Fran Healy: From Britpop to the Brandenburg Gate

The Travis frontman has found a new lease of life in Berlin - and the incentive to record his debut solo album. Chris Mugan talks to him about a heartfelt hiatus.
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The Independent Culture

Berlin has long been the city where musicians have sought inspiration, a place to push boundaries. Think of David Bowie's trilogy of albums recorded there; Nick Cave forming the Bad Seeds with Blixa Bargeld. Now Fran Healy has moved there.

Not that Travis's affable frontman sees himself as the latest in a long line of drug-binging romantics. He may be based in this iconic city, but he came here for family reasons; so it is really more happenstance we are here to discuss his first solo album, Wreckorder.

Nevertheless, Healy looks noticeably relaxed lounging on a beat-up sofa in a café at the Ramones Museum, a cramped space dedicated to memorabilia that tells the New York punk oufit's story. His German wife, Nora, hails from Cologne, but she and Healy found Berlin had the best balance of cultural credentials and child-friendliness.

"There's a pattern forming: every 10 years I move. I moved to London when I was 23 and I was there until two years ago. My wife and I came together one night and decided to go. We've got a place in Manhattan and thought about moving to New York, but I came here and fell in love with it. For kids it's brilliant; there's a nice thing where you talk to kids as if they're not mentally impaired."

He describes Berlin as "low-key for its size" and its central districts do exude a mellower vibe than, say, Paris or London. And while the odd UK group, such as The Rakes, may still come in a desperate attempt to save their career, the music scene is now geared towards dance and clubs, so has little impact on his creativity. "For me, it's just as hard as it ever was to sit down and write, because it comes from trying to find a melody you've not heard before. You're running against that wall until you break through it."

Nevertheless, Healy chose to pursue a solo album last year, just as Travis had concluded a gruelling US tour to promote their 2008 album, Ode to J. Smith, with his fellow band members keen to take a break. Indeed, their leader had originally asked the band's manager to cancel those final commitments as he was recovering from shingles, only for guitarist Andy Dunlop to order him back. "He's the most measured guy, and so unargumentative, but he said we had to do it. The thing was, I felt better immediately after making the original call. It was like I'd taken control. But I'm glad we did the tour, because it was great and by the end, I'd recovered."

So why did it take Healy so long to embark on a solo venture? "I didn't know if I was ready before. You get asked about it every few interviews and I didn't feel I had to, because I was in a great band. I didn't have to leave and go to a different city. I always wanted to make 12 records in the band, I don't know why. It's a nice, round number. We've made six, so this falls right in the middle."

Nothing on Wreckorder will put off long-term fans, though there is a meditative quality, born of his one-man studio work and relying on deft use of strings to fill out the sound.

Given the circumstances of its gestation, Healy feels no need to justify making Wreckorder by ensuring it sounds different to his work with Travis, even if he is the band's main songwriter. "In Travis I'm very dictatorial; Dougie [Payne - bassist] lovingly calls me a benevolent dictator, but even I forget those are my songs. They belong to Travis, but "Sing" is about my wife, "Driftwood" is about my friends... It's like the thing they say about dreaming - you are everyone in your dreams."

While Healy composed the songs himself and plays most of the instruments, there have been some eye-catching cameos, among them US solo artist Neko Case and Noah and the Whale's Tom Hobden, both overshadowed by Paul McCartney playing bass on the steady waltz of "As It Comes", one of several tracks that sets this album apart from Travis. In the lead-up to the album's release, Healy claimed to have turned vegetarian as a mark of gratitude. Healy, understandably, is justifiably proud of Macca's contribution, though less keen to big up his own chutzpah.

"We've known Paul since the Millennium gig at the Dome," he shrugs. "He came over and gave us a big lecture. There's a picture of us inanimate, with mouths agog, while he's speaking. Then we just kept running into each other. Because of the classics he's written, his bass playing is overlooked and this was my favourite song. I just thought, 'who would be the best bass player to play on it?' - though there is a nice, compact feel that is quite Beatles-y, a quaint, English story." There is a morbid aspect to this song, too, hitherto hidden on his previous work. "As It Comes" is written from the point of view of the male partner in an aging couple, with a hint at the end that his wife has passed away.

Healy claims that the version he sent to McCartney had him singing in a Cockney accent, but he was dissuaded from keeping that voice on the finished product by his producer and missus, a decision he now regrets. "The character in this song is an old, Alf Garnett kind of guy and when I lived in London I met loads of old guys. It sounded great, but the producer said I had to sing it in my own voice because it was like I was making a joke. My wife called it a joke song, but then she asked me why I'd changed it; she liked it. So hopefully it will come out as a bonus track."

Not quite as terminal, but more direct, is "Rocking Chair" - the lament of someone losing their memory to Alzheimer's, a subject inspired by John Suchet's account of his wife's remorseless decline as she suffered the disease. "I had the line about sitting in a chair for ages, but when I read about this, it all made sense. I was just thinking about what it must be like to be her, to feel the room you were in getting smaller and smaller."

To promote the album, Healy has chosen to perform solo, beginning with under-the-radar sets that allowed him to sing odd numbers without amplification to rapt audiences. He has also chosen to perform older numbers in this new setting. "Normally I take songs to the band and they become Travis songs, so this is me renting them back and presenting them the way they were in my bedroom," he explains. "What I've found is that people hear the lyrics; they laugh where I always thought they should."

While Wreckorder may be one of Healy's most personal albums, he's adamant that he hasn't put his rocking days behind him - rocking out that is, not in chairs. "It's why I'm in a band. We met when we were 18 and whenever we meet, we're that age again. Now we're older, we'll probably change in some ways, but there'll always be some teenage fun in there."

Fran Healy's album 'Wreckorder' is out now on Wreckordlabel