The Hardest and Most Medieval of Florence and the Machine, According to Florence Welch

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Timothy Hiatt/FilmMagic

Florence Welch’s anxiety has been spiking, and the proof is right on her cell phone. Before our phone call, she got a notification that her screen time was up 16 percent over the past week. “I was like, What the fuck?!” she tells me, laughing. The reason for all the worrying? We’re speaking on the Monday before Dance Fever, her fifth album and first in four years with her band Florence + the Machine, is set to be released. When I then tell her she’ll be rating her discography for this interview, she gets self-conscious again. “I’m so mean about myself,” she says. “I’ll be like, ‘Another failure.’”

Really, her songs are anything but. Over the past decade, Welch has become one of the most assured live performers in music. Her sets feel religious, filled with pop anthems that sound as imposing as age-old hymns, which she sings with her equally imposing voice while sprinting across the stage. That makes Dance Fever —  inspired by the inexplicable fits of dancing that occurred during medieval times — an apt name for her new album; that’s what her music, at its best, inspires to do.

So it’s surprising, at first, to hear doubt from a woman who makes it her chief task to convert the uncertain. (“I always felt like if I could tear off a piece of my flesh and throw it at people, I would,” she says of performing.) As our conversation goes on, though, it becomes clear Welch is actually at her most confident right now. She’s eight years sober, with Dance Fever the second album she made fully free from alcohol. She’s also been reevaluating parts of her catalogue on her own, adding older tracks to her setlists after realizing she’s finally comfortable with playing them live. To her, Dance Fever is the record that synthesizes the themes and sounds of her last three. Not that that helps with release-week jitters. “The process of actually giving it up is agony for me every time,” she says. Welch spoke to Vulture about dancing to her new music, revisiting her 2011 album Ceremonials, and getting sober while recording.

Best Dance Fever song to dance to

It just depends what kind of dancing you are looking for. “My Love” is the one you could dance to in a club. “Free,” actually when we’ve been playing it live, even before it came out, it just got people to pogo. I’ve never had that with a song. It was instant. Then I think, if you were looking for something to make a conceptual modern-dance piece to, I always had that in mind for “Choreomania.” I can kind of visually see a huge dance piece to that song. There’s different kinds of dance all over this record, depending on what you’re into.

Dave Bayley is who I wrote “My Love” with. He is just all about the drop. Before he was in Glass Animals, he was a DJ, so he’s so committed to danceability. Even though the album was called Dance Fever, I didn’t have actual dance music in mind when I first started it. Then we met each other during one of the most intense lockdowns in England. I think we both were just so desperate for a sense of euphoric release in that way that sometimes the only thing that can deliver that is club music.

Most medieval Dance Fever song

It’s the chanting stuff, to me. I’m evoking a kind of Gregorian-style chanting. When I made things like “Heaven Is Here” and “Restraint,” I was looking for that very chanty inversion of church music so that it had a much more pagan feeling to it. Hell was completely real for people in medieval times. Just the stress of that — if you didn’t behave well or if you didn’t do the right thing, you were going to burn in hell forever. “Heaven Is Here” is almost like, “Fuck it. I’ll go to hell because there’s no way to behave perfectly for your whole life.” It was like giving yourself over and giving up. If you couldn’t be perfect, you have to be terrible.

Dance Fever song that reminds you of Lungs

It’s more the imagery. “Cassandra” very much reminds me of the way that I used to create myths around things that I was trying to understand or wrestle with. A lot of the early songs on Lungs were these funny morality fables because I was just a young, drunk person who felt terrible about myself all the time. I felt like I was born with such a heavy sense — which is maybe where Catholic imagery comes in — of guilt and responsibility and shame.

One of the first songs I wrote is about the mistakes you make and then that you have to carry them. They’re two animals — the stupid mistakes you make are a donkey, and the malicious mistakes that you make are the jackal. They get bigger and bigger, but they’re your children and you love them. So you’re just carrying these two animals around. I was like, What can you even have done that bad when you’re a teenager? I just was always an overthinker and anxious, and I had to create worlds and characters to help me understand my feelings. “Cassandra” was wrestling with the loss of live music and potentially not having a job for a while or wondering whether it would come back. I was trying to create a mythology with gods and prophets, and it feels Lungs–ian to me.

Hardest song to sing

They’re all so hard because I’m an idiot! I don’t think about it in the studio, layering a thousand vocals and making a choir. One of the hardest songs to sing that we’ve actually been doing again is “Spectrum.” Most of the songs on Ceremonials are really hard to sing because that album is just full out from start to finish, but “Spectrum” is in a different register.

When you’re 25 and you’re hung-over all the time, you never think that your career is going to go on as long or you’re going to be having to try and sing these songs at 35. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow. I was very tortured at that time, so the singing is also very tortured. You’re not thinking about when you’re going to get to sing that song again; you’re tearing it out of yourself.

I think I’ve been able, with this record, to bridge a lot of the past records. “Spectrum” and things like that, we can reintroduce them into the set because, on this record, I’ve stopped rejecting any part of myself. I think every album is an opposite reaction to the last record, but with this one, it’s almost an embracing of all the last three.

Best song about water

The water thing is really interesting to me now. Maybe because it was ten years since Ceremonials, but I’m reassessing it as a body of work so much. At that time, I was struggling with so many issues, but now I can be so open about things I couldn’t then. So I wanted to sing about “I’m partying so much and I can’t stop,” but there wasn’t a way that I could actually say that publicly. I also don’t think I even knew what was going on. When you are really experiencing overwhelming things, something so huge and outside of yourself is water. On that second album, things were really kicking off. There was a huge amount of pressure. I was on a career high but careening from hangover to hangover, and my personal life was a disaster. I did feel like I was drowning for a lot of it. Now I can name those feelings, and I think that’s why, maybe, there’s less water imagery in the last two records.

