Florence Welch has been on top of the charts ever since her band Florence + the Machine burst onto the scene in 2009 with the breakthrough album Lungs, followed by the multi-platinum Ceremonials in 2011 and its Grammy-nominated hit single "Shake It Out." The British singer seemed to emerge as a fully formed rock star, equal parts Shakespeare's Ophelia and Annie Lennox, with a powerhouse voice drawing on blues, gospel and soul and a stage persona as fiery as her signature red hair. (This year at Coachella, she leapt so hard on stage she broke her foot.)
Florence + the Machine's songs have been described as "baroque pop," in great part due to their opulent orchestration — the band have a full-time harp player — and lyrics that veer toward gothic melodrama. But despite fronting the perfect band for bookish sensitive types (Welch's mother is a college professor), the singer is not gunning for high-brow or outsider status. Her biggest hit was a Calvin Harris remix of "Spectrum" and the Machine have always used big gun producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay, U2). The new album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Björk) and opens with the bombastic single "Ship to Wreck." The admittedly much more personal record debuted at #1 in several countries including the US and Canada, on the day she landed in Toronto to headline the Bestival Festival.
What are you up to?
I am travelling a lot. Exploding suitcases, a lot of paisley flung all over hotel rooms. Trying to do as much exercise as I can. Swimming, because I have a bit of a bad back. Trying to stay grounded. Drinking too much coffee. Texting too much. Not talking to my mother enough.
What are you current fixations?
Nick Cave. I'm obsessed.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in London because I was born there. And my mother said I wasn't allowed to move more than ten minutes away from her house. She said I'd just lose my keys. Which I did. Often. But it isn't really working now because I am constantly all over the world.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Alanis Morissette was one of my heroes growing up. And Celine Dion is Canadian, right? She was also really big for me as a child. I can do a really good Celine. That was my party trick, on the school buses, impressions of Celine Dion. Also, I just think in terms of how Canada was really supportive of Florence + the Machine, well before the States. It was a really warm reception, quite early. I remember feeling the warmth of the crowd and thinking it was really cool.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I think it was Green Day's Dookie, on CD. I had a Coca-Cola CD player, which was my favourite thing in the whole world. I was super into American skate punk — like Green Day, Offspring, Blink-182. It was my first experience with more than just liking music. Like, a way of looking at the world, how you met who you fancied, the whole thing. Like, "Oh, music can claim me." And I loved that CD player.
What was your most memorable day job?
I worked at a bar right out of school. I literally walked into a bar around the corner from my house on the last day of school and got a job, because all my friends who went to art college worked in bars and I thought it would be fun. I wanted to drink and party. That was my ambition. I was a pretty good barmaid. Except I couldn't do any of the math or things like that. But I was super fun. I did a lot of dancing behind the bar. There was a little barrier, like a little stage. I spent a lot of time there.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
I don't think so. We keep adding people rather than firing people. At the beginning, I didn't have a set guitarist. We'd play with different people who had their own bands. Kid Harpoon played guitar for a while. The whole idea of Florence + the Machine was that it would just be this kind of really free-floating entity of different musicians coming and going. Then I met Rob [Ackroyd, guitar] and Chris [Hayden, drums] and we became sort of a band. We started touring as a bluesy three-piece. There was a real freedom to that. My dad was tour managing us, in his camper van. There was such a "fuck it" attitude. It was a magic time, and we just picked up people along the way. Tom [Monger] was a harpist who we found. Everyone has stuck together since then.
How do you spoil yourself?
Well, this could be construed in two ways: I get tattoos. My mother would say that I was spoiling myself, because she hates tattoos. I have to pretend they are transfers when I get them, for like six months. But every time there's a song, I get a little tattoo that means something to me. The first tattoo I ever got was after our first SXSW show in Austin, TX. [Shows her hands.] This is for the new record, the elemental signs for air and water. It's the idea of being between two worlds. Like, the water from Ceremonials and the air of How Big, How Blue. It felt that How Big, How Blue was a way of getting out of the depths of something, into the sky. So we looked at these kinds of symbols. Then this crucifix is for the lyric "between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign, we decided to get hurt" from "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful." And this birdcage is the first logo we had. People do often ask me if it's a Tardis, which I'm also okay with.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Not getting tattooed.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
You know, when I was young and naïve, about 16, I said I wanted "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones played at my funeral. I guess that still stands.