Graham Coxon: The great escape

Graham Coxon tells Alexia Loundras leaving Blur was the best thing he ever did

Sitting at a table in his local Camden Town pizzeria, Graham Coxon shifts uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes dart around as though following a restless midge. He fidgets and rubs his doe eyes; runs his fingers through his scruffy brown hair, crosses his arms then uncrosses them. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin. Then, leaning across the table, he confesses: "I'm on a wave of nerves which borders on mania." Painfully self-conscious and shyer than a country mouse, Coxon spent his 12 years as Blur's guitarist shunning the limelight, cowering behind what he concedes was an almost torturous veil of "deep embarrassment". But despite Coxon's case history, today's anxiety is rather more circumstantial: "It's the coffee," he explains, shuddering. "I was in Milan yesterday and I really was not respecting the coffee there enough - I think it burnt my brains a bit."

Sitting at a table in his local Camden Town pizzeria, Graham Coxon shifts uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes dart around as though following a restless midge. He fidgets and rubs his doe eyes; runs his fingers through his scruffy brown hair, crosses his arms then uncrosses them. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin. Then, leaning across the table, he confesses: "I'm on a wave of nerves which borders on mania." Painfully self-conscious and shyer than a country mouse, Coxon spent his 12 years as Blur's guitarist shunning the limelight, cowering behind what he concedes was an almost torturous veil of "deep embarrassment". But despite Coxon's case history, today's anxiety is rather more circumstantial: "It's the coffee," he explains, shuddering. "I was in Milan yesterday and I really was not respecting the coffee there enough - I think it burnt my brains a bit."

It has been two years since Coxon's exit from the Britpop stalwarts, but aside from this afternoon's jittery caffeine hangover, the 35-year-old is settling well into life after Blur. He likes doing interviews on his own - prefers it, even - because, he says, there's no one to interrupt him: he speaks in childlike, shuffling sentences littered with thoughtful pauses. But most importantly, he enjoys dividing his time between looking after Pepper, his four-year-old daughter with his former girlfriend, Anna, and working on his music. Coxon is on the verge of releasing his new album, the excellent Happiness in Magazines. Although this is his fifth solo effort, it is the first record Coxon has written since the split with his former band. And it is also his best.

Spurred on by his album's working title, No More Mr Lo-Fi, Coxon's left behind the scratchy acoustic gems of his past. Gone is the coy self-production of his former albums. With Happiness in Magazines, Coxon has emerged from his creative shell. Now his music gleams boldly and brightly through edgy yet polished production (courtesy of the former Blur producer Stephen Street). From the haunting piano of "Ribbons and Leaves" to the frazzled riffs of pop-punk single, "Freakin' Out", Coxon's influences - from Ennio Morricone and Scott Walker to The Cars - glint through his inspired songs. His forthcoming single, "Bitter Sweet Bundle of Misery" is the (Coxon-penned) Blur hit "Coffee and TVs" wittier, prettier younger sister, while rush of emotion "All Over Me" marries world-weary acoustic guitars and heart-wrenching strings with affecting melancholy. Happiness in Magazines is an arresting, honest album flooded with bittersweet humour, for which Coxon uses what he calls "fantasy situations" to reveal ever more of himself . It's an album that sighs and soars; heavy with emotion yet light with relief. "I write songs as a reaction to things in my life, definitely," says Coxon. "And I think this album was a reaction to freedom."

Back in May 2002, the other members of Blur, Damon Albarn, Alex James and Dave Rowntree, summoned their manager, Chris Morrison, to tell their guitarist he was "no longer welcome in the studio" to work on 2003's Think Tank. "I found I was given a choice, that's how I saw it," says Coxon. "People are very careful not to sack people - and I wasn't sacked - but I don't know what saying 'Go away until further notice', means. Like if you say to your girlfriend, 'Don't come over, I don't want to see you, until further notice', should she just sit at home and watch telly or go to the pub and get pissed? Does it mean your relationship isn't exclusive any more? Does it mean she can basically just start seeing someone else?" He shrugs. "I took it as a door being opened: I thought, 'Do I leave?' And then I thought, 'Yeah, I do.'"

Newly liberated, Coxon knew it was decision time. After spending much of his twenties indulging his insecurities and continually putting himself down, Coxon thought he should start being more realistic. "I made a decision that it's stupid of me to be so apologetic about myself and that maybe I should start believing people when they said I was capable of good stuff. And besides, one day I might have regretted not giving it a proper go."

Although he admits to feeling slighted by his bandmates, Coxon hasn't really taken it personally. Professionally he and the band had been drifting apart at least since 1998 when Coxon's creative frustrations inspired him to write his first solo album, Sky Is Too High. And while he and Albarn had been best mates since they met at school in Colchester, their close friendship had been fizzling-out for years. "I'm not sure we were friends for the majority of Blur," says Coxon with a hint of regret. "We'd become a business partnership - and I think that's a sad fact for a lot of groups. Friendships can't really survive." Coxon sparks up a cigarette. "I don't feel bitchy or bitter," he continues, "but I do feel a bit cheeky about Blur sometimes."

