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Friday, Jan. 27, 2012
Singer says her second album, 'Ceremonials,' is about the need for absolution
Florence exorcises her lungs
By SHAUN CURRAN
Special to The Japan Times
Sat in a respectably upmarket restaurant and bar hidden away in the South London suburb of Camberwell, Florence Welch appears somewhat beleaguered.
Welch may be in her hometown, but today is all about toil: she has spent hours surrounded by management, press agents and a team of make-up artists while a revolving door of journalists and TV crews from the world over have demanded the time of a 25-year-old woman who has precious little of it to spare.
This is the territory that comes with being one of pop music's most recognizable figures. Welch's group Florence + The Machine (the Machine signifying the singer's backing band) have become that increasingly rare commodity in the post-download music industry — an act that sells millions of albums — and as such Welch is hot property.
Her band's output, lovelorn pop songs infused with bombast and melodrama chiefly viewed through the prism of "Hounds of Love"-era Kate Bush, has over the course of two albums won legions of fans (and awards), but in truth the fascination lies predominantly with Welch herself.
The privileged daughter of an art historian, Welch has made her fame as the quirky, bohemian free spirit armed with a bellowing voice and a flamboyantly esoteric vintage chic fashion sense: the attraction certainly accounts notably for the 3 million copies of 2009 debut "Lungs" that have been shifted worldwide.
With that comes responsibility. "Ceremonials," last year's followup, was burdened with expectation where previously there was none. By her own admission, Welch can struggle with pressures both internal and from wider afield, such as the intense media spotlight on her on-off relationship with Stuart Hammond, a literary editor who fueled much of the angst evident on "Lungs."
Today is one of those days. "Go easy on me," she pleads as we meet, slumping onto her cushioned bench in a near-fetal position as her cheeks puff out an exasperated sigh.
Whatever reservations she may have about embarking on yet another interview, when Welch finally settles to chat she brightens instantly. But what is striking is how different she appears to her self-assured on-stage persona. With the addition of swaths of makeup, her pale skin looks as close to pure white as is imaginable, her red hair all the more prominent. Her fashion sense, though, has been diluted (she's wearing a snake-skin jacket and white shirt) and as the tape rolls, a delicate lilt of a voice speaks gently.
She half-jokes about the "organized chaos" of her life and how that is reflected in her music, and the impression is of an insecure figure overwhelmed by the trappings of fame.
"I'm quite an emotional person and I'm too sensitive. I find that I cry really easily. I need to be tougher," she admits, spluttering out a nervous laugh. "I am quite strong; I am strong-willed and I know what I like and what I don't like, and as a performer I feel like I'm in control of the situation. It's just daily life. That's the frightening thing."
She begins, as she does throughout our chat, to gesticulate wildly. "The stage is the magical place, where nothing bad can happen — life is terrifying! There is no plan! There is no melody to follow. There is no set-list. You're just winging it. What the f-ck?! It is terrifying."
What is her best coping mechanism?
"I just go to ground in my bedroom. It's like a museum. It's full of clothes that I've collected, posters, paintings, postcards. It's like a living scrapbook. I go there and indulge my maximalist tendencies. I'm surrounded bit by bit by things that I like. I get bored easily so I need to decorate and add things so this living scrapbook has been created. It helps me."
The bedroom of which she speaks is in the house Welch has lived in her whole life, just five minutes from where we sit. Welch was born into wealth — she attended Alleyn's School in Southeast London, where annual fees are nearly £15,000 (¥1.8 million) — and she carries herself with a certain elegance that becomes someone of that social standing: well-mannered ("I'm really bad at saying 'no' to people, I won't want to upset anybody so I'll just do it"), while her every utterance is correctly enunciated.
Throughout her time in the limelight, this upbringing has been used as a tool to criticize, from her early naïve interviews that included bizarre, fantastical declarations to her ongoing willingness to embrace the establishment by stalking fashion parades and performing for prosperous businesses. Yet hers was no preanointed success.
Welch has paid her dues. She says with a sense of mischief that she had "free rein" as a teenager, which, alongside encountering "not that serious" trouble would involve attending punk gigs and hanging around with local art collectives. Her songs often reference art and mythology and her cultural credentials — "I'm culture hungry, I love to gorge on it" — are unquestionable: perched on the table next to a bowl of fresh fruit and a tray of delectable chocolate cakes is a copy of Grayson Perry's "The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen."
Welch endured the usual pitfalls when she embarked on her musical career, such as the grotty gigs and the failed bands (Welch released a little-known album with a group called Ashok in 2007). Then she struck up a writing partnership with Isabella Summers, the original "machine," and together they used their rudimentary musicianship (and broken hearts) to write the basis of many songs that formed "Lungs."
Even then, reviews of "Lungs" were initially lukewarm, and it took a throwaway cover of The Source's "You Got the Love" ("It was just a b-side recorded in five minutes, I never expected anything of it") to truly ignite public interest on a wider scale: Inescapable in Britain, it instigated a renewed awareness of "Lungs" — and people loved what they heard.
"Ceremonials," produced by Paul Epworth, is as Welch points out a "moving away, not a moving on" from her debut. She laughs that "Lungs" was "a total shambles, like a beautiful mess, a scrapbook of ideas" and when I suggest that "Ceremonials" sounds bigger in every conceivable way, Welch nearly jumps out of her seat with excitement. It's an obvious conclusion: percussion thumps its way to the fore, strings cascade above, ethereal ballads loom. Having reconciled with Hammond (they have now separated again) "Ceremonials" takes a different lyrical cue.
"There are still a lot of relationship issues in there, but maybe now it is more ... 'What is my attitude towards?' ... I think it is more introverted. I feel like it is more a battle within myself. "Lungs" was a cry of desperation. This is more a need for understanding or something, a need to exorcise something and put something in the past, to understand myself a bit better. Instead of crying for someone I'm crying for ... I don't know, for clarity. For .... absolution. For exorcism."
Asked if she seems to find it easier to sing about issues than talk about them, she replies: "Yeah. Because I'm English," exaggerating her accent. "I don't like talking about my feelings. But I can sing them. I can sing them in a veiled way. I don't really like saying how I feel. But it's a funny thing though, the whole point of singing these songs is so I don't have to say it, and then I have to talk about it in interviews," she says laughing, possibly at the absurdity of it all.
Perhaps more bizarrely, Japan is one of the few places Welch is yet to truly conquer, with her first visit scheduled for next week.
"I've never been. We were going to go a couple of years ago but... we didn't sell enough tickets for our show," she says with an embarrassed chuckle. "We sold like five tickets or something. Hopefully we'll sell a few more this time. I'm really looking forward to going now that we've sold a few more tickets. Every band I speak to tells me it's the most amazing place."
Her debut trip to Japan denotes the start of another chapter of Welch's juggernaut success, a story that, despite the inner conflicts, she is determined to maintain.
"When you start, you never know if it is the last tour, or the last show, everything is up in the air. And that was a really fun time. But now I can see there is longevity in it, and I want there to be longevity in it. I really want that."
Florence + The Machine play Akasaka Blitz on Feb. 1 (¥6,000; 7 p.m.;  3444-5701). "Ceremonials" is on sale now. For more info, visit www.florenceandthemachine.net.