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Posted on 23. Apr, 2002 by admin in Damien News, Interviews.


From puffed Rice to wild Rice’

Damien Rice used to sing with Juniper, a loud rock band with a big light show, but just before he was due to fly to the south of France to record their début album, he quit the band. He talks to Kevin Courtney about finding his soul and his solo career.

Sometimes rock ‘n’ roll dreams come true, but more often than not they crash around your head like a cupboard full of weighty expectations. This is the tale of a young man who wanted to live the ultimate rock dream, but instead found himself trapped in a nightmare world of bean counters, unit shifters, chart returns and radio pluggers. He had set out to soothe the soul with honest, heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll, but ended up pandering to shallow showbiz tastes. He used to think he was Bono, but now he just felt like bono, endlessly clowning around in a slick rock ‘n’ roll circus. It was time to stop the show.

This young man went by the pseudonym of Dodi Ma, and he was the flamboyant front man of a band called Juniper. Hailing from Celbridge, Juniper were signed to Polygram (before they were swallowed up by Universal), which proceeded to hype the fledgling act.

Three years later, Damien Rice is sitting in a coffee shop in Temple Bar, facing his nemesis, the very Irish Times rock critic who wrote a scathing review of the band. He’s no longer using a ridiculous pseudonym, and he’s no longer fronting a band called Juniper. He is, however, finally living a rock ‘n’ roll dream of sorts, and this time it’s a far more relaxing, acoustic reverie.

After Juniper fell apart, Rice was expected to fade unceremoniously into obscurity. Instead, he’s become one of Ireland’s most popular singer-songwriters, and has sold out such venues as Vicar St and The Olympia Theatre. His debut album, simply titled O, has already gone gold. He’s nominated for the Best Newcomer title in the Hot Press Awards, to be announced on Thursday; and on May 6th, he performs in Dublin Castle as part of the Heineken Green Energy Festival, alongside his mates The Frames, Mundy, and his old band mates in Juniper, who are now a very fine band called Bell X1.

Damien Rice has had a second bite of the rock ‘n’ roll cherry, but instead of juggling it in the air while jumping through hoops, this time he’s savouring the taste and texture of sweet independence.

“I was just f–king miserable,” he recalls. “I had got everything I thought I wanted. It was my dream to play the Olympia when I was younger; it was my dream to record in the likes of Windmill Lane, where U2 had recorded, and Abbey Road, where The Beatles had recorded. We were 22, 23, whatever. And so I got all those things I thought I wanted, but I was still miserable. I came off the stage at the Olympia, and everyone went backstage, but I just sat on the edge of the stage, and I nearly cried, just sitting there, my head in my hands, going, I missed the show. I missed the gig, because before I’d go on stage, there was this whole sense of, all right, go out there now and blow them away! These people have paid in to see us so… yeaahhh!”

“And it was just, I wasn’t being myself at all. I had lost myself completely in the confusion of thinking that I’m supposed to be some sort of entertainer…” He feels he had no sincerity at all – “it was like Spinal Tap”.

Rice partly blames himself for the over-theatrical delivery, and partly blames the record company for demanding radio-friendly songs and audience-pleasing poses. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the big, multinational music corporation. In early 1999, Juniper were due to fly to the south of France and record their début album with Manic Street Preachers producer Mike Hedges – all paid for by Polygram, of course. On the eve of this dream junket, however, Rice announced that he was quitting the band.

“I went from playing the Olympia, which I thought was my dream, to busking the streets all around Europe for eight months. I had no money, I was living completely off the street, bit I was far happier. Far happier. Back then I thought I wanted to be successful, famous, whatever. Now, I absolutely do not want to famous. There’s a difference between being a rock star and having music which everybody knows, I mean, everybody knows Leonard Cohen, but Leonard Cohen would walk by here and no problem, ‘cos he’s not a rock star.”

Rice took his first faltering steps back in the Irish live circuit, playing gigs in Whelans on Wexford Street, and attracting an increasingly devoted following to these low-key acoustic sessions. His style is not to everyone’s taste: meandering often muddled lyrics; quiet, sometimes almost imperceptible guitar picking; long, storytelling gaps between songs; and a stage set which often resembles a writer’s garret, with bed, chair, writing-desk, pens, books and candles as props.

Joining him onstage are Shane Fitzsimmons on bass, Tomo on drums, and chanteuse Lisa Hannigan. The impression is of a gentle troubadour. Onstage, Rice resembles some scraggly figure from long ago, who has suddenly been transported to the 21st century, and stands blinking in the harsh light of the modern world.

It’s no surprise that his fans also follow The Frames, Mundy, Paddy Casey and the late Mic Christopher. He may come across as a bookish, roguish sort – his album title, O, comes from the French erotic novel, The Story of O – but when it comes to literature, Damien admits to being a bit of an ignoramus.

“I used to fail English all the time. English was probably one of my worst subjects in school, really and truly. I hated poetry, I hated writing essays, I just didn’t like English at all. I used to get Ds all the time, and it’s just ironic that what I do now is write… I always remember people using the word ‘angst’, and I never knew what it meant. People used to say, yeah, ‘this music’s very angst-ridden’. And I was like, ‘angst’? What is that? There’s my English for you. There’s your well-read poet image out the window!”

“It’s just, I think I was born with some sort of… I’m constantly going to extremes… I remember through my childhood I was always spending time outdoors. I used to fish. And then I got to the stage where I was feeling bad about fishing, ‘cos I became conscious of, oh, look, I’m sticking a hook into a worm here. Something changed there, and that’s when girls started coming into my life. And so I had a simple, very bold, wildish, free childhood which sort of changed when I got to 13 or 14. And that’s when I picked up a guitar as well. And everything just sort of changed then. I turned into a different person, a more conscious person.”

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