Portrait of an artist in the making

Badly Drawn Boy is challenging pop's establishment. He's that hard, is Damon.

THERE WAS one gig that really caught the attention of the swarming hordes of A&R men at September's In The City convention in Manchester. The man behind it - the mild-mannered 29-year-old Mancunian Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy - had already signed a record deal for a substantial sum of money, and was acclimatising to acclaim as one of the brightest hopes of a recession-hit British music industry. And yet this home-town showcase was, its perpetrator ruefully admits, "probably the worst gig anyone in the audience had ever seen".

"The thing about doing something that can potentially fail at any moment," Gough observes philosophically, "is that sometimes it will do." How could a 90-minute cabaret of half-finished original songs and karaoke Smiths and Simon & Garfunkel cover versions possibly go wrong? "I knew it was going to happen - I just hadn't put any effort into preparing it, and usually for my show to be as shoddy as it is takes quite a bit of preparation."

Damon Gough didn't get where he is today by being over-prepared. On leaving school in the late Eighties, he started work in a recording studio. "I was trying to learn engineering but I could never really get my foot in the door. You either bundle in like a bull in a china shop and take everything over, or you end up on the sidelines making the brews." Inspired by visions of a lifetime of tea-making, Gough picked up a guitar and beavered away writing (but not singing) for various bands for seven years while earning a crust working in his parents' printing business.

Finally realising that if he wanted anything to happen to his songs he was going to have to sing them himself, he released two EPs, helpfully entitled 1 and 2, on his own Twisted Nerve label. The thrill of getting his first 12-in single back from the pressing-plant still looms large - "I remember looking into the grooves and thinking, `that's me in there'," Gough recalls euphorically. "Then I took them into the shop and they started to sell and I was thinking `Who would buy them? What do they look like?'" Who did buy them and what did they look like? "Spotty geeks and beautiful girls," he replies.

The two EPs swiftly sold out their initial 500-copy print runs, and Badly Drawn Boy became the subject of an unlikely bidding war. Gough's "works in progress", from frenetic home-made Sixties caper movie recordings to wistful acoustic laments, with the odd flash of Third Man-type bazouki and a Sister Sledge cover version thrown in for good measure - finally secured him the backing of The Verve's intimidating management stable and a high-profile deal with X-L, the same label as The Prodigy.

EP3, his first release for X-L, shows a commendable determination not to yield to commercial pressures. Gough insists that his music is "more about capturing the essence of a moment than trying to get the perfect intro, middle eight and outro for radio", and he is not kidding. EP3 contains six tracks (twice as many as the maximum number now qualifying for the singles chart). Of these, three are instrumental interludes: one sounds like a CD sticking; one is even called "Interlude"; the third, "Kerplunk by Candlelight", is a twinkly electronic paean to MB Games romanticism.

Of the three "proper" songs, one meanders jauntily like the theme to some millennial Ealing comedy, while the other two firmly establish Badly Drawn Boy's credentials as a major new force in British pop music. The lovely, lilting two-step of "I Need a Sign" will do nothing to deter those trying to hang an unhelpful "British Beck" tag around Gough's neck; and "Meet Me on the Horizon" is a gorgeous neo-folk rhapsody, with the line: "We go there just to be there" - as near a thing to a perfect statement of the Badly Drawn Boy aesthetic as the world is ready for.

Next year's first long-playing record has, Gough insists, "got to be a classic". He cites the debut albums by Air and The Smiths as inspirational examples of "records that you put on and you've got to listen to all the way through... Hopefully, everything is going to open up and spiral outwards - so long as I manage not to lose the plot and start writing anthems". It looks as if the middle ground between Elliott Smith and Aphex Twin is Badly Drawn Boy's for the taking.

`EP3' is released on Monday

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