It’s been over a decade since Florence + the Machine introduced themselves with ‘Kiss With A Fist’, a song that marked the first baby steps in a career that now sees the band headlining the biggest events in music as a matter of routine. By Florence’s own admission, those early years were a whirlwind. What began as a teenage collaboration with her friend Isa Summers in Camberwell, south London, developed rapidly - a period defined by growing success, all-night partying and the kind of hangovers only a 22-year-old can conquer. That time in the late ‘00s, Florence concedes, remains a touch hazy.
“Even when I was drinking a lot, I would lose everything else - phones, cards, boyfriends,” she says, with a laugh. “But I would never lose my notebooks. I would always be writing things down. Somehow I always made it home with that soggy notebook still in my hand.”
That passion for writing has endured and is evident in Useless Magic, her first book. On the cover it says “lyrics and poetry”, but it’s much more than that: bound together in a matte burgundy sleeve, it’s a scrapbook, career retrospective and body of Florence’s contemporary writings. As she points out in her preface: “you can have everything”. It feels like it.
There are the lyrics: the words from Florence’s four-strong catalogue of albums (Lungs, Ceremonials, How Big How Blue How Beautiful and, the latest LP, High As Hope) collected together for the first time - the familiar likes of ‘Dogs Days Are Over’, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, ‘Shake It Out’, ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Hunger’. And then there are the poems, 16 original works: what she describes as “muddy trinkets” in one composition, the words that were “not beautiful enough, too bloody and ragged” to make it into her music. These are interspersed with material from her personal memory boxes: Polaroid photos, to-do lists (“go to Tate Modern, go to Fopp”), ideas scribbled on complimentary hotel pads, setlists from shows and distracted doodles. At one point, an old list of her favourite songs by other artists - from Klaxons to Tom Waits, Roisin Murphy and Bon Iver. All this is complimented by artwork, too, both by Florence and courtesy some of her favourites, like William Morris and Gustav Klimt. There’s loving detail in the way it’s compiled. For fans, it will feel instantly collectable. To casuals, it’s a comprehensive introduction to a globally successful artist, a piece of work that’s less ambiguous than, say, listening to one of her albums. Or, as Florence offers, “more exposing.”
Long before Florence was a musician, she was an avid reader. She was, she recalls, a “shy kid” who found “solace in books.” Literature was in the family - her mother, an American teaching in London, is a professor of renaissance studies with published works and her father, an advertising man, has written poetry.
“I was much more of a book-worm before I even thought about being a performer,” she remembers. “Reading was my first love. I really was a ferocious reader. I was already an escapist as a kid.”
Reading was my first love. I really was a ferocious reader. I was already an escapist as a kid.
It wasn’t until later that music became her priority. She was encouraged to sing by a grandparent, joined the choir (on the odd occasion she was told off for being too loud) and sang at family occasions. While studying at Camberwell College of Arts, she began composing songs with Isa Summers in her London studio; they’d sit back-to-back in the cramped space, use makeshift instruments to demo recordings and had a list of band ‘commandments’ pinned to the wall. They filtered their frustrations of failed relationships into the songs that would go on to form the backbone of Florence +the Machine’s debut album Lungs, released in 2009. That year they won a BRIT award and the album went to number one.
Each release thereafter has propelled them to new heights. There has been chart success in the UK and internationally (third album How Big How Blue How Beautiful reached the summit of the US Billboard chart - their first American no.1). They’ve shared stages with U2 and, more recently, The Rolling Stones. After Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters pulled out of headlining Glastonbury in 2015, F&TM stepped in at short notice and delivered a career-defining performance that was so exhilarating it took months for Welch to come down from it. The new album High as Hope released in June 2018, and a year full of huge plans is set to follow.
Useless Magic forced Welch to relive all of that. Detailing her well-established songwriting technique she describes her songs as “subconscious warnings or messages to myself,” adding, “but I often don’t know what I’m trying to say until years later”. Once they were assembled together in print for the book, Welch was reassured by what she found.
“It’s interesting to look back on your work and see there’s been some common themes that have come up - you’ve always been interested in the same stuff. There’s something oddly comforting about that,” she says.
