Closer To The Truth.
Hot Press Magazine Cover Story, Ireland, 2 June 2005
Damien Rice has emerged as one of the most distinctive and independent voices of recent years, achieving a remarkable level of success and artistic respect with 0 – the debut alburn that was recorded on a shoestring in his own bedroom. Famously media shy, he agreed to talk to HOTPKESS about the Free Aung San Suu Kyi 60th Birthday Campaign, and the beautiful tribute single ‘Unplayed Piano’, recorded with Lisa Hannigan. But, tape rolling, he talked about a whole lot more, giving the most candid and complete insight yet into the real Darnien Rice.
INTERVIEW Adrienne Murphy
It’s 1 o’clock in the morning. The voice of Neil Young, comforting and real as always, floats from the speakers in my Dublin 8 sitting room. Around the circular wooden coffee table – strewn with munchies, wine glosses and cups of tea – sit myself and two men. One is musician Damien Rice, Ireland’s most recent celebrity A-list supentar; the other is Hugh Baxter of Burma Action Ireland.
The situation is an unusual one. I’m not in the habit of bringing stangers back to my house, and I only met Baxter and Rice (well-known for his cautious approach to journalists) a couple of hours ago. Rice had agreed to a HOTPRESS interview to highlight the issues surrounding ‘Unplayed Piano’, the new single that he co-wrote and recorded with Lisa Hannigan.
Lisa, with her wonderful voice, is one of the star turns on 0, the remarkable debut album which has launched this hugely talented and fiercely independent singer-songwriter to worldwide fame – and she is to the fore again here.
‘Unplayed Piano’ is a wonderfully slow, soft and touching song, recorded during time-out from the creation of Rice’s long-awaited – and needless to say hugely anticipated – second album. All profits go towards the international campaign for freedom and justice in far-flung Burma, a Southeast Asian country violently ruled by one of the bloodiest regimes in the world (see panel).
Which is why Rice was accompanied by Hugh Baiter, a long-time campaigner with Burma Action Ireland, to handle parts of the interview with him. When we got talking, the conversation took so many interesting twists and turns that we didn’t want to leave it – so, when I was due to head for home to release the babysitter, I invited the guys bach.
Five hours later we’re still talking and laughing, about birth and death, pain and pleasure -and everything in between. ‘Learn’, ‘curious’, ‘interesting’ and ‘challenge’ are words that crop up frequently in Damien Rice’s vocabulary – and so it goes, deeper into the night.
My impression is that he’s a keen student of inner and outer life; a philosophical observer from a place of free-spirited independence; an honest man who strives to see the best in people and situations; as good a listener as he is a talker; and someone with a sharp, often self-deprecatory sense of humour and irony, to whom friendships are precious and privacy is sacrosanct…
Compassion matters to Damien Rice. With the just-released benefit single, ‘Unplayed Piano’, he is supporting a cause – although he tends to look at it in a somewhat different light. “When I was at the school-into-college phase,” he says, “I was an activist for environmentalism and vegetarianism. I was excited about finding something different to the way I was brought up. I latched onto some of those things and spent a few years pushing them.
“Then I went through a new phase where I realised that all I was doing was telling other people how to live, and I didn’t like that at all,” he adds. “These days I’ve no real problem with anything that goes on. A lot of people find that difficult to hear, but in my heart I feel that everything is the way it is, and I’m not interested in fighting any more.
“When I was younger, in the band Juniper, my thing was ‘fighting the music industry’. But when I left, I just wanted to do what it is that I like to do. I did that with music and now I’m doing it with the Burma campaign. I’ve no desire to tell people that they should or shouldn’t do something, ar to say ‘this is entirely wrong’. All I can say is something feels a bit wrong to me, so what I do is bring fresh, positive and creative – as opposed to critical – energy to this issue. That’s where I’m at with all those kind of things. I’m very careful not to jump on any bandwagon, or get attached to any side.”
Damien has a number of unusual ways of looking at the world, and of understanding his – or our – place in it. He believes that “you’re absolutely in control of what’s going on in your life -you just might not choose to accept it at the time.”
Allied to this is a moment-by-moment acceptance of experience, and a lack of any desire to struggle either against the person he is or what’s happening in the now. It’s a kind of a Zen thing. These views seem to have been honed to precision during his eight-year experience as lead singer with the band Jjn iper, whose members still play together as BellXl.
