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The Story of O
With a self-recorded and self-released album – called simply O – Damien Rice has emerged as a major force in Irish music. But that’s just the start of it: the record is now in the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K., and with the kind of momentum he has generated, the feeling is that it might just go all the way.
Tanya Sweeney, 22 Sep 2003
Nowhere in the world is the concept of success more abstract than in Ireland. Perhaps because, as a nation, we cling so forcefully to the mock humility and modesty that we practised before the Celtic Tiger blew our cover, or because images of the Irish diaspora showing up in New York or London with a tenner and the arse out of their trousers is still fresh in our minds, we tend to react in a variety of ways to the success of others. Sometimes there’s resentment, envy, bewilderment – yet mostly there’s unabashed pride, often allied to a sense of disbelief that one of our own is out there making it in the big bad world.
It’s one thing when a band like The Thrills gets seduced by a life beyond Wexford Street. While the audience here definitely connects to the fact that they’re Irish, they’d hardly done a gig even in Dublin before they were signed and their first significant push was in the UK. And so they hadn’t already won a place in our collective hearts.
Damien Rice is a completely different kettle of ball games.
He is a massive and potent force within Dublin’s singer-songwriter community – yet has managed to break new ground in a way that has previously evaded most of his contemporaries.
His debut album O was recorded for next to nothing. Out of nowhere it crept up on people, gathering momentum until it had gone double platinum in Ireland, selling over 30,000 copies. The business internationally began to take note.
He linked up with Bernadette Barrett, one of the team behind David Gray’s success, to handle business in the UK. Record deals followed, with Eastwest in Britain and Vector in the US. Without a shred of hype or hoopla, key influencers came into play. There was a Jools appearance that went down a storm. In the US, both Conan O’Brien and subsequently David Letterman went for it. The raggedy charm of the Kildare-born singer was infectious. He was featured in Billboard magazine and in Rolling Stone. Back in the UK, the Sunday supplements – including the Observer magazine – also gave him the treatment.
As a result, thousands of those glorious cream linen CD covers have now found homes in music collections across the US, the UK and Europe.
The album has entered the Top 75 in the UK. It has breached the Top 200 in the US. It has all the hallmarks of a grower. This one could yet sell 10 million copies; the momentum is that positive. Yet Damien Rice is still as refreshingly unassuming and hippy-ish as he was when he was playing in Whelan’s 18 months ago.
He is a man of great paradox… ask him what music he is listening to, for example, he will tell you that he hasn’t listened to music in ages. In fact, Damien comes across as the world’s least reluctant yet most intriguing kind of trailblazer.
Shower him with compliments, congratulations or any type of effusions, and his reaction is either typically nonchalant, or even slightly embarrassed.
“It’s been… surreal,” he says, slowly and deliberately, when asked about the past year’s events. “I can talk it out with a friend if I’ve an hour to sit down, but in an interview, it’s so hard to put it all together. It’s surreal, not because I think it’s the most amazing thing in the world, ‘cos it’s not. I mean it’s really exciting, it’s loads of hard work still, and it’s a challenge – but although music is my life, I could drop it like that. The only reason I can’t is because it’s like I’m addicted to it.
“I’ve reached the point where I’ve done all the things I wanted to do – all I wanted at the outset was a couple of things that people told me I couldn’t do… make a record without a producer, without a studio, and release it yourself without a record company, and make it work. So I did them all and it worked to the point where I was happy…
“It was exciting to see what followed. I was getting offered deals, and basically saying ‘No, I’ve got a little contract with myself.’ There are so many doors opening to us, and the surreal part is like: I couldn’t really give a fuck…”
There is an indisputable irony here – while the rest of us are genuinely excited and doubtlessly impressed at Damien’s recent run of success, the man himself is not so much taking it in his stride as turning the concept of success on its head, so that it means something different.
“I don’t want to be rich, I don’t want to be famous, I don’t crave any of these things. I don’t crave fame – or any of the things that fame brings. I get enough from playing on a stage to ten people or three people or 500 people. Plus, I don’t like getting into the places that you can ‘get into’ by being famous.
