Florence Welch Is Thankful For Her Messy Teenage Years: 'It Formed Me'

Jun 28, 2018
Originally published on July 3, 2018 12:35 am

Florence Welch is no stranger to making music out of life's emotive messes. As the lead vocalist of Florence + The Machine, the British-born indie pop star was introduced to the world stage back in 2008 thanks to "Dog Days Are Over," a primal and joyous romp about sudden, in-the-moment bliss. But her latest album High as Hope, out June 29, pulls from her adolescence. The album gathers up a collection of Welch's intimate teenage memories — both the brave and the embarrassing.

She recalls late nights in her hometown of Camberwell in South London, watching local bands and taking part in drunken festivities. She also remembers her younger sister Grace picking up the pieces in Welch's oblivious path of self-destruction. Welch says she's thankful for these "messy and swampy" teenage moments because those are the years that shaped her.

"It was something really special and that period of time formed me as a performer," she says. "Watching those art college bands, watching people drunk and wild and baptizing each other. "

It's been 15 years since then and Welch has recently sworn off the partying lifestyle all together. But as she looks back on those times, it's with grateful laughter. Welch ties the songs of High as Hope together with reflective commentary that time and healing has brought.

Welch spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about being "Miss Mess," mending the relationship with her sister and her recent heartbreak. Hear the radio version at the audio link and read their edited conversation below.


Florence Welch: A lot of how this album came together was working with an engineer in South London, which is where I'm from and where I was born. It's where I've always lived. I would cycle to the studio. He is a very kind and patient man who I would say, "OK, just bear with me." I get these lightning bolts of inspiration, and I never know what I've done either, so he has to record it and say, "Can you play that again?" "No. There's no way I can tell you what chords it was. I cannot play it again. I really hope you got it." It adds a kind of visceral quality to the music that I think has worked pretty well for me.

Ari Shapiro: Because you describe riding your bicycle to the studio in the neighborhood where you've grown up, I want to ask you about the song "South London Forever." You travel the world. You've spent a lot of time in New York and Los Angeles. What does this declaration of your roots mean to you?

When I was growing up in Camberwell and I was starting to become interested in music, there was a huge South London music scene going on near the Camberwell arts college. When I was 15 or 16, I was going to the college art squat parties. It all came from going to these nights that were held in pubs. The Joiners Arms [is] a pub in Camberwell and there was a night called Ride'em and Booze. I remember my friend, who I'm talking about in this song, we were in a pretty altered state, but I remember her going up to the DJ and being like, "Play 'Love Will Tear Us Apart!' You have to play 'Love Will Tear Us Apart!'" And the DJ being like, "It's playing! It's playing now!" [Laughs]

This song has such sweet memories of such a messy past — being drunk and high on ecstasy and stumbling around. Do you miss the mess?

My nickname as a baby was "Miss Mess." My dad says it's because he sat at an Italian restaurant with me, and I ate a whole paper tablecloth. So I was called Miss Mess.

It was something really special and that period of time formed me as a performer. Watching those art college bands, watching people drunk and wild and baptizing each other. I understand that whole experience — how messy and swampy — it formed me. But I'm also kind of relieved I made it out as well because if it hadn't been for music, I would still be wasted in Camberwell, I think.

A lot of your songs in the past have had metaphorical, wild images, and this album feels very rooted in literal memories of things you've been through, people you've met.

I think I used metaphor a lot in earlier work to hide what it was that I was actually trying to say. If I could dress up the pain or the guilt or the shame in these sort of cathedral-esque — like dress up the mess. Then when you're further away from the things you're ashamed of, and you've maybe come to a better place with them, it's really much more easy to be truthful in your music because you're not trying to hide. You're like, this is what it is. This is kind of what went down and it takes you into a different form of songwriting, I think.

The song "Grace" feels so literal and vulnerable. You're just begging for forgiveness, really, I think.

