The first time we met, a couple of years ago, Florence Welch was dressed in an amazing, long tube dress emblazoned with photographs of leaves, like an autumnal wood come to life.

Today, at home, she is unadorned - barely any makeup, in jeans and a check shirt. She seems much more relaxed.

A couple of times she breaks into song - once to demonstrate Etta James' Something's Got a Hold on Me, her voice swooping sweetly, which she belted out to hook her manager Mairead Nash in the ladies' loo at a gig. Another time, we sing Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights - 'So coh - oh-oh-ld, let me into your window ...' together.

Yes, she did get to see the singer to whom she is often compared and describes the performance as "very out there. Very performance art and amazing."


Welch's most dramatic performance this year was in the United States, when she broke her foot after jumping off the stage.

Florence and the Machine had just begun a US preview to an international tour of their new album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. They were one of the first big gigs on the main stage of Coachella.

"I was jumping on and off the stage a lot because the crowd are so far away when you are on the main stage," Welch explains.

"You want to get to the people because it's all about connecting and it was the last song, Dog Days [Are Over], and I wanted to encourage everybody to be free and [I was] telling everyone to take their clothes off and everyone was; and Rob, my guitarist, said, 'Well, you haven't been taking anything off,' and so I did." (She mimes taking her top off.) "I still had a bra on but then I thought, 'Shit, everyone at this end still has their clothes on, I've got to get down to these people, too,' and I jumped off the stage, quite quickly, barefoot. I landed really heavily and I knew I'd done something but I just kept running and then I fell on my knees. It was quite dramatic. I literally just couldn't walk any more. I managed to crawl back on stage and my security had to come and find me because I'd just curled up behind one of the speakers."

At first, she was concerned that she would have to stay at home and not perform the international tour, which comes to Auckland tonight.

"I was pretty upset and worried about letting people down because there were all these gigs lined up but then we just stripped it all back and did it acoustically and, actually, it's been kind of amazing. Like talking to the audience and being so much more intimate; and this album has been so much about taking off the layers, and being honest and open and allowing myself to be vulnerable and more raw, I guess ... so it's now even more so."

Her favourite song, she says, is How Big, How Blue, which she wrote in Los Angeles at the end of the band's tour, with its lovely lines such as "Every skyline was like a kiss upon the lips," and big, hopeful, heraldic sound.

She's very proud of the song, which "opened up the whole record for me, in a way. It was the beginning and the end of it.


"I was going to call the record something a bit more desperate and angry, about the things that are out of reach - but then I changed my mind, because after everything, over all the turmoil and the chaos that was going on, there was this big, beautiful hope, which I think was what the album represented to me." She first referred to having "a bit of a nervous breakdown" to British DJ Zane Lowe in February.

She's not sure whether she literally had a breakdown, but her year off in 2013 - which was meant to be a relaxing time - didn't work out that way.

"There is one side of me that wants things to be nice and quiet and calm - have the nice relationship, have the nice house, do nice things - and there's another side of me that is just, 'F*** it, I want to be free and dancing on the table,' and then I find myself sinking in the wreckage of that."

The problem was she was so used to being on tour, having started aged 20 or 21, that at 28, having never had a sustained break, she found it difficult to adjust to normal life.

There was too much drinking, too much partying and too many relationship dramas. "I was trying to figure out what makes me happy. 'I like partying, don't I? Well, I'll just do that.' But then, that wasn't making me very happy."

Is it too boring to say moderation in all things? "I haven't figured that out yet! I am an extremes person; I'm just not a casual-glass-of-wine person. It's [about] understanding that there is that part of me that's drawn to really chaotic things.

" Some of the songs on the How Big album have an upbeat message, such as Third Eye, with its "you deserve to be loved" leitmotif, but there's quite a lot of torment, anguish and destructiveness there, too. "I have a side of me that is chaotic, impulsive and self-destructive."

Is she one of those people who, when things are too perfect, have the impulse to destroy it? "I've been really trying not to be that way but I think there is definitely a side of me that is uncomfortable with calm. I'm having to learn how to sit with things being just as they are. I'm quite used to the up and down of things."

Ship to Wreck, with its nervy lines: "Don't touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head ... what was it that I said? Did I drink too much, am I losing touch ... did I build this ship to wreck?" sounds like a break-up song - was it? "Kind of, but more like a break down and break everything song," she explains.

There has been anger and aggression in her songs - the controversial Kiss with a Fist, with its domestic violence lyrics, from the first album, Lungs. What Kind of Man has a video of Welch in a hotel room being tossed between a group of rapacious-looking men, in an intensely sensual but quite combative dance.

"It was about the idea of always being drawn back into something that doesn't work, and what is it that keeps you doing that? It's like two people to-ing and fro-ing with each other and how destructive that can be."

Is she, I ask, an argumentative person? "No, I'm not very good at arguing. I get very confused and I cry.

I don't understand so I will get very quiet and shut down, and then as soon as the moment has passed where I should have said something about it, I will become really upset - which is confusing for the other person because the timing is odd.

"I think I have difficulty processing the immediate swell of my emotions. I find it quite overwhelming, so I shut down. And that is so hard for the person I'm involved with. I think that's why a lot of the songs can be angry or quite sad because there is a clarity in songwriting that I find quite difficult to express normally. It's easier to sing it to a crowd."

Her albums tend to chronicle the break-ups. Does she have a boyfriend now? She has recently been seen out with Jesse Jenkins, a British photographer. She looks a little uncomfortable. "I've been dating people.

"I've always been in relationships where I had an anchor - someone quite grounded, because I'm up there [she points skywards] a lot."

Welch says she was single most of the time she was making How Big, "which was really good for me.

I learned how to be in my own space and how to look after myself more. It forced me to address the more self-destructive sides of myself because if there's no one to pick up the pieces, you have to do it yourself."

Meditation, DIY French lessons and a twice-weekly dance class all helped. She stopped drinking, even coffee, "because I am very prone to pressing the kamikaze button when things fall apart and drinking too much, but I had to start making this record and I thought, 'I don't want to break this as well'."

Her producer, Markus Dravs (Bjork, Coldplay, Arcade Fire) was strict and Welch kept her head down, cycling to work every day with a healthy packed lunch. "Markus was like, 'I'm not going to be your agony aunt' - so we just went into the work, which totally saved me.
"I always know a song is working when I sing it to myself outside the studio. It keeps you company a little bit. It's like a prayer you can say to yourself, or like a spell to break another spell."

But if writing the songs was cathartic, there were some songs so exposing that she wanted to take them off the record, such as Various Storms & Saints, a delicate piece sung in a pure voice.

The lines are naked - "Hold on to your heart/Don't give it away" and "You had to have him, so you did." This last is a line from a poem called Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell, which Welch has pinned to the wall behind her bed. She calls it a manifesto of heartbreak.

"I was writing a pep talk to myself, almost. I like to hide behind reverb and a lot of backing vocals but Markus pushed my vocals forward and was quite adamant about it. It's another layer of taking down your defences and I was scared."

Piercing the intensity of the moment, her mobile rings. It's her father, who's going to pop round for an early supper. Touring, she says, is a really strange way to live. "It will take two years of your life, just like that," - she snaps her fingers. "You'll come back and it's as though you've lived in this twilight zone and everyone else is getting married or moving out - everything has changed and you're in stasis."

So, despite it being a difficult year, is she happy that she took a break? "I think it's important," she says, "otherwise you're just living in a bubble." c Independent

Florence and the Machine play their How Big tour at Vector Arena tonight.

Canvas, Independent