You only have to look to the shift in the sound of Brett Anderson's music for a sense of how he has moved on from his past as the wayward front man of Suede. His last collection, Wilderness, featured just piano and cello, and his new release, Slow Attack, is a beautiful space-filled album with elements of film soundtracks and folk.
"It would have been a lot easier to stay in the same band and make rock records for the rest of my life," Anderson contemplates. "I've chosen a harder route, but to be honest I couldn't do anything else. I couldn't have trodden that path for the rest of my life, I wouldn't feel creative. I feel like I've been reborn."
Though he is dressed in a sharp-cut black coat and scarf – even indoors – Anderson, now 42, doesn't have a glimmer of the pale, gaunt look of his past days which were fuelled by crack cocaine and heroin. Perhaps his healthy look is also partly to do with the fact that he's been spending time in his cottage in a rural part of Ibiza – reading and walking in the countryside – where his wife used to live. It certainly provided the inspiration for the bucolic imagery of his latest two albums. Not that the imagery is of simple serenity; the lyrics are more in keeping with the violent nature of Ted Hughes' poetry, which Anderson has been reading. "With Hughes' poems, it's not a beautiful pastoral thing, it's a bleak brutal vision of the countryside. He and Seamus Heaney have that twisted vision of the countryside that I like. I wanted to write about a different take on the world." It is also a determination to steer away from the urban depictions that so characterised Suede in their Nineties heyday. "I'm quite conscious of territory I've trodden in Suede. With that band I created a lyrical landscape which I've possibly overused at points and, when it didn't quite work, it became a self parody – this Suede world of twisted sexuality and a low-rent kind of life. If I'm completely honest, a lot of the way this album and Wilderness have a bucolic setting is inspired by the fact I don't want to go back to the urban clichés. I'm very much aware of that."
Perhaps Anderson has less of a need to bare his tortured soul. he says: "The last two albums were very deep and personal where I was seeing myself in an almost Frida Kahlo-ish way, seeing myself and my personal pain as the art and trying to express that in an open and raw sense. With this one I didn't want to lay my soul open in such an obvious way. I wanted to have the lyrics more married to the mood of the music. Lots of fans listen to the lyrics and for them the lyrics dominate the music and I wanted to redress that balance. I wanted to take it somewhere else."
Having reached a point where he could focus on the music, for Slow Attack Anderson collaborated with Leo Abrahams, a guitarist who has recorded with Brian Eno and Ed Harcourt, and who suggested introducing the woodwind instruments which lend the songs their strangeness and other-worldly beauty. It is more in the musical mould of the Argentinian film soundtrack composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who wrote the score to Babel, and atmospheric rock bands such as Talk Talk and Sigur Ros, while incorporating elements of English folk and Bert Jansch, especially the song "Wheatfields" ("but if you say that people get scared and imagine people in jumpers"). It's not music that is likely to take Anderson back to his chart-topping days with Suede. Not a track of his recent music has even made it onto the radio. "I feel completely happy with that. It was an important artistic statement for me to make rather than trying to rewrite "Animal Nitrate" again and again. It was a huge step for me to make a record so completely unconventional," he says of his last release. "My first solo album is deeply flawed. I didn't know where I was going. I still wanted to make guitar-based pop music like I did with The Tears, and Suede. And it wasn't until Wilderness that I had the confidence to decide that I was going to do something completely different and throw all those instruments and ideas out the window and reinvent myself as an artist."
Anderson is the first to admit he has lived a gifted life as a musician – first in a successful pop band as a young man ("it was almost the pinnacle – it's ridiculous the amount of fun you can have being in a band") and now in his new-found tranquil existence. Does he miss those heady days? "I'm completely happy to turn my back on rock excess and all of those things in order to pursue something else, and this record is the next step on this twisted path I'm travelling on. It's strange, people who still want to be chasing the same thing. I suppose it becomes like an addiction. They need that buzz of going on stage, but I don't need that. I need the buzz of going somewhere else."
Life sounds pretty charmed now. When he's not in Ibiza, Anderson is at his main base in London. He spends time immersing himself in music, and looking for inspiration at art galleries. "Sometimes I'll just go to the shops and look for inspiration for new records, or wander round the library looking at titles of books. Just to get your brain working – an extra injection, as it were." You can't help noticing the drug-related metaphors he applies throughout our meeting. His "new addiction", he says, is reading.
For six months of the year, in the winter months, you would find Anderson at the top of his house in his "creative space", writing songs at his grand piano, surrounded by a mess of posters and music. The grand piano had to be craned up to the fifth floor. The writing months begin in January. "I do find winter quite inspiring because London is so extreme, so bleak and potentially depressing that you need to have a mental space to throw yourself into your work."
The other half of the year he claims to do little other than lie on the couch reading. But it works in terms of the sheer output – his prolific songwriting has seen an album a year since his debut solo set in 2007. "I'm not spending my whole life touring the world like I used to. At the moment I live a very different lifestyle and it's my schedule to put out a new record every year. I don't think I'll even get to where I want to be until my fifth album."
As for this next step in the journey, he is excited – though bar a spark in his eyes you'd never know, such is his cool, guarded demeanour. "It's really exciting when I release an album. It feels like life has a purpose. When you look back and notch up what you have and haven't done, it's a good thing to have written songs and made people happy."
Free Brett Anderson tracks in tomorrow's Independent
The Independent is offering readers eight free Brett Anderson songs to download, including four tracks from the new album, 'Slow Attack', ("Hymn", "The Hunted", "Ashes of Us", "Frozen Roads"). Buy tomorrow's Independent for the link to the download.Reuse content