Damon Gough: The Boy done good
Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, tells Chris Mugan how a failed project helped give his latest album creative impetus
Friday 13 October 2006
Damon Gough stirs the ice in his bourbon and coke with his finger, struggling to make sense of the past 18 months. He is exhausted after a day of interviews and performances, but feels compelled to tell his story. And what a story it is, for last summer the artist known as Badly Drawn Boy was set to complete the challenge of recording five albums in five years. Yet, in the studio, the performer realised he was going nowhere. The tale of how he turned this situation around and recorded his best album since his Mercury Prize-winning debut, Hour of Bewilderbeast, is one he is keen to narrate.
So much so that we sit in the upper room of a trendy east London pub until late, with Gough looking forward to a breakfast TV appearance the next morning. He is thankful to be here at all, having last year scrapped sessions in Stockport, near Manchester, where he was working with the acclaimed producer Stephen Street, who in the past helped forge key works by The Smiths and Blur. The record they worked on would have been out late last year or early this year.
It is a brave move for any musician to admit this. Usually when an outfit bins a session, they find a scapegoat, either the producer (wrong chemistry) or the studio (wrong environment). Gough, though, admits all the mistakes were on his part. "I've got too much respect for Stephen to explain it any other way. It was a joint effort that didn't work and I'm sure he was damaged by it as much I was, at least momentarily. I didn't want to let him down or face the nightmare of something not working out."
Gough's challenge in the studio is that he rarely arrives with finished songs, but rather with ideas to be thrashed out, or tunes that require lyrics. Last summer, he did not even have a direction for his forthcoming work. "I can write music relatively quickly and easily," he explains. "But lyrical content is the hardest bit to get right. I agonise over those choices because you can write a different lyric to a song on any given day. I prefer to write a lot of half-finished ideas than finish one. It inspires me because it adds perspective. You want the songs to bear a relationship, so you need to leave them open until the last minute."
In the past, this had not been a problem, but the 2005 sessions were destined to end in ignominy. He spent two weeks in the studio with Street and his band in an attempt to record as live as possible. At the end, Gough had the rudiments of 20 tracks, with a week for him to add guitars. "It started to feel like it wasn't inspired. The thrill of making records is the unknown, the chance happenings that this album is all about. It was too controlled and I knew too much about the songs already - there was nothing else to inject. I couldn't put my personality back, those little moments that make you prick up your ears, or the sound that makes it special."
Then, with Street off for a family holiday, Gough had two weeks set aside to write lyrics and record vocals. "I realised then that I wasn't going back to the studio, but it was weird because friends and family would ask how it was going and I would say, fine. I had to accept I had scrapped the record. At least I felt good that I had a solid story. Weirdly, one person said they were jealous that I'd had the balls to do it. They wished they'd done that with their record, but at the time I didn't know what I was doing. I was devastated and not much else."
Rather than having classic writer's block, Gough was swamped with too many ideas, which helped the next stage of this process. He insisted on returning to the studio immediately, with the intention of sketching a new song every day between the beginning of September and the end of the year. "I've never been so prolific as during that 18 months. I've written 300 songs, or had the nucleus of them. It was showing off and I was pleased I could do something decent every day."
He came up with 80 songs, most of which he was pleased with. This created a new challenge, as he had no idea how to edit them down. "It was reckless because I didn't have a clue where it was heading, and I had a ton of stuff to sort out by Christmas, so many ideas that needed realising."
For Gough, an album is a snapshot of the artist's journey, but he needed a third party to help to make the right choices - "especially me - I'm so indecisive." The surprising replacement for the experienced Street was Nick Franglen, one half of Lemon Jelly and a confidante able to persuade Gough to follow his instincts.
Born in the UK's direction evolved slowly through subsequent sessions. Its central theme is taking stock of one's life. Perhaps hitting the buffers last year forced Gough to reevaluate more than just his recording technique. He looks back at his first meeting with his partner, Claire, muses on the state of the world and looks forward to seeing his kids grow up.
It began to make sense when the group completed the last single, "Nothing's Gonna Change Your Mind", a lush ballad, full of sweeps and builds that sees Gough stalk his usual hunting ground, relationships - a request not to get hung up on things we cannot change. "This is where I turned the corner, because I went on holiday last October with my mum and dad and the kids and Claire. I had just written it and was desperate to get back and record it."
It is a constantly surprise that, in album after album, a man in such a stable relationship can draw so much from the subject, though Gough winces at the thought.
