Breaking her foot mid-song at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio in April was a painful but unexpectedly eye-opening experience for Florence Welch.
“I was, obviously, absolutely devastated,” said the English singer-songwriter. “But, in a weird way, the gigs we did afterwards were some of my favorites. Because ... there couldn’t be any big show; I had to sit and sing. I couldn’t perform.”
Happily, she has recovered from her onstage Coachella mishap and is sitting no more.
Now on tour in support of her fourth and most emotionally revealing album, the chart-topping “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” she and her band, The Machine, perform Wednesday at SDSU’s Viejas Arena.
Welch, 29, spoke with the Union-Tribune by phone from England about her proudly offbeat, baroque style of pop, getting older and quitting drinking. Here are excerpts from that conversation. To read the full interview, go to sandiegouniontribune.com.
Q: Have you done more interviews in the past few years than you might ever care to recall?
A: I’ve done quite a few. It’s funny, because I don’t think musicians express themselves that well in conversation. We just write songs to best describe how we’re feeling.
Q: I’d like to ask some questions you might not normally be asked. To begin, you go up to that great nightclub in the sky. Sitting at three tables are Billie Holiday, Etta James and Nina Simone. You can only sit down and talk with one of them. Who do you pick, and why?
A: I think I’d like to go sit next to Billie. I’ve always been so fascinated by her and her voice. When I first became interested in music, the emotion and sadness behind her voice was always so captivating. I listened to it so much and was so drawn to it, and to her life and that whole era of music, of jazz.
Q: Has it become more important for you to use your music to tell the truth about your life, as you do on your new album?
A: I think very much so, yeah. And, as I get older, something in you (evolves). That holds especially true with this record. I don’t know what (specific) drive in me came into play with it. I think I tried to write about my life on my previous albums. But, because of fear, I would hide behind metaphors and disappear behind fantasy, which was wonderful to use my imagination. But getting older meant the songs became much more direct and literal. And that was quite important to me, as an artist, to feel that was OK and to kind of own it and own who I was. It was almost like I had to own the bad and the good, equally, to kind of be more vulnerable.
Florence + The Machine
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl, San Diego State University, 5500 Canyon Crest Drive, San Diego
Tickets: $30.50-$66 (plus service charges)
Phone: (800) 745-3000
Q: Does getting your heart broken make you a better songwriter?
A: Hmm. I think it makes you - it’s just a rite of passage, isn’t it? You enter into the world of everyone else who’s had their heart broken. It just gives you another level of understanding of the human condition. You can be more empathetic. But ... although it’s happened so many times to countless people, when it happens to you, it’s like you have to write songs about it. ... The only thing you can do when it happens to you is try to make something of it. It’s very humbling.
Q: Does it work both ways? Does breaking someone else’s heart make you a better songwriter?
A: I don’t know. It’s all just experience. I think life, and really engaging in life, makes you a better songwriter. But, sometimes, I think being a musician is a perfect way not to engage in life, and (lets) you detach and live in a fantasy world.
Q: I’m reminded of the story by Kinky Friedman about an 8-year-old kid chatting with Willie Nelson. Willie asks him: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The kid replies: “I want to be like you. I want to be a musician.” And Willie says: “Well, make up your mind. You can’t do both.”
A: That’s it! Sometimes, as a musician, the rate at which you grow is very much in your own hands, because you (can) stay like a child, forever. As long as you can go (perform a) show, the rest of your life can be total chaos. For me, having time alone and being responsible for myself when I was making this album showed me (what had been) my own self-destructive behavior.
Q: How scary was it for you to remove some of the protective musical and emotional layers with your new album?
A: It was frightening to release it because I felt very close to it. It’s almost like (while) it helped me to make it, “Do I have to tell people I feel better now?” But something happens in the alchemy of a live performance. When you sing it to an audience and they sing it back, it’s not yours anymore; it’s a shared experience.
Q: Prior to making “How Big,” you said you’d had a kind of “nervous breakdown” connected to your “on-off relationship” with drinking. Was there a tipping point for you?
A: I think the way that I grew up, going to parties and seeing punk bands play ... I grew up in very much of an art college, drinking culture, where - to perform - you’d grab a bottle of vodka and a can of paint, and get onstage and see what happens. I thought the amount you drank would determine how good the gig was, and that’s what I did, for years. It was this free-for-all, chaotic thing. And I don’t regret it, because that’s what it was.
Q: What was it like to go onstage straight?
A: I was angry when I first realized I could sing better when I was not drunk. I was like: "(Expletive), this means I have to be sober onstage.” But what I get now onstage, without drinking, is this clarity and feeling the performance in every way. ... (Drinking) was part of my journey; I had to go there. And I don’t do things by halves. It’s a case of: “I’m in it (completely).”