The day I get happy, I’ll probably stop
By Andrew Billen, The Times, May 04, 2004
Like a romantic poet, Damien Rice has built a career on frustration and unrequited love
DAMIEN RICE may be the latest big thing in rock music but, I have decided — given the untimely deaths of Chatterton, Keats and Shelley — the little Irishman is also the nearest thing to a romantic poet I am ever likely to interview. Indeed, his music and his history fit almost uncannily Margaret Drabble’s description in The Oxford Companion to English Literature of the breed’s themes, these being “remembered childhood, unrequited love and the exiled hero”.
Admittedly, when I meet him at his American management’s office the lunchtime before his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman he does not look like Byron. But this is only because some rebellious impulse has persuaded him to so shear his previously unruly locks that he now looks like Sinead O’Connor.
“I was starting to feel a bit too old or too grouchy, too something,” he says, tucking into a salad while our photographer grabs what pictures he can. “So it was nice just to kind of take it all off. Every time I look in the mirror I remind myself, OK, fresh start.”
Four weeks into a major tour of America, he fears, above all, his performances becoming routine. I can understand this. Part of the exceptional beauty of O, his elliptically named, platinum-selling album, is the impression it relays that he is playing, spontaneously, just for you. Since it was recorded in his home with three mikes and a drum kit, the intimacy is not entirely an illusion, yet it is also an accomplished rawness. I am not knowledgeable enough to discuss the sound he makes (beyond noting that, like those old ads for radio, it goes from a whisper to a roar) but I do recognise some exceptional lyric writing. We are talking here about someone who with the confidence of Cole Porter can lyrically harangue a girlfriend with “Why do you say halleluia, if it means nothing to ya?”.
Discussing these matters is difficult since he labours under the poetic delusion that he doesn’t write anything himself and that the songs pop out spontaneously, but I do congratulate him on the treacle-slicer at the end of his song, The Blower’s Daughter, in which the refrain, “I can’t take my eyes off you”, is finally qualified by “Until I find someone new”. Now this song, he says, was about this girl he was obsessed by. No names of course, but she was the daughter of this “blower”. Anyhow, he had recorded it several times and none of the versions satisfied him. To make matters worse, the blower’s daughter hadn’t been talking to him for a while and what he really needed was to sing it to her.
“Then she happened to call over one night. We had some food and just before she left I invited her to the room where I had the mike set. I said: ‘I just want to sing you a song’. I just sat in front of the mikes and pressed record and played her the song.” And, phut, by the end of it, the pash was over. He could take his eyes off her.
In this, as in much of his work, Rice’s subject is not love but frustration when it is thwarted. In fact, he uses the word “frustration” so often I conclude it must be the main motor of his talent. Consider Cheers Darlin’, a bitter little number in which Rice sounds drunk — for the good reason that he was — although he says, being a little feller (5ft 8in) a couple of glasses of wine will do that to him. He composed it, or it became composed, in one burst after a disappointing evening in a Dublin bar with a girl whom he was hoping would be his girlfriend. “She probably wasn’t, but I got the impression I was getting signals. Elbows touching, all that. It was like, OK, we’re going somewhere and there were more drinks and chewing cigarettes and leaning against each other and I got to a point where I realised that I was missing my last bus home. I was broke and if I didn’t get the bus that meant getting the taxi and I really didn’t have the money. But then she wasn’t going either, so I thought we’re going to spend the night hanging out together. Then she turned around at midnight and said, ‘Och, I’m late, I’ve got to go and meet my boyfriend’. So I had to get a cab. So that was €40 because I lived outside of Dublin.” No wonder he was furious.
“I was a little frustrated, yeah, at first.” But at 5am he was ringing his producer in America and telling him he had written this new song and feeling healed. “I remember feeling really quite excited and I’d forgotten all about the crap that I’d gone through that night.”
Does he feel, I ask, that he has had exceptional amounts of romantic disappointment in his life? “Exceptional amounts? It’s all relative really, isn’t it? I’ve experienced a lot of romantic emotional disappointment — hatred, fear, jealousy, anger, bitterness, all those different things. But part of me is happy about that because I’ve experienced feelings. I’ve felt stuff. I’ve been smashed, betrayed, wounded, all kinds of things, but I ’m still open to it. It’s not like, oh I’m not going to go there any more it hurts my heart. It’s like, yeah, it hurts my heart but my heart gets over it.” He likes catching himself at his lowest point and realising that although he feels as lost as “an alcoholic or a drug addict” the moment will pass. “That’s a really interesting place because that’s where I learn that it’s all in my head and that I create every single little bit of joy and sorrow in my life.” I have not had a conversation like this since I was at college. The funny thing is that he was a happy child pre-girls. His parents, George, who teaches engineering skills to the unemployed, and Maureen, were brought up poor in inner-city Dublin. When they had Damien and his two sisters they decided to move to the country to give them what they had never had. His record company biographies describe an idyllic Wordsworthian childhood: fishing by the river and taking his dog for walks.