“I love the challenge of living on the edge of life – if anything, I like insecurity as opposed to security, it keeps me active, challenged and inspired by life… I left college because I didn’t want a degree to fall back on. I didn’t want a situation where it was like ‘just in case it didn’t work out’. It had to be like ‘it just has to work out… I have no choice but to make it work out.’
“One thing I’m interested in, now that this has happened, is becoming more absolutely honest... walking on stage and being more honest, with myself and with everyone I meet.”
Damien Rice talks quite a lot about honesty. Although he has always been blindingly real and honest, perhaps owing in part to his new whirlwind existence, he is clinging on for dear life to the real, in an industry that so often elevates sheen or artifice.
“We won this award thingy in the US (the XPN Radio Award, I gently remind him), and there was a huge signing table there. I figured, ‘They’ve been really good to me and they’ve supported me, and I don’t really like doing this, but I’ll do it.’ This is where the honesty disappears. I start with being really enthusiastic to the first person, honest with them, then after about ten people, it’s harder to do it. At 50, you’re thinking, ‘Now I’m starting to be insincere.’ In a way I’m being sincere in that it’s nice to meet them, but I’m like ‘I am so sorry that you had to queue up for two hours just to get some CD signed by me.’”
Do you get recognised a lot?
“I do, and I did have difficulty with being recognised, but I went to Barcelona a few months ago, and I went to a place where I had once slept on the beach, and I met a guy from Belgium who was following the sun, just living off his paintings. When I met him, he reminded me of me, and we clicked.
“We were talking about some of the frustrations I was having, because I didn’t feel like I had objectivity on any situation, and I told him that I had a little bit of difficulty with – say when I’m going to buy a pair of shoes, or having dinner – and people approach me.
“It’s fine,” he adds, “but sometimes you’re not in the mood. And this guy said. ‘The moment that someone is asking you something like that is the moment you can be present with that person. Be present with them, learn from them, take something from the meeting. Treat it like it’s the first time you’ve been asked.’ He said, ‘You have such an easy job. You can talk to a person for a minute, put a squiggle on a piece of paper, and make them completely happy.’”
He might have a point. Does Damien feel that this kind of meet and greet is something he has to do?
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” he says. “That’s what I’m learning. It’s like photo shoots… I mean, I just feel like a knob. It’s like, I don’t feel that special. I don’t feel that talented. I know singers and guitar players who are much better than me. I like the songs that I write… but I only write them and do what I do out of being a complete dick in life, in a way.
“I love being left alone to make all the mistakes I make without anyone watching me or judging it. That what I love about being a musician… you can fuck up, then when you’re down you can heal yourself with a song, or heal a situation or a person, and then people take it into their lives…”
Surely having sold thousands and thousands of records, he is being watched and judged. Surely he doesn’t have the freedom to fuck up, that he once enjoyed?
“I’m at a point where I don’t expect anything from myself anymore,” he says. “I’ve got the next album, and the third album written. The next album is so different. I would find it difficult to write a follow-up to O where it’s a similar, acoustic, melancholic record. The next album is kind of filthy, aggressive, bitter and broken. It’s just really angry. Plus, the music is very different.”
How the expanding army of Rice devotees will react to that prospect remains to be seen. On the face of it, it’s neither here nor there. There is a trace of mysticism to the way in which Damien describes the songwriting process that may just act as a shield against potential interference.
He explains that it sometimes doesn’t feel as though he has ‘written’ the music, that it is something that has ‘fallen’ into his life.
“To describe this without sounding esoteric, arrogant, new-age… if I sit down now and write you a song, I’m capable of doing that. I can make a melody and throw out some words. The song I would make for you now, would be just okay. The songs that I end up putting on the record are the songs that I don’t sit down and decide to write – they just fall out in a number of minutes. The best way of describing it is… right now you are beating your heart, but you’re not really beating your heart. If I ask you to control your heartbeat, you couldn’t do it.”
