It's a scorching, sweaty Texas night in early October, and Florence and the Machine are finishing a frenzied headlining set of whirlwind art rock at the Austin City Limits Festival with their driving breakthrough hit, "Dog Days Are Over." Midway into the tune, the group's indefatigable, perennially auburn-haired frontwoman, Florence Welch, has an idea to beat the heat. "It's fucking hot, so take off something you don't need and wave it above your head like a flag," she orders the crowd midway into the tune. Like a preacher, she exclaims, "Austin, you have been released!" Then the already barefoot singer joins them, removing first her white vest and then her golden shirt, until she is wearing only white bellbottoms and a bra. She leaps offstage and disappears into hundreds of outstretched hands in the causeway running through center of the audience.
The next morning, the 29-year-old Londoner describes her state of mind as "a little shell-shocked," typical of the waking hours following any wild show, though she seems cheerful and relaxed, prone to mixing big belly laughs with astute and sobering observations about herself. Looking back on the night before, she clearly remembers why she stripped and made a cannonball for the crowd. "It's about jumping off the cliff because you want people to feel free from judgment," she says. "Rather than being anything titillating, it's symbolic of letting go of inhibition and of being unashamed. ... And it's funny to see if security can keep up with me." She laughs. To her, it's scary, funny and joyous, all at the same time.
Earlier this year, Welch issued her own declaration of individuality, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, her third album, which contains powerful songs like the pounding "What Kind of Man" and urgent "Ship to Wreck," both about her real-life frustrations with a breakdown of a relationship. "I felt stuck in something that wasn't working," she says. "Making the record and writing about it, I freed myself." It's a liberated feeling that has translated to her fans, and not just the nudists in Austin. The album's deeply woven, lilting tales of doomed romance and redemption struck a chord with listeners, and the LP became Florence and the Machine's first-ever U.S. Number One, an integral part of what has become Welch's biggest year ever. Bill Clinton even recently told her he was her fan.
Now her tour, which wraps Friday with a headlining set at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, is more like a victory lap, and thanks to Welch's dynamic stage presence, it's proof that Florence and the Machine are one of rock's best live acts. In Austin, as the 11-person Machine pumped out cinematic art rock, the frontwoman belted huge choruses, struck ballet poses and stalked the stage. By her own admission, it had been a long road to get to this point, but now she can look back at it with a new perspective.
In the period leading up to the recording of How Big How Blue How Beautiful, Welch was confused. Florence and the Machine had put out their platinum-selling second LP, Ceremonials, in 2011, scored a ubiquitous hit with "Shake It Out" (thanks to its infectious, sing-along-ready "whoa-ah-oh" chorus) and relentlessly conjured the record to life on the road, including a few U.S. stadiums with U2. But when it all wound down, the singer had to find herself again.
The "freedom to drink as much as I wanted" caught up with her, so she pressed pause on partying. Then she had to confront the detritus of the crumbling on-again, off-again relationship she felt stuck in. When she and her boyfriend at the time ultimately broke up, instead of going "kamikaze" on a bender, to use her word, she stayed on the wagon and forced herself to do something that felt unnatural: write about herself.
"I feel like I broke myself," she says now. "And I perhaps broke something that I really cared about, and I had a chance to make something rather than break something again. So it was a quiet time of reflecting. I was fucking sad."
When she met with producer Markus Dravs, who has produced Grammy-winning albums for Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons and Coldplay, she still felt shattered. "He had been expecting this Valkyrie with flaming red hair to ride in on a chariot, and what he got was a crying girl in leggings," she says with a slight chuckle. "I couldn't even get dressed at that time. It took every ounce of creative energy just to make the record." Despite Welch's fractured state, the producer pushed her and forced her to confront her feelings.
So she wrote simple songs like "Various Storms & Saints" and "Long & Lost," exposing her inner self. She wanted to write tunes with big finales — and those would eventually make their way onto the record in the form of impressionistic horns on the title cut and the space-rock evaporation of final track "Mother" — but Dravs insisted that the more emotionally threadbare tracks, ones she'd written in five-minute bursts of frustration and despair, were important. "Some of them were word-for-word what was going on at the time," the singer says. "Markus encouraged me to be more vulnerable, but it was scary." When the time came to sing the songs, they argued about the layers of echoey reverb she'd hoped to cloak her voice in; he asked her to dial it back and put herself out there.
