Keeping His Karma
There’s one thing you can’t be about Damien Rice – and that’s neutral. The stealth musical star of the year tells Jim Carroll how he kept his karma as his star rose across the US firmament and how his hippie vision may one day become a reality – in a field near you.
The easiest way to start a good old-fashioned row in 2003 was to mention Damien Rice. Forget the minnows, plankton, carp and sharks who also share the Irish singer-songwriter tank – one word about Rice and you were in the midst of an argument which just didn’t have any place for neutrality.
His detractors scythed him to the ground with the venom of a young Roy Keane, citing such choice attributes as “the only good hippie is a dead hippie”. His admirers eulogised him with the most purple of prose, praising his songs and anti-star stance. Those without an opinion tried to step gingerly away without making a sound.
But there can be few now without a view, because you could not escape the Rice diet over the past 12 months. He was the stealth musical star of the year, going from an appearance alongside his Irish peers on the dodgy Other Voices TV show to out-pacing each and every one of them with every passing month.
He did it with showstopping festival appearances (second on the bill to Coldplay at Witnness, ubiquitous at Glastonbury and cutting a festival-friendly dash at every other open-air gathering of note) and a clutch of awards (topped by the Shortlist Award, the US answer to the Mercury Prize). There were also sold-out shows everywhere he went, an album that refused to stop selling and regular exposure on the US TV chat-show circuit.
Reasons to be cheerful?
“Everything I’m doing right now doesn’t really matter that much,” says Rice. “It’s wonderful and I’m really happy, but it’s not the be all and end all of what I’m about.” Today, Damien Rice is in Santa Fe and he is quite happy. What matters to Rice is not so much that this leg of his never-ending tour is drawing to a successful close, but rather that the sun is shining, the sky is blue and that he has just had something decent to eat. This is an artist who believes in satisfying the needs of mind, body and soul in ways the tour diaries of Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin never imagined.
“I want to experience a really beautiful way of living right now,” he says. “I want to come off touring and feel healthy and fit. I don’t want to feel ‘Jaysus, thank God I have survived that’. I don’t want to be living like that. We’re staying in hotels which are outside the towns. They’re more like health spas with massage things and all of that. They’re not just the usual business hotels, they have outdoor pools and jacuzzis and saunas. When you walk outside and sit on the grass, you have trees beside you. That’s beautiful, man, like picking up a worm off the ground and putting it back on the grass.”
“The main thing for me with touring is learning how to turn it into a way of life as opposed to a thing we do because we’re musicians. It’s not just about the show, it’s about everything else as well – where we’re staying, time off, what we do in the cities we visit. I don’t see touring as working towards some end where I can say ‘well, we’ve achieved this’. I’d like to have that right now and that’s to be travelling comfortably to interesting places with like-minded people.” Such hippie-speak trips easily from the tongue of the Kildareman, but it comes with a sincerity which goes a way to explaining Rice’s current popularity.
Musical movements have as much to do with what’s happening in the world as the catchiness of any song or melody, and Rice’s organic, homespun folk is, like that of soulmate David Gray, the perfect soundtrack for many of their daily lives.
Harassed by traffic, the cost of living and the daily grind? Here, have a cappuccino and the simple soul-searching songs on the Damien Rice album and you’ll feel better. So, just as the current crop of Irish singer-songwriters could only have found domestic success with the Celtic Tiger’s boom and bust, Rice has simply taken this approach to the next logical global level.
It all means that 2003 was the year when he found himself saying “no” as much as he said “yes”. While saying no to what was expected of him is what took him ultimately out of an unhappy situation as frontman with Irish rock band Juniper in the late 1990s, it is now, Rice believes, what keeps him sane.
“I think Irish people are terribly polite and dishonest in a way. We seem to grow up thinking you have to treat people in a way which doesn’t displease them. I have done so much of that. There are so many times when I’ve gone out of my way to please people, but I’ve realised that if it’s something I really don’t want to do, it causes more problems down the line. If there’s something I know I’m not going to like, I’ve learnt that it’s better to say no now.”
