Florence Welch Comes Face-To-Face With Herself On 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful'

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Florence and the Machine's latest album is called How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. (Courtesy of the artist)
Florence and the Machine's latest album is called How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. (Courtesy of the artist)

Everything about Florence and the Machine is extreme: The raucous hand claps and stomps, the bellowing choirs of layered vocals, the harps and guitars and brass, the wild costumes and exploding energy. But as she began the band's latest album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, singer Florence Welch felt pulled in a different direction.

Speaking with NPR's Rachel Martin from a tour stop in Chicago, Welch explained why the new album, which exposes her voice and emotions in rawer ways than before, forced her to come to terms with a hidden part of herself. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Rachel Martin: I read that the song "Various Storms and Saints" almost didn't make it onto the album. How come?

Florence Welch: It's really exposing, hearing my own voice so close up and raw and talking about such personal stuff. I just was like, "Oh my God, I can't do this!"

But, when you say that it's exposing — I mean, how do you think of your voice?

I don't know, I think I've got quite a strange voice. It's more emotional, perhaps, than technical. I think I quite like to hide it behind lots of backing vocals and things like that — and on this record, Markus Dravs, who is the producer, he was quite adamant that I wasn't going to do that. And I agreed with him, because it's good to be vulnerable, but it was a big change for me. I found it difficult.

This is a more personal album than you've ever made. I want to ask about a particular song, "What Kind Of Man." I'm going to guess this is about a relationship that went south — is that a fair reading? Is this the first time you've done a breakup song like this?

I think it's the first time that I've dealt with it so directly. I've sort of written about relationships before, but in these kind of grand metaphors, and would kind of hide the essence of the relationship within these big stories. But I think there was something about the intensity of this experience that created a more direct style of songwriting.

The title track of this album is "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," which I understand refers to LA and the skyline in particular. In the video for this song, it's you, and you are quite literally coming face-to-face with yourself. Can you walk us through that idea and that tension? What's happening there?

You know, to make this record, it was like almost a period of unraveling before. Without the distraction of touring and without the kind of validation of shows all the time, I really was, for the first time in a long time, faced with myself and everything that perhaps I hadn't been dealing with or hadn't really grown out of.

One half of me kind of wanted to have this calm, quiet, nice time — and then I would just keep tripping myself up into this chaotic side. But, you know, I'm quite self-destructive. I had a lot of fun, but there was a real conflict with that in the year that I was writing. I think in the writing of the record, it was almost as if I came back to myself in a different way.

The "machine" part of Florence and the Machine is a woman named Isabella Summers. Can you tell me about your partnership — your friendship — over these many years?

Yeah, I mean, it was a catalyst for everything, if you think about it. I met her, I think I was 16, 17. She was DJing in a room that was made out to be like a jungle. It was like, people covered in bubble wrap, I can't remember.

Sounds like a good party.

Really good party! Well, there was a big live music and art scene where I was growing up, all these punk bands and performance artists. The first song that I wrote with her, she just gave me this old piano and was like, "Do whatever you want." And I think the first song I wrote was "Between Two Lungs," and then literally the next song we wrote together was "Dog Days Are Over."

We didn't have any equipment — that was just banging on the walls. We stole a drum from the next door studio; we used pens. And because I didn't really know how to play things that well, I'd use my voice as an instrument most of the time, so that's where this big choral thing came from. Once I had "Dog Days," I think, I had a sound.

I want to ask you about your style. Your art has a sound to it, but it also has a look: You're well known for these big, dramatic outfits and for really having an intention to how you dress. What does fashion do for you?

When I had a real crack, and I was making the record, I couldn't get dressed. I wore an anorak and leggings, and I cycled to the studio every day in the rain with my packed lunch. Getting dressed is a kind of creative output for me, but when I was putting all my last resources, and I was a bit broken I think, it was almost like I wanted to just disappear from myself. And the record really rebuilt me and took me to such a better place. It made me so much more comfortable to just be myself.

I think with Ceremonials, the music was so grand and it reached such a peak, it almost felt like there was quite a lot of pressure to be as grand — so the outfits got really big, and there were dresses, and it was couture. There's something about this record, to me, that comes from a realer place, a more natural place. It's like the walls have been broken down a bit, and I don't really want to rebuild them.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Everything about Florence and the Machine is extreme - the vocals, the costumes, the absolutely exploding energy of the music. But lead singer Florence Welch felt pulled in a different direction with her new album, called "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," and songs like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VARIOUS STORMS AND SAINTS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Somewhere in the belly of the beast...

MARTIN: Florence Welch is on tour now. She spoke to us from Chicago and explained why this song we're hearing now. "Various Storms And Saints," it almost didn't make it onto the album.