Philosophical as he may seem, there is something about the snub that still smarts: Coxon was never told why his former bandmates wanted him out. However, there are a number of possible explanations. From his fixation with ageing to his alcohol addiction - his excuses for drinking varied from mere social lubricant to panacea for deep unhappiness - Coxon was a boiling cauldron of neuroses and self-destructive behaviour for much of Blur's career. But why does Coxon think he was branded persona non grata? "Well, I think Blur thought I'd had enough chances and weren't willing to give me any more," he says. "But perhaps they stopped giving me chances at the wrong time - and that's their problem, not mine. I'm very different to how I was three or four years ago."

Coxon's right: he is different now. "I'm not blindly angry about everything like I used to be," he says. "My unhappiness corresponded with so much other stuff - my alcohol addiction, my turning-30 crisis, my having-a-baby upheaval - and it led to quite a monumental bang," he continues. "It felt like I was driving a car very fast, trying to keep control. My grip on the steering wheel was such that I couldn't take my hands off it, and I realised that what I needed to do was find a solid wall to crash into. Just to get my hands off. And that's what happened."

Coxon crashed and admitted himself to The Priory in October 2001. It was his second visit in a year and it lasted a month. Coxon was treated for depression and learnt a valuable lesson: how to be at peace with himself. "I discovered I'm just like everybody else," he says. "I was taught to trust that sadness is a temporary feeling. And simply having faith in that has been a great help. Now, when I'm sad I don't panic and try to remove the sadness with drinking. You're feeding the control monster if you do that." Coxon's stint at The Priory proved to be a powerful catalyst for change. As was his departure from Blur, six months later.

"The decision to go out on my own musically was the biggest risk," explains Coxon. "I didn't have any songs. I didn't know what was going to happen, all I knew was that I had to get out of a situation that I thought was causing me harm." Coxon's flight from Blur gave him the impetus to confront his issues of low self-esteem and finally take himself seriously - something, judging by the understated nature of his first solo efforts, he previously felt he had no right to do. "I just felt ready," he says defiantly. "Ready to stand by what I do and experience those really good things about making music like playing in front of people, without feeling like I'm being dragged kicking and screaming."

With producer Street on hand as a foil to his demons, Coxon made a decision to fight his hyper-critical tendencies: "I had to learn to trust other people. I wanted to have Stephen drive the car, with me pointing the way instead of me driving and telling everybody else to shut up."

Free of his own emotional vice, Coxon "had fun" recording these songs. And between the bold vocals and shimmering guitar licks it clearly shows. But while Coxon seems to know what's good for him these days, he concedes that making his record "wasn't a laugh all the time". Despite its humour and incendiary pop hooks, Happiness in Magazines is a heartfelt emotional roller-coaster of an album indicating that although Coxon has pulled himself together, he is still a fragile soul. "I see my life as walking a tightrope with one of those long poles", he explains. "One weight's got self-reproach all over it and the other one has the demanding lunatic and I have to walk between the two. But balancing is a lot easier when you're not drinking yourself into a stupor all the time!

"I do feel like I like myself a lot more," he continues. "I don't feel any guilt, I'm not ashamed about anything and I don't feel any kind of resentment. And to be free of those things is to be really free." But is he happy? "Someone told me that the key to happiness is wanting what you have and that's really difficult because there's so much to aspire to. Just look at a magazine: there's the cool dress, the great car and the right length stubble and stuff like that. Sure, I'd love to get married and happiness is probably some pathetic roses and cottages kind of thing, but I don't know whether that's really a possibility."

Sensing himself drifting towards his old self-deprecating ways, Coxon perks up. "Releasing this album is all a dream come true in a lot of ways," he says. "I know it's cheesy but I feel..." he furrows his brow as he searches for the right word, "relief - my own risky decisions were actually the right ones."

The last few years for Coxon have been tough. But he's grappled with his fears and banished his insecurities to take control of his life. The result is not only an astounding new album but also a blossoming sense of self - a quiet confidence and smouldering self-belief - that runs deep into his core. His eyes gleam with the seeds of pride. "I am really chuffed. And in a way, I deserve to feel like this. But only because it's all been such hard work - not just making the music but everything in general. It's been hard but fulfilling work." Resting his head in his hands, Coxon has another little think. He grins bashfully. "And I guess those two things go together quite nicely."

'Happiness in Magazines' is out on 17 May on Transcopic/Parlophone; the single 'Bittersweet Bundle of Misery' on 3 May. Graham Coxon tours the UK from 19 May

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