Photo By Tom Beard / Universal Music Canada
Whether it's equating the price of fame to a ritual blood sacrifice or being “done with her graceless heart so she can cut it out and restart,” in her songs, U.K. artist Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine has always had a fancy for the supernatural. That's why I'm not surprised when she tells me how she started a witch coven in middle school. “Me and my two friends made these spell books where we’d try to do spells on our classmates,” Welch explains. “One time, I tried to make one of my classmates fall in love with me so me and my coven put his name in a bottle, and the rule was that there had to be a drop of blood and... well, I don’t know if it ever worked [laughs].” Under her haunting ballads and grandiose hymns lies the truth behind her love for the morbid and unusual: Welch is really a sorceress. (In fact, numerous websites suggest as much). But her interests come from the wealth of books she absorbed as child: "I remember reading a lot of book on Greek mythology like the minotaur being sacrificed to [Goddess of the underworld] Persephone and just being obsessed with The Odyssey and the Iliad,” says Welch while playing with the multiple charm bracelets around her wrist.
Raised in Camberwell, a district of South London, Welch regularly visited old Italian churches that displayed cobblestone statues of saints and demons. “I spent a lot of time in front of books and old historic buildings convinced that ghosts were real, vampires existed, and having a really heightened sense of those type of things happening around me,” says Welch. The supernatural gave her a reprieve from issues in her home, such as the divorce of her parents and dealing with the suicide of her grandmother. In spite of these personal problems, Florence began sharpening her vocals and partnered up with her family babysitter, Isabella Summers, to become Florence and the Machine. The pairing would spell success with baroque ballads and fantasy themed lyrics about atom to atom love and cursing away the mistakes of last night in 2009 debut, Lungs and 2011 follow-up Ceremonials.
But after touring came to a close, coupled with an on and off relationship and no clear direction for her third album, Welch became detached from her surroundings. “Every performance is kind of like a small exorcism, or I definitely use them as such. So, I think that’s why I had such a strange time when I took a break off because that connection was very important to me as a way to understand myself.” Welch would receive another lifeline in the form of producer Markus Dravs, who encouraged she break from her veiled lyrics and be honest about her own struggles. She also got assistance from a “psychic cat.” “When I was going through periods of heartbreak or feeling quite isolated while working on the record, this black and white cat would just appear,” Welch explains. “Literally, during some of my lowest moments it would just come inside the house and into bed with me and started pawing at my face and I was like “you must be a spiritual cat.” And through her newfound feline talisman, good fortune would give way to the completion of her newest album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.
Inspired by the open and "peaceful" blue skies of Los Angeles, the album follows the highs and lows of Welch’s experiences over the past year. From the regal-intoned backing orchestra on the title track to the lush sinewy strings and internal conflicts present in “Third Eye,” each song acts as a landmark in her journey for a renewed sense of purpose in life. “I think what I realized was that above all the confusion and the dark space I was in there was this sense of hope,” says Welch. “I remember being in a hotel room at some point during touring and taking out photos and rocks at 5AM in the morning to make a spell with my bandmates. And it was weird because when some of the things started happening in my life I was like “I don’t know if this is coming true or it's going wrong!” So I guess I’m still trying to figure out if the spell worked too well [laughs].”
Noisey: Now I understand one of the original ideas before HBHBHB took shape was the idea of a witch that goes on trial. What do you think that album would’ve sounded like had it been realized?
Florence Welch: Well, there’s the song “Which Witch” that’s actually the beginning of this idea I had of a young witch who just loves someone so much and then some accident occurs and he dies. And of course people think that she did it and I always felt it should take place in Hollywood somehow because Hollywood is kind of this apocalyptic place. When you’re there and you look around it’s so beautiful but underneath you feel like something has kind of cracked. But, I feel at some point I feel I might revisit the idea and turn it into a musical at some point. Kind of like the Crucible but a musical. We we’re going to call it Crusical.
Your writing has always specifically used these supernatural elements as metaphors in your music, for instance the occult references in the “Shake It Out” video. When did you realize that was your unique way of making music?
I think there’s a kind of an idea where each song is like a magic spell in order to exorcise something from yourself. There’s a big theme of desire and transcendence and using the songs, almost like chants where it was to make something happen or break something; you wanted something out of you or you want to get something into you. So, I’ve always been attracted to that kind of imagery. The first bands I went to see live and the first things I was interested in had this kind of shamanic energy and this idea that it wasn’t just a drink it was a kind of exorcism. And so I think being surrounded by those things kind of draws you into these kind of themes.
There are a lot of characters from Greek mythology referenced throughout the album. What was it about those stories that felt in sync with your experiences?
[Mythological figure] Tantalus was going to be the title of the record but that was when I was still kind of bogged down with everything because I really wanted something and I felt really for the first time in my life being clear about wanting it. In past relationships, I have always had one foot out in terms of the future so for the first time I was like “I know, I feel, I’m nearly there.” But back to your question, Tantalus was cursed by the gods to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree, so he could see the fruit but he was never able to get it and he could see the water but never be able to drink it. And for me that concept was very present in the record in that I could see this thing that I wanted and I just couldn’t reach it.
All of the videos for this record also share that olympus feel whether its the sacred Mayan water holes you visited for “HBHBHB” up to even “St Jude” with the birds at the end seemingly symbolizing this idea of you travelling through the circles of hell. Am I delusional?
Do you know what? That is the message in the video because this journey that I went through there’s a kind of poetry in a sense. I was trapped in this cycle and the director [Vincent Haycock] and I were looking at Dante’s Inferno and these layers of Hell and how you have to go into something to come out of it. That’s why there are these patterns that reappear in the videos because we wanted to recreate this odyssey of what I experienced.
Jabbari Weekes can't see how big, blue, and beautiful the sky is because of pollution — @DaysandWeekes