Florence and the Machine Takes a Low-key Approach to New Album

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Welch said the experience of making How Big How Blue How Beautiful has been its own reward.

Florence Welch flung open the door to her suite at the Chateau Marmont last month like a woman in the middle of an important task. Inside, dozens of designer gowns, maybe a hundred in all, hung on several clothing racks awaiting the singer’s careful inspection. Shoes and accessories sat in piles on the carpeted floor nearby.

The job she was doing, it turns out, was important: These were wardrobe options for one of music’s most style-conscious events, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., where Welch, one of music’s most fashion-forward stars, was due to perform in about a week with her popular British band, Florence and the Machine.

“Someone sent me this — it’s a pretty strong look,” said the 28-year-old, fingering a jade-colored number with a fur-lined neck that looked like something from “Game of Thrones.” The dress had a pair of matching fuzzy boots — less than ideal, it seemed, for Coachella’s sun-baked desert setting. “They might be quite hot,” Welch admitted with a laugh. “I could die if I wear them.”

In the end, the singer wore a crisp white pantsuit comfortable enough that at one point she leaped into the crowd — and promptly broke her foot. (More on that later.) Yet the outfit choice wasn’t merely a concession to climate; it also reflected the streamlined vibe of Florence and the Machine’s new album, “How Big How Blue How Beautiful.” Out this week, the record takes a step away from the ornate sound and high-flown theatrics of the band’s earlier work, which presented the red-headed Welch as a quasi-mythical figure in sweeping, harp-laden songs like “Dog Days Are Over” and “What the Water Gave Me.”

“It’s less ethereal now, with more of a rock edge,” said Lisa Worden, music director at L.A.’s influential KROQ-FM (106.7). “And the songs seem more personal,” she added, referring to “What Kind of Man,” the album’s driving lead single about an unreliable lover, and “Ship to Wreck,” in which the singer considers her self-destructive impulse. Other tunes describe an emotional bottoming-out in language that sets aside the elaborate metaphors of yore.

Curled on a sofa as she took a break, Welch said the record dispenses with the mannerisms she once used to protect herself. “I feel like there aren’t any tricks on it,” she said. “It just is what it is.”

Those tricks propelled Florence and the Machine to quick success. Raised in London amid an artistically inclined family — her mother is a professor of Renaissance history — Welch formed the band in 2008 with keyboardist Isabella Summers, a friend since they were teens. The group released its debut album, “Lungs,” the next year and found itself with a worldwide smash in “Dog Days.” “Ceremonials,” the band’s follow-up disc, came out in 2011, not long after Florence and the Machine opened a string of stadium concerts for U2. The platinum-selling album cracked the top 10 on the Billboard chart and earned two Grammy nominations.

In those days, “the studio was the place for the wrecking ball to come out,” said Summers, who explained that making music gave her and Welch the chance to “be weird and emotional and dramatic,” qualities that combined with Welch’s good looks to form a potent public image at a moment when mainstream rock wasn’t producing many new female stars.

Soon the singer, who’d dropped out of art school to pursue music, became a fixture on the international fashion scene, turning up at runway shows and performing at a Chanel event in Paris at the behest of Karl Lagerfeld. Musicians tapped her for collaborations as well, including the rapper ASAP Rocky and the mega-DJ Calvin Harris, who teamed with Welch for the million-selling 2012 hit “Sweet Nothing.”

In the process, her larger-than-life persona “became like an armor,” she said, dressed at the Chateau in flared jeans and a filmy purple blouse. “It made me powerful.”

Part of what that armor was guarding against was despair over the end of a romantic relationship; her image also made it easier to maintain the hard-partying lifestyle she’d developed over years on the road. So when the time came to begin work on the band’s third album, Welch’s initial instinct was to stick to it. She and the band took up residence in L.A., living in what she called a “big concrete doll’s house that had an elevator in the bathroom.” Songs started coming together for a concept album about a witch that goes on trial for murder in Hollywood — “like ‘The Crucible: The Musical,’” Welch said.

Yet the plan changed after she returned to England to work with Markus Dravs, whom she’d selected to produce the album after his work with Coldplay, Björk and Arcade Fire. “I was handing him songs like ‘Which Witch’” — it survived as a bonus track on the deluxe edition of “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” — “and he was like, ‘No, no — you can’t do that,’” Welch remembered with a laugh.

“I just felt that she’d definitely done the whole drama thing on the first two records,” Dravs said. “And I was sure she had another side that hadn’t really been displayed.”

Pushing away the witch-hunt material, Dravs encouraged Welch to concentrate on smaller-scale songs she’d been writing about her breakup. He also advised keeping the arrangements simpler, which Welch admitted was a struggle. She’d told the producer she wanted to make a record modeled on the stripped-down music she’d listened to driving around L.A. — Neil Young, in particular — but balked when she realized how vulnerable the sound made her feel.

“I was like, ‘Don’t we need more reverb? Can’t we have more backing vocals?,’” she said. Not everything turned out so minimal: “Third Eye” builds to a euphoric climax; the title track, inspired by the California sky, shimmers with strings and horns. But in “Various Storms & Saints,” Welch is accompanied by little more than a lone electric guitar as she sings about “teaching myself how to be free.”

“I wanted to take that off the record right up till the last minute,” she said of the song. “It was so frightening.” Yet Dravs convinced her that letting go — not hiding behind the band’s old wall of sound — could be another form of empowerment. “And that was such a relief,” she said. “Keeping that poise and that grandeur was hard.”

Welch certainly embodied a sense of newfound freedom in her performance at Coachella, where she repeatedly ran barefoot from one end of the gigantic main stage to the other. For “Dog Days Are Over” the singer urged people in the crowd to take off their clothes then joined in by stripping down to her bra and jumping offstage. She knew immediately she’d hurt herself but finished the concert with few aware of what had happened. Since then Florence and the Machine has been playing acoustic-style gigs with Welch seated on a stool, as she recently on “Saturday Night Live.”

Watching Welch perform that way reminds Summers of a “caged animal,” said the keyboardist. “It’s frustrating having to watch her being frustrated.” Still, the quieter concerts have led audiences to “listen super-intently,” Summers acknowledged, a situation that suits the new material. And Welch expects to be healed by late June, when Florence and the Machine is set to play England’s venerated Glastonbury festival. (The group is also booked for other summer festivals including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.)

But whatever happens with her foot — and therefore her ability to support the album as she’d like — Welch said the experience of making “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” has been its own reward.

“It’s like self-acceptance on a grand scale,” she said. “If you’re going to put these songs into the world, you’ve got to be OK with them yourself.” The unguarded music allowed her to “come back to the person I was before all of this,” she said, waving at the luxury goods filling a sizable portion of her room. “It made me more comfortable in my own skin.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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