Florence + The Machine: Bigger Is Better

Florence

Florence + The Machine’s third album opens up and shuts down simultaneously

How big? That’s a good question for Florence Welch, as she readies the release of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the third Florence + The Machine album.

“I just really like big sounds,” she says. “I’m attracted to extremes. That feeling of being overwhelmed is really appealing to me in music.”

Welch started big on the first Florence + The Machine album, 2009’s Lungs. Her bold voice powered dramatic songs such “Dog Days Are Over” and “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” and the LP became an international hit. Lungs’ success validated Welch’s approach, and 2011’s Ceremonials followed suit, adding even more orchestration and massed vocals.

“When it came to Ceremonials, because Lungs had been successful, I was like, ‘Cool, people like this big sound, I get to do it as much as I want,’” she says. “It’s just loving being able to indulge in that maximalism, to love those big sounds,” she says.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful contains its share of grand tracks (“Ship To Wreck” soars), but amid the strings and horns and Welch’s powerhouse vocals, the album pulls back, a little, from that maximalist approach.

“I think with this record, since we had done this big, gigantic wall of sound, it was important to me that we just didn’t do that again,” says Welch. “I think that came down to creating some space and allowing the music to breathe a bit, and really concentrating on the album having a sense of warmth and more organic feeling.”

That organic feeling comes through on earnest ballad “St. Jude,” which finds Welch confessing, “Maybe I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos.” It’s also present on the introspective “Various Storms And Saints,” a song Welch almost pulled from the record because of its naked honesty.

“I love to hide behind metaphors, my vocals and production; I’ll do anything to hide my voice, because it makes me feel so exposed,” says Welch, contrasting her emphatic singing vocals with her writing voice, which usually veils personal details. “Various Storms And Saints,” however, drops those veils and pares the production to strings, an electric guitar and a choir of backing vocals. (In Welch’s world, that’s minimal.)

“The content is really bare, really emotional,” says Welch. “It was kind of a pep talk to myself about feeling a bit heartbroken. There’s this letter that I read by Frida Kahlo on heartbreak; it’s kind of a manifesto on what you should do. I was trying to give myself a manifesto on how I should be, and that was kind of the song. When the record was done, I was like, ‘I don’t want people to hear this! It’s too scary.’ I nearly took it off, but I’m glad I didn’t.”

It may seem paradoxical to find an artist as anthemic and forceful as Welch—one who values outsized emotions and broad, communal responses—worried about feeling exposed, but she doesn’t see it that way. “It’s hiding in plain sight, you know what I mean?” she says. “It’s making the biggest noise ever to disguise yourself. It gives you armor. The bigger sound is more protection.”

Welch is talking on the eve of the first weekend of Coachella, where her band would debut songs from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful before an audience of tens of thousands. The Los Angeles Times hailed the performance as one of the weekend’s best, but the night would leave Welch with a broken foot, injured when she jumped offstage during the last song of the set. She would perform the second weekend’s set seated and be sidelined for six to eight weeks.

How Big follows a voluntary hiatus from touring. After being on the road for most of five years for Lungs and Ceremonials and living out of a suitcase in her parents’ house when she wasn’t, Welch needed a break.

“When you’re touring all the time,” she says, “you never have any time to reflect on how your life’s changed, or who you are, or how you deal with relationships, or how you deal with your own life. It was almost like a bit of a crash landing. I moved out on my own, and I had to face some of my demons. I lived in L.A. for a bit as well, and I think that opened up the sound of the record some, being in that big blue sky a lot.”

Still, that opening and space, however blue and beautiful, is relative, and although the plan was to pare back more for this album, the results are still big.

“I always talk about me being more minimalist, and it doesn’t work out that way,” Welch says, laughing.

—Steve Klinge