It’s probably “What the Water Gave Me.” I love that one, but I didn’t have the honesty or the self-awareness — or even the understanding of what I was going through at that time — to express it in any other way.

Music that helped you get sober

The chronology of drunk to not drunk would be a funny Florence + the Machine playlist. Somebody make it! How Big, How Blue is interesting because it’s a record of two halves. I wrote most of the songs when I was still drinking, but then when I met Markus Dravs, he was like, “Your life is in absolute chaos.” I got sober the week before I went in to actually start making the record with Markus, and I was an absolute mess. The record itself carried me through that first year. Just making it, and especially working with someone like Markus Dravs. He gave me structure. He’s a real taskmaster, in a good way. You’re going to show up at 11 a.m., work till 6 p.m. He made sure I ate.

I just was completely unraveled. My whole identity had been shattered. I was building myself up again from the ground up. When I was first on the scene, I thought that all the chaos and the partying was the creative fuel. Most of the writing of that album, I would come in and I was heartbroken, and I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t stop creating chaos. On the last two records, I really found the love for creativity and making music again. I feel like I have so much more agency over my work, mainly because I can just show up, which is such a big part of it. Being able to just get yourself to the studio without missing the day or showing up on the wrong day crying — it makes a big difference.

Most memorable festival set

There’s two massive ones, which is the Coachella where I broke my foot and the Glastonbury headline, which is just as my foot had healed. That was also on How Big, How Blue. At Coachella, that was our second or third show back for that whole album when I broke my foot. Then it healed just in time to headline Glastonbury, which we were filling in at the last minute for the Foo Fighters. I just remember the visual of it is so insane because, at Glastonbury, the crowd goes on further than you can even see and everyone has these flaming torches. I can’t even describe it. It feels like this incredible invading army of love coming toward you, which is on some level terrifying but also amazing. You can’t see beyond the people.

My whole career, I really only had live goals. I didn’t think about No. 1 records or singles. Growing up seeing bands in the South London scene that I was in, it was all about the gig. That’s where everything happened, and that was the most electric part of it. You would go and see bands who had no records out for the live experience. It was I want to headline Brixton Academy because that was my South London big venue, which I did. And I wanted to play the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. I don’t know if I could conceptualize headlining it, even when it was happening. I was, for a while, very happy being main support. I like to try and win on main support — to be like, “Follow this,” in a very set-the-piano-on-fire way.

Favorite Dance Fever collaboration with Autumn de Wilde

She is obsessive like me, and her attention to detail is the same. We will kill ourselves over getting one lace border that has to be there. It was like, “Please, please. This is going to take us over our deadline.” “No. It must have it.” What she’s so good at, she will hold fast when they’re like, “No, we really can’t do this.” She will be like, “You can.” They’re like, “We can’t have gold foil.” “You can.” She really has been the album mother of this project. Since we made “Big God,” we’ve been talking about the next thing. So we’ve been dreaming together for four years.

My favorite, it’s so hard to say because she’s woven into almost every aspect of this record. Getting to make the Dance Fever lyric book has been so nice. My dream, I just wanted to give people a world to escape into with this record. There was nowhere to go for me in the lockdowns except into my imagination, and I wanted to give people that escape, too, and she just really helped me create it. I wanted everything to be together, from the vinyl to the videos to the artwork. Because she’s also detail-obsessive, we really managed to do that.

Favorite song to hear fans singing live

There was a song called “Never Let Me Go” from Ceremonials that I really rejected for a really long time, and we didn’t play it for ten years. I was in such a bad place when I wrote it. I just thought, Fuck it. I’m going to get this song out and I’ll never have to engage with this moment again. It’s another one that’s really technically hard to sing, but it became this fan favorite. Always happens like this — all of the ones that I’m like, Oh, terrible fucking place.

Especially as a female artist who makes really big music with big feelings, you can start to feel like you’re not being taken seriously. You can take on what maybe less generous music press will say, like, “Oh, another big-feelings song about water. There she goes again.” You come out when you are young with so much confidence, and you’re so excited to make music, and over time you can take on what people say about you, and it can grate away at your self-esteem. The fans, they’ve never done that to me, ever. I started to appreciate, so much, the people who’ve been with me from the start. I’ve never been too much for them. I was a bit like, Fuck what these other people think. So I wanted to reassess songs that I’d written when I wasn’t in a good place or I felt like I was too emotional. I started singing “Never Let Me Go” again, and they sang the chorus of “Never Let Me Go” at me and just — I’m going to cry. It’s really healing for me because it’s really healing for that person that I was. It’s really helped me come back to myself. They just sing the chorus for me; I don’t even have to sing it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The English band that recently hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 with the song “Heat Waves.” Welch told British Vogue that Dance Fever is “Lungs with more self-knowledge.” Markus Dravs, producer on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, told Welch she couldn’t write about water on the album after Ceremonials. (She still wrote one song, “Ship to Wreck.”) The album came out on October 28, 2011. Welch broke her right foot after jumping off a stage during a performance at Coachella in 2015. After, ironically, leader Dave Grohl broke his leg while jumping off a stage. The photographer and director worked on all visuals for the album, including music videos, photography, and packaging.
The Hardest and Most Medieval of Florence and the Machine