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Posted on 09. Jun, 2003 by admin in Damien News, Interviews.


Songwriter is free not to be a rock star

By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff, 6/9/2003

couple of months ago a CD arrived in the mail. This isn’t unusual. What’s extraordinary was the way it looked: Like a tiny book, bound in soft fabric and filled with sublime paintings of volcanos and blue elephants and naked women. We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover — or a compact disc by its packaging — but the sheer artfulness of it seemed to increase the odds exponentially that the music inside would be interesting. So instead of being plopped in the cavernous plastic tub where unsolicited discs by unknown artists wait their turn, Damien Rice’s ”O” went into the CD player.

What a good idea.

Out came 10 shambling, elegant songs that are, quite simply, exquisitely lovely. Rice is often compared to David Gray in the UK, where ”O” was released last year. And the similarities are there, especially on the first two tracks — a pair of aching post-folk ballads that offer only a glimpse of the quietly idiosyncratic beauty that follows. But this is an album that gets better and odder and more gorgeous as it goes. There’s always an acoustic guitar, sometimes cellos or a drum, a clinking sound, a clarinet, an opera singer. Rice’s singing is water clear and raw as a wound, bringing to mind Jeff Buckley and Thom Yorke, and that collision of stark intimacy and unhinged sumptuousness gives the record its most mesmerizing moments. Already a platinum-selling album in Rice’s native Ireland, ”O” will be in US stores tomorrow.

Buzz is already building on this side of the pond, fueled by support from a handful of radio stations (including the influential alternative music program ”Morning Becomes Eclectic” on Los Angeles-based KCRW) and a word-of-mouth campaign sparked by Irish fans. Rice has been traversing the country since April, and he finds the attention surreal.

”I’m not great,” says Rice on the phone from an LA hotel room. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter, who named his album after nothingness, deflects praise with the clarity of a Zen master. ”These songs are here because I was a [jerk] to somebody.”

It’s not a pretty picture. ”Don’t hold yourself like that/You’ll hurt your knees/I kissed your mouth and back/But that’s all I need,” goes the opening to ”Volcano,” the first single. A rubbery violin bends over backward to fill the spaces between twitching guitar strings, and the voice of Rice’s best friend and musical companion, Lisa Hannigan, weaves prominently through the song (and most of the others), appearing like a mirror at the edge of a hidden driveway for the long view. It’s hard to write about love in unfamiliar ways, but it helps to be a melancholy poet who describes his work as discovering how many ways there are to get closer and closer to the truth and then announces a few minutes later that he sings about stuff he knows is total bull.

” `O’, ” Rice says, ”is a journey through those constant, continuous contradictions that come up all the time in relationships, over and over and over. There’s another reason for the title. Going around in circles.”

Rice is as thoughtful and intense in conversation as the songs would suggest. But his restrained recorded tracks don’t begin to hint at what happens to Rice, and to the music, onstage, where the scruffy troubadour curses and crumples, spits out improvised X-rated verses, and funnels terrible noise from cracks in his soul through a distortion pedal with the same efficiency you or I would vacuum the den.

”Damien captured my heart and my passion for what great music is all about,” says Jack Rovner, former president of RCA, who signed Rice to Vector Recordings, a new label formed by Rovner and manager Ken Levitan. ”I’ve worked with Dylan and Springsteen, and he’s one of them. He’s got the gift.” Rice is the first act signed to Vector; the deal is a partnership with Rice’s own Dublin-based indie label DRM, and the artist retains full ownership of his music, complete creative control, and veto power over the marketing of his album. At a recent meeting to discuss the promotional schedule for ”O,” Rice announced that he would agree to one print interview, one TV show, and one radio spot a week. He’s already being called difficult.

”I won’t be a robot who says the same things every day. It undoes the whole thing,” Rice says. ”I’m not promoting my record. I’m protecting it.”

Years ago Rice had a quite different outlook. The young musician from County Kildare dreamed of joining a band, getting a fat record deal, playing huge concerts, and becoming extremely famous. He almost pulled it off as the flamboyant frontman (who went by the pseudonym Dodi Ma) for Juniper — a loud rock band with an elaborate light show. Juniper signed to Polygram and was on the verge of jetting off to the South of France to record its debut album in early 1999 when Rice just walked away.

”We got a taste of the rock star thing and I realized it just wasn’t what it seemed,” he explains. ”I was frustrated. We’d gotten promises from the label about freedom, and then everything turned functional. It was all about order and straight lines and sales and genres. They wanted to box me in. And I wanted to run away.”

Rice did run away, to Tuscany, for a year of gazing at olive groves, planting vegetables, and busking. When he returned to Dublin, rejuvenated and reinvented as a solo artist, Rice borrowed money from his father to make a demo of new songs. Rice sent the tape to his dad’s cousin, the British film composer and producer David Arnold. Arnold became Rice’s benefactor, supplying him with mobile recording equipment that Rice set up in various bedrooms, kitchens, and friends’ apartments to capture the ideas that would eventually blossom into ”O.”

”Everybody thought I was a bum. I had no plan, was just living and trusting in whatever happened,” he says. ”Over a period of a year of random nights playing bits of music it just sort of fell out. I finally played some songs back, turned up the speakers, and thought, `This is gorgeous. This a record.’ ”

Rice has already written his next two albums. The follow-up to ”O,” he says, is heavy and aggressive, the darker side of the same life stories that inspired his debut. Rice says he’s certain that he was put here to sing songs, but the heartless business of selling records is another matter. He returns again and again to the idea of being free — to make whatever music he chooses, to not make another album, to walk away.

”I have no fear of having nothing,” Rice says. ”Having nothing has brought me the most joyous moments of my life. When we deliver the next album, they can say no thank you. If it’s not all here next week, I’m back to being the happiest person in the world who has nothing.”

Joan Anderman can be reached at

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 6/9/2003.

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