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Posted on 26. Sep, 2003 by admin in Damien News, Interviews.


‘Britney? She was a pain’

Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice is about to make it very big – even if he doesn’t really want to. By Alexis Petridis

Friday September 26, 2003 The Guardian

Battling to stay underexposed: Damien Rice, before the self-inflicted haircut

There is something strangely familiar about the set of The Last Call With Carson Daly. Just as first-time visitors to New York are struck by how recognisable the city seems after years of seeing films set in its streets, so the first-time visitor to the set of a major US chat show is liable to note how similar the studio looks to The Larry Sanders Show. Power-dressed female researchers flutter around the show’s host, a thick-necked, square-jawed former DJ. There is an unfunny stooge (rapper Biz Markie) and a headset-wearing floor manager issuing technical instructions in a harassed voice. “This is the toss!” he bellows inscrutably. “The direct toss!”

Indeed, the only people who look out of place are the stars of the show. Damien Rice and his band may be top-billed tonight – above American Pie actor Jason Biggs, who is plugging the new Woody Allen film Anything Goes – but you could only identify them as a rock band because they are carrying instruments. They look more like people who have recently emerged from a tent in the Glastonbury festival’s Green Field. Elfin backing singer Lisa Hannigan is wearing a pair of threadbare corduroy flares. Her long tresses hang out from underneath a vast woolly hat. Cellist Vyvienne Long sports a pair of sandals and a flowered hippy skirt.

Rice himself is wearing a tattered charity-shop jacket. His equally tattered jeans are held up by what appears to be various lengths of discarded rope. His haircut is downright bizarre – a sort of malnourished, droopy mohican that looks suspiciously like he cut it himself. This, it later transpires, is because he cut it himself, removing his mop of Byronic curls as a protest against his record company over-promoting his debut album, O. They got off lightly. “At one stage, I had half my head shaved and half long,” he confides. “I was going to leave it like that.”

The haircut is merely the latest stage in Rice’s curious and unusual battle to avoid overexposure. He dislikes posing for photographs, preferring to be snapped on the hoof as he goes about his business. And he is similarly intractable on the matter of promotional activities, which he has strictly limited to three a week. This is unheard of: European artists attempting to “break” the US are expected to dutifully press the flesh at any TV show, press interview and in-store record-signing session that will have them.

His behaviour may be odd, but Rice has his reasons. In 1997, he was the lead vocalist in a hotly tipped Irish rock band called Juniper, an experience soured after only two singles by “a combination of things that all came down to not having freedom. Record companies coming into the studio and asking you to be a bit more radio-friendly. I just ended up fighting with everybody and being really unhappy within myself.” He quit Juniper, left Ireland and headed for Tuscany, where he planned to “plant vegetables, farm, paint, whatever. After a while, I started getting the itch back for music again. I felt sucked back in, seduced. It was like going back to a woman who beats you or something.”

Instead of returning to the Irish rock scene, he resolved to pursue his musical ambitions in a more low-key way. He became a busker, occasionally performing alongside a man in a red rabbit suit who played Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a ukelele. “I threw everything away and I was happier than I’ve ever been, so independent, so free,” he sighs. “I jumped in a van with two hippy friends, went around Scotland, England, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Holland. It was brilliant. I got to listen to myself sitting on the street when nobody else was listening to me.”

He discovered to his surprise that he made more money when he played his own songs rather than cover versions and returned to Ireland, where he recorded O at his home in Celbridge, south Dublin, on an eight-track cassette recorder donated by his cousin, film composer David Arnold. He released it on his own label, later signing to East West in the UK and Vector in the US. “I recorded it with people I randomly met. I met Lisa one night in a cafe. Tomo [the drummer] was a friend of a friend. It’s all a big fuckin’ accident. There’s nothing driving us. No sense of ‘If we sell this many records’ or ‘If we get to play this venue’. The only reason we’re doing it is because we happen to enjoy it.