Ironically, despite refusing to play the usual promotional games and charades, Rice could not be better set up for the long haul, especially in the United States. A solid management team (shared with David Gray), astute licensing arrangements for his album and a willingness to tour (provided the hotels and food are right) have propelled Rice to the top of the queue.
But whether this is the right queue for Rice is a question that is hard to answer. In interviews, he has made a point of downplaying everything that is happening around him. Today is no exception. “People think I’m trying to carve out a clever marketing plan by saying I don’t care about TV shows and things like that, but it’s not like that, these things have just happened.”
“Take the appearance on the Letterman Show. Now, I might have seen Letterman on TV once, but I couldn’t figure out beforehand which one he was and I kept getting him mixed up with Jay Leno. People kept thinking I have some big management and label set-up pushing me, but it’s not that. It’s just accidental. The Letterman people saw me at a show in New York and invited me on to the show and we did it and it went well.”
Rice is not ungrateful for these opportunities (if he was, he would only have to say no), but he maintains that getting on the small screen is not really what drives him. “Some people think I don’t appreciate things or get excited about things. I do, I just don’t get excited by what other people get excited about, that’s all. There’s an assumption that because I have recorded an album and released it, that I’m doing it to get rich and famous, but they’re the two things that don’t inspire me in the least. The most beautiful feeling is when you’re absolutely lost inside the music, man, it’s like being stoned or drunk or whatever. You are really and truly tripping on your own emotions.”
“All I’m doing right now is learning how to live right now. I’m a fucker for living in the future. When I was in Juniper, my dream was to be in a rock band, to be signed by a major label, to record it in Windmill Lane studios and do this and that and this. But all the things I got were not the things I wanted so I have to keep asking myself what do I want right now?”
Rice does have a dream – an idyllic one involving getting a big house outside Barcelona where he and his friends could live a life of artistic luxury, feasting on organic veg and looking after sick animals. “It would be a place to escape to where I’m not reminded of what I do,” he muses. “And where I can be a plonker who likes to fart around and enjoy people and nature and art and aimals and chilling out and the beautful things in life”.
He has gone so far as to prevent the release of his debut album, O, in Spain so he can remain unknown there. “I’d like a place where I could go and you don’t see the CD in the shops or you don’t see the posters everywhere or you don’t get asked for an autograph when you’re buying a pair of shoes or having your dinner.”
While the hatching of such plans might indicate that Rice is a little too self-centred for his own good, he prefers to paint himself as a bit of a bumbler. “I just frump about the place as this bloke who happens to have written some songs, made a record and is playing a show to some nice people. I love learning about life, I love learning from my mistakes, I love learning that I’m wrong, I thrive on human relationships and working out why I love someone today, but hate them tomorrow. I prefer to get lost in the situation rather than thinking about what it is I’m doing”.
But Rice is sufficiently tuned in to his standing to want to stay in the game a little longer. He talks about having another two albums ready to go – “the next one will be aggressive, bitter and broken, really angry” – and wants to make a record “which has nothing to do with Damien Rice and where all the royalties go towards buying land and giving it back to nature, buying up rain forests.” When he looks at what’s ahead for 2004, he sees a lot more tours, a lot more gigs and a lot of festivals.
It may even be the year when Rice gets to put on his ideal festival. It doesn’t sound like the kind of commercial hoedown that the vast majority of Irish musical festivals have become and it certainly doesn’t sound like something his management or booking agent would necessarily endorse, but it sure sounds like fun. The last words, then, to Rice.
“There’s a kind of festival I would like to do, but I’m waiting for the right location and vibe to come along. I would like to have slightly hippie vibe to it. It would consist of really good food, being able to stay up all night, being able to light fires, playing music all night, playing bongos all night, having the kind of musicians who are not just crowd pullers but who are so passionate about their music. It’s not a commercial festival, there’s no advertising or sponsorship, it’s not about making a profit. Those who play are paid well, those who come to see the festival are treated well and get to really enjoy themselves. A festival with a real free vibe.”
Jim Carroll, The Irish Times, January 15th, 2004