It won’t be all change, however…
“We’re still using similar sounds. I have a thing that every sound that goes on the record is a real sound, an organic sound. It’s all physical… fingers hitting a string, something hitting a drum or a part of your body. Imagine if you take a character who is expressing these things on O like (moans painfully) ‘Ohhh… why did you do this to me’… someone who is hurt and confused, who yearns for this, and pushes through for that. It’s like getting that person from behind, throwing them on the ground, kicking them in the face, beating the shit out of them, but they eventually break free, stand up a bit and go (big Sepultura-type yawp) ‘FUCK OFF!’.
“It’s a continuation, the songs are about the same people, some of the same stories, but moved on so that they get to a place where the situation gets more emotionally damaging, and the person gets more fucked up. Then, the third album is much more joyous.”
While the material for the two albums is ready and waiting, they won’t be recorded this side of New Year. Today, this balmy afternoon in September, is probably one of the last he will spend in Ireland this year.
“My main thing, when I do meet my friends is – I wish we could talk about something else other than me. It’s always like ‘how’s it going? God, I hear you’re doing really well!’ and then it’s like ‘boink’, off goes the conversation.”
He freewheels a bit.
“I think, in Ireland, we’re really fortunate to be in such a small country, if you want to start off independently. The talent in Ireland is so good, there’s so much competition that it pushes you to be better. It’s such a small country that if you give it a few years hard work, you can really make an impact. I’m glad I had the support from – and I know it’s almost slaggable at this stage – The Frames, Mundy, David Kitt, but there was a lot of support given to everyone from everyone and it’s really helped everyone.”
I note that most of those acts have found breaking the US and the UK more elusive. Do they treat him the same now that he has done that?
“Oh God, it’s just the same,” he says. “I’m one of these people anyway that the moment you start thinking about what other people are doing too much is when you’ve lost the focus on what you’re doing. Any time I meet the guys I find it exciting to see what they’re up to. For example, The Frames have been doing lots of stuff in Australia – now I can’t wait to go there.
“When I met Glen (Hansard), he was congratulating me on how things are going, and saying, ‘if you ever go to Australia be sure to look up this radio station’, and I’ll say the same to him about the US. We’re just sharing information.”
Of course, there was one event in the US that has been raised in most of his recent interviews; his face tightens a little when I mention the now-infamous Britney Spears/Colin Farrell scenario. I can barely curb my enthusiasm for him:
“Is it true they were there?”
“Did you meet them them?”
“… .no… why would I?”
‘Did you even see them?”
“Wow, I’d be really excited about it…”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter to me. When I go onstage, and I get this from when I went busking, I love the gigs most of all when I get so lost inside, that the audience doesn’t matter. But actually I’m doing it for them. When I go see someone play what I want to see is someone who is not trying to impress or entertain me… they do what they do so truly that I am lost in them, because they are lost in themselves.
“When I heard about Britney Spears being there it was like ‘Oh, okay’, and then two seconds later, it was gone. Through the show, she sat in the VIP section and talked all the way through the show. It really means nothing to me. It means that the person at the show is lost. She’s entertaining and good at what she does. It’s like this (he’s a great man for the anaolgies – T.S.): What I’m doing, is I have a little vegetarian café, and it doesn’t matter that the person who always goes to McDonald’s came over to eat in my café. Just because McDonald’s is bigger and all over the world, it doesn’t mean it’s better or even good. Just because someone is hugely famous doesn’t change what I do.”
But as a music fan, is there anyone that would faze you if they were in the crowd?
“Oh god, yeah. Leonard Cohen!
Another great milestone in his journey is being nominated for the highly prestigious Shortlist Music Prize. The Shortlist is the US equivalent of the Mercury Prize, although it commends artistic excellence more than commercial success – all nominees must sell less than 500,000 copies of their album to qualify. Also in the frame this year are The Streets, Floetry, Interpol, Sigur Ros, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Surely this is something to write home about?
“It’s great, but so what? It’s funny, my manager gets a little frustrated with me, asking ‘is there anything that excites you’? And I say, ‘yes!, writing a new song excites me. Every single gig excites me. Coming off stage excites me. Travelling the world excites me. I don’t believe that any one band is better than anyone else. These awards aren’t my energy.”
But are you not flattered that people like Cameron Crowe, and Spike Jonze and Eryka Badu, people who might not normally listen to your record, have nominated you?
