Florence Welch is all about contradictions. As the unmistakable voice of one of the country’s biggest bands, Florence + the Machine, she’s known for being expressive, artistic and, more often than not, shrouded in billowing fabrics. Offstage, however, the south Londoner is a more introverted and doubtful presence, something her first book, Useless Magic, makes clear. A varied, visually arresting tome, it brings together poems, lyrics, sketches and notes from Welch’s personal and professional life, making the reader feel as though they’re peeking into a private journal, and emphasising the gap between Welch’s performances (big, dramatic) and the majority of her writing (questioning, fragile). As well as this, she’s been working on a searing fourth album, High As Hope, out this week. Lead single "Hunger" was released in May and ushered in a more confessional era for Welch, who has given up drink and drugs in recent years. Ahead of the release of both book and record, she explains her "anxious ghost" personality, near-madness, and the blurry boundaries between song and poetry.
In the book you say that there’s an impermanence to song – what do you mean by that?
When I wrote that, I was thinking about why I'd never written the lyrics to my songs down before. I think it's because when people listen to a song, they can sometimes mishear you, or let it wash over them, or somehow the meaning of a word is strengthened by its sound. I guess I was scared of actually writing them down, and being seen. This is the first time I’ve just allowed them to be on the page.
How are the songs, the poetry and the visuals in the collection connected?
I started writing poetry towards the end of the last tour of [third album] How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – some became songs and some of them stayed as poems, so I realised that perhaps the boundary between them wasn't as big as I’d thought before. I started to see them as less separate, and some of them became songs for High As Hope. As for the drawings, I've always been an incredibly visual person and have a really strong sense of personal aesthetic. I like it when an album is a world that you can step into, and for me it's always very important that that has a continuity to it. I don't know if it’s because I went to art college, but I see everything as a whole, and feel like things should tie together.
What are your favourite lyrics in the book?
It's been really interesting going back to some of my earlier writing, because I realise songs like "Bird Song" that never quite made it onto an album are actually quite complex little folk tales, and I can see that I was pretty interested in telling stories. So it’s nice to look back on the section for [first album] Lungs and see songs like "Falling", "Bird Song" and "Swimming", and then look at the songs on High As Hope and realise that I’ve always been attached to similar themes. It's oddly comforting to know that you've always been fixated on the same things.
In the poetry section you write evocatively about fame and coping with fame...
Yes, I say that I'm an anxious ghost. It's funny because people look really scared when they see you. I guess they're just surprised – they don't expect you to be going to get a coffee, so it's a little like being an apparition. And there's also a level of that that you've created yourself. When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with superheroes and ghosts and mermaids, and in a sense through my job I've almost been able to create that. You become your own dream, if that makes sense. I think I've become more relaxed about it, though. The people who come up and talk to me are usually really kind and sweet, and I think by putting myself out there, people can kind of see your humanness, and we talk about our anxiety and stuff. But sometimes I don't really want to be noticed, which gives you the sense that you're scurrying around, that's the anxious ghost thing. I can be really shy and sometimes I don't really like having my picture taken, but if someone stops me I'd much rather sign a piece of paper than take a selfie.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with superheroes and ghosts and mermaids, and in a sense through my job I've almost been able to create that.
Where and when do you like to read?
I like to read when I'm travelling, or at home after being in the studio or doing work. I've always read – ever since I was young I've always been a really voracious reader. When I was a little kid it was just me and a book. That was my biggest relationship, I was kind of a shy kid.
Do you have a go-to book you would give as a gift?
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is one of my favourites, I've given that as a gift. It's incredible. Or Bluets by the same author. I also love Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward. These are writers who are pushing the boundaries of what poetry and prose is. They're kind of changing what it has to be.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I get super lost when I go to Paris, but the only place I know how to find is Shakespeare and Co. I love it.
What has it been like recording the new record? You’ve said that you wouldn’t normally go straight into writing after a tour, but you did this time...
Yes, I did – I was just really compelled to start making stuff. When you’re touring you can't really create things, and I'm someone who really needs to have an outlet. I'd been writing all these little poems and I wanted a place to put them. After [the last tour] I went straight into a little studio in south London and just started making it right away. It was a kind of bits and bobs thing, and took about a year and a half. I feel really good about having co-produced this one, though. I think I was essentially producing before, but I never knew I was allowed the title. But when you take the title you really have to show up and do it. Sometimes when you're working with a producer, there are moments when you can kind of take your foot off the gas a bit, and maybe they take over a bit of the mixing, and you can go off and rest, but I was there for every single second of this process. I nearly went mad, but this record is a part of me. Every piece of it I have touched and held, so I guess it's kind of the purest expression of where I'm at as an artist.
That sounds like a very intense process.
It was – I got really sick when I finished it and had to take some time off around Christmas. I got this horrendous flu and was just lying in my house like, oh my god, this album has destroyed me! Making it was really fun and joyful, but it took a big chunk of me and then I got ill, which I think was my body's way of resetting. But now I feel good and I'm so happy with the way it turned out.
It seems like a record that deals more with realism than the supernatural, otherworldly themes you’re known for.
That’s interesting – I think maybe that's to do with the fact that it started off as poetry. Sometimes writing a poem that isn't set to music can be more matter of fact. I'll write songs where I sing to music, and the music makes me conjure up things – I'll be a kind of translator. But with this one I was sitting down before the music came, so it was maybe a more direct thought process. But I think it's also an age thing. I'm a bit older now, and I'm a bit further from the things I was ashamed of, or was struggling with. And when you're a bit further from all of that, you can say these things out loud and you can be more honest. When you're in the pain and you're in the shameful stuff, there's no fucking way you're going to tell anyone. You're gonna dress it up like it's a mystical creature. So I think I was at a stage where I was in a more stable place and I could be a bit more forthright.
You’ve also just done a sleepwear collection with Liberty – how did that come about?
I've always been a Liberty print obsessive, and I've collected [items] from charity shops since I was a teenager. So when they approached and asked if I would like to do something with them, I said yes. It’s the shop that I go to the most in London, as it's a beautiful Tudor building and small enough for me to feel okay in. I do a lot of my writing in the morning, in my pyjamas, getting hyped up on coffee. So I thought a sleepwear collection would be good, because for me it's also workwear.
How does it feel to be a style icon more generally, and to have people comment on how you look as well as what you do?
How I look is an extension of my personality, that's for sure, and I find fashion a way to be creative in my daily life. When I was in school I had this English teacher who came to school in medieval robes, and she made a lasting impression on me, as you can see. She would come in with these long fluted sleeves and red velvet dresses. I think what's nice about having settled into my own sense of style is that I’m quite happy to wear what I like. It probably isn't to some people's tastes, but there's a kind of liberation to that. I don't ever worry about ending up on best or worst dressed lists.
Useless Magic, £20, is out on 5th July, published by Fig Tree. Florence + the Machine’s new album, High as Hope, is out now.
Watch Florence read an extract from Useless Magic below...