Grace was always the person who was taking care of everybody. She was my younger sister, and she was a very fiery, tough kid. When we were little, I was afraid of everything. I was definitely super, 100-percent sure vampires, ghosts and werewolves were all real, so there was nowhere I could go that would be safe. I would go and get into bed with her even though she was the younger sister. So this dynamic was already set up when we were kids that she was taking care of me. When I went on to have issues with alcohol and all of that stuff, she was always picking up the pieces and it became a big part of her character, I think. But then when you clean up your act, I think a big regret for me, like a really big regret, was that I wasn't able to be there as an older sister to her. A big part of the last four years, which I've been kind of getting myself together, is really trying to be there for her as an older sister.

Can you tell us about the first time you played this for her?

Oh my gosh. I was scared 'cause she's like a tough cookie, and I was like, "What if she's mad at me?" And then I played it for her and she just burst into tears.

There's stuff about love on this record, but it's kind of a different love, like it's about the love I had for my family, the love I had for the place I grew up in. I think this record deals with love in a different way. As you can tell from the last record, my idea of love is almost total annihilation.

It makes for great music.

I will destroy us both! Why don't you want to date me? I'm super chill. [Laughs]

I was having difficulties in my relationship when I was making this record, and we did eventually break up. I wrote a few songs about feeling like it wasn't working or whatever, but I just didn't find them interesting anymore because I think I've come to a place with this record where it just didn't feel like that was an important thing to say. Or it felt like there were bigger heartbreaks than my own heartbreak. It like almost transcended the subject material, even while it was happening, I just knew, I'd covered that. So to me, even though I guess it's a consistent theme — the theme of chaos or love or loss — I didn't really find it interesting to me anymore.

Web intern Emily Abshire contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It seems like every time the band Florence and the Machine releases a new album, it has a pounding track so exuberant and catchy that it becomes a song of the moment. In 2010, it was "Dog Days Are Over."

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

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

SHAPIRO: Couple years later - "Shake It Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE IT OUT")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Shake it out. Shake it out. Shake it out. Shake it out, oh, whoa. Shake it out. Shake it out. Shake it out. Shake it out, oh, whoa.

SHAPIRO: And in May of this year, the first single dropped from the new Florence and the Machine album. The song is called "Hunger."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNGER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) We all have a hunger. We all have a hunger.

SHAPIRO: I talked with Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine about her latest album, "High As Hope." After years of getting drunk and high, she has now given up partying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNGER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) I thought that love was in the drugs, but the more I took, the more it took away. And I could never get enough.

SHAPIRO: And she told me that changed her writing process. Work became a new way of unwinding.

FLORENCE WELCH: A lot of how this album came together was working with an engineer in south London, which is where I'm from. And I would cycle to the studio. He's a very kind, patient man 'cause I get, like, these lightning bolts of inspiration, and I never know what I've done either. So he has to record it. And he'd say, can you play that again? I'd say, no.

(LAUGHTER)

WELCH: There's no way I can tell you what chords it was. I cannot play it again. I really hope you got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNGER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Tell me what you need. Oh, you look so free the way you use your body, baby. Come on and work it for me.

WELCH: But it adds a kind of visceral quality to the music that I think has worked pretty well for me. So it's always incredibly instinctive, incredibly impulsive. And I don't tend to follow, like, a linear structure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNGER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) How could anything bad ever happen to you? You make a fool of death with your beauty. And for a moment I forget to worry.

SHAPIRO: Because you describe riding your bicycle to the studio in the neighborhood where you've grown up, I want to ask you about the song "South London Forever."

WELCH: (Laughter) Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH LONDON FOREVER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) When I go home alone, I drive past the place where I was born and the places that I used to drink, young and drunk and stumbling in the street outside The Joiners Arms like foals unsteady on their feet.

SHAPIRO: You travel the world. You've spent lots of time in New York and Los Angeles. What does this declaration of your roots mean to you?