“I’m often not comfortable doing the things that are expected of people,” he says. “When I was in juniper, I had the feeling that I was being told what to do. During interviews, the journalist might bring a photographer who’d want me to sit down and pose – and I hated it. Or I might get asked a question I just didn’t want to answer. I didn’t realise-until I did realise -that I could simply and politely say, ‘I don’t want my picture taken’, or ‘I’m uncomfortable with answering that question’. If that means I don’t get the interview, then I don’t get the interview, but that’s okay with me.”
I suggest that in the three years since the release of 0, it sounds like Rice has came into a place of power. “You don’t have to be powerful to exert control over your life,” he insists. “I’ve no more power really than I did before; people might perceive that I have because I’ve sold record;, but in a way I’ve actually got a little bit less power inside me, because I’m dispersing it 50 much, in different areas. Whereas back then, I didn’t give a shit!
I didn’t have any ties. I’d left the band and was travelling around Europe, scraping by, recording at home over a couple of years.
“The album got done and we started touring, and it all started growing from there.”
Damien’s remarkable rise to stardom got a further boost earlier this year when his moving and beautiful song ‘Blower’s Daughter’, was used as lead track in the Oscar-nominated film Closer, starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Notnlie Portman and Clive Owen. Flying in that company must hold some risk of inducing a rock star ego trip?
“No, I kind of did all that in juniper, to be honest. We were 17 when we started the bond in school; it was our dream to be rock stars, to record in Windmill Lane, to get signed by a major label. We got all that…and I hated it. I was unhappy, even though I’d gotten all the things that I thought I wanted. It was a bit like seeing this girl in school who’s just so hot, and you go to college and she’s still there, and then one day you get to kiss her and you start going out with her, and you’re just like- I have nothing in common with this girl!
“When the reality hit, it took me quite a few years to have the courage to leave juniper because we’d all become friends. But I felt that I was trouble to the band, the label and the manager, because I never seemed to want what they wanted. I felt I had to take a leap – because I’m causing shit here, and I can’t just go along with what’s making me unhappy.
“When it finally hit me, we were just about to record our first album in a chateau in France. The band were pretty pissed off. But I thought, if I go ahead with recording this album and leave then, that’s really shit, like taking off straight after the baby’s born.
“Naturally it was rocky for a while, but it’s like any relationship -take a bit of space, and a bit of time, then everybody calms down. I’m so happy that I went through it all – we all learnt so much from it. I did a complete about-turn, where I totally didn’t crave being a rock star any more, or want any of the things that came with it. Not that I didn’t want to write and play music —that’s something I have no choice but to express. But now I was doing it for me.”
It must have been strange, all the same, to leave Juniper on the apparent cusp of success.
“It totally felt like the right decision,” he asserts. “I wasn’t nervous, because I thought, well, if having money and a band and a label and management and all that kind of stuff is what I thought I wanted and I’m still unhappy, then I’m not scared to leave it, because something in the equation is wrong. When you’re young and excited and everybody starts telling you you’re amazing, that feeds your ego. I had become the person that people thought I should be, so I behaved in a way that wasn’t
[missing text?] … about a year or two to really realise how much of a dick 1 had become.”
Rice may have turned his back on potential fame and fortune back then — but with his album 0 now surpassing sales of 1.5 million copies worldwide, wealth and celebrity have finally caught up with him. He recalls an incident recently where a bouncer, who’d just turned him away from a Dublin nightclub, dramatically changed his tune when someone said, ‘That was Damien Rice”. Next thing Rice knew, he and his friends were swept inside — where to their embarrassment, a table was cleared of people, to make room for them.
Rice seems equally uncomfortable with the red carpet treatment and the loss of privacy that go hand-in-hand with fame — though he sees factors like this not as problems but as interesting challenges, which require that he maintains his honesty, integrity and communication skills.
Being recognised in public might be a pain in the ass sometimes, but surely he can’t say the same about the new-found cash?
“I know it sounds like crap,” Rice says, “but having lots of money has made my life much more complex. I’d never had money before, and when all of a sudden you get loads of it, and you’re in the pub with your mates — struggling artists or painters, broke — you start feeling guilty, and you start wanting to give things away, and then you start feeeling imbalanced, and then you just don’t feel connected any more.
“So you start hanging out with people who also have money, in order to feel comfortable. It can be really easy to live in that world, and it can be great fun, but my old friends don’t live there. Again it was a challenge, and now I’m learning to work with money creatively, not do the Irish guilt thing.”
When I ask does he buy loads of expensive clothes these days, he holds out a ragged trouser leg and worn-down shoe for inspection. Rather than going consumer crazy, Rice is planning to invest in worthwhile projects, including the setting up of nature reserves. But he’s also using his wealth to build a firm foundation for his work and the lifestyle needed to sustain it.