“It’s funny,” she continues. “Everyone wonders about a ‘stage persona’ but in this I was like ‘I’m not sure there is one!’ From the book I thought, it’s just this person. While you’ve been exploring different things you’ve been the same artist all along. It’s like, ‘oh, I’ve always been myself’. It’s kind of inescapable. It was weirdly life-affirming putting it together. Although it was messy and overwhelming there was a thread of work that went all of the way through.”
Sharing her original poetry was something new for Welch. The conceptual artist Robert Montgomery, known for his site-specific text-based installations, read some drafts. She sent a handful to Nick Cave “because he’s a writer, as well as a musician, I admire, and he gave me some notes.” Spoken-word poet and author Yrsa Daley-Ward also provided advice. “Their encouragement helped a lot,” she remarks.
Welch’s poems are not like her songs and as a writer, she wrestled with that opposition. “Songs are a bit looser. I already have a solid voice [in my songwriting]. The song voice is almost separate to me - something that you channel,” she mulls over, considering the difference. A few poems appear in Useless Magic twice because they’ve ended up in a track, and they’re also a standalone poem with a few edits. “A lot of it is still kind of an exploration of what it means to be a songwriter and a tentative poet,” Welch reasons.
Compare the poems to the lyrics and they’re much less abstract, less dreamy. Traits like her wicked humour and pensiveness reveal themselves. The experiences are far more rooted in the everyday - except when you’re Florence Welch of course some of your everydays involve sleeping hungover in Bryan Ferry’s studio (Song Continued) or hanging out with Liza Minnelli at a Lady Gaga concert (American Mother).
“I find it funny to include Lady Gaga in a poem, because she’s such an icon of pop culture and poetry could seem quite high romantic - it could be seen as quite lofty - so to kind of subvert that. I guess I could be considered a pop star, but then what does that mean to include those other aspects of your world into poetry? The pop-culture... the inter-poetry… the mixing everything up… I find that really interesting,” she explains.
Those famous name-drops are rare, though. Elsewhere there are poems about her parents (New York Poem (For Polly), American Mother), the role of quiet people in a world loud with technology and politics (Rage) and the surreal nature of fame (I Guess I Won’t Write Poetry) in which she writes: “Being ‘famous’ is like being an anxious ghost / Scared to scare people / Wanting to slip through unseen.”
The journey has left Welch feeling reflective: “The poetry has turned out more revealing in lots of ways than the songs. The songs can be quite grand and cathedral-like in their ambition. Poetry can sometimes be more matter of fact.”
The poetry has turned out more revealing in lots of ways than the songs
“I think Song Continued, as I was writing it, I realised I was figuring out something about myself. That last line: “Ah / Here is it / Is it enough” is sort of heartbreaking to me in a sense. Sometimes as you’re writing you tell yourself the truth in a way that you can’t in your daily life. And you’re like, oh, in that mess, in that swamp of everything, I was just trying to be enough, I was just trying to make something beautiful in order to feel ok. Poetry can reveal part of yourself that you didn’t know.”
The act of making Useless Magic has given Welch more confidence, and also fresh impetus. “I’ve been writing these things called Daily Sermons. They’re really weird,” she giggles. “It’s definitely has encouraged me to write more.”
Reading continues to play an important role and she’s never short on inspiration. Since 2013 Welch has headed up Between Two Books, a fan-run book club that sees the community regularly swap recommendations. As it has grown Florence has invited notable friends like Greta Gerwig, Bat For Lashes and Fiona Apple to share their favourites as followers read along, exchange reviews and debate ideas.
“It’s been such an incredible gift to my life. What I still love about it is that it’s really fan-led. They’re the ones that run the community. I watch in awe at these young women who’re so socially conscious and enthusiastic about the world. Their passion for reading, for the causes they believe in and their community is so inspiring to me.”
Now, after more than a decade being known for her songwriting Florence Welch can add her own book to the reading list. “It’s funny,” she says, “to see yourself fit together on the page.”
Lyrics and never-before-seen poetry and sketches from Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine
Songs can be incredibly prophetic, like subconscious warnings or messages to myself, but I often don't know what I'm trying to say till years later. Or a prediction comes true and I couldn't do anything to stop it, so it seems like a kind of useless magic.
'An elegant collaged scrapbook' Observer
'A treasure . . . beautiful. Generous in its honesty, by the end you feel as though you have climbed into the colourful, and sometimes tortured, world of a passionate artist' iNews