“I was really happy when I was a kid. I became confused as a teenager. I started hanging out with girls and my sensitive side started developing. And I felt bad about putting a hook into a worm to catch a fish. So then a conflict started.” That is sensitive, I concede. “So that changed my whole perspective on life. I became vegetarian. My whole life started twirling.”
It was at school in Celbridge, south of Dublin, that he met the friends who would become the fellow members of his band, Juniper. The quintet, who had been in the same class, went on to Trinity College, Dublin, to study engineering. While the others, however, were content to see out the four-year course, Rice quit after a year, bored. His parents were disappointed and kicked him out. He worked for nine months as a secretary in a local boys school — the only real, full-time job he has ever had — and then studied the piano and clarinet part-time before deciding that formal music education wasn’t for him. He supported himself by working behind the bar in pubs, and from the gigs he played.
Finally, his friends graduated from Trinity and Juniper graduated to playing proper venues such as the Olympia in Dublin and were signed by PolyGram. After eight years together, however, Rice’s contrariness and integrity got the better of him. While he was writing quiet acoustical songs, such as the haunting Eskimo (which ended up on O), his colleagues were demanding the sort of music that radio stations play: drum machines, pop, lots of beats, lots of low end.
“I was just fighting with everyone. I was fighting with the band. I was fighting with the management, fighting with the label. I felt completely alone. I felt isolated. I felt like I must be wrong because everybody else thinks differently to me. I felt like I was going mad. So I just said I couldn’t deal with it any more. So I left.” We enter now the exiled hero stage of the Romance of Rice, as the troubadour busks his way round Europe, singing on streets the songs that will later appear on O, being taken in by strangers, and ending up in Tuscany where he grows vegetables and thinks spiritual thoughts. One day the Dalai Lama came to Florence and he and his friend Robbie decided to go to the event. Rice was late, however, and stressed, and when the two shared his bike and rode down the steep road to Florence, they crashed and Rice gashed his knee and they never got to see him. “I crawled back to the house,” he says, “and had a cry.”
After eight months of travelling, he returned to Ireland, kitted out a room as a studio and began to put together O, eventually releasing it on his own label, DRM. Last year it became a top 10 hit in Ireland. In the UK, it has sold more than 300,000 copies. He has toured Europe and America, originally as a support for Coldplay, now as the headline act. With the support of a Californian radio station and word of mouth, he has managed to do what scores of well-backed British bands fail to do: win over the States.
In October he won its Shortlist Prize, the equivalent of our Mercury award. Although he has been nominated at both the NME awards and the Brits as a solo artist, he would be quick, I am sure, to distribute credit among his collaborators: the cellist Vyvienne Long, and his backing singer, Lisa Hannigan, sometimes described as his muse (he went off like a banshee when a journalist asked if their relationship was more carnal than that). They are all now firmly signed up by Warner Music.
After I see him, he rushes off to record his second appearance on The Late Show. He has elected to sing I Remember, a typically quixotic choice since two-thirds of it is sung by Hannigan. When I arrive the green room is full of Warner executives fretting over the sound quality. He is obviously a potentially major profit centre for them. Equally obviously, he is uncomfortable with that fact, a private talent meeting the commercial demands from which he only recently fled. When the US tour finishes this month he plans to “quit temporarily” and explore the possibility of relocating to Barcelona where it’s “alive and it’s poor and artistic”.
Finding tour buses claustrophobic, he wonders if he couldn’t do his next tour by boat: “Travel on a yacht or something during the day. Four hours in the sunshine out in the sea and then you pull in to the place that you’re playing next.”
He is aware, naturally, of the artistic dangers inherent if life smiles on him too much. “The day I get happy I’ll probably just stop,” he says. Because once he walks up the aisle he will have no frustration left to sing about? “But then she’ll f*** off,” he says, hope springing eternal.
I am a great enthusiast of O and his recent single Lonelily but, because his people tell me that truly to understand Rice I must see him perform, at the end of the week I turn up to his gig at a venue on Upper West side. I enjoy this much less. People are either talking through his songs or swooning at them. Too often they come with whiney preambles. “I was brought up in a household of conditional love — ‘I will love you if you make me a cup of tea ’,” he complains pettily at one stage. Before embarking on a song called Amie he glosses its lyrics with a maudlin story about being taken home by a girl he fancied and then getting dumped in her spare room. “Frustrated”, he spends the next half hour “playing with meself”. “We love you, Damien” a fan screams when she hears this.
Rice is too bright to lack self-awareness. On the contrary, he bristles with adolescent self-consciousness. As I sit slightly depressed in the concert hall, I recall what he told me two days earlier: “The whole notion of what I do is ridiculous. I moan about things that have gone on in my life. I get up on stage and moan about these things in front of people and they bang their hands together and tell me I’m great. That’s ludicrous.”
I wonder if that other marvellous boy, Thomas Chatterton, ever scared himself with such home truths. But then poor Chatterton died aged 17. Rice, growing up slowly, is 30.
Damien Rice appears this week on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross on BBC One