The appearance of Florence Welch in her natural habitat is as rare as a comet sighting these days, so catch her while you can. The art school brat turned international superstar is back in her London home for four major concerts in a month – a glittering arrival worth celebrating.
As last night’s first night in London demonstrated – the fourth show of her current UK tour and her 36th gig since last summer – she’s an electrifying performer in the flesh, operating at the peak of her powers now that she has two albums of dramatic, grandiose, literate pop to draw on. With a voice that can go from a whisper to a hellfire holler in seconds (not for nothing was her debut album called Lungs) and a whole cathedral of sound behind her, she makes our largest venues seem too small to hold her.
This woman in global demand is as pleased to see London as London as pleased to see her, though she won’t be holing up in one of our many swanky hotels. The singer who was recently seen performing inside a shell for Karl Lagerfeld at Paris Fashion Week, and surrounded by white-clad nymphs at the Brit Awards, will be dividing her time between the ornate stages of Alexandra Palace and the Albert Hall and her teenage bedroom in her mother and stepfather’s house in Camberwell.
She admits that something needs to be done about her current living situation, but with a world tour in the works that will occupy her until the start of the autumn, there’s never time. “I did open my eyes the other morning and look at all my collected junk and think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to move out.’ It suddenly felt very teenage. It feels so bizarre to be on the red carpet of the Brits, flying away and doing all these big things and then coming back to the room I’ve had since I was 15,” the 25-year-old tells me. “It’s a weird flux but it’s good in a way because with so much changing, it’s good to have one thing that stays the same.”
Given the rate of ascent that Florence has experienced, it’s no wonder she requires a strong anchor. I first met her in 2008 when she was barely known beyond the hipster style mags. She looked like a star even then, standing out a mile outside Angel tube, seemingly eight feet taller than everyone else with that fiery hair, a leopardskin coat, miniskirt and tiny white popsocks – though without heels she’s just under six foot.
Two number one albums, the five-times platinum Lungs from 2009 and last October’s already platinum follow-up, Ceremonials, seemed far in the future given that at that stage she hadn’t even settled on her signature sound – baroque, spooky pop, all harp and grandeur, tribal drums and a voice that could flatten a mountain. She’s not one for documenting the tedious travails of everywoman – Only if for a Night finds her “in the graveyard doing handstands”, being visited by the ghost of her grandmother who tells her to “concentrate”. Her most euphoric song, Shake it Out, is more spiritual than celebratory. “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off”, she sings. You sense she could make an opera out of popping to the shop for a pint of milk, but all the melodrama is a major part of the appeal.
She originally performed as a duo named Florence Robot/Isa Machine, and although the original Machine, Isabella “Isa” Summers still plays keyboards in her band, today Florence + the Machine is regarded as a solo alias. She confesses that this brings extra pressures.
“In the past two years it’s got to a point where it’s so busy. It can be lonely being the focus, especially doing interviews and photoshoots. You can internalise everything so much that you don’t have any way of going outside yourself so it can send you a bit…” She pauses without landing on the right word. “That’s why performing is so cathartic, that release. But then that becomes the thing that you’re living for, the rest of life starts feeling so weird and the stage becomes the only place that’s not changing.”
The past few months have been particularly full of upheaval. She recently told Q magazine about her break-up with her long-term partner Stuart Hammond, a writer for Dazed & Confused magazine, saying: “I really did feel like I was breaking down several times. It’s true. Felt totally mad. Ha!” Today she shuts down the subject, saying simply: “I’m learning not to talk about it.”
She has also seen her rise overshadowed by the extraordinary success of Adele, who beat her in two Brit Award categories last month and whose mind-boggling sales figures have launched her album 21 far ahead of successful British women such as Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Florence and into the same league as Madonna and Michael Jackson. “I enjoyed the Brits,” insists Florence, who did win the British Album award for Lungs in 2010, and more recently dominated the NME Awards, winning two prizes at Brixton Academy late last month. “I was basically concentrating so hard on the performance, so the actual winning or losing, I didn’t really have time to think about that to be honest.”
Yet while the power of Adele is undeniable, I’d place Florence on a pedestal as a far more interesting pop star. She’s become music’s mystical wild woman, singing of ghosts and devils, a towering beauty who looks like she should be posing for the Pre-Raphaelites instead of duetting with Dizzee Rascal. Adele could be your best mate, while Florence visits you from another planet entirely.
“I was going to go to the Tate on Saturday with Sophie of ‘Sad Sack’ fame,” she tells me. (She has the nickname of Sophie Hart-Walsh, her friend from school, tattooed on her arm on a gold banner carried by a small blue bird.) “I thought it might be a bit busy and would maybe be a bit funny [being recognised]. Sophie said she’d thought about calling me back and suggesting I just wear some normal clothes, but then she remembered that during our entire friendship she’s never once seen me wearing normal clothes. I don’t think I have any.”
This otherworldly presence in loud vintage garb can occasionally be spotted cycling between London’s art galleries. She was recently at the Hayward’s Jeremy Deller exhibition. “It was amazing. He does these beautiful postcards if you open the drawers in the model of his bedroom. There’s a postcard of Battersea Power Station. It says ‘I love you’ on it and it’s just so perfect. It sums up everything I love about London.” The Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery is next on her list. She knows that she’ll miss these London opportunities when she’s away so much over the coming months. “You’re quite restricted on tour so I love that freedom of just being able to get on my bike. I miss being able to be out in Soho with my friends, just tripping around London.”
This occasional party animal, who quit studying illustration at Camberwell College of Arts to record demos, is enjoying the simple pleasures more often these days. “I’ve been having some early nights lately. I’ve come to understand myself a lot more when it comes to going out, what I can and can’t handle.” She reads to decompress, raving to me about Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and looking forward to digging into the author’s recent publication, The Marriage Plot. “If anyone sends me book recommendations they’re much appreciated.”
But on stage there’s nothing restrained about her, as audiences at Alexandra Palace this weekend will find. I ask her if there are two Florences, the one who sings and swoons and gives everything in front of thousands, and the one who holes up in her old bedroom with a good book. “I don’t know. I still haven’t figured that out yet. I think when I do figure it out I’ll be cured and won’t need to perform any more.”
Until Saturday, Alexandra Palace, N22 (0870 444 5556, alexandrapalace.com)
April 3, Teenage Cancer Trust, Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (020 7589 8212, royalalberthall.com)
MTV Unplugged – A Live Album is released on Island on April 9.