"Claire found some words on the last album upsetting because she presumed the negative content was about us, though it was about issues with other relationships like with band members or the record label, where I was put in positions where I felt I'd let other people down. It is tricky, but I can't get away from these themes. They are the language that is available to the melodies I write, and what comes through my spirit.
"I've had a ridiculous six years that has included five albums, touring the world, having two kids and having 15 or 20 people that I know quite well die. And the world's in a terrible state that I don't understand. Hopefully it is therapy for me, or somebody else might find solace."
Gough asks for more fags from his patient press officer and we plough on. Two numbers from his original recordings fitted the bill hinted at by "Nothing": "Degrees of Separation" and the album closer "Time of Times". The first sees Gough leafing through some family snaps while the latter urges the listener to live in the present. Both came out musically similar to the single, but the album's title track was destined to be a departure for Gough, with its rush of thrashed guitars, played to a resolutely simple pattern. Lyrically, it is still complex as the writer draws you in with the tale of his early life and all its formative events, from Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon to hearing Graham Fellows's punk spoof single, "Jilted John".
Gough persisted with the song and its position as title track despite the obvious tribute to his hero Bruce Springsteen. Hearing the Boss's "Thunder Road" at the age of 13 was a key moment in Gough's musical development. "I was concerned it would sound like a joke, but in essence it's a tribute to a big moment in my life. And the way I discovered that song was so random, which got me thinking about the randomness of where you're from and the journey you take."
So Gough is not waving the flag for anyone, though in a spoken word intro he complains that people frown on the English celebrating where they come from, though he himself is unclear as to why we should be proud. "There is an identity crisis, probably because English is the universal language, so it has been diluted. Though I couldn't care less because I was just dealt this card."
Born in the UK remains linked to its title track because it is his most direct album to date. There is none of the studio trickery used to disguise his voice or instrumental interludes. What there is, though, are some of his most involved arrangements. "The songs are little journeys and there are styles I grew up listening to, a bit of Burt Bacharach maybe. The first decade you're alive shapes everything. Once you're four or five you're fully formed, so it made sense to have some of those feelings."
Gough half-denies that signing to major label EMI from well-established indie XL added extra pressure. "You want to get off to a good start, but I signed to EMI while recording my last album for XL, so I felt a lot of time had elapsed and I hadn't delivered anything, though really it was just the wrong approach."
Still, he has found difficulties working with a mammoth company. The single "Born in the UK" was denied a full release due to its speed and lack of chorus, so Gough could only put it out as a limited 7in on his Twisted Nerve label. Then "Nothing" was crudely cut to a radio edit that fails to do the song any kind of justice.
Otherwise, Gough has been in fine fettle. A couple of weeks previously, he played one of his most triumphant London gigs to date. A relief compared with his previous long-winded sets that included distributing bunches of flowers or showing photos of his children. "I did gigs when I didn't have many songs to play or was under-rehearsed," he explains firmly. "I was prepared to set my stall out early on and say I'd give it a go. I've grown up under the gaze of anyone interested in looking."
Most refreshing about Gough, though, is that he remains a fan. Not only of Springsteen, but also of Bob Dylan. He quotes twice from the latter's Chronicles, namely advice from a Gran to be kind to everyone and his own studio trauma. "I'm proud, in a way, that I go through the same things. Perversely, I'm proud this album stretched me and almost made me split up with myself," he explains with a dry chuckle. "At least I've done something real."
Measuring himself against Dylan helps remove Gough an extra step from the trickle of solo artists in his wake that has recently turned into a deluge. He certainly sees no similarities. "Most artists are too preoccupied with being in vogue or capturing a zeitgeist. As much as I'd like to be all those things, when it comes to the nitty gritty I always end up returning to my basic idea of doing something that will be long-lasting, so you have to forfeit sounding contemporary."
Gough finally admits that for Born in the UK, he did try to create an album that had a shot at mainstream acceptance, while maintaining his own ideals. "I think I came close to achieving that, though there's not a major hit here, which it would have been good to have for a change. What I aspire to is writing songs that stay with people beyond my fanbase, like any of Madness's hits. I can't see my songs in 20 years being like that."
I beg to differ, sure that "Pissing in the Wind" and "Something to Talk About" will be fondly remembered when Gough's kids are all grown up. Born in the UK may not feature anything with the impact of Madness's "My Girl" or "Our House", but at least Badly Drawn Boy has re-established himself as one of the country's most important artists. Self-conscious and introspective, but thoughtful and warm hearted enough to write songs that will matter for years to come.
'Born in the UK' is out now on EMI; Andy Gill reviews it on page 19
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