Florence Welch on Sobriety, Embracing Loneliness and Loving Patti Smith

It’s the day before Florence Welch embarks on the North American leg of her current tour, and she’s making the most of her time in Vancouver. This morning, strangely, she went to a museum exhibit that was all about cabins. “I grew up with a Little House on the Prairie fetish,” she explains with an embarrassed laugh. “I was obsessed. I lived in South London, so there were no prairies. I had a little dress, and I remember laying a ‘river’ of towels down and my bunk bed was the log cabin. My mother was like, ‘What are you doing?’” She laughs harder.

In conversation, Welch is much more lighthearted than she is in song. The lyrics of her latest Florence and the Machine album — the ornate and intimate pop opus, High as Hope — read like diary entries. In its 10 songs, she tackles eating disorders, meeting people on ecstasy and finding the middle ground between happiness and depression. But off the mic, the auburn-haired 32-year-old, speaks in a lilting soprano, laughs plenty and has an endearing self-effacing quality that you might not expect from a multiplatinum artist. She’s four years sober, she’s managing her social anxiety as best she can and she considers herself strong even when her lyrics suggest otherwise.

She even thinks she could make a go of cabin life. “I could if I had my phone,” she says, laughing. “I think the whole point is that you don’t have a phone, but weirdly I did have an ex-boyfriend who was like, ‘I think that you would be pretty good at survival. You have a weird dogged determination.’ I’m afraid of lots of things. When it comes to actually being really scared, I have a strange bravery.”

What are your biggest fears?
I’m afraid of flying. There have been so many kind stewardesses who have held my hand during turbulence, and I had to write them letters just to say, “Thank you.” And when I get back from tour, I can be a bit agoraphobic. When you allow yourself to be that vulnerable in front of so many people, it then becomes this weird thing of just walking out on the street and one person looking at you becomes this extreme thing you can’t handle. I can get a little bit edgy about going out, which makes me a super fun person to date [laughs].

Did you feel that way before you were famous?
That oversensitivity definitely was there. I don’t think it was helpful for a super-sensitive person to become famous. I’m always saying to my manager, “I just don’t want to get any more famous than this. OK?” She’s like, “It’s not gonna happen now if it hasn’t happened already.”

How do you handle obsessive fans?
I’ve had kids come to my house, but they’re always really sweet and wearing a Florence shirt and a fringy jacket. At first, I’m like, “Ugh, dude. Maybe this isn’t OK.” They want to talk about art history or whatever. I try to explain, “I love you and I appreciate the passion, but I need to work, and I need a safe space to just sit and write and think. I don’t think you’re gonna murder me, so do you want to have this book?” And I end up giving them a book.

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How would you describe your mood when you’re working?
A lot of it happens on the move, ’cause I travel so much. It’s like looking out a window and thinking about when I’m really sad or feel bereft about something. I get a strange wave of existential angst. It’s so big I have to call my mom and dad and be like, “What does it all mean? I don’t understand.” And they’re actually so used to be now they’re like, “You need to lighten up.” Also, my dad is like, “That is being human. You don’t understand. This is what it is.” I was like, “Ugh, you’re not being helpful.”

You recently got a tattoo that says, “Always Lonely.” Why would you want that on your body?
Oh, ’cause I was super sad. Mixing High as Hope was a really lonely time in my life. I was in New York, and I had just gone through a breakup — one of those sad ones where it’s not very dramatic: You’re trying to do what’s best for both of you. You’re just getting on with stuff, which is oddly lonely in itself. I was thinking about the end of this relationship and “Why do I feel like the album comes first before everything? Are you perpetuating your own loneliness?” The closest relationship I’ve had for my whole life is with my music. Also, I guess, I thought it was funny.

On High as Hope’s “Hunger,” you sing, “At 17, I started to starve myself.” Did your family support you writing about your eating disorder?
My sister was like, “What are you doing? Are you OK? You haven’t spoken about this even with Mom, and you’ve put it in a pop song? What’s wrong with you?” I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what I’m doing.” But it opened up a lot of stuff in my family that was good in the end. I did sit down and talk it through with my mom. But it’s funny: With English people, you have the talk and then everyone just carries on, just like, “OK, that’s dealt with. We put that in the drawer and we go on.”

At what age do you feel you were done with the eating disorder?
It’s not an overnight thing. It’s funny ’cause it’s one of the most insidious things you can have. I have a healthy relationship with my body now more than I ever did before, but it took me a long time. And it stays with you in really weird ways. So it’s hard to say, “When did you overcome it?” Because you would have overcome some of the behavior a long time ago but the head stuff, it takes a while. It comes back in really strange ways, which I was looking at in this record. It’s very hard to accept love. If you’ve been denying yourself nourishment in some way, you also have a tendency to deny yourself emotional nourishment.

You’re sober now. When is the last time you had a drink?
February the 2nd, four years ago. Being an extreme drinker was a huge part of my identity. Music and alcohol are sort of my first two loves. When I stopped, there was this sense that I was letting some ghost of rock history down that I just couldn’t cope anymore. It was monumental. It wasn’t like, “I want to be healthy and I need a change of pace.” It was like, “I’m going to die. I need to stop.”

Did a doctor tell you that?
Lots of people told me I needed to stop [laughs]. One time, I told a friend I went to this spa, this retreat, and this lady in a white coat told me I should stop drinking. And she was like, “Was that a doctor?” I was like, “I thought it was a spa.” [Laughs]. But with quitting, I could have maybe carried on physically, but psychologically, drinking and drugs made me really depressed. I got so tired of how repetitive the hangovers felt. Once you’ve gone into the zone where it’s just tiring and you’re not having fun anymore, it was beyond me.

So it was a realization.
Kind of a realization but also sheer exhaustion. I’d been on tour since [2009’s] Lungs, straight through to [2011’s] Ceremonials. I finally took a year off to relax and it was not relaxing because I didn’t have any reason to stop drinking. It was the most un-relaxing year of all time. Also, I was in a deep, romantic obsession with somebody who was really sane who wanted nothing to do with me. I had always been with people who were just up for my madness, and then someone was like, “I’m not up for this.” I’m like, “Why?! Why?!” Like drunk and yelling, and they’re like, “This. Because of this!” That experience was everything that went into [2015’s] How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. It was like Dante’s Inferno and Purgatory. It was really bad.

What’s your biggest indulgence now?
Vintage clothes, books and I drink so much coffee.

Are you good at getting rid of old books?
Yeah. Do you do the thing where you go to people’s houses and go straight to their bookshelves and secretly, silently judge them on their book choices? I have such a fear of somebody doing that to me, so I keep mine really well curated.

You have a song on your new album called “Patricia,” about Patti Smith, and you call her your “North Star.” Why is that?
When I was making High as Hope, I was thinking about how to live creatively without chaos. Her writing was like a blueprint. She seems to bring such reverence to the act of living that I find so inspiring. I could just read her write about her morning coffee for pages.

I bumped into her at Omen in New York. I’m so obsessed with her; I already know that she loves that restaurant, so that’s why I go there. I saw her and was like, “Oh, my God. Now I’m literally stalking this woman. I had this sense of shame, like, “It’s too real.” But the song had just come out, and she’d sent me a really nice message. She was so kind and sweet. She has this luminous beauty. She’s like an angel, and she took my hand and I just felt so shy. She was like, “I feel like I know you already.” I felt like the kid who came to my house one time. I was like, “Oh, this is super real now. This is real.” It was magical.

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