The trouble with troubadours
Jane Cornwell – 24 september 04
A LOT of people are excited about Damien Rice. His friends and family. His record company. The whole of Ireland. Most of the US. Much of Britain and Europe.
A tousle-haired Dubliner with a catch in his throat and a way with a lyric and a melody that has been called everything from compelling to genius, he seems the most feted singer-songwriter in recent history. And all on the back of just one record: Rice’s 2003 debut, O. It sold 1million copies after having been recorded, more or less, in his bedroom, then popularised by word of mouth. The grapevine also helped sell out his shows: events made ambient with candles and incense, peppered with celebrities such as Britney and Keira and Renee, and buzzing with the in-your-ear intimacy of old-fashioned guitar-wielding troubadours.
In a music business filled with false idols and pop profits, Rice, a former busker, seems to be the Real Deal. The trouble with being real, though, with staying true to your art, is that other people’s excitement has a tendency to get in the way.
Rice, 30, is a complex, sensitive individual with a hippie’s mind-set and an uncommon talent for making beautiful music out of not very much at all. Success has been swift, but not necessarily welcome. “What is success anyway?” he’ll ponder, brow furrowed, in his soft Irish brogue.
It has brought expectations. Compromises. Demands. Autograph seekers. Songwriters eager to uncover the Rice formula, to find out how they, too, could write emotionally honest, gut-stirring numbers such as Cannonball, one of the few songs he has released as a single — and even then, only in Ireland. Answers are inevitably oblique. “I just go about life,” he’ll shrug. “Then one day – bleugh! – a song will come out of my mouth, some guitar chords will happen. In 10 minutes, there it is.”
O is a dream travelling companion, with Rice’s voice whispering, soaring and cracking over exquisite melodies, melting arrangements and luscious female backing vocals. Rice multitasks on guitar, piano, bass, clarinet and percussion; the odd Gregorian chant, operatic aria and megaphone-style special effect prompt aural double-takes. I hum along, flicking through the clothbound CD book of sketches and paintings by the singer and his friends.
It’s no wonder Rice has cracked it in the US, a feat that so far has eluded big British-based acts such as Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue. His success is testament to people power: converts converted others, an influential Californian radio station put O on heavy rotation, other stations picked him up. Word spread. The weighty triumvirate of TV chat show hosts – David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Carson Daly – had him on to play.
* * * THE cab pulls up in a suburban cul de sac, outside a bungalow with a yorkshire terrier yapping at a window. There’s no black Roller, no swimming pool, no screaming fans. Rice opens the door, a smiling, wiry bloke dressed in T-shirt, cords and grey felt slippers with blue and white pom-poms. It makes sense that he lives so modestly: this is the guy, after all, who told Warner to stop advertising O on television. What doesn’t make sense is that he would live so modestly, with his parents.
“Cup of tea?” he asks, padding into the kitchen and putting the kettle on. “Hello!” says his older sister, Sinead, who is visiting, looking up from a laptop screen filled with Damien Rice-related administration.
“Hello!” says his visiting Belgian friend, Ryan, who is working on an arty low-budget video, the sort projected behind Rice during his live gigs. The dog, Holly, licks my ankles. “Sorry,” says Rice, dunking a tea bag. “She does that.”
It turns out that Rice is back at home temporarily, to record the follow-up to O. Constant touring has stopped him putting down permanent roots. He has a posse of like-minded friends in Barcelona whom he frequently visits, but he can’t decide whether to buy there or in Ireland.
Boxes of his stuff litter the hallway. He is using his mother’s coffee table as a makeshift studio in a back room filled with computer consoles, mixing desks, microphones, instruments and the smell of last night’s dope smoke. The small blue eight-track machine on which he mixed O sits on the floor. Swathes of batik cover the untidiness.
An interview with Rice is not your normal Q&A. He admits he’s overly analytical, but his replies tend to meander off on all sorts of paths before rejoining the main premise. Sitting there in his pom-pommed slippers, his delicate, handsome features taking on an array of expressions according to the conversation, Rice seems as prismatic as his music.
“I admire people who write and play to find a bit of solace in their lives, like Nina Simone, Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen, even Radiohead,” he says. “I only got into Dylan recently. With hippie parents, I didn’t have the classic upbringing. My dad plays, so there was always that, but there was no great record collection.”
