There’s a rare interview with Damien in last Thursday’s edition of The Guardian.
‘I went scuba diving in the brain, free diving in the brain’
Multi-platinum success left Damien Rice convinced people were using him. He sacked his band, retreated from music and ‘cleansed his mind’. Now, after eight years, he’s back …
Damien Rice sits on an ornate sofa in a room above a restaurant in Reykjavik, a gaping tear in the arm of his jacket, trying to explain what he’s been doing since the release of his second solo album, 2006’s platinum-selling 9. He’s polite enough, but it’s hard to miss his discomfort. His answers come punctuated by pauses so vast you could drive a truck through them: after a while, you just get used to sitting in silence while he searches for the right words. When he finds them, they’re frequently metaphors so convoluted they sound more like riddles. “I took a break, and I went off to do something,” he says of the period after 9. “People say, ‘What did you do?’ Erm, let’s say” – a mammoth pause – “let’s say I was a lover of the sea. And I …” – another pause – “I was a sea swimmer, that’s what I was doing. I went off to do a free-diving course, I learned how to scuba dive, I also learned sailing, I also learned surfing.”
Diving, sailing: these seem like precisely the kind of activities with which you might idle away your time were you a rock star on sabbatical with plenty of money (9’s sales were something of a disappointment compared with his 2002 debut O, which went quadruple platinum in the UK alone). I start to ask him when he got interested in watersports and he frowns. “No, I was actually using that as a metaphor for … brain courses. Courses on the brain. I did all kinds of things. Scuba diving in the brain, free-diving in the brain, swimming, sailing, surfing in the brain: I did all these things. I realised I was completely fascinated by human beings and how easy it was to go from a feeling of exultation or elation to a spiralling into depression. And so I went and studied. I wanted to learn what it was that was triggering these really extreme irrational behaviours. I wanted to learn how to … not control it, but at least understand it.”
Right, so you’re saying you went into therapy?
“Kind of. Yeah, kind of. Therapy’s the wrong word. What would I call it?” There’s another mammoth pause. “I went to schools for cleaning my mind,” he finally decides.
He makes for an occasionally opaque interviewee, but it’s something of a surprise that Damien Rice is here at all. His first album for eight years was initially slated to be released without him giving any interviews, before he changed his mind. “I’d had experiences in the past where I felt like I had been misrepresented,” he says. “Then I noticed the main fear with that was: ‘What will people think of me if they read the wrong thing?’ and I’ve gotten into this new place where I’m excited about taking on my fears, and just looking at my watch going, ‘You’re going to be dead soon, get on with it.’” Indeed, it’s something of a surprise that Damien Rice has even made a third album. After 9 was completed, he bluntly informed his band that they should start looking for other employment, because he was quitting music. “I said to everybody, ‘At the end of this year, I want to be free; when we finish this tour, I want to be free.’”
In truth, Rice had cut a rather troubled figure long before that. Recorded in his Dublin kitchen, O had become a huge word-of–mouth hit in Europe, and his record company were going all out to replicate that success in the US: the talk shows were queueing up to have him perform, everyone from Britney Spears to Glenn Close was turning up at his gigs. But Rice had other ideas. When I met him in New York in 2003, he arrived at the interview sporting a pair of trousers held up with string and a self-administered mohican, having previously completely shaved one half of his head in protest at the record company’s attempts to make his album a hit. Everyone around him appeared pretty baffled: after all, Rice made extremely commercial music. O had a distinct, entrancing hint of small-hours weirdness about it, but it nevertheless contained the kind of songs that people play at their weddings, or that appear on the soundtracks of big US TV dramas, or get chosen as The X Factor finalist’s debut single (Little Mix’s version of Cannonball was the fastest-selling single of 2011). Their confusion might have been compounded by the fact that Rice’s behaviour didn’t seem like the petulance of the newly ascendant star so much as genuine distress, his apparent anguish over the most innocuous workings of the music business compounded by the ongoing collapse of his relationship with his partner and vocal foil Lisa Hannigan.
