- 28 Aug 19
To celebrate her 33rd birthday, we're revisiting a classic interview with Electric Picnic-bound Florence Welch. In this 2010 interview, she spills the beans on collaborations with Dizzee Rascal and David Byrne, her adoration of Courtney Love and My Bloody Valentine, and reveals that all she ever wanted was to appear in an Andrew Lloyd-Webber production...
Famous people are invariably smaller in real life than you’d imagined, but not Florence Leontine Mary Welch, who’s 6ft in her stockinged feet and professional basketball-player height in the gravity-defying heels, which have made her a bit of a cause celebre on footwear fetish sites. How do I know this? Er, let’s just say that I have a wide range of recreational pursuits and move quickly on.
Ms. Welch and her Machine are in Dublin for the Meteors, Ireland’s annual musical gong-giving ceremony, which is taking place just 72 hours after her and Dizzee Rascal’s storming of the Brits with their ‘You’ve Got The Dirtee Love’ mash-up. The track promptly reaches number 2 in the UK singles chart on downloads alone, while not to be outdone her Lungs album sells its 611,110th copy there.
Add in her Meteors double-whammy – opening the show with an on this occasion un-sullied ‘You’ve Got The Love’ and going home with the ‘Best International Band’ award – and it has to be said that Florence has come an awfully long way since making her Irish debut at the 2008 Electric Picnic.
I’m afraid the three gazillion people who’ve subsequently laid claim to being in the Crawdaddy tent at the Picnic are mostly lying, with at best 250 hungover souls seeing her play a frenetic set, which even a two-bit hack like me recognised as being a bit special.
“Florence is achieving the impossible by wearing a gold lamé dress that’s even shorter than the one sported last year in the same tent by Jenny Lewis,” I noted, ever the style guru, in my review. “Equal parts Aretha Franklin, Sandy Denny and Kate Nash, Ms. Welch and her band The Machine peddle a neat line in shouty, folk-inflected pop with the politically incorrect ‘Kiss With A Fist (Is Better Than None)’ a top 10 hit waiting to happen.”
Which was pretty prophetic for a man who’s previously tipped Milburn, Boy Kill Boy and, ahem, Andrew WK for chart-conquering glory. As mesmerising as her maiden Picnic appearance was, no way did I think that 17 months later we’d be sat backstage at the RDS discussing her hobnobbing with rock and hip hop royalty.
“You and me both!” she laughs good-naturedly. “The speed at which things have been moving recently is insane. One minute you’re playing tiny club gigs, and the next you’re singing with someone you barely know on a TV awards show that has 5.8 million viewers. The good thing about it being such a whirlwind is that you don’t have time to worry about screwing up in front of so many people!”
So how was Flo’s date with Dizzee?
“There’s so much hype leading up to it, and then ‘poof!’ – it’s all over,” she reflects. “I’ll probably be watching Home & Away one rainy evening next year, and the significance of the night will sink in. The proper way to celebrate would have been to go on a three-day bender, but I had to get back to my house because I had a video shoot the following morning.
“The track was completed a couple of weeks ago, but our first time rehearsing it was two days before the Brits in his studio. We did two more run-throughs at the venue, and that was it. I’d met Dizzee randomly at a party a long time ago, but for various reasons neither of us remembered it! The potential for things going wrong was huge, but it actually went like clockwork. Unlike tonight! Because the vocal on ‘You’ve Got The Love’ starts immediately, I have clicks to count me in, but the crowd drowned them out. I had to sing the ‘Sometimes I feel like…’ bit twice as fast as normal to catch up with the band! It’s things like that though, which make you a more seasoned performer. You have little mishaps and learn to sail through them as if nothing’s happened.”
The Brit Awards also enabled Florence to spend some quality time with one of her teenage idols, Courtney Love.
“I was probably a pre-teen when I heard Pretty On The Inside and Live Through This for the first time – what great, great records! There’s obviously a huge amount of baggage that comes with her, but she’s really charming, charismatic and strong-willed. The first time we met was two years ago when Courtney was doing her own stuff in Bush Hall, and asked me to support her. I kept things very simple with just my friend Mike on guitar, and despite being the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life it went brilliantly. Since then she’s said how much she loves Florence and the Machine in interviews and at the NME awards, which is very surreal, given how I used to chain-listen to her records in my bedroom!
“What was also surreal was running into Mel B the other day. I went up to her and said, ‘Hi, I used to design outfits for you when I was 10.’ I think she thought I was a bit mad!”
While polar opposites musically, Florence has one thing in common with her fellow Brits show-stealer Lady Gaga, which is that they’re both brilliant pop stars.
“What a lovely compliment!” Ms. Welsh beams. “I adore Lady Gaga as a performer – she really captures the energy and joy of music, and being unbridled and unrestrained with your emotions and performance. There’s something fantastical her, which is quite rare these days. I also like the fact that she has that Warhol-y thing going on, and has been plotting her rise to superstardom since she was 18 and playing in dodgy New York nightclubs. She’s very careerist, but that’s okay.”
Courtney Love aside, who were the people growing up that Florence looked at and thought, “I want to be like them when I grow up!”
“My idols? Shirley Manson was my heroine for a while, but when Tragic Kingdom came out I switched my allegiance to Gwen Stefani. I know, fickle! I also love Grace Slick, Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks… oh my God, I’d probably pass out if I met Stevie! I danced on stage at the Secret Garden festival with Grace Jones who’s another amazing woman. People say that there aren’t enough female role models in music, but I had plenty as a teenager.”