WELCH: Well, you know, when I was growing up in Camberwell and I was starting to become interested in music, there was a huge South London music scene. Like, when I was 15 or 16, I was going to these, like, nights that were held in pubs. Like, The Joiners Arms is a pub in Camberwell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH LONDON FOREVER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) And we climbed onto the roof, the museum. And someone made love in the ground.

WELCH: And there was a night called Ride'em and Booze.

(LAUGHTER)

WELCH: And I remember my friend, who I'm talking about in the song - we were in a pretty altered state. But I remember her going up to the DJ and being like, play "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; you have to play "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; and the DJ being like, it's playing. It's playing now.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: This song has such sweet memories of such a messy past - being drunk and high on ecstasy and stumbling around. I mean, do you miss the mess?

WELCH: My nickname as a baby was Miss Mess (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Really?

WELCH: Yes. But my dad says it's 'cause he sat at an Italian restaurant with me and I ate a whole paper tablecloth.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WELCH: That's why I was called Miss Mess. It was something really special. And that period of time formed me as a performer. Like, watching those art college bands, watching people drunk and wild and baptizing each other. And, you know, I understand that whole experience, how messy and swampy - it formed me. But I'm also kind of relieved that I made it out...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

WELCH: ...As well because if it hadn't been for music, I would still be wasted in Camberwell, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH LONDON FOREVER")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Oh, don't you know? I have seen, I have seen the fields aflame. And everything I ever did was just another way to scream your name over and over and over and over again.

SHAPIRO: A lot of your songs in the past have had a kind of metaphorical wild images. This album feels very rooted in literal memories of things you've been through, people you've met.

WELCH: I think I used metaphor a lot in earlier work to hide what it was that I was actually trying to say. And if I could dress up the pain or the guilt or the shame in these sort of cathedral-esque - like, dress up the mess, you know? And then when you're further away from the things that you're ashamed of and you've maybe come to a better place with them, you're not really trying to hide. You're like, this is what it is. You know, this is kind of what went down. And it takes you into a different form of songwriting, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 YEARS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) I believe in you. And in our hearts, we know the truth. And I believe in love. And the darker it gets, the more I do.

WELCH: There's stuff about love on this record, but it's kind of a different love. Like, it's about the love I had for my family, the love I have for the place I grew up in. So, you know, I think this record deals with love in a different way than some of the others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 YEARS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Then it's just too much. I cannot get you close enough. A hundred arms, a hundred years, you can always find me here.

SHAPIRO: It reminds me of a line from a song "100 Years" where you say, give me arms to pray with instead of ones that hold too tightly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 YEARS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) Give me arms to pray with instead of ones that hold too tightly.

WELCH: I mean, as you can probably tell from the last record, like, my idea of love is almost total annihilation (laughter).

SHAPIRO: It makes for great music.

WELCH: (Laughter) I will destroy us both.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: In a glorious fire.

WELCH: And why don't you want to date me? I'm super chill.

(LAUGHTER)

WELCH: I think I realized that you had to have a bigger connection to things that aren't just to do with romantic love. Or, you know, you maybe have to fix a little bit of the stuff that's happening with your parents. But it is - sometimes what you're looking for is not in that relationship at that moment, but it's some kind of bruise from older stuff that if you don't look out, it's going to keep coming back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 YEARS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) A hundred arms, a hundred years, you can always find me here.

WELCH: But, yeah, I've found that to kind of zoom out a bit, to look at the relationship I had not just with a guy but with the world at large needed to be worked on, you know? And that a romantic relationship was probably not going to fix all that stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 YEARS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) A hundred arms, a hundred years.

SHAPIRO: Florence Welch, it's been wonderful talking with you. Thanks so much.

WELCH: Thank you (laughter).

SHAPIRO: The new album from the band Florence and the Machine is called "High As Hope."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 YEARS")

FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE: (Singing) And then it's just too much. The streets, they still run with blood. A hundred arms, a hundred years. You can always find me here. And, Lord, don't let me break this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.