FLORENCE WELCH: It's really exposing, hearing my own voice so close up and raw and, you know, talking about such personal stuff. I just was like, oh, my God - (laughter) - I can't do this.

MARTIN: But when you say that it's exposing, I mean, how do you think of your voice?

WELCH: I don't know. I think I've got quite a strange voice. It's more, like, emotional perhaps than technical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VARIOUS STORMS AND SAINTS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) But still you stumble, feet give way. Outside, the world seems a violent place.

WELCH: I think I quite like to hide it behind lots of backing vocals and things like that. And actually, on this record, Markus, you know, Dravs, who's the producer, he was quite adamant that I wasn't going to do that. And, you know, I agreed with him because it's good to be vulnerable. But it was a big change for me. Like, I found it difficult.

MARTIN: This is a more personal album than you've ever made. I want to ask about a particular song, "What Kind Of Man." And then we'll talk on the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT KIND OF MAN")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) To let me dangle on a cruel angle. Oh, my feet don't touch the floor. Sometimes you're half in, and then you're half out. But you never close the door.

MARTIN: I'm going to guess this is about a relationship that went south. Is that a fair reading? Is this the first time you've done a breakup song like this?

WELCH: I think it's the first time that I've dealt with it so directly. I've sort of written about relationships before, but in these kind of grand metaphors and would kind of hide the essence of the relationship within these big stories. But I think there was something about the intensity of this experience that created a more direct style of songwriting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT KIND OF MAN")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) What kind of man loves like this? What kind of man...

MARTIN: The title track of this album is "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," which I understand refers to LA and the skyline in particular?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign, we decided to get hurt.

MARTIN: In the video for this song, it's you. And you're quite literally coming face-to-face with yourself. Can you walk us through that idea and that tension? What's happening there?

WELCH: You know, to make this record it was like almost a period of unraveling that happened before. Without the distraction of torturing and without the kind of validation of shows all the time, I really was, in the first time for a long time, faced with myself and everything that perhaps I hadn't grown out of. You know, one half of me wanted to kind of have this calm, quiet, nice time. And then I would just keep tripping myself up into this chaotic side. But, you know, I'm quite self-destructive. It's fun. Like, I had a lot of fun. (Laughter). But, you know, there was a real conflict with that in the year that I was writing. And I think in the writing of the record, it was almost as if I came back to myself in a different way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW BIG, HOW BLUE, HOW BEAUTIFUL")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) We've opened the door, now it's all coming through. Tell me you see it too. We've opened our eyes and its changing the view...

MARTIN: The Machine part of Florence and The Machine is a woman named Isabella Summers.

WELCH: Yes, yes (laughter).

MARTIN: Can you tell me about your partnership, your friendship over these many years?

WELCH: Yeah, I mean, it was a catalyst for everything, really, if you think about it. I met her - I think I was like, 16, 17. She was Djing in a room that was made out to be like a jungle. It was like there were people covered in bubble wrap and I can't remember...

MARTIN: It was a good party.

WELCH: Really good party - well, it was a big kind of live music scene and art scene where I was growing up - all these punk bands and kind of performance artists. And the first song that I wrote with her, she just gave me this old piano and was like, do whatever you want. And I think the first song I wrote was "Between Two Lungs." And then literally the next song that we wrote together was "Dog Days."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOG DAYS ARE OVER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) The dogs days are over. The dog days are done.

WELCH: We didn't have any equipment. That was just banging on the walls. We stole a drum from the next-door studio. We used pans. And because I didn't really know how to play things that well, I'd use my voice as an instrument most of the time. So that's where this big choral thing came from. And once I had "Dog Days," I think I had a sound.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about your style. Your art has a sound to it, but it also has a look. You're well known for these big, dramatic outfits and for really having an intention to how you dress. What does fashion do for you?

WELCH: Well, I had a real crack. When I was making the record, I couldn't get dressed. I wore an anorak and leggings. And I cycled to the studio every day in the rain in my anorak with my packed lunch. Getting dressed is a kind of creative output for me. But when I was pulling, like, all my last resources. And I was a bit broken, I think. And it was almost like I wanted to just disappear from myself. And the record, like, really rebuilt me. And it took me to such a better place. And it almost kind of - it made me so much more comfortable to just be myself. With "Ceremonials," the music was so grand. And it reached such a peak, it was almost felt like there was quite a lot of pressure to be as grand. So the outfits got really big. And there were dresses, and it was couture. And there's something about this record to me that comes from a realer place and a more natural place. It's like the walls have been broken down a bit. And I don't really want to rebuild them.

MARTIN: Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. They're new album is called "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful." Thanks so much for talking with us, Florence.

WELCH: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. JUDE")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) And I'm learning, so I'm leaving. And even though I'm grieving...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.