Florence Welch’s Big, Blue, Beautiful Recipe for Success

Music Features

From the way her majestic voice billows up with cathedral command in performance, through her diaphanous, swirling stage dresses and paisley-colorful, frequently photographed offstage outfits, down to the simple beauty of the way her flowing red mane accents her angular, porcelain-hued facial features, there’s just something, well, regal about Florence Welch—something almost Renaissance-classic, or perhaps time-warped in from a black-and-white G.W. Pabst era when film stars were larger than life and truly filled up the screen. From the beginning, that rare, ephemeral quality was there in the grooves of Lungs, her Brit-Award-winning 2009 debut, and in her more ornate, Grammy-nominated followup in 2011, Ceremonials.

The same vibe was also evident in Welch’s recent appearance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, where, hobbled by a broken foot she sustained at this year’s Coachella festival, she remained anchored to a stool to perform songs from her new effort, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, yet still managed to rattle every last rafter and bring the house down. At only 28, the woman is already rock royalty. But even queens can experience some bad days—or months, as this singer did in her struggle to complete the initially Sisyphus-strenuous new album. But, with producers Markus Dravs and Paul Epworth, she eventually arrived at perfection, in tracks like the stomping “Third Eye” (in which she urges herself to “Look up, you don’t have to be a ghost here among the living”); the organ-pneumatic processional “St. Jude” (which finds her praying to the saint of lost causes); the galloping “Queen of Peace”; the sincerity-questioning anthem “What Kind of Man” and anvil-chorus “Ship to Wreck,” where she uses a vessel as metaphor for her career (“Did I drink too much, am I losing touch?/ Did I build this ship to wreck?”). These are the 10 ingredients that went into it.

1) A weathered old anorak

Welch—who has become a favorite of design houses like Chanel—is usually stalked by paparazzi everywhere she goes in her native London. But she swears she hasn’t been intrusively snapped for over a year, thanks to her decision to forego fashion in favor of slipping on a Mod-vintage parka and bicycling to daily studio sessions. And with her trademark tresses hidden beneath a hood, she was never recognized on the street. Not once. “It was really insular, a quiet time away from the public eye,” she recalls of her period of anonymity. “When I was making the record, clothes were the last thing on my mind—all I was thinking about was getting to the studio and making this thing, making this album. It was almost like being a weird monk—I just wore the same thing every day, I made a packed lunch, and I cycled to work. It was really simple, for the first time in a long time.”

2) Disconnecting from celebrity itself

The stylish, articulate Welch had become an A-list party guest. And for a while, she relished the privilege. She saw it as a fun obligation, part and parcel of the lofty rock lifestyle. But she wound up, she sighs, “crying all the time—it was almost like, ‘Oh. This isn’t working for me anymore.’ It didn’t make sense to me anymore, so I needed to just take some time away and deal with whatever was going on. I wanted to find out what actually made me happy, and I was supposed to have this relaxing year off.” It didn’t work out that way for her, exactly.

3) A year spent abroad

Welch decided to reward herself with travel. Perhaps the road would reward her with the new material she sought. She visited Jamaica and spent time writing in Los Angeles, as well. “But I was still on-and-off partying, and I was in an on-and-off relationship,” she says. “So things were pretty up and down while I was writing this record, and there were a lot of highs and lows. So it was a time of great excitement, and a time of real lows, as well.” She was purposely going on a journey, and the record is a map of her travels. “And if you really wanted to, I guess you could figure out a lot of the places I went—there are little clues all the way through it,” she adds.

4) Being alone with herself in the rambling new digs she purchased

On tour, Welch was always surrounded by the roughly 20 people who comprise her band The Machine and its crew. At the family estate where she resided until recently, there were eight folks around, and the clan regularly convened for intellectual conversation at dinner (her mother is an art professor who believes in God; her stepfather is an atheism-espousing virologist, always making for some stimulating conversation). “So I moved into this house, and it was a total shock to the system,” she confesses. “But it really was a catalyst. It made me have to learn how to look after myself, like, ‘Oh. I have to sit with these feelings!’ It made me start meditating, start wanting to read and maybe not go out. So I started transcendental meditation, and that’s been really helpful. It made me learn how to nurture myself more, to try and look after myself a bit.”

