Singer Florence Welch: ‘If I want to have a family, it changes everything’
A visit to the doctor is not without its complications, physical and psychological, for Florence Welch.
When you’re a woman, they show you a graph that goes like this — down!” she tells me, pointing dramatically to the floor.
“And contending with that is crazy. Then they tell you: ‘This is where you’re at.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, f**k!’ Also, infertility is exacerbated by stress. So, I say: ‘This graph makes me really f**king stressed!’ It is a female doctor, and no one is trying to be mean.
“It is just the reality of what you get shown, the reality of the dilemma.”
The dilemma is, of course, choosing between being a performing artist and becoming a mother.
And the 35-year-old rock star’s stress levels are set to rise even higher because her new album, Dance Fever, is out next week.
“I feel the pressure of the responsibility of my future. I want to be out there and to perform and to give this album life because it means so much to me. The people who come to see me play mean so much to me. There was a period when I didn’t know if I’d ever see them again,” she says, referring to the pandemic when she couldn’t perform live.
“I have such a desire to be out there. But in the back of my head all the time is the f**king graph!”
She shrieks with laughter.
Video of the Day
“Thirty-five is still technically young, but it also feels like an incredibly high-pressure age if you’re a woman. At the age of 35 to 40, you have this sense that your choices are narrowing.
“There is this sense that I finally figured out how to do performance on stage well and then there is a sense that, because you’re 35, people are like: ‘No, you need to stop now and have a family.’
“It’s not that I don’t want that stuff. It feels like there is this enormous conflict.”
There are rumours of a new partner, but she is much happier talking about the album. On one song, ‘King’, she sings, “We argue in the kitchen about whether to have children.”
Where does that line come from?
“From an argument in the kitchen,” she says. “At every dinner party I go to… it just seems to be the thing that everyone is talking about, especially women. It is the entire focus,” she says.
“And then you’ll have the people who do have kids going, ‘I’ve never been so tired! It’s unravelling my life! You should do it, though!’ Their eyes are in the back of their heads from tiredness. ‘I haven’t slept in five years, but you should definitely have kids.’”
Does she feel judged?
“I don’t feel judgment. I more feel like I must explain whether I want to or don’t want to have kids, or why I don’t have them now. It is this weird feeling of, I would like to do it so that I can stop talking about why I haven’t done it – which seems like not a good enough reason.”
She is honest about where she is, and why. “I never thought about how much time touring took up and how big of a chunk of time it was until I got to 35,” she says.
“If I want to have a family, it changes everything. And I never considered these things before. It’s really hard because I think it is something you are maybe never going to be ready for. You just have to dive in.”
And yet, she adds: “I wrestle with so much chronic anxiety. I’m like, ‘Imagine if there was a small thing that I had to worry about.’ I think that’s my biggest fear – that I would be so worried about the well-being of this thing. I have a complex relationship with my body, with loss, with love. I feel like to have a child invites such a lot of love, but also such a lot of perspective for loss.
“To love so deeply is also to open yourself to so much potential pain, and I feel that is something that I need to find a way to come to terms with before I take that step.”
And if you have children, I say, half in jest, they might tell you, if you don’t give them sweets or let them stay up late, that they hate you and you are the worst parent ever…
“Oh my God! I’ve seen my niece do that to my sister,” she says of her younger sibling Grace. “That is the craziest thing ever. She is four. ‘I don’t love you!’ My sister just laughs it off. But she has learned the Welch way to love. My niece was pulling at my sister and saying, ‘I don’t love you’ and so my sister went, ‘OK, I’m going to go then and leave the room.’ And my niece went, ‘No, I don’t love you, but you can’t leave the room!’”
The eldest of three siblings, Florence Leontine Mary Welch was born in Camberwell, London, in 1986. Her mother Evelyn Samuels, who is originally from Massachusetts, is a professor of Renaissance studies at King’s College London, while her father Nick Welch is an advertising executive.
It seems that Florence always had a taste for the Gothic. At the age of eight, she was singing Billie Holiday’s most maudlin break-up songs in character – wearing her mother’s nightdress, holding a wine-glass full of orange juice – for her family at home. She was also singing at funerals and was fascinated by the mythic tales her mother told her.
By nine, her paternal grandfather, Colin Welch, a journalist who wrote about the Nuremburg trials for the Daily Telegraph, died after some time in hospital in a coma. Florence has a strong memory of visiting him where he was “pale, and thin, and moth-like”.
When she was 12, her parents divorced and she says of that time, “I must have sensed some kind of ruction between my parents, because I was really longing to live in a log cabin, read the bible and drink fresh milk.”
Her maternal grandmother suffered from manic depression and died by suicide when Florence was 14. “It was hard to be close to her,” she said once, “because she was on a lot of medication.”
“It was pretty traumatic,” she would later say. “We all moved in together. We thought they were anal, and they thought we were crazy thieves.”
Still, she described her teenage years as fun, if feral – staying up for nights on end, climbing into abandoned buildings – where she looked, depending on what day it was or her mood, either like a “drunk librarian” or a “drunk bat witch”.
After leaving the fee-paying Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, where she got straight As in her GCSE exams, she studied fine art at Camberwell College of Arts. She also began to sing.
She dropped out of college to focus on being the Titian-haired, pre-Raphaelite heroine of ethereal rock. In 2007, she was discovered by Mairead Nash singing the Etta James song ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’ drunkenly in a club toilet in London.
Nash went on to manage her as Florence + The Machine and her debut album Lungs went to Number 1 in the UK in 2009.
But the anxiety stayed with her. When she was given advance notice that she would win the Critic’s Choice award at the Brits that year, she had a panic attack.