Welch filled the album with allusions to bad romance and deliverance. "Ship to Wreck" questions her self-destructive proclivities, the excoriating "What Kind of Man" blasts a wishy-washy lover, "Queen of Peace" declares "all that's left is hurt," "Delilah" finds Welch pulling down pillars, the elucidating "St. Jude" finds solace in the patron saint of lost causes, "Third Eye" finds her wanting to change and "Mother" is a prayer for relief. Despite the tumult, she nevertheless considers How Big How Blue How Beautiful a positive experience on the whole. "The record cocooned me," she says. "I could take the songs out of the wreckage of that time and make something from them. It actually became really hopeful. It's a really 'up' record. It deals with things that are difficult, but it's almost a reaction to it in an uplifting way."
One of the more heartening songs on the album is How Big How Blue How Beautiful's ornate title song, though Welch traces its inspiration way back to a feeling she had on the Ceremonials tour. When she sings, "Between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign, we decided to get hurt" — a lyric that belies a song about finding the gumption to move on — she's thinking of the sky over the Hollywood Bowl, where she wrote it. It was a happy time. "On that tour, it felt like things were really connecting with us in the States," she says. "It was a time of falling in love, and it's about how when you fall in love, everything around you, every place you go is exciting and every person you meet, you love them, too. There's something about the magic of love that opens you up to the whole world."
"I'm an orchestrator of my own destruction and chaos."
Welch spent a lot of time writing songs for the record in L.A., avoiding what she calls the city's darker side ("I personally have definitely been involved in that," she says with a laugh) and finding its "hippie side," where she meditated and got herself right. "I needed to be just in nature with the bigness and blueness of the sky," she says, noting that her current stage setup features an LED sun and moon because it needed something based in nature. "The warmth seeped into the record. I took it back with me to rainy London, and I still have these visions of these big, blue skies and listening to Neil Young and Nick Cave while driving around L.A." (Aside: When asked why she recently covered Jack Ü's Justin Bieber collaboration "Where Are Ü Now," she says that when she's not listening to Neil Young, she loves pop and EDM. "That song," she says, "is a really good dance song.")
Now when Welch looks at the album, she sees how far she's come with 20/20 hindsight. "I've learned that I'm an orchestrator of my own destruction and chaos," she says with a laugh. "There's a calm side of me and a very chaotic, self-destructive side. I learned there's a way to use that energy, which I did on 'Ship to Wreck' and 'Delilah.' There's this side of me that just wants to crash the whole thing into the ground. I can use those feelings."
In 2011, Welch told Rolling Stone her songs dealt with a "very feminine problem of wanting to be perfect, and yet feeling guilty all the time because you never achieve everything that you're trying to do." When she hears the quote read to her now, she laughs and remarks, "Wow, that's quite succinct of me." Then she pauses and considers her journey.
When she thinks of Florence and the Machine's 2009 debut, Lungs, she uses words like "feral" and "imperfect," and remarks that she felt frightened that people would now see that side of her. With Ceremonials two years later, she wanted to "create a wall" to protect herself and her followers from her raw side. "I was getting so famous," she says. "You want to shield yourself, to be un-human." If you're not human, she thought at the time, you cannot be hurt. These days, Welch recognizes the power of allowing herself to feel sad.
"It really was so humbling to heartbroken and face yourself and your own demons, to realize your own part in things," she says. "It made me more accepting of the human side of me that I had been trying to escape. I feel less of a need to be perfect, and it's kind of really fucking liberating."
In addition to her songs and her concerts, Welch has found another way to free herself. Since announcing the new album in February, Florence and the Machine have been putting out dramatic music videos for the LP's songs to comprise a cycle they're calling "The Odyssey." So far, they've released six chapters, but one that stands out to Welch is the first they released, the Vincent Haycock–directed "What Kind of Man" clip, which shows the singer in various states of distress in a relationship. She quibbles with a lover in a car, stares in discomfort at him in a room (after a symbolic scene in which she comes up from under water in a tub), makes love to him, faces off with a room full of aggressive men and survives a terrifying car wreck. It's a metaphor for everything she lived through to make the record, and even acting in the clip took a toll on her.
"I'd be quite shaken up after each day," she says of making the video. "At the very end, I felt so empowered by the whole thing. I felt the experience stripped me down. It was empowering to just be angry and naked."