5) An eye-opening moment when everything caved in, inspiring “Ship to Wreck”

In retrospect, the vocalist sees it all 20/20 clearly now. Right before recording for “How Big” began, everything fell apart, including her longtime relationship. Suddenly, she realized that her usual reaction to pressure was to self-destruct, so she entered the sessions cold turkey. “I stopped partying, I stepped out of things, and the record was so hard at the beginning,” she remembers, somberly. “I was honestly like, ‘My God—I forgot how hard this is to make a song!’ But the process of it really pulled me back together in a way that was really important. So I’m grateful that things did fall apart, because I had to make something out of it.” She pauses for a minute, then cheerfully adds, “I guess maybe the breakdown was the breakthrough!”

6) Religious iconography

Welch taps into Biblical visuals on several cuts, like “Delilah,” “St. Jude” and “Various Storms and Saints.” She can’t help herself. She wasn’t raised in a particularly zealous household, but she sang in choirs as a kid and was always attracted to the more reverential side of music. “And I think that comes back to ideas of transcendence and baptism and this kind of catharsis that I feel from it,” she says. “And you know, the Bible has some of the most amazing stories in it, ever. And I’ve always been attracted to the drama of it. I grew up being taken to a lot of Renaissance churches, and I sang my first gigs at funerals, so maybe that’s affected me in some inescapable way.”

7) The cutting-edge art of Damien Hirst and Vali Meyers

Citing how the controversial Hirst once converted a medicine cabinet into an altar, Welch loves the concept that you can basically make something sacred out of anything—as she seems to effortlessly do with her music. “So I love shrines, and this idea of making the mundane magical has always been interesting to me,” she explains. Australian watercolorist Meyers, who died in 2003 at 72, was a visionary bohemian who lived in an Italian cave with her gypsy husband, but was pals with some of the greatest minds of her generation, like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Tennessee Williams. “She made these paintings, and they said she could walk between two worlds,” she says. “She would go to the dream world and bring back these images to make her paintings with, and she had a tattooed mustache on her face. She was amazing, and she was kind of like the muse for this record, and a lot of the artwork, and the idea of walking between two worlds.”

8) Modern dance

When she’s not nursing an injured foot, Welch is a veritable whirling dervish in concert. And she usually works with her good friend, choreographer Holly Blakey, in her elaborate videos. Alone in her empty house, the vocalist leapt at the chance to take actual classes with Blakey, and he found it quite liberating to physically re-enact carefully scripted steps. “It was almost like you’re expressing someone else’s emotions when you’re doing something like that,” she says. “It was wonderful to do something emotional that wasn’t singing or making music.” Along the way, she became fascinated with the work of German performer Pina Bausch, famous for her flowery style dubbed Tanztheater: “Her work expresses the human condition in a way that I’ve never seen before—she’d do amazing pieces where it would just be a huge pile of rose petals that someone would ski down, or a dance that would be two people playing tag for two hours. It was incredibly visceral and emotional, and very experimental. So dancing for me is just a very calm place to be—you’re just with your body.”

9) A new appreciation for the beauty around her, as celebrated in the paean “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” itself

Looking back at her impressive catalog, the artist has come to one conclusion—a spiritual, almost otherworldly theme always arises in her work. “It’s this idea of always wanting to be outside my body, somehow, to not be confined,” she explains. “I always get frustrated with the fact that I can’t see 360 degrees, that I can’t draw everything in to me, or be outside of myself. If I see something beautiful, I want to see it with every part of my body, not just with two eyes. This frustration with my own physical parameters has always been there. I remember even seeing landscapes as a child and being so overwhelmed by how beautiful they were, but also being frustrated by my own limited capacity to have it just with eyes. So wanting to see outside myself? I think singing does that for me—it helps me kind of escape myself.”

10) Finally feeling like she has become an adult, in the perpetually Peter Pan existence of the music industry

Welch was thrown into showbiz when she was signed at 21, and touring has kept her busy ever since. And on albums—especially Ceremonials—she believes that she intentionally hid behind big sounds, reverb-drenched vocals, layered harmonies and arcane lyrical metaphors. “But on this record, I didn’t really want to do that,” she concludes. “Because I spent some time really having to deal with stuff, it felt really personal and very real to me, so that instigated a sort of directness that’s in this record. Because, when I decided to take some time away, it was like, ‘Oh, fuck—how do I be a human? How do I have a relationship with myself, outside of a tour? How do I have a relationship with myself when I’m not performing? Aaargh!’ It was terrifying! But I’m so glad that it happened, because it meant that I could come back to this record and really feel connected to it.”

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