Florence Welch doesn’t dance. She writhes. The striking auburn-haired singer who fronts Florence + the Machine likes to perform in long, robe-like gowns and sing sweeping ballads full of majestic imagery: stars, the universe, eternity, the ocean. When Welsh commands, “Say my name and every color illuminates” on a song from Ceremonials, Florence + the Machine’s second album, you actually believe it might happen. Her voice, with its ability to switch from fragile to bold in just a single note, is otherworldly. This is why Odysseus feared the sirens. Something this beautiful has to be dangerous.
Welch’s ethereal art rock songs created such a sensation in her native Britain that Florence + the Machine won the highly coveted 2008 Critics Choice award before the band had even released an album. (“The Machine” originally referred to her frequent keyboardist and longtime collaborator Isabella “Machine” Summers, but the term has now broadened to include the ever-changing roster of musicians who perform with Welch) Her debut record, Lungs, came out in 2009 and was an instant U.K. hit. Over in the U.S. her rise was much more gradual. It wasn’t until her whirlwind performance of “Dog Days Are Over” at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards (nearly a year after Lungs’ release) that the album shot to No. 14 on the Billboard 200. “Dog Days” was also covered by the cast of Glee and featured in the trailer for Julia Roberts’ Eat, Pray, Love — two points that might seem minor, but they introduced Welch to the most important of audiences — America’s obdurate heartland. That’s who an artist must charm to become big enough for, say, a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. (Welch was nominated last year alongside Drake and Justin Bieber. Surprisingly, they all lost to jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding). Florence + the Machine is now an undeniable success; Ceremonials will likely take her to greater heights.
“People say that making the second album is supposed to be more difficult,” Welch says, speaking by phone from a New York hotel room. “But nothing could have been harder than that first record. I had no idea what I was doing.” Welch, 25, started writing songs when she was a teenager and had several years of work to choose from when it came time to record Lungs. Her earlier tunes—one, “Kiss with a Fist,” was written when she was just 17— were traditional, guitar-driven indie pop. “I didn’t hit on this sound—of songs like ‘Dog Days Are Over’ and ‘Cosmic Love’—until halfway through making the record,” she says. “Suddenly I realized the type of music I wanted to be making.”
Ceremonials expands that sound, turning Welch’s signature wail into something so full-bodied it sounds as if it’s coming at you from inside a cathedral. Most of the album was written in just a few months; as a result it feels tighter and more focused than anything Welch has done before. There’s very little guitar — just drums, piano and the occasional harp.
A big sound necessitates big themes. “My instincts are sometimes quite dark and my imagination has a tendency to take me to some quite frightening places,” admits Welch. Here, she sings of being brought down — whether by devils, a distant lover or her own mind — and then pulling herself back up again. Ceremonials’ highlight, second single “No Light No Light,” is a roaring number about looking into her partner’s eyes to discover that the love is gone, while “Shake it Out” finds Welch trying to escape a terrible, haunting past. “I am done with my graceless heart,” she sings, “so tonight I am going to cut it out and then restart.” Those last three words are what makes Welch’s doom-and-gloom palatable. Florence + the Machine’s songs may delve into darkness, but a part of them is always searching for the light.
Visually, Welch is as great a contrast to today’s female stars as is possible. There is little sex in her songs and she doesn’t dress in the usual pop uniform of miniskirts, bikini tops or candy-colored outfits. “There’s never been a part of my life when I’ve tried to look sexy,” Welch says. “Most of the time I feel like a paisley librarian.” While most teenage girls flipped through Seventeen magazine and watched Clueless, Welch says that she idolized Fairuza Balk’s goth witch character from the 1996 film The Craft—wine-colored lipstick and all. For an entire year, she bleached her eyebrows white. “It’s good for performing because you look frightening but no one can figure out why,” she says.
Last month, Welch debuted Ceremonials at an outdoor concert held under a stone archway underneath New York’s Manhattan Bridge. Her hair was pulled back and her shimmery blouse was tucked into a floor-sweeping skirt. The only thing about her that wasn’t restrained was her voice. Welch stomped and trembled and threw out her arms as the music reverberated off the curved walls around her. She’s refreshing, this female singer whose idea of theatrics involves more buttons, not less, and who tries to retain a sense of artistry in the midst of her ever-broadening appeal. Welch has received offers to travel to Los Angeles and make a “proper American pop album,” and says she has considered it. But honestly, why would she want that? Her voice already fills the sky.