“I think, for a second, it’s great, and then next moment it’s gone. The moment I give any weight to any of these things is the moment I change. And I don’t want to change.”
I’m beginning to figure that most of his interviews have loosely the same dynamic. Gushing interviewer can’t quite fathom interviewee’s lack of enthusiasm or pride in achievements. At this point, a mental image is forming in my head of Mammy and Daddy Rice slavishly keeping scrapbooks of press cuttings, setting the video to catch live TV performances, while their son downplays every award, appearance, gold disc.
Why appear on Letterman or Conan O’Brien, or on any US TV, if fame doesn’t interest him? “Weren’t you even a little excited about it?” I ask, I implore, a hint of exasperation creeping into my voice?
“People just don’t get it… no, it doesn’t excite me. Genuinely, I’m sorry,” he offers apologetically, “but it doesn’t. I’ve already done everything I want to do, so all I’m doing is exploring. I don’t need to sell any more records. What’s driving me is to challenge myself, to be a better musician, to be more true, to learn how to tour and travel in a more enjoyable and interesting way.
“Being true is the main thing I’m searching for. So few people are themselves, out of fear. If I’m not afraid of anything, then the closer I get to not being afraid of anything, the closer I get to being myself. Therefore it’s one of those strange points where you don’t get affected by things anymore. The things that do affect me now are the really simple things, like… oh she’s gonna laugh at me now… watching insects! (self-deprecating laugh), or going on a boat from here to there. Much more enjoyable than being in the Letterman studio, sitting around, soundchecking, waiting for your cue, you’re on, you play your song, then you’re done.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad I was asked to do it, and it was nice, but it’s just a TV show. Tomo was excited by it because he watched the show, and it was a life experience, but for me it was just a TV show.
“I hate saying ‘it doesn’t matter to me’, I know that people think ‘what an arse’, but that’s how it is… these flashy TV shows are like… (thinks for appropriate analogy)… Hot girls. Everyone wants them, watches them, wants to be with them. Sometimes they can be really enjoyable experiences. People who go out and see people who are physically good looking, but if there isn’t something else there, and if it’s not what you are looking for, you can kiss them, and that’s it. Once you do this TV show or that TV show, it doesn’t really matter if this is a really hot TV show, if it’s not your essence or doesn’t push your buttons… I really prefer playing in a full hall, with people who really want to be there.”
It seems to be precisely this organic, unpretentious approach to love, sex, relationships and women that has captured the world’s attention. Step forward Damien’s very beguiling muse, Lisa Hannigan. The dynamic between the two onstage is nothing short of riveting, and is very much a significant part of the entire Damien Rice package. Melancholic and bracing as the music is, it’s the subtle melodramas played out by the two onstage that have completely gripped their audience’s imagination. In short, their “are-they-aren’t-they” relationship is a hotly-debated subject.
So… are they?
“Some people think something… and some people think something else. Some people think there’s something going on, or there was, or there will be. Most people have an opinion. I understand that people are curious about it, as we’re onstage, we work very closely together and we sing about these things, but the essence of what we do, because it’s so revealing and bare in what it is…”
He trails off, before picking up the thread.
“It’s like if I ask someone to describe myself. I don ’t really know myself, there’s no way I can really describe myself, and if I don’t know myself I certainly don’t know myself and Lisa, so there’s no way I can say anything about it.”
“Ultimately, I’d like to move to Spain, and not tour or release the record there. I’d like to be in a place where I don’t see my posters, or see my CDs, or hear myself on the radio, where I can be Joe Plonker and do my own thing, and be in a place where I really like hanging out.”
At the end of the day, while it’s oddly disappointing that he is reluctant to share everyone else’s enthusiasm about his own successes, he has his priorities in order... and you don’t get to say that about many people in the music business.He still has a love for the simple things in life (“I’m becoming obsessed with the things that nobody else gets obsessed about,” he notes).
As we part, I tell him excitedly that I saw his name on the poster for the upcoming film Goldfish Memory, which we both worked on. He gives me a humorous glare, as though I’ve forgotten all that was said. I think this New Humility thing is going to take some getting used to…
Coming Tuesday on hotpress.com, O: The Making of a Platinum Album