Rice’s father, George, is out teaching mechanical skills to Dublin’s unemployed. His mother, Maureen, works in a department store nearby. “My parents didn’t get on great when we were growing up,” Rice says, matter-of-factly. “My sisters are, like, ‘How can you live there?’ But I don’t, it’s just a place to sleep.”
His parents have divided the house and are living separately in it, but success has enabled Rice to buy his mother a new one; she’ll be moving soon. But this place, with its manicured front lawn and pear tree in the backyard, is where he was reared – a childhood that involved singing in the local school choir, swimming in inter-school sports, taking the family dog for walks, and fishing with his father in the nearby River Liffey. Fishing was a formative pastime; giving it up when he was 13 was a rite of passage.
“This big goldfish of mine had just died. I thought I would use it as bait to catch a bigger fish. So I took it down to the river and put a hook in its back and cast it out and it fell off the hook. Which to me was like a huge sign saying, ‘You weren’t supposed to do that.’ After that I started questioning everything.” Rice pauses and blinks at the memory. “It’s like when you’re young and you’re told that cowboys are good and Indians are bad,” he continues, guilelessly. “Then you grow up and start finding out the truth.”
Er, right. The young Rice turned vegetarian, started noticing girls, turned against Ireland and started arguing with his parents. His country was changing – he and his mates would go into Dublin’s Virgin Megastore to goggle at the newly sanctioned packets of condoms – and so was he. At 15, along with four other wannabe musicians from his all-boys Catholic high school, he decided to form a band. They called themselves Juniper, from a reference to juniper bushes in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, and played shiny art rock, loud. All five went on to study civil engineering at the same university. Rice, bored, quit after a year and was promptly kicked out of home.
Juniper graduated to playing big Dublin venues, released two Irish hit singles and, in 1998, were signed by Polygram. Rice, however, was feeling uneasy. The creative freedom they’d been promised didn’t materialise; record company execs kept insisting their songs be more radio friendly. Frustrated, Rice quit.
“I was going in a different direction,” he says, dragging earnestly on a roll-up. “I just didn’t connect musically with the guys any more.”
For the next year or so his journey was spiritual as well as geographical. He studied the healing art of reiki. “I can drive meself mental,” he says. “Reiki undoes all this thinking madness.” He visited friends in Scotland’s alternative lifestyle community, Findhorn, went on a meditation retreat in a French monastery, dated a girl who lived in Paris, planted vegetables and did some painting in Tuscany, did more workshops and navel gazed. Then finally felt the itch to play music again.
Busking, Rice decided, was the free, low-key way to go. He jumped in a van with a couple of mates and travelled across Britain and Europe. He soon realised he was getting more money when he played his compositions than he was for the standard covers. “On the street there are no expectations, no rush,” he says.
He has likened booking studio time to booking the toilet for five o’clock. By which he probably means that the muse doesn’t keep appointments. Take O – a name, by the way, that appeared one day out of nowhere, like an empty thought bubble, when he was riding his bicycle. Rice already had a bunch of songs to his credit, most to do with one obsession or another. There was The Blower’s Daughter (a bittersweet ode to an ex-lover), the sprawling Eskimo (a meditation on writer’s block), the maudlin Amie (about being taken home by a girl he fancied and made to sleep in the spare room). “The main thing was these kind of melancholic, frustrating moments that I had in my life. I’d write and it would all get released into the songs,” he says.
Rice sent a demo tape of The Blower’s Daughter to his second cousin, David Arnold, the British composer best known for the recent James Bond film scores. Impressed, Arnold supplied Rice with the mobile recording equipment he needed to develop O in various bedrooms, kitchens and friends’ apartments.
Like the Messiah-character in one of his favourite books, Richard Bach’s Illusions, Rice is tempted to chuck it all in, to go back to being happy just getting by. “After I made O I was confident it would sell 1000 copies. I was fine with that. I thought that once I’d done a few gigs I could go off travelling again.”
He picks up a guitar from the small array behind him and starts strumming, then – on request – launches into a full-blown, throat-wobbling version of the lovely track Eskimo that gets Holly scrabbling at the door.
As a musician, Rice is exciting. He is savvy, too, it turns out. The video camera Ryan was fiddling with has filmed our entire interview, I’m unnerved to find out hours later – after Rice has made lunch, come along on the cab ride back into Dublin and given me a bear hug good-bye. “I wouldn’t want to be misquoted,” he says.