It's a significant year for Chris Difford. Later this year he rejoins his former band Squeeze for a major tour (they reunited for a handful of shows in 2007), and will rejoin co-founder Glenn Tilbrook to start writing their first album since they split in 1999, while he is currently releasing his fourth solo album. Not only is it a time when his musical past and present merge; it's also his 18th year sober.
"Eighteen is a big number at the moment in my life for some reason", Difford reflects, over mint tea, at the plush private members' club in London where we meet. "It's really important for me to focus in on what happened in those years. It's kind of like going back to the garden and turning over the soil, seeing what's there and turning out the weeds, and I'm really excited about that. I'm lucky to be where I am and very grateful", he says. It echoes a sentiment expressed on his new album, Cashmere if You Can: "I'm still living my improbable dream".
"I think my dream when I was 14 hasn't really changed", Difford says. "My dream was to be in a rock'n'roll band and to be famous. I read an interview with Pete Townshend in the Melody Maker when I was 14 and he said, 'if you want women, to make money, first class travel, private jets, drugs, drink, be in a rock'n'roll band,' and thought, 'I'll have all of those!' It's an improbable dream, really. And some of it's happened and Pete and I have survived."
The half-laugh that follows hints at the fact that none of this was without some sacrifice along the way. This, Difford explains, is the third in his trilogy of autobiographical albums, and opens with the typically frank "1975", referring to that heady year after Squeeze was born.
Difford explains: "The 1975 period of my life was probably the most exciting year of youth because you don't know what's coming, how long life's going to be, and I jumped in with both feet. I started smoking dope, dropped out, listened to Pink Floyd and just really enjoyed myself, and I'm really glad that I did because of the direction I've taken." That direction saw him create 13 albums with Squeeze and pen the lyrics to the band's hit singles such as "Up the Junction" and "Cool For Cats". He achieved the life of a rock star, married by the age of 24, had children – and succumbed to alcoholism. Much was washed away through his drinking and frivolous spending.
Today, at 54, Difford rents his home in Brighton and his car. He lists his luxuries that remain, including his club membership, with the air of genuine contentment. "I have a beautiful house I rent in Brighton, some nice watches, too many shoes, I lease an Audi..." Still, it's hard to fully buy into his attitude towards his past. Does he have regrets?
"No, none at all", he says. "I have more recent regrets, but not the past. My wife and I at the time, I don't think we knew what we were doing. We were young and ridiculous. Children were great, obviously. The fortune, well, it was an addiction, really. I went through that and it went. If it's meant to be it will come again... When I think about Squeeze going on the road again I think about the improbable dream – what will those things mean anymore? I think success to me now is much more a spiritual awareness than it was in those days."
That Difford is enthusiastic about modern technology and gadgets is reflected in the digital format of his album release. Along with his manager, he has created the Saturday Morning Music Club. Fans are able to subscribe to the club and download his album track-by-track on a Saturday. After that time, they will receive a physical CD version.
"The delivery of music is so instant these days that my motto is to slow the internet down so that people can get music and enjoy it. I was a member of the Beatles fan club and I really looked forward to getting the floppy disc that they used to send out. And Squeeze used to have a fan club, too. Jools's mother used to run it for us. With the internet there's no thought for fan clubs any more."
As for reuniting with Squeeze, he is most concerned about their American tour, because he will have to overcome his greatest phobia, flying. "It was horrendous", he says. "I couldn't go on tour. When I was seven or eight years old I wanted to be a fighter pilot and then the first time I got into a plane my mum cried her eyes out so, although I didn't know at the time, she was sending me messages like 'this isn't a nice place to be' and I think it began there. I'm still trying to work it out." To help overcome the fear, he wrote the song "One Day" about it.
What he is most looking forward to is the camaraderie, and playing the older songs. "When I tour on my own I do very different versions, and my voice is lower than Glenn [Tilbrook]'s for a start. I'm just very respectful to the songs. They're like old cars that you pull out of the garage on a Sunday and wash and then you put back in the garage."
I ask him how he feels when performing them today. "Last week I played on my own at a festival and I was in a really emotional place. I started listening to my own lyrics and it was very moving. For the first time in a long time I really connected with my own work, and yet that's something that Glenn has to do all the time because he sings them. When you're at the end of a relationship and you sing a song like 'Is That Love?' and 'Black Coffee in Bed', you think, 'God, so that's what it meant'."
Difford is referring to his recent break up with his partner, for whom he moved to Brighton a few years ago. "It's one of the hardest things in life to get over – relationships. [Drugs and alcohol are] a walk in the park compared to relationships," he says. His way of coping is much the same as when overcoming alcoholism. "Abstinence. That's the only way. If you're obsessing about something or you want to be with somebody you have to learn abstinence, and that's a very difficult manoeuvre to make, so songwriting is a fantastic forum for expressing how you feel. So recently I've been writing a lot about that." Tellingly, his next album will be called The Loneliest Boy.
Though he has the ability to write freely wherever he may be, it is his self-designed desk, made from English oak by a carpenter in an old shed in Kent, that is his most inspiring spot. As well as his own solo music, and a musical in progress, Difford keeps himself busy with an array of musical jobs: teaching songwriting to 18- to 24-year-olds at a music school in Brighton, writing with X Factor contestant Olly, and has written recently with Elton John, Bryan Ferry, and Jools Holland. Soon he will add Squeeze to his many jobs, when he starts the new album with Tilbrook. It will be a testing time; the pair had a fractious relationship before the 1999 split, and had long been out of contact, let alone considering writing songs in the same room.
"Our friendship goes back 37 years, and I believe that the best is yet to come. We have a venue where we're going to write in Kent because the girl who brought Glenn and I together – Maxine – is buried there. We were going to live together in Italy for two weeks but I said, 'hold on a minute, this is crazy, we'll be up in a mountain together'. I think, being in Kent, we can travel to the house and go home. And if it ends up being really great, which I'm sure it will, then we'll just move in with each other and be gay old friends. It's going to be an important time."
'Cashmere If You Can' is available exclusively through Saturday Morning Music Club from Saturday 19 June (smmcmedia.com). Squeeze tour from mid-November (squeezeofficial.com)