Her career went platinum. In the summer of 2011, she opened on tour for U2, an event that she described as “like being a gladiator performing in the Colosseum”. She boasted in an interview she gave at the time that she had drunk 17 vodka martinis in a New York hotel and ended up in a round bath in the middle of somebody’s room.
On another occasion, she accidentally set fire to her room at The Bowery Hotel, her regular NY base, when she left a candle burning after a night of heavy drinking. The New York Times noted: “Her bar tab was higher than the bill for room damages.”
This self-confessed blackout drinker (and multimillionaire singer who has been nominated for six Grammies) was heading for a nervous breakdown (which she allegedly had) or worse.
Two years later, at a celebration of her 27th birthday, she says, her mother made a speech (“a plea, really”) to those at the party to try to keep her “alive”. Instead, the birthday girl finished the night by putting her face in the cake and climbing into the shower fully clothed.
Florence had her last drink on February 2, 2014, and proceeded to turn her life around.
In hindsight, she says, she was angry with herself and full of self-loathing during her drinking years. She says she tried to come to terms with “what makes young women go to war with themselves.
But the judgment choir never stopped singing. It still sings now, though not as loudly or as often, and when it does, I try not to self-medicate with straight vodka or starvation.”
Her third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful went to Number 1 in America in 2015. And her headline set at Glastonbury that year became the stuff of legend – she seemed to fly across the stage like a bare-foot angel in a white trouser suit with a garland in her hair and the 100,000-strong audience – and millions more watching on the TV – held spellbound.
Her next album, High As Hope, was her most confessional yet. She wasn’t singing about fantasy any more, she was singing about herself. The opening line of ‘Hunger’ – “At 17, I started to starve myself” – told the story of her eating disorder.
She wrote in British Vogue in 2019, “I haven’t weighed myself in four years – I have no idea how much I weigh right now. Five years ago, I could have told you how much in the morning, at night, clothes on, clothes off. With and without jewellery. To let go of that sometimes feels like a bigger achievement than headlining Glastonbury.”
Still, she seems to admit that she has a way to go. She sings in ‘Choreomania’, from her new album: “I’m freaking out in the middle of the street with the complete conviction of someone who has never really had anything bad happen to them.”
The line isn’t, as I had thought, about Covid.
“It’s about the irrationality of my panic attacks,” she explains. “It is like the imaginative side of anxiety where you are seeing a slideshow of everything that you think is about to go wrong and the extremes that you go to. The weirdest thing about that song is that it was written before Covid. I started writing it in 2019 and, very strangely in the prescient ways that songs do, the ones that seem the most pandemic-y were written before the pandemic. And that happens to me quite a lot.”
She is at her peak now on stage. “I feel at 35 that I’m finally at the best my performance can be. I really feel like I know what I’m doing.” What was she like at 25? “Drunk. Good but very drunk! The performance wasn’t as honed. I feel like now I have really worked on it.”
How does she deal with her anxiety? “I don’t!” she laughs. “I still have it. How I ‘deal’ with anxiety is that I go to work. So, I couldn’t even go to work during the pandemic because I’m not a home studio person. I go and make things and that really helps me process anxiety.”
She was once asked what makes her unhappy. She replied, “My own brain.” “That’s exactly right,” she laughs now. “A friend said this to me, and it’s stuck with me ever since: ‘You have a cool life in theory, but you have to be you within it.’”
She tries not to dwell on what people think of her.
“I think I’m more practical than people might think,” she says. “I’m not as ethereal maybe as people might think. I can be really ungainly and loud, as you can tell. I also think that there is an inner 12-year-old boy in me that people wouldn’t expect. I got super into watching all the Marvel films. I am an absolute fantasy geek.”
I remind her of what she wrote in the foreword to Useless Magic, a 2018 collection of her lyrics, poetry and drawings: “I make songs to tie people to me.” Is that still why she writes songs?
“It has become less so because I think that the people I am attracted to are more available,” she says. “I have become a bit healthier in that regard. I think I know myself better now.”
She had an on-off relationship with journalist Stuart Hammond from 2008 to 2011; and she has said that the numerous messy break-ups inspired her first album and caused her depression. More recently she was in a relationship with Felix White of The Maccabees.
“Before I would get kind of interested in someone and not even realise I was doing it – not because they were a person who was very present in my life but because of their absence, they created so much space to fill with fantasy.
“You can write more about somebody who gives you the tiniest amount because you get to fill in every gap that there is.”
What kind of people does she attract?
“It’s basically that you attract where you’re at,” she says, “which is something I didn’t realise. I was like, ‘Why am I always going for emotionally unavailable people?’
“Because I’m emotionally unavailable and terrified of intimacy and therefore with these people I don’t have to be intimate because they are never really going to be there. As I got older, I got better at that stuff.”
She’s not sure how she defines happiness now. “I don’t know. I am such a creature of extremes. I’m levelling out a bit. I would define it in the extremes – an extremely good gig or an extreme night out.
“I think happiness is when I can walk when the spring has come, and the air starts to smell different. Maybe because I’m getting older, it is the smaller things. Like when I can walk to go and get a coffee in the mist in the morning, and I look around and I feel happy then.
“As I get older, I’m starting to find a lot more happiness in just these little moments of living. That’s where I find it really. I think that means I’m growing up.”
‘Dance Fever ‘is out on May 13. Florence + The Machine play Dublin’s 3Arena on November 30
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/singer-florence-welch-if-i-want-to-have-a-family-it-changes-everything-41621789.html Singer Florence Welch: ‘If I want to have a family, it changes everything’