Graham Coxon: Blur man refocuses

Graham Coxon has moved on from the band that made his name. Alexia Loundras meets a guitarist at ease with himself
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The Independent Culture

"Must buy some cheese," says Graham Coxon. Turning the alarm off his manically beeping mobile, the erstwhile Blur guitarist explains: "I have to set my phone to remind me to do bloody everything. It's weird. On the weeks when I look after my daughter Pepper, I can get it together and pay bills. When she's not around, I can't do anything. It's like gravity stops and I just lift off the floor and become undisciplined and self-indulgent. I'm probably the worst at looking after myself; buying milk and making sure I have cheese. And last night, I really wanted some cheese. It's such a drag."

On the alternate weeks when the six year-old Pepper is with her mum Coxon's fridge may be left to languish, but his creativity thrives. And having heard his new album, Love Travels At Illegal Speeds, his stomach's loss is evidently his music's gain. Two years ago, Coxon released the excellent Happiness In Magazines, his first album since being treated for alcoholism and leaving Blur. The album, his fifth solo release in all, earned Coxon a slew of critical acclaim and a 2005 NME Award for Best Solo Artist; achievements that have, to some extent, helped put to bed false rumours of a reunion with his former band mates. And now, the new album will further cement Coxon's reputation as a solo artist.

Coxon admits he still regularly gets hassle from Blur fans wanting him to rejoin the band, but while he understands their frustration, he insists it's just not going to happen: "If Crosse and Blackwell said, 'look, we've moved on', and stopped making pickle, I'd be pissed off too," he explains with a typically eccentric analogy. "But in the end you just have to accept it - get Sainsbury's own instead. After a while, you won't be able to taste the difference."

Coxon chuckles. There's a lightness about him today that was missing when we last met nearly two years ago. Sitting in his local Camden café, indulging in his last two remaining vices - coffee and cigarettes - he seems much more together. He still exudes a childlike vulnerability and eye contact remains something he prefers to avoid - his shifty glances around the room hint at a lingering shyness. But sitting back with a contented smile on his lips he looks relaxed, assured even. "I guess I know that I'm kind of good at what I do now," admits Coxon bashfully, before creasing up again. "Being outspokenly confident is quite thrilling in a way - isn't it?"

Coxon is revelling in this new found feeling, and he's right to feel proud. Love Travels At Illegal Speeds is a triumph of an album that picks up where its breakthrough predecessor left off. Coxon says he thoroughly enjoyed the recording process ("It's like magic making music in the studio," he says with wide-eyed enthusiasm) and between the exuberant guitar licks and surging, defiant hooks that dominate the album, his relish for making music clearly shows.

With former Blur producer Stephen Street once again at the helm ("He keeps me steady," says Coxon), the new album bounces with all the bubblegum-fuelled, reckless abandon of his childhood influences: "I wanted to make a record like The Buzzcocks, The Jam and Sham 69 - records that used to make me excited as a kid," he says. Coxon's signature high-calibre riffage and pop-punk energy are, as ever, blisteringly vibrant. But, bolstered by his newfound confidence, Coxon's instinctive knack for an infectious tune seems to have got even sharper.

"I don't know where they come from," says Coxon, scratching his head. "Because for the life of me I can't think of any melodies right now. When I listen to the record I can't quite believe it's something I've done but the songs and melodies are better." Coxon pauses to light up another cigarette. "I think I've found myself a bit with this album," he adds.

Love Travels At Illegal Speeds is a step forward for Coxon, both sonically and, more importantly, in terms of his own self-perception. Somewhere along the line, Coxon has become more accepting of his foibles: "I'll never lie to anybody and make them think that I'm totally comfortable when it comes to my music," he says, "but I'm a little less embarrassed about my voice. I seem to have settled on a place where I can sing and be myself. It's a pretty gormless way to say it, but sometimes imperfections can also be your strengths."

Now when he sings, Coxon sounds like at least part of him knows that he's actually got a lovely, emotive voice. In fact, compared to his painfully apologetic former self, this new, grounded Coxon is a boiling cauldron of rock 'n' roll bravado. And while he may still be a few strides short of a swagger (he greets even the most innocuous passing comment on his music as though you're pointing out a fatal flaw) his burgeoning self-belief has given him the assurance he needed to try something new. Having learnt to appreciate his own voice, Coxon has also found the courage to really bare himself emotionally.

"This album is a bit like standing in front of people naked," admits Coxon. "I've always liked extremely personal records - so personal they make you cringe. And," he adds proudly, "I think there are a few pretty cringe-worthy bits on here." Love Travels At Illegal Speeds is startlingly revealing and shows Coxon warts and all. "It all about being in relationships and having desires and things like that," he continues. "And there's a couple of bits where I don't present myself in such a good light."