“The people I was working with started asking me to do things that I wouldn’t have thought of doing myself, like a radio version of a song,” he says. “My intellect could understand the reasons for it, but the … artistic side, if you want to call it, was kicking up a storm inside, saying, ‘You’re only doing this because you’re giving in to other people’s desires to have you sell more records.’ It started losing the structure within. I started rattling, whereas before I was just this solid thing. And then the internal structure of the band started rattling, it spread out among the whole group. We’d come from this place of innocence, because we loved doing it, there was no money in it. Then with success came money, fancier hotels, people’s expectations started to rise … so that rattled the whole thing as well.”
He describes the making of his second album as hell. “Hell’s maybe an exaggeration. Here’s something I’ve gotten very clear about: I made it hell. I had lost the love. ‘People just want something from me now, they’re using me,’ these kind of thoughts.”
During the ensuing tour, he fired Hannigan and announced his intention to quit. He largely vanished from sight, spending increasing amounts of time in Iceland. Anyone looking for evidence that Rice had become some kind of weird recluse might have alighted on one public appearance last year, a Haiti Relief event in LA, to which Rice helpfully turned up dressed like a weird recluse. In a photo taken on the night, he sits next to a ballgown-clad Salma Hayek, looking like he’s spent the preceding month sleeping on a park bench. But after the scuba-diving-in-the-brain interlude (“It took me five years until I got to a place where I was, ‘Yeah, I feel stable, I’m not going to flip into crazy man, werewolf’”), he had begun writing songs again.
He decided he wanted to work with the producer Rick Rubin. “I had this feeling at the time that he was one of the only people I could think of to work with that wouldn’t have a need to try and change me, or put a stamp on me.” Rubin’s “first production move” was to send Rice to see someone the singer refers to only as The Decision Lady, who sounds like some kind of psychiatrist. She asked Rice about his life, discovered he had no partner, no children, no financial obligations, that he was incapable of making decisions about his music because he had no responsibilities and forced him “to get up in the morning whether I wanted to or not, work whether I want to or not. And then slowly, everything started to flow.”
He describes the ensuing album, My Favourite Faded Fantasy, as totally different to his previous records, although it contains all the elements that made his previous records so successful. Beautifully orchestrated and lushly melodic, it is by no means a stretch to imagine some X Factor hopeful committing a merciless assault on I Don’t Want to Change You in the near future. That said, the lyrics of The Greatest Bastard are so raw and self-baiting, it makes for deeply uncomfortable listening. “I find it joyous, really joyous, actually,” says Rice. “Because I’ve done a lot of work on each of the individual situations, and the songs are almost like constant reminders for me to keep elevating myself out of the hole I might have dug in a particular situation.”
He seems tentatively optimistic about the future, saying he has “no fear, no anxiety and no hesitation” about returning to music. He says he has no interest in whether My Favourite Faded Fantasy is commercially successful – “I’ve learned very, very, very clearly that money does not equal happiness or security either” – but wants to make another album next year.
I tell him it seems odd that he’s decided to return at all, given the amount of misery putting records out caused him previously. “Music,” he says, pausing to rummage through his supply of metaphors, “is a little bit like getting a colonic irrigation or flossing your teeth. You pull out that thing that’s between your back teeth and you think, ‘Thank God that’s out’ because of the smell of it and the colour of it, it’s like: I just feel better for having got that out. Music enables me to cleanse and shed the things that I feel are holding me back from growing, or growing up. I get to be a mad bastard with music. I get to stand on a stage sometimes and talk about anything, you know, my personal experiences with erections and sperm to this big group of people that if I didn’t have my guitar on me … there’s no way I’d say those things. It’s like it allows you the ability to fuck around, you know. And, and …” His voice trails off into another immense pause. “And it doesn’t have to be all that serious, you know?” he says, the faint hint of a smile crossing his face.