“I used to hate record companies, but now I don’t think they’re evil, or not necessarily. They’re not a threat to me any more. They don’t need me and I don’t need them to be happy in life. I like to follow my vision for the music through, and not have someone fucking question me about it. If you don’t like it, fine, then don’t be a part of it. ”

However frustrating his new record labels find his behaviour, they clearly want to be part of it. Rice’s demands are met, possibly because he is what music business executives call a “no-brainer” – an artist whose eventual fame seems inevitable, who even an idiot would realise is destined for success.

Like David Gray, with whom he shares management, 29-year-old Rice is blessed with the ability to turn commonplace incidents – failing to pull in a pub, gazing at the night sky – into lovely, effortlessly touching songs. O, released last year, is stuffed full of them. It is the sort of album that A&R men dream about. On one level, it is effortlessly commercial and extremely accessible. Low-key, gorgeously melodic and delicately tricked out with strings, O has nothing that will put your dinner-party guests off their chicken tagine. Yet it is never slick or glib; instead, it exudes a guileless, homespun warmth. “The songs just fell out,” Rice says, “sitting in the kitchen.”

In addition, despite the haircut and the hat, both Rice and duet partner Hannigan are very good-looking, if you like your pin-ups Soil Association Certified. On the Carson Daly Show, Rice’s performance of a particularly tender and lovely ballad called The Blower’s Daughter is greeted by a hushed reverence, broken only by the regular thump of swooning females hitting the deck. Back home in Ireland, where O has now gone double-platinum, there is much speculation about the exact nature of Rice and Hannigan’s relationship. When one Irish rock magazine recently asked Rice whether the evident on-stage chemistry between the two had any basis in real-life romance, they were told to mind their own business at considerable length.

In Britain, his success has been gradual: O has sold by word of mouth. The day after a snatch of his appearance at Glastonbury was televised, its sales rocketed by a staggering 1,000%, and his forthcoming UK tour has sold out. In the US, his progress has been rapid ever since a DJ at a Santa Monica radio station chanced upon a copy of O and began playing it on his breakfast show.

This year, Rice has appeared on every major US talk show, an experience he approaches with an almost heroic nonchalance. Their initial appearance on David Letterman was cancelled because their fellow guest Bruce Willis was “pomping on about how great it was to bomb Saddam for so long that we didn’t get time to play”. Rice says he was not bothered, largely because he had “never heard of David Letterman in the first place”. And when Carson Daly tells him that his rehearsal is “sounding great”, Rice squints back at him and smiles, as if he’s not entirely certain who Daly is either.

His US gigs are studded with celebrity supporters. Britney Spears turned up in Los Angeles, although her golden endorsement was tarnished when she and her date, actor Colin Farrell, talked all the way through his set: “She was a pain in the arse,” frowns Rice.

Today, Daly does everything in his power to promote the album, short of running out into the streets of Manhattan and sticking up posters. Whatever guest is on, Daly finds a means of turning the conversation round from whatever they’re meant to be plugging to Damien Rice. This being America, the guests show no consternation at this turn of events and gush on cue. Watching from his dressing room, Rice seems unperturbed. He has his mind on other things – namely, when he can “fall back into being a hippy musician again”. Despite his insistence that O’s follow-up will be “really ugly, really bitter”, that may prove harder than he hopes.

In the people carrier that takes Rice from the TV studio to his sold-out gig, he launches into a characteristic harangue about the pointlessness of celebrity: “Who am I? What the fuck do I know? I haven’t got a fucking clue! Most of what I’m saying is bullshit!” At the gig, the audience includes country superstar Faith Hill and actor Glenn Close. The crowd receive Rice and his band rapturously, despite the fact that the set lasts over two hours and contains vast swathes of surprisingly noisy new material.

It seems to bear out another theory formulated by Rice during his busking days and applied to his career as a superstar-in-waiting. “The thing that pleases me and the audience most, I’ve discovered, is when I am almost ignoring the fact that there’s an audience there, when you’re consumed by the moment. That’s the best I can do for you, better than doing something insincerely to try and please them. Basically, you can just say fuck everybody and do what you want. I mean,” he adds hurriedly, “fuck everybody in the nicest possible way.”

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