Coxon's confessional songs are so brazenly candid that listening can at times feel like leafing through a stolen diary. This urge to purge grew out of the counselling sessions Coxon had after overcoming his addiction at The Priory four years ago. "When you're recovering from alcohol addiction you're forced to look quite hard at yourself - it's part of the process of becoming aware of your imperfections, disorders and faults," he says. "You get caught up with thinking and I wanted to challenge myself, see if I could actually sing a lyric like..." he pauses uncomfortably, "I can hardly even say it - but like, 'I'm so in love with you.' It makes you hugely vulnerable just to say that, and I wanted to see what it was like to feel that way. I wanted to come clean about sometimes not knowing sod all; confessing to making a terrible mistake; seeing a relationship break apart and not doing anything about it and writing songs about being attracted to people who are spoken for."

Coxon pours his heart into his songs; and they're touchingly eloquent and arrestingly honest. But they also expose an unfortunate habit: it seems Coxon is guilty of sabotaging his own relationships. Featuring lyrics like "Why did I want to set you free?/How could I think I'd be happier lonely," the sweetly jaunty, regret-stung "Don't Believe Anything I Say", provides the most incriminating evidence. It is also Coxon's favourite song, because, he admits, it says a lot about who he is. "It's a song about being extremely remorseful about splitting up with someone, but knowing that's the way it has to be," he says. To be happy, I ask? "No," he replies, "to be safe - I fear catastrophe."

Sometimes Coxon is too honest for his own good. He lights up another cigarette. "That's the problem with making personal albums," he sighs. "You pour everything into the record and then you have to do it again in interviews. I bet S Club 7 didn't have that problem." He chuckles. "It must have been great being in S Club 7."

After fifteen years spent lurking beneath an intoxicated haze, Coxon admits he's still coming to terms with conducting relationships sober. But while exploring his feelings in his songs has helped him make sense of them, he's adamant that people take his album with a pinch of salt. "The album's a bit like EastEnders," explains Coxon. "There's just too much going on there for it to be taken too seriously. I think if my life now was really like this record I'd have to do something seriously drastic - I'd have to move to the country and start raising pigs because you just wouldn't be able to go on like that. I had to dig up a lot of old experiences for those songs, which actually, was quite good fun."

Although it's undoubtedly close to the bone, Love Travels At Illegal Speeds is also laced with a dry, self-deprecating humour. Songs like the lascivious "Don't Let Your Man Know" and the disgruntled "What's He Got" are pricked with a comic-book colour and charming self-awareness that prove Coxon is not only conscious of his quirky idiosyncrasies, but also happy to poke fun at them. "It's a very English album," says Coxon. "I don't think many English people can keep up this level of heaviness without having to make a joke about it - if only to escape their own self-consciousness. The songs are about things that might seem quite demoralising but you can laugh about them. I might be a sweet, bookish, airy-fairy Piscean boy. But nice, poetic, shy people like us get randy too - and that's quite funny!"

Life for Coxon is still far from picture perfect. Aside from his commitment issues he still has trouble reconciling his ego with his lingering insecurity ("I don't want to be a hugely well-known person most of the time, but another part of me wants to be really important," he admits). But he says conclusively, he wouldn't change a thing about his life right now: "I have faith that things should be as they are," he says. "If you mess around making changes to things, it's always disastrous. Besides," he adds genuinely, "I like myself all right."

Coxon is taking life one step at a time. "I would love to have that dreadful romantic cliché - getting married, moving to the country and owning a few animals - but I don't think that's meant to happen to me," he says, "Not yet anyway. If I got seriously happy, I don't think I'd see any point in writing music; I never used to write anything in my diary unless I was feeling rubbish. When you're happy you're too busy feeling happy - why sit indoors and write a song about it. That's why I could never write a song like 'Reach For The Stars.'" He smiles to himself, thinking about being in S Club 7 again.

While Coxon is clearly putting a brave face on his singleton predicament, there's no doubt he's much happier now than he has been in a long while. The last few years have seen him overcome some personal hurdles and gain a very important understanding of himself. He's deservedly pleased with his new record: "I feel really proud and happy when I hear it," he says, beaming sheepishly. And he's never looked back on his decision to opt for a life without alcohol or Blur: "Those decisions were pretty tough," he says, "but I realised my priorities were all screwed up and I knew I wasn't going to be able to live with myself if I felt any inkling that I was a bad father."

"I'd love to fall in love with someone," continues Coxon, "but there's got to be some sort of blockage removed from my head first. I feel like the river is too full of stones and the flow isn't quite right for love just yet." But finding a partner is just one thing Coxon has planned on his to-do list. He wants to learn how his motorbikes work, how to make shoes and how to maintain a barn. But aside from buying some cheese - which, of course, is today's top priority - he's in no hurry to work his way down the list. "Do you know what I'd really like to do this year?" he says, his with a twinkle in his eye. "I just really want to have some fun."

'Love Travels At Illegal Speeds' is out on 13 March. Graham Coxon tours the UK from 20 March (see www.grahamcoxon.com)

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