“I was depressed last December,” he says. “The band and I did a week’s recording for the new album and then I had to say stop, I don’t feel like doing this. So I took three months off. I thought OK, Damien, the reality is that you have money, bul you’re 31 and living with your parents.
“So this year I made a decision to be practical about my situation. I thought in January, I’m going to buy a bicycle. In February, I’m going to get a car, so I can be independent, find in March, I’m going to get a house. That’s what I did, and now I feel great because I’m broke again – I’ve got a big mortgage and I’m back with my mates. I’ve put my money into a home that my friends can enjoy, and that we can record in.” Which sounds like not a bad arrangement at all…
Speaking of recording, what’s the story with the second album? Is Rice under pressure to get it done, now that he’s recovered from last year’s intensive touring? There must be a few bean counters in record companies around the worid wondering if this is going to be one of the big ones of the year- whenever it does finally come out.
“The only pressure I feel is from myself,” he says. “I haven’t had the desire to go near anything musical up till quite recently, till we started ta work on the ‘Unplayed Piano’ single. It was a nice reason to turn an the studio again ond change the guitar strings. And now I’m really excited. Tamo, our drummer, was out today in the house putting down a new song. There’s a lot of material there but I don’t know which way it’s gonna go yet.
“We’re not working yet on a daily basis -we’ve no particular deadline – and I’m waiting for my house to be finished so we can record at home. The way I work is that I wait till I really feel like doing it, because then I work much faster and what I do is much better – much more true, and real, than if I forced it. I prefer to wait around and let my body tell me when to create…I’ll be driving and I’ll be dying to get home because I need to get in the door to let the music out. For me, writing a song is like taking a shit. That’s how I find it works.”
And are the members of his bond okay about having to fit in with Rice’s spontaneous creative process? “I think everybody’s taken the last few months as a break, but at the same time they’re saying, come on, are you ready? Let me know when you need me! Are we going on tour or what? Which is great, I want people to be eicited. Over the neit month or two it’d be my plan to get stuff for the next album finalised.”
Given that there have been numerous press stories over the past few months about Damien and Renee Zelwegger, there’s an inevitable curiosity about the nature of their relationship. It’s not something, to use Rice’s own terminology,that I feel particularly ‘comfortable’ with asking, but I give it my best shot anyway.
“So, on to the relationships thing,” I say.
“Yes?” (Stares intently.)
“Did you have a friendship with Renee?”
“Yes, myself and Renee hung out in our time off, yes.”
“And?” Rice pauses, embarrassing the hell out of me. “Ask another question,” he says.
“How close… are you, or, eh…were you?” Surprisingly, while he doesn’t discuss whether they actually slept together(dear reader, would you discuss your sex life in public?), Rice gives an unexpectedly open answer to my faltering line of enquiry.
“About two and half years ago, myself and Renee were asked to the same party in LA. Every year, the guy who runs this party would invite people who weren’t widely known but that he’d heard about, and that particular year it happened to be me and the band.
“You know you meet somebody who you just get a buzz off? The thing I loved about Renee that night,” he explains, “was that everybody was mingling in the sitting room – directors, actors, agents, managers, all these influential people- but instead of canoodling with them, she just hung out in the next room chatting with Jonathan, our sound engineer, who was probably the least ‘important’ person there from a business point of view.
“I was drawn to that immediately, Renee is hilarious —she’s super smart. We hung out together and got to know each other a bit. She came over to Ireland and we hung out here for about a week, went to Galway and drank some pints of Guinness. During my three-month bicycle, car and house period, I went over to her place in the States and hung out there for a couple of weeks, then came home, met up with Lisa Hannigan and we started writing ‘Unplayed Piano’.”
Rice is the kind of guy who gets on well with women, and a lot of his close friends are female. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he and Renee Zellwegger have enjoyed a platonic relationship, yet when she got married recently, “The Irish tabloids made up some bullshit story that I’d been dumped!” he exclaims. “They got on to me about it but I simply didn’t respond. I was too busy recording ‘Unplayed Piano’. What I’ve learnt is that I should have said something, because instead they just mode the story up.
“I’m genuinely happy for Renee,” he adds. “We’re really good mates, and I hate the idea that’s been put out that there’s any kind of negativity between us. I’ve never had to deal with that before – a publication telling me how I get on with somebody, when actually they don’t have a clue.”
And with that the interview closes and our three-way conversation begins, spilling into the small hours bock in my dimly-lit sitting room. We talk and talk, Hugh Barter, Damien Rice and myself, in an unusually frank, open and of course off-the-record way, finding in each others’ company answers to our own personal questions.