The only thing she feels guilty about, with regard to the clip, came after it was finished and she decided to show it to her little sister. When its especially vivid car-crash scene tumbled across the screen, the sibling slammed the laptop shut and burst into tears. "She's like, 'Why the fuck didn't you tell me that was going to happen?'" Welch recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, my God. I am so sorry. I wasn't thinking.' 'Cause it is harrowing. But when I talked about the video with Vince, and told him everything that happened leading up to the album, I realized, it was like a fucking car crash. The way I crawled out of that car at the end was like how I crawled into Markus' studio."
Since putting out How Big this summer, Welch has been overcoming the terrible time in her life by performing the album's songs live. While still working on the album, she'd taken dance lessons from a choreographer friend ("When you're dancing, you can't fake it," she asserts) and in Austin, she flits about the stage with grace, her bare toes tickling the edge of the stage. With a soundtrack by the traveling rock orchestra known as the Machine, she stays in perpetual motion for the duration of the 16-song set. Gone are the frilly set pieces and the singer's flowing, Stevie Nicks raiment that recalled Gustav Klimt's gilded, Art Nouveau tableaus. Instead of impressionism and symbolism, for Welch, it's all about expressionism. And her fans appreciate it. "It's nice, because people haven't gone, 'Boo! Put the cape back on,'" she jokes.
As for the show itself, she later says she feels as though she's forgotten her physical limitations. She wants to be unhinged. "It's almost like I'm trying to fly," she beams. "I always imagine that one day I would just run and take off. There's just so much adrenaline going, so the mortality of your body is sort of inconsequential. Just like, 'Fuck it. Go!'"
Austin City Limits Festival sold 75,000 tickets for the day Florence and the Machine headlines, and the audience in Zilker Park is packed in tight. Somehow, though, the crowd matches Welch's pace. The throngs wave their hands in tandem during "Shake It Out," as she seems to guide them like a symphony conductor ("It's moving," she says), and they quiet down when she sings "Cosmic Love" accompanied only by harp.
At one point, between Ceremonials' "Spectrum" and her nudity-encouraging "Dog Days Are Over," the audience begins chanting, "Flo-rence, Flo-rence, Flo-rence," completely unprompted. The singer stays in the shadows by the drum riser.
"I had my hands covering my face," she says the morning after. "Whenever that happens, I just snap back to reality and am just a girl from South London. I'm like, 'What has happened?'"
In a full-circle moment, she flashes back to March 2008, when Florence and the Machine played Austin's South by Southwest festival before anyone knew who they were. They were placed first on a bill that featured a bigger draw at the time, MGMT, in a middle slot. "I played 'Between Two Lungs' off a backing CD, and I yelled and screamed and got drunk and jumped in a pond," she recalls. "We were just excited and drunk. I got my first tattoo here. We were living each gig for that moment. There was no sense it would ever get bigger. It was always, 'Shit, people are letting us play.' So with everyone on the stage last night, you snap back into it like, 'Oh, fuck. Wow. This is amazing.' It makes me feel shy." (Incidentally, when Rolling Stone asks whether Welch has continued the teetotalism she began while making How Big, she replies that she stopped "for a while.")
But for Welch, to whatever degree she feels shy by the outpouring of support in the audience, she feels compelled to reciprocate the love. After an encore break, in which she puts her top back on, she returns to the sing the especially heavy "What Kind of Man." Midway into the song, she's in the crowd again, forehead to forehead with a man in the front row, singing lyrics that would humble most males.
"You want to look for people who aren't going to just be freaked out if you make out with them. That's my general rule for life."
"I just look for the guys who have been singing along for most of the show," she says the next day. "You want to look for people who aren't going to just be freaked out if you make out with them. That's my general rule for life: Look for a guy that's not going to be freaked out if you make out with him." So has Welch freaked out many men? "No, usually, they're pretty OK with it."
At the end of the set, Welch is exhausted from running around and banging heads with the crowd. She collapses, dramatically though likely with sincerity, in the spotlight, her arms and legs outstretched like a snow angel. But while she may be spent, she's also content. "Performing is literally exorcising it with people," she says in the morning. "There's something about the alchemy of performance that takes something that was sad or frustrating, and it has a chemical reaction in your bloodstream and it comes out as joyful." She's free.