While non-stop touring means that there’s unlikely to be a new Florence record until the latter half of 2011, fans desperate for new material will be able to hear her next month contributing to David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Imelda Marcos concept album – yes, you read that right! – Here Lies Love.
“It’s like a sort of indie/big beat Evita!” she chuckles. “My involvement is through David who I met when he did that playing the building thing in the London Roundhouse – he attached devices to the pillars and pipes, which triggered noises that were then fed into a keyboard and manipulated. I don’t really understand the technology, but it sounded great! He’d asked me to sing on the album before, but that’s when I said, ‘Yes’, and spent a day in the studio with him.”
Did Mr. Byrne send her The Bluffers Guide To Imelda Marcos beforehand?
“Sort of, but he said that instead of the shoes he wanted to concentrate on her life before that, which like Eva Peron was real rags to riches stuff. When we finished, David gave me an mp3 of the new Flight Of The Conchords series and a Jeff Buckley documentary, which was the best ‘thank you’ present ever!”
Let’s just hope they weren’t pirate copies or the former Talking Heads man could find himself on the wrong end of a Mossad-style movie industry hit! Welch was delegated Here Lies Love’s title-track, an emotional rollercoaster ride of a song, which sounds like Andrew Lloyd-Webber could have written it if he’d spent the ‘70s hanging out in CBGBs rather than London Theatreland.
“I love Andrew Lloyd-Webber,” Florence coos. “My life ambition aged 9 was to go and see Starlight Express, which I eventually did. I remember loving Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago and Buddy Holly The Musical as well. I so wanted to be on the West End and Broadway that I developed a phobia about not being able to dance well enough. I played the lead in school musicals when I was in primary – I was Blousey Brown for instance in Bugsy Malone – but as soon as I got to secondary I was the chubby kid who got stuck in the chorus. There were two real musical theatre girls above me who kept getting the starring roles.”
What sort of a teenager – apart from chubby – was Florence?
“I was a daydreamer, and into reading and skateboarding. I got very excited because my Dad said he had a skateboard for me, but it turned out to be plastic and in the shape of a fish, which didn’t help with my amorous pursuit of skaterboys!”
Had things worked out a little differently she could have been Avril Lavigne, then?
“No, I don’t think there was ever any danger of that!”
Talking as we were a moment ago of her Da, Nick Welch wrote a fascinating article last year for the Daily Mail in which he divulged many a familial secret. Did he let Florence have a goo before it was printed?
“No, but if you’re going to have someone write a Daily Mail piece about you I’d prefer it to be my Dad than anyone else. I read it afterwards and it was all true!”
Which means we can tell you the following safe in the knowledge that we won’t be sued – Florence’s nickname at home is the Daffy Diva; as a child she was fascinated by Mantegna’s Circumcision Of Christ and paintings of St. Agatha who had her breasts cut off; she was always being asked as a kid to sing at relatives’ funerals; as a result the first song she wrote was ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’; she was taken to violin lessons with her sister Grace but soon baled; her first (not very good) band were called the Toxic Cockroaches; her second (much better) band were Ashok, who have some fab footage of her on their MySpace; she bagged her current manager, Mairéad Nash, by singing an Etta James song to her very loudly in a toilet; her 16-year-old brother, JJ, finds her fame handy when it comes to chatting up girls; and she was paid the princely sum of £75 a gig when she toured round Europe for the first time with MGMT.
One of the few things Pa Welch didn’t reveal about his daughter is that she’s a massive Kevin Shields fan.
“I saw My Bloody Valentine in the Roundhouse and had to put my fingers in my ears! It was like going into space – they had 25 amps on stage, and the sound just seemed to penetrate you. It was really amazing.”
She may just be very good at hiding her nerves, but Florence has made the transition from toilet circuit unknown to Britain’s hottest rock ‘n’ roll property look remarkably easy.
“The sound in my head has always been really big, so stepping up in scale doesn’t phase me. I’ve had to tweak the music and the way I move on stage a bit, but otherwise it’s the same as it was… only more so!
“Someone asked the other day, ‘What’s your ultimate goal?’ and I had to say, ‘I don’t know!’ I haven’t got a masterplan like Lady Gaga obviously has – I just go where the next thing that comes along takes me.”
Given her nonchalant attitude to the business side of the music industry, it’s just as well that she has the aforementioned Mairéad Nash watching her back.
“She’s been in the business since she was 16 and was part of the whole Libertines scene, so she’s told me about all the traps and pitfalls you can fall into. I quite like to keep myself innocent of all that because it’s means I’ve only got the music to worry about.”
History is littered with rock stars who’ve crashed and burned – not just from drink and drugs but the relentless workload that comes with any decent sized amount of success. How’s Florence coping with tour bus life?
“It definitely takes a toll physically, but your body gradually learns how to cope with it,” she proffers. “You never realise how much you can do until you’re actually doing it. That’s what the record company hope anyway!”
Going back to that Andrew Lloyd-Webber obsession of hers, would Florence like to have a crack at Broadway or the West End in the future?
“At some point, yeah. I’d certainly be first in the queue to perform if David Byrne decides to turn Here Lies Love into a show. I’d probably offer to make the costumes as well!”
Not content with working with Mr. Byrne, Florence has made it known that should Thom Yorke fancy some extracurricular activity she’d be well up for it.
“The only thing I’ve done about it though is say it! I’ve also mentioned in interviews how I’d love to work with Tom Waits, so if either of the Thomases are reading this please get in contact!”
Gentlemen, it’s over to you!