At least that’s what it felt like to me.
***** Panel *****
BURMA: THE OPPRESSION MUST END
It is time to free Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democratic movement, who remains under house arrest.
When Damien Rice visited Burma last year with US musician Ani DiFranco, he met a number of ex-political prisoners and saw the scars of their torture. He visited a clinic where they make plastic limbs to replace real legs, blown off by landmines. And he spent time in a refugee camp in neighbouring Thailand, home to some of the two million people who’ve fled Burma, and the brutal military regime there.
Moved as he was by these experiences, what affected Rice most profoundly during his stay was a dawn visit that he made with Di Franco to a small village – reached via river boat, and guarded front and rear by men with machine guns – hidden deep in the Burmese jungle.
“These were people who were forced to move from where they lived, because of the risk of attack from the army,” says Rice, “and they’d set up this temporary home in the jungle.”
Hugh Baxter of Burma Action Ireland explains the context.
“Apart from the refugees who’ve fled to safe countries, there are a million internally displaced Burmese people constantly on the move because their villages are being attacked. It’s common for the army to go into a village, burn it down, kill all the men, rape the women, and press-gang the children into the army.
“It’s just horrific what’s going on there,” he adds. “Burma’s regime has recruited up to 70,000 child soldiers, far more than any other country. Its instituted a nationwide system of modern-day slavery, and imprisoned over 1,400 political activists.”
“What really got me were the children of the village,” Damien Rice continues. “These tiny, beautiful, gorgeous, amazing kids, many of them orphans. They sang songs for us. Looking into the eyes of some of the children, it really hit me that tomorrow, the army could just come in and pillage them.
“It wasn’t till we were on the way back that I realised all the fear and anxiety that I had about visiting the place. But I was only there for a few hours, and then I could just go, and be away from the danger – but these little children had to stay. It was really weird leaving them behind.”
Taking up the tale, Hugh Baxter gives a potted history of Burma.
“The country gained independence from Britain in 1947,” he explains. “The independence movement there was actually modelled on the Irish struggle; at the time, books on and by Michael Collins, De Valero, James Connolly and Arthur Griffiths were all in wide circulation in Burmese translation.
“From ‘47 to ‘62 there was a quasi democracy – then the military took over, and the country’s been under a military dictatorship ever since. In 1981 there was an uprising, which was brutally suppressed. During that time, an amazingly iconic woman called Aung San Suu Kyi [pronounced Ong Sawn Sue Chee] became a focal point for the democratric opposition, and quickly became the leader for what was to become the National League for Democracy. The military organised an election in 1990, and Suu Kyi led her party to overwhelming victory, winning about 80% of the seats.
“Then the military refused to recognise the result of the election. They incarcerated Suu Kyi in 1991, and she’s been under house arrest ever since. She has two sons who she hasn’t seen for years. Even her family are unable to find out what sort of conditions she’s living in right now.”
Suu Kyi is the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Her birthday this June 19th has inspired the ‘Free Aung San Suu Kyi 60th Birthday Campaign’ (modelled on 1988’s ‘Mandela At 70′ campaign), a global initiative incorporating scores of events from around the world, including the release of Damien Rice’s single ‘Unplayed Piano’ and solo concerts in London and Paris in June.
“I was quite impacted by the whole Burma experience,” toys Rice, “so when the US Campaign Far Burma asked me would I be interestested in doing a show in New York with Ani Di Franco and David Byrne, in aid of Aung San SUM Kyi, I said yeah, absolutely. But they had to pull out, so it looked like I was going to be doing the show on my own, which I was fine with. But then I asked the campaign, why am I doing this show? If it was to make money, I’d rather just give the money …
“They said that creating awareness was more important just then. So lashed, what do you think is the most powerful way for me to do that? And they said, you could write a song far Suu Kyi. That’s what Lisa Hannigan and I did with ‘Unplayed Piano’.
“I wanted the sang to be universal, personal, and to come from a human and emotional, not a political, point of view. I wanted it to be an expression of loss, but with a huge amount of hope in that loss.
“Suu Kyi has so much potential that just hasn’t been realised. The majority of people in Burma want her as their leader. She seems like somebody that the world could benefit from, if she were let out. And the has asked people outside Burma, ‘Please, use your liberty ta promote ours’.
“I see it on a very simple level. The country asked for this woman and the army didn’t allow it. I don’t think that should be happening. I’m excited, because I feel there’s a potential solution, and Suu Kyi is it. She’s the unplayed piano.”