Elbow's Guy Garvey reveals how New York - and its cab-drivers - revitalised both him and his songwriting
When Garvey split from his partner he found himself on his own, and anonymous, in the Big Apple
When Guy Garvey split from his long-time partner Emma Unsworth, he had to get away. Far away. The genial, bear-like singer knew he needed a new environment in which to navigate the new emotional terrain opening up before him.
"The comic image that occurred to me was, 'get me there as soon as possible, put me in a cannon and fire me over the ocean'," he says. "I desperately needed to be anonymous, to find out who I am on my own with a truncated love-affair in tow." And having developed an affection for New York in recent years, he upped sticks and plonked himself down in New York.
"Approaching 40 and re-evaluating your long-term plans, it was great to have somewhere, and to be in the financial situation where I could just fuck off there when everything was getting heavy," he explains. "And also, enjoying anonymity while I'm there – it meant I could sit at the end of diner counters and people-watch for the first time in 10 years. It gave me a sense of perspective on where I'm at. It never solves any long-term problems to geographically run away from sadness, but it's definitely a help to have a sticking-plaster in that wonderful, vibrant, crazy city. I've always written love songs to Manchester, but it's the first time I've written a love song to another city."
Always known for wearing his heart on his sleeve lyrically, the influence of New York, and the couple's split, runs through The Taking Off and Landing of Everything, the album that Garvey's band Elbow were working on when he made the move. The notion of being fired across the ocean surfaces in "Honey Sun", while the imagery and characters of "Fly Boy Blue/Lunette" are adapted from an airport-lounge tableau experienced at JFK airport as Garvey shuttled back and forth between New York and his beloved Manchester.
"In an airport lounge, the whole world is going its separate ways, under this cloud of anticipation that exists in all airports," he observes. "It throws up where you're going, where you've been, what you like, what you don't, and it gave me an opportunity to create some new characters in Red Bob and The Ivory Host, who were a man with high blood-pressure desperate for a drinking-partner in a plastic Irish pub in JFK airport, and our very pallid but austere barman." And most obviously of all, "New York Morning" lays out his embrace of the city he describes as "the modern Rome, where folk are nice to Yoko".
"That comes from John Lennon," he explains. "In his last press conference when he left England for good, he said: 'Why wouldn't you go to New York? Every nation on Earth represented, all getting along – it's the modern Rome'. Then he said: 'Besides, they're nice to Yoko'. Quite aside from what people think, whether she was responsible or not for splitting up The Beatles – and I'm very sure she wasn't, knowing band dynamics as I do – it was the out-and-out racism that accompanied that, so when New York clutched them to its bosom as icons, they were very flattered, and it was the place where they felt they could live together and be happy. They were never far from my thoughts when I arrived in New York, being a Northerner and a musician. Knowing the love he had for his roots, it must have been very difficult for him to transplant himself, knowing he was a national hero."
In Garvey's case, of course, it wasn't so much a national hero and international icon exchanging one form of attention for another, as an escape from attention into blessed anonymity. Whereas John and Yoko relocated to Manhattan, he settled into the more localised, bohemian surroundings of Brooklyn, exulting in the chance to make friends purely on his personality.
"I enjoyed hanging round these diners, which very much reminded me of the places in Manchester where I decided to do what I did with my life, where everybody's a writer or a sculptor or a painter, and holding down a job in order to support that," he says. "I enjoyed being that nice older English guy who comes in every day, like Ralph Richardson in the corner on his laptop! It also made me realise how much more inaccessible that youthful verve becomes as you get older. I prefer the company of one good friend these days, whereas these kids were very much about discovering their identity and showing it to the world. It was a lovely thing to witness."
Elbow at the 2011 Mercury Prize ceremony. The band won the award in 2008 (Getty Images)
Part of Garvey's undeniable charm lies in his appealing diffidence: for a pop star, he retains a commendable modesty about his own achievements that in a less sincere person could be easily regarded as cant. There's a line in "Honey Sun" that reads, "I live and die by the hot and cold in strangers' eyes", which I at first took to refer to the impositions of celebrity, the way that complete strangers think they know the famous, and develop opinions about people they have never met. But, he explains, it's something deeper and more personal than that.
"It's not since I became famous, it's something that's always been with me that I assumed everybody always had: a guy on the street looks at me the wrong way, and a big part of me assumes that he's right. It was a bit of a revelation to me, in my late thirties, to find out that not everybody gives a fuck what other people think about them! I thought people were just better or worse at hiding it, when in fact an awful lot of them don't care, and are up for a ruck. But some part of me assumes that everybody else is right, apart from me. I think you'd call it an over-sensitivity to people's opinions." In which case, you might think, his transatlantic anonymity should make little difference to him; but during his New York jaunt, it enabled Garvey to devise a new format for his BBC 6Music radio show, interviewing the first person who smiled at him in the street, and asking them to recommend someone.
"It worked really well," he says. "In a few moves, I was talking to Zach Condon of Beirut, and then Alma Har'el, an Israeli small-film director. But the first guy that smiled at me was the only guy on the street who knew who I was, an expat called Dav, and he observed that the brusqueness you encounter in New York is more to do with efficiency, the fact that everything's got to keep moving, in order to work. He pointed me towards a beautiful text by EB White called Here is New York, written in the Forties, which made me aware of how delicate and fragile the city is, in terms of its ancient infrastructure; and also that the people who maintain the place – the Mexicans in the back doing all the work, the guys that do the construction – they're given the same respect that emergency services are, they really are part of keeping everything ticking – because if you close one street in Manhattan, the whole place grinds to a halt. I really like the idea of that impressive grandeur, that brash and brave New York, versus this 'holy shit, how do we hold this together?' attitude."
More directly, it also changed the way Garvey interacted with fellow New Yorkers, stripping away the superfluous mannerisms that lubricate British society. "I soon realised that once I stopped saying, 'excuse me, could you show me the way to...?', and just said, 'where's the station?', I was never short of somebody to help me," he says. "Ordinary New Yorkers, the conversations they have on public transport, they don't even look at each other before they start talking. It's like I imagine a wartime British bus to be – and I love a community springing up through shared values, so it suits me down to the ground!"
I share with Garvey the humorous definition of "a New York minute" as being that infinitesimal moment of time between the lights turning green and the taxi-driver behind you honking a hurry-up, and he chuckles; his own experiences of the city's cabbie cabal, though, are much more mellow, a reflection perhaps of his own character imposing its charm.
"I met some pretty zen taxi-drivers," he says. "There was this one guy born in Nigeria, trained as an engineer, and he had a photo on his dash of himself with several former mayors, because of his long service to New York cabs. The guy was a Baptist, and his take on New York was fascinating, endlessly positive. I think he saw his role as cab-driver was to preach the word of the Lord, as well as to get people to where they were going. I think you'd have to have some kind of ethos to do that job without losing your mind. I met a few evangelicals of one kind of another behind the wheels of taxis."
The sense of a shared community he so enjoys, however, comes through most strongly in a line from "New York Morning" – "Everybody owns the Great Idea, and it feels like there's a big one round the corner" – which, Garvey confides, originated in the Ralph Waldo Emerson's notion of the immediate resonance of universal truths.
"While the sharing of ideas is accelerating," he says, "I love the idea that it would probably arise somewhere like New York where people are forced to mix and work together in order to get something done. If you're as excited as I was when I wrote that original diary entry, it feels like the beginning of a sneeze, inevitable that somebody will speak the truth and we'll all go, 'Of course!', and all live happily ever after."
He pauses, then adds with very British self-deprecation, "The eternal optimist!"
'The Take Off and Landing of Everything' is out on Fiction on 10 March
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