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Posted on 08. Aug, 2002 by admin in Damien News, Interviews, Other Music.


With his wrenchingly emotional songs and mesmerising live shows, Damien Rice might just be the new David Gray. Neil McCormick reports

The music industry is obsessed with finding the next big thing. Personally, I think they would be better off concentrating on nurturing the next exceptional talent. In a week when Pop Idol reject Darius Danesh has been crowing about getting to number one with a song he co-wrote himself, a ballad so bland and generic it sounds like it could have been constructed from a kit, I would like to tell you about a young singer-songwriter capable of touching the parts most of his contemporaries will never reach.

Damien Rice: ‘Songwriting is like crying, when you’re in that state of just bawling and trying to explain something’

On his self-written and produced debut album, O, released on his own independent label, 27-year-old Irishman Damien Rice is already close to being as good as it gets. Songs seem to rise up from some volcanic musical centre, taking their own original shapes, melodically fluid and lyrically poetic, brought into focus by Rice’s utterly compelling, deeply emotional delivery. Mesmerising live, where the heartbreak and confusion of his material is enlivened by his offbeat humour and charismatic stage presence, Rice is simply the most complete new talent I have come across in several years. And, bearing in mind that the last time I went out on a limb and recommended someone the British public had never heard of, it was David Gray, Rice might even qualify as a Next Big Thing.

Without the benefit of a promotional budget and with no discernible marketing campaign, Rice’s debut album went straight into the Irish top ten in February, and has gone on to sell 15,000 copies, earning it an Irish platinum disc. At the time, Rice was, by his own description, acting as “manager, artist, publicist and post-room boy”. Subsequently, he has been taken on by Mondo Management, who also manage Gray.

O has just been made available in the UK by iht, the tiny label formed to release Gray’s classic White Ladder. Yet, despite a sudden surge of interest from the mainstream music industry, Rice is curiously reluctant to sign any of the lucrative publishing deals or major-label contracts on offer. “I like being independent,” he says. “I’m more selfish than ambitious. I just want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, how I want to do it.”

It was not always thus. I went to Dublin to meet Rice, where the scruffy, bearded ragamuffin confessed to a former existence as a driven, wannabe rock star.

He fronted a band called Juniper for more than 10 years, focusing all his energies on a musical career until, having landed a deal with Polygram/Universal and scored a substantial Irish hit single, he found himself inexplicably “unhappy, frustrated and fighting with everyone”.

He walked out in 1999 just as Juniper were about to record their debut album. “I found I was happier busking on the street than I had been playing in big venues with all the hype going on,” he says. “When I left, I became the complete opposite to what I had been. I used to meditate, and I had strict spiritual practices, but it all went out the window. I started smoking, drinking, travelling, being free.”

Rice busked around Europe, visiting Paris, Hamburg, Rome, Madrid, London and Edinburgh. “I had money in the bank, but I didn’t touch it,” he reveals. “I wanted to see if I could live off the street.” Contrary to the experience of most buskers, he found he made more money performing his own songs than cover versions. “I was travelling in Scotland with a guy who used to busk in a red rabbit suit with a ukulele, playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This particular day, neither of us was doing any business. I’d played for 20 minutes and it started lashing rain, so I sat sadly in the door of a shop and started writing a song, just humming, singing for myself to make me feel better, and suddenly these pound coins start coming in!”

The lesson this taught him, he says, was “to trust in life”. He received further confirmation that he was on the right path when his second cousin, acclaimed British film composer and producer David Arnold, whose credits include Independence Day, volunteered to become his musical benefactor, setting him up with recording equipment and encouraging him to make a solo album.

For the next two years, Rice played around Ireland, assembling his quite extraordinary band, who vary in number from show to show. “They can come and go as they please,” he says. “I can do a gig on my own if I need to or with whatever band members show up. That way I feel like people are only there because they want to be.”

He is keen to avoid formal constrictions. “I find I change when I’ve got demands on me. I feel like a businessman as opposed to the free, wild, stupid human being who blunders and makes mistakes and gets really upset and fucked up but writes songs to release it.”

His uniqueness as a writer, perhaps, stems from an almost primal approach to his craft. “Sometimes I think songwriting is like crying. When you’re in that state of just bawling and trying to explain something that really matters, you’re not conscious of how you look or what people think of you or any of that stuff that usually blocks you. That’s what happens to me when I write, now. It just pours out.”

His wariness about being sucked back into the mainstream music industry is apparent. “I left all of that behind and it was so easy,” he says. “I was the boss. There wasn’t a sense that people had to live off this. I don’t mind being poor; I just want to release records that I love. I have no idea where it’s going from here. I’m waiting for the feeling to come along and tell me what to do next.”

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