much of the afternoon trying to achieve some sense of calm with a long walk (“Walking’s good for anxiety, they say”) and a bit of Transcendental Meditation. But the daily pressures on the 32-year-old singer-songwriter don’t seem likely to let up anytime soon: The day after we meet, she will attend the award ceremony for the prestigious Mercury Prize, where her fourth album, the much-garlanded High As Hope, is shortlisted for album of the year. Then she heads back to the United States for two shows at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by a worldwide arena tour. She also is cautiously looking forward to the Grammy nominations in December, amid expectations that High As Hope — which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the Top Rock Albums chart in July, and is arguably her best album yet — could feature in both the pop and rock categories.
“Nobody knows where to put me!” she says with a laugh. “But then, I quite like keeping things loose.” Welch has been nominated for Grammys before — eight times, in fact. “Never won, though,” she says with a shrug. “But then, you learn more from not winning, I think.” Four of those nods came in 2015 for her last album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, a collection of songs detailing how she had become something of an expert at wreaking personal havoc.
“My secret inner thought was that I wanted to win a Grammy for that record as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to the whole situation, because I got this… this thing” as reward, she says. “But then I realized it didn’t take anything away from it just because I didn’t win.”
Three years later, Welch is at a creative high point at the precise moment, coincidentally, when The Recording Academy is confronting its need to be more inclusive at the Grammys. Should she go home empty-handed again, it still won’t diminish what she has achieved. But as an artist operating at her peak on all fronts — an extraordinary songwriter, a fierce performer, a touring force — some might call her an ideal of what a Grammy winner should look like in 2018.
“I always had a big imagination,” says Welch, curling one leg so far up underneath herself on the sofa that it disappears completely. “And I remember feeling as a girl so very ordinary and not being happy about that at all. So I dreamt big. Maybe I imagined myself into the person I am now? And look at me: a figment of my little-girl imagination come to life!” Her laugh is a giddy one, as if she can’t quite believe she pulled it off.
Ten years into her career, Welch may be the most beloved rock star of her generation. A magnetic performer, a feminist hero and a style icon with a mystique that’s natural, not cultivated, she inspires not just admiration but gushing adulation.
“She makes you believe that magic exists on planet Earth because she is magical, from her voice to her presence to the way she moves,” says actress Blake Lively, Welch’s close friend. “The way she tells a story with every part of herself — really, she is unlike anyone I have ever seen. Onstage, there is such a ferocity that comes out in the way she communicates, and in person, there is such delicacy. It’s amazing how she can be both these things simultaneously.”
That juxtaposition is part of what makes Welch’s songs the kind that invite zealous fan analysis, even among other artists — “Her songs are wide and deep, each one an individual ocean,” says Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power — and her shows near-religious experiences, with Welch, a manic preacher and whirling dervish in one, at their center. She’s a proven festival headliner (Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, among many) and arena filler on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet Welch has, quite deliberately, avoided celebrity status. Even in her tabloid-obsessed U.K. home, the paparazzi rarely stalk her.
“I’ve never really had to compromise,” she says. “Not in the way I look, the way I dress, the way I sound. It’s incredible that I’ve been given such free rein, but then, I’ve been very lucky along the way. Throughout my career, I’ve been supported by some very kind people who always allowed me to be free.”
Most recently, one of those was American songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., who collaborated with Welch on three High As Hope tracks. “She’s very unusual in the way she works,” says Jesso. “I was always trying to catch up with whatever she was doing next. She has her own style, her own scale, and it’s definitely not the regular pop scale. I honestly think that it wouldn’t matter whom she was working with — it would still sound 99 percent like her. That’s how special she is.”
Perhaps The Recording Academy will recognize in Welch what Jesso does — especially in the year following outgoing president/CEO Neil Portnow’s suggestion that women needed to “step up” if they wanted the kind of prominent Grammy acknowledgement their male counterparts have received. At a time when women across genres — including Welch contemporaries like St. Vincent and Janelle Monáe — are making some of the most inventive and socially engaged music out there, Portnow’s comment felt not only callous but woefully out of touch. (While Welch didn’t win the Mercury Prize, the award did go to another female-fronted rock act, Wolf Alice.)
Welch is no stranger to distinguishing herself in a realm dominated by men. She came of age in what she calls the “south London punk scene” — albeit punk of the 21st-century variety, the kind that didn’t trouble reigning monarchs — playing with musicians in and around her Camberwell art college, most of them male. “It always felt like me in their world, but I wanted to be in my own world. There were just so many indie boy bands around, so when I met my friend Isa” — songwriter Isabella Summers, with whom she has written regularly ever since and who plays keyboard in Florence + The Machine — “at a squat party, we hit it off because we both wanted to make music together, and away from them.”
Writing with Summers, says Welch, allowed her to be “emotionally led,” to express herself on the largest possible canvas. Her songs have tended toward grandeur, but her lyrics read like diary entries. (Earlier this year, Welch published her first book of poems and lyrics, Useless Magic.) Given such levels of volume, High As Hope came as something of a surprise: It is by far her most reflective, and quiet, album yet.
It is also her first written and recorded sober. The feverish “Big God” approaches love as an addiction, while “Hunger” — with its opening line, “At 17 I started to starve myself” — unflinchingly details her battles with anorexia. Choosing to go public about subjects so private has been cathartic for Welch.
“I’m much more accepting of myself now [as a result], and I have really good days, but then there are days when I find I’m still picking myself apart,” says Welch. “The insidious, underlying [issues] are still there.” “Big God,” for instance, is about a man who won’t text her back — but more deeply, about valuing yourself when you are relying heavily upon someone else for validation. “This person who isn’t texting me back, that’s quite rude, isn’t it?” she asks with a laugh. “They’ve disappeared! They must be a magical genius! And so I must remain devoted to them!” She shakes her head. “What the fuck is that about?”
