Florence Welch, the Good Witch

How the arty, ethereal singer became the Stevie Nicks of the 'Twilight' generation

florence welch 2011
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Florence Welch performs at the Central Park Summerstage in New York.
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On a recent fall evening, Florence Welch rushes into the backroom of a downtown Manhattan restaurant to order a glass of red wine. "I've been looking forward to this all day," she says, cupping her delicate hands around the stem. Her appearance is one of dignity and order, like an efficient clerk in an independent bookshop: Her hair, which is the same color as a car's brake lights, is tied back in a loose bun, and she wears a pressed vintage blouse under a short black kimono. Soon, though, she cradles her head in her hands. "Oh, God, I performed at a hotel bar last night, and next thing I knew, I was in a round bath in the middle of someone's bedroom," she wails. "There wasn't any water in it, but I stayed there for a while: 'OK, this is where I'm going to stay for the next couple of hours.'" She rubs her temples. "I think I drank about 17 vodka martinis."

This isn't necessarily out of character for Welch, the 25-year-old British "choral chamber-pop" musician, as she describes herself, who has become a kind of Björk for the Twilight age in the past few years. Even Beyoncé is a fan, and has said that her new record is influenced by Welch's music. "I love that record," says Welch. "I've been listening to it, trying to figure out where she's talking about – hmm, maybe this guitar bit?" Onstage – alongside nine other musicians (including a harpist and three backing vocalists) that comprise Florence and the Machine – Welch projects the persona of an elegant and ethereal Romantic heroine. She sings about doomed love and beautiful death, drawing upon the same ghoulish tales that fascinated her as a schoolgirl (she loved Medici's frescoes of St. Agatha with her breasts cut off, or violent Greek myths about Prometheus getting his liver pecked out). On her new album, Ceremonials, the drama from her airy first album, Lungs, is intensified with heavier guitars and imagery that explicitly compares suicide to falling in love, as she talks about the pleasure Virginia Woolf experienced when she committed suicide by placing rocks in her pockets and walking into the deep.

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During her downtime, Welch appears to be much more optimistic, though she's still a complicated figure, with heightened emotions that run from happy and self-deprecating to maudlin and anxious in the time it takes to finish a glass of wine. As she orders some "bits and bobs" (olives, sides of spinach and a kale salad), she replays some more of last night, which culminated in misplacing her phone and dislodging a tooth filling while eating a vegetable chip; she also almost set her room, at the Bowery Hotel, on fire after she left a lit candle flickering on a dresser table. "I definitely did the drunk cry last night – the one where you're not really crying, it's not even real, and you're the least attractive you could ever be," she says. "That's when you need your best female friend to spoon you and say, 'It's OK!'"

This behavior could be attributed to her recent breakup with her boyfriend of four years, a British magazine editor – when his name comes up, Welch's eyes fill with tears – or simply to the lifestyle of touring and its benders, though she says she didn't drink at all when she opened for U2 this summer: "It was like being a gladiator performing in the Colosseum on that tour, and I needed my energy." For the past three years, since Welch became successful, she's been on the road almost every month. In this whirlwind, she hasn't found time to move out of her mother's house in South London, and still lives in the room she's had since she was 13. "I just haven't had time to move out," she says, then pauses. "If I die still living at my mother's house, it will be terrible."

As a child, Welch, the eldest of three siblings, says she was always "attracted to the idea of the brokenhearted chanteuse. I'd be in one of my mum's nighties at age 10, with a wineglass full of orange juice, singing along to Billie Holiday." The first songs she wrote were about breakups – "Things like  'That's the last thing he gave me, a rose on the table, and it's dead . . . . The painting on the hall has fallen to the ground, and it's dead,'" she says. "And obviously none of that had happened yet." As befits most overdramatic lasses, she dreamed of acting on Broadway and constantly bugged her parents for tickets to Starlight Express or Chicago. "You know how most kids are desperate to go to gigs as a teenager?" she asks. "Well, I was desperate to go to musicals."

Welch wrote plays in her bunk bed, concocting imaginary scenarios that often involved superpowers. "I spent a lot of time trying to jump off the top of my bunk bed with an umbrella, like Mary Poppins," she says. "Thump." She also played games with three kids who lived down the street. "We were all best friends, and wizards," she says. When she was 11, her mother, a Renaissance-art professor, left her father for the other family's dad. "It was pretty traumatic," she says. "We all moved in together. We thought they were anal, and they thought we were crazy thieves. But I can say now that it did help me in learning to roll with things, so that I can get along with anybody now, really."

At her new home, Welch's musical tastes quickly progressed from the Spice Girls ("I wanted to be Posh") to grunge and Green Day. She started a coven with her girlfriends, writing down their spells in schoolbooks, and began dressing in purple dresses and black lipstick, "a mix of Clueless and The Craft." Within a couple of years, she moved on to Lauryn Hill and the Wu-Tang Clan ("I was a musical slut," she says), and then garage rock.

At 18, Welch fell in love for the first time with the rhythm guitarist for a "rootsy, Libertines-y, Stones-y" band. "No one at school wanted to date me, so I was head over heels in love when it finally happened," she says. "He drove me completely insane." Enrolled in art school ("I did a lot of drawings of puking up my insides or myself as a pine tree, pining"), she went to all of her boyfriend's gigs, dropping out of school to begin bartending at a pub for "art students and mental patients." She also began performing a few songs she wrote herself, like "Kiss With a Fist," at basement squats and open-mic nights. "I wouldn't call them shows – it was more like, 'There's a mic, I'm going to shout into it, it's three in the morning, there's bubble wrap everywhere.'"

The transformation from neglected band girlfriend to superstar wasn't far off, though, when Welch began collaborating with Isabella Summers, a producer who used to baby-sit her cousin when she was a teenager. When they met again, says Summers, Welch dressed as "half hip-hop girl in gold bikini tops with white denim shorts, and half Pippi Longstocking with sock/brogue combo and grungy tea dresses." They clicked instantly, though their method of writing was unconventional. For "Dog Days," they locked themselves in the studio, stood on chairs and listened to "Like a Prayer" on high volume, made a bunch of harp noises on a keyboard and tapped radiators for drum sounds. "We used to try to write a hit in half an hour, from scratch," says Summers.

A few years later, Welch happened upon Mairead Nash, one half of a female DJ duo well-connected in the London scene (she's credited with nicknaming Pete Doherty "Babyshambles"), in a nightclub bathroom. After Welch drunkenly regaled Nash with a version of Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me," Nash gave her a booking at a Christmas party. From there, it was a short hop "from the toilets to the Brits," Welch has said. What do the old boyfriend and friends from her art-college days think about her breakout? "I wonder," she says, looking upward with a coy smile. "I don't know."

In 2008, after Welch spent a year playing small venues in London, her management sent her to Austin's SXSW, where she played a buzzy show attended by Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser from MGMT. They offered her a spot opening for them on their European tour, for 30 euros a gig – "just enough for us and my three bandmates to split between us to buy booze," she says. "Andrew and I would swap dresses. I have a lime-green catsuit of his, slit to the navel, that I wore to a festival." Her hair was still her natural brown, but one night she and VanWyngarden went looking for a salon called Rock Hair in Paris. "I had no sleep, just some Valium and red wine, and Andrew wanted to get a mullet," says Welch. "I got my hair colored red with a thick fringe. A while later, in a complete state, I tried to put it back to brown, but it just wouldn't. My true self would just not come back out."

In this garb, as a redheaded pre-Raphaelite heroine, Welch may sing about the enjoyment of letting go, of courting death. But offstage, she says, she's "terrified of death." She pauses. "There's a lot that's heavenly, hellish, pagan and reverential in my music, but the truth is that I think death is probably endless nothingness, disappearing into the void. And I don't want that. The world is so exciting and vibrant."

After her dinner of green vegetables and wine, Welch goes to sleep early – "I watched a few romantic movies on the television with a girlfriend, and we wailed to each other, 'We're never going to get married!"' She says that she carries a lot of guilt about not being on the track to marriage and children now, and not knowing if she wants a more traditional type of life. "As disorganized as I can be, the fact is that I'm a Virgo, and I'm a total perfectionist in my work," she says. "I think a lot of my songs deal 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. So the child side of me says, 'Fuck it, it doesn't matter, go out for three days, you'll never be able to do it all anyway.'" She sighs. "The truth is that even though I hate hangovers, there's something special about them. You either have to do a gig, get a tattoo, get drunk again or write a song – that's really the best cure. Hangovers are almost the perfect state to be creative, because you're not really awake, and nothing feels real."

The next day, in the early afternoon, she spends some time folding her clothes – "Now that I'm single, if I'm left to my own devices, I can go on for hours putting things away." Then she sets out to check out some flea shops in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, after her assistant brings her some goop for her tooth ("Home fillings, all the fun of touring with Florence Welch," she jokes good-naturedly, putting a hand to her cheek). She says she doesn't mind losing her phone, really: "I think it's good to lose things sometimes. Because if you find it again, it's almost worth it, just for that feeling. And if you never lost anything, you'd never have that feeling." Deep feelings, whether it's the transcendence of watching a sunrise or finishing another bottle of wine, are what Welch is after, including the ones that come from love. "It's a sick feeling, not the nicest feeling, of being ill and crazy, and driven to mania. I hope someday I can get to a stage where I feel comfort and the solidness of it. Being single now – well, it hasn't been that long, and I don't know how I feel about it yet."

At the market, Welch moves slowly around booths stuffed with clothing and jewelry, with the disciplined attitude of a serious shopper. She considers buying hats and dresses, always with this question in the back of her mind: "Does this make me look cool, or like Maid Marian? There's quite a fine line." After an hour, she decides upon a red bowler hat with a feather. "I'm really going through an OCD burgundy phase at the moment," she says. "I'm always attracted to one color, so 'this can go with that,' and then I wake up one day and look in my closet: 'Oh, no, I've done it again!'"

She digs into her pocketbook, but she seems not to have brought cash along, "and I can never keep a grip of my bank cards, so I'm always writing IOUs to everybody," she says. A member of her entourage stops at an ATM before she heads downtown to the lumberjack-hipster hangout Freeman's, outside of which she trails her hand along a piece of graffiti that says THAT'S ALL THERE is on the wall. "I like when my restaurants have lyrics from the Strokes in them," she says.

Welch has a flight to London at 5 a.m. tomorrow, and she's decided she is going to make it an early night to rest up for it. Then she spots a platonic friend, rapidly going in for a wild embrace with her hands around his midsection. "Oh, my," she says to him. "I was thinking I wasn't going to go out and get drunk tonight – but now, I think I might!"

This story is from the November 24th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1144: November 24, 2011