Welch wrote much of High As Hope alone in London, without collaborators, including her one-time mainstay Summers. (She later brought in a select few co-writer/producers, including Jesso and Emile Haynie.) “I guess Florence just wanted to figure things out for herself [on this record],” says Summers. “A moment of doing everything by herself, which is why it’s such an intimate thing.”
In the past, Welch’s albums have deliberately captured certain moments in her life in a heightened way. “Lungs, for example, was a total shambles,” she explains of Florence + The Machine’s 2009 debut. “I’d decided I wanted my whole life to be like a festival: halfway up a tree, covered in glitter, high on E. [2011’s] Ceremonials was a big, silver-gray massive shard of life, a sword, quite dark and very bleak. But then my drinking at that time was pretty bad, and so I wanted to dress everything up in a huge cathedral of sound.”
By 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, her first Billboard 200 No. 1, she was trying to claw her way out of the mess she had made of her private life, having constantly torpedoed stability in favor of hedonism. “That album was celestial and electric, because I was heartbroken and annoyed and determined to beat it all out of me,” she says. “It was a very masculine record.”
For years, Welch would prepare herself for live shows by trying to emulate male singers. She would watch videos of Otis Redding performing “Try a Little Tenderness” and footage of Mick Jagger and Nick Cave, hoping to channel elements of each. When she is compared to female artists, it’s usually to Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Patti Smith — all singular voices from bygone eras, the suggestion tacit that in 2018, Welch is in a field of her own. Nonsense, she insists.
“A lot of people — male journalists, mostly — will ask me how it feels to be a woman in rock today, as if that is somehow still pertinent,” she says with a sigh, head in hands. “Why are we even having this conversation anymore? I’ve just done shows in America with Lizzo and St. Vincent, arena shows. We were not only selling a lot of tickets but also shredding the fuck out of the crowd. But then I see other festivals where there are no women in the topline at all, and I just feel like: ‘Why?’ It’s so confusing to me, this idea that rock stars are the only ones that draw the crowds, and that rock stars are still male. Are they really?” She pauses, incredulous. “Maybe there are still many rock stars around today, but they just happen to be women! And sober! Maybe today’s rock stars happen to be pop stars, too? Maybe rock stars no longer look the way certain people think because that perception is outdated. The times are changing. A festival headliner these days looks like Adele, like Beyoncé. You can be super free and ferocious, and full of female fury — and take the crowd with you.” She cackles. “Female rage is one of the scariest things you could possibly imagine.”
Right now, in the weeks leading up to Grammy nomination time, it is also one of the most powerful forces changing music and the culture as a whole — making Welch more relevant than ever. But the woman sitting with me today does not exude some hunger for overdue trophies. She gets up to stretch her legs, refills her tea, then nestles back into the sofa as if craving nothing more than peace and quiet, and perhaps a restorative nap.
“Sometimes I do wish I were more rock-star cool,” she muses. “You know, just sit here in sunglasses, not answering questions, enigmatic. But I like people, and I want to make them comfortable.”
Lately, as anyone who hears High As Hope will understand, she has been working hard to make herself comfortable, too. “I don’t want to be the tornado anymore,” admits Welch. “I love touring and would miss it if I stopped, but I also love the glimpses of domestic happiness I’ve had. I want to inhabit both worlds, if possible. There is something in me now that wants to be happy. I’ve rejected happiness in the past, that domestic, stable thing. But not anymore.”
This she learned not from the therapist’s couch but from her own songs. “A lot of my songs know things before I do; they are cleverer than me,” she says. She cites a line from High As Hope’s closing track, “No Choir”: “For a moment, we were able to be still.”
“That’s like a message to myself. As much as I love playing transcendent live shows, I also like sitting at home watching TV with someone, cooking, reading together. My songs tell me that, and I didn’t realize it until I listened to them. They are good predictors for me, I think.” She smiles wistfully. “I should listen to them more.”
Embracing that calm, says Welch, allowed her to retreat into a shell she didn’t even know she possessed when creating High As Hope. But if her occasional past bombast is absent, her attack remains. “Her new album is quiet in the way that Nick Cave is quiet, which means it’s not,” says photographer-director Autumn de Wilde, who helmed the “Big God” music video. “I’m in awe of people who can make a whisper into a scream.”
“This is definitely my most feminine record,” says Welch. “It’s more pink, more… orchid flowers. But there is a ferocity to it. Just because it’s a feminine record doesn’t mean it’s fragile. In fact,” she stresses, “anything but.”
‘She Is A Superhero, Basically’: Three Artists on What Makes Welch Their Ultimate Inspiration
CAT POWER, singer-songwriter
“I met Florence at a swimming pool in Los Angeles. I ran over because my goddaughter saw her and was freaking out — and she was lovely. She is a superhero, basically. She is freedom. It’s like gospel music, you know? This glorifying sort of exaltation.”
AUTUMN DE WILDE, photographer-director
“Florence approached me to come up with an idea for a video, and when I first heard ‘Big God,’ it set fire to my soul. She is so electric, so magnetic. I wanted the video to be prowling and grotesque yet sexy, and Florence understood that power.”
ISABELLA SUMMERS, bandmember
“When I met Florence, I was working with a lot of U.K. rappers, but I really wanted to work with another girl. I invited her to this dirty rock‘n’roll rehearsal studio, and we started working together. That was it: I’d found my collaborator.”
Her Eight Grammy Noms
Best New Artist
“Shake It Out,” best pop duo/group performance
Ceremonials, best pop vocal album
“Sweet Nothing,” best dance recording
“Ship to Wreck,” best pop duo/group performance
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, best pop vocal album
“What Kind of Man,” best rock performance
“What Kind of Man,” best rock song