This article was first published on CLUAS in Nov 2001
An early career profile and interview...
If there's one motto in life I tend to stick by, it's that you should feed your obsessions, and not fight them, and which this time caused me to take a couple of days off from college and head down to Sligo where singer-songwriter Damien Rice and his accompanying vocalist, Lisa Hannigan were playing a full gig in the small and intimate venue of McGarrigles. I went by early during sound check to get a few words with this smiley guitar man, where we had a very comfortable and relaxed m?age-a deux and delved into his creative process, his personal life and his long-awaited album 'O'.
In a world of brash, inane and vacuous music, his is a triumph of understatement and given this and the recent re-emergence of the singer-songwriter in the live arena, it is not surprising that Rice is gradually building up a solid fanbase that should see him achieving bigger success, sooner rather than later. When I mention this to Damien he appears to be relatively unfazed by his growing success. "I wouldn't say our fanbase is huge though it's certainly growing. When I came back from Italy about two years ago I just started doing singer/songwriter stuff around Dublin and then I got a couple of supports. In the past year, in particular, the whole thing has just seemed to lift off. I went to Galway and I did a bit of support there, and that started the word in Galway. That starts working on it's own, and you go away from Galway and it's still working there, and you come back and it's got bigger."
And how far does he expect this success to go, I wondered. "I used to have expectations years ago, but now I've stopped because I found that expectations just bring disappointment and now I just want to be happy and enjoy every moment of it. People ask me do I want to be successful. For me success is, as a friend of mine said to me, getting up in the morning and going 'Yes! Another day'. You know, if you can do that every morning then you've really made it. I had this dream years ago of playing the Olympia in Dublin, it was always my dream in childhood and if I did that I used to think that would mean I was successful and then I could be happy. And we did that in the band I used to be in [Damien was lead singer with Juniper before they split] and I came off stage and I was like 'ha?' - I actually missed the gig cause I was so focussed on the end. I missed the experience and it was a real let down. So now I'm really happy to just keep playing."
I suggest to Damien that being a singer or musician must be like choosing a wildcard for life that that in one sense it must be impossible to know what to expect or what's coming next. Is there a downside this 'not knowing'?
"I think there can be a downside to anything you choose in life, depending on where you are within yourself, whether you're happy and that's what I've learned over the last while. This can be really hard, you know some things can go really right and some things can go really wrong and it's when the things that go wrong, it's how you deal with those".
It's certainly through his music that he expresses any underlying tensions and it is at this point that I ask him about the female figure that seems to be a recurring subject in a lot of his songs and a cause for some of his malaise.
"I can't say that it's all about the one person but there has been a strong figure behind a lot of the stuff. Not all the songs would be directly about her though?but yea, there's definitely been a person in some of my songs". Based around your relationship with her? "Or lack of, to be more accurate! It's just somebody I was obsessed with for years".
Perhaps it is this femme fatale that gave him the inspiration for his newly released single 'The Blowers Daughter' which featured as single of the week on 2FM with Ruth Scott and also single of the fortnight with Hotpress. For the benefit of those who don't yet own it, the single also features the B-side tracks, "The professor & la femme danse" and "Moody Mooday". The former was recorded live at a secret gig in Cornucopia Caf? Wicklow St. Dublin, and is one of the standout tracks in live performances. It is a luscious and sensual ballad where Damien sings one short verse in hushed delivery in French and which is derivative of the inspiration he gleaned when travelling and busking the streets and pavements of Europe, following his split from Juniper.
Where most albums tend to sound like they have been recorded in the same place, Damien's debut album 'O' promises to be a lot more dynamic. A short time after returning home from Europe he recorded a demo, which he sent to well-renowned film composer David Arnold, having been impressed with the lyrics in the Bjork hit 'Play Dead'.
"I heard the Bjork song Arnold wrote and I loved that song. I never cliqued at the time that he had written the song, and then it was years later when I was getting the record deal with the band that my grandmother gave me a piece of paper with an address code, saying 'you know you've got a relation in England who's doing he same thing as you'. So I rang him up and got some advice off this person I didn't know at the time, just introduced myself, said I was his second cousin and he was like 'how you doin?'. And we got chatting and I sent him some music and he really liked what I did, and then a few years later when I left the band, he took an interest in what I was doing, and he basically said 'what do you want to do?' and I told him I wanted to record an album at home and not at a studio. I wanted to get a mobile studio, and he gave me the money to do this".
This gave Damien the scope he needed to achieve the level of spontaneity on his album that he sought and allowed him to record the selection of songs that he had been perfecting while travelling abroad. This, and the hand-picked stable of artists he chose to work with has assured what promises to be a phenomenal album where he worked with esteemed pianist Jean Meunier in Paris, NY drummer Tomo, cellist Vyvienne Long and the compelling vocalist Lisa Hannigan.
It's hard to say what lies at the nub of his song-writing genius- a genius of the simplest kind, one which is arresting in its sententious simplicity and sheer lyrical openness with narratives of loves lost, discovered and remembered. I ask him about his creative process.
"I used to have a feeling that I had to spend a long time at the song, work at it til it got better, like building a house or something, you've got to spend loads of time doing it and putting in the foundations, but recently I discovered that the better songs I have written are the ones that come really fast, where I stop trying to be a songwriter, stop trying to be anything, and just live, experience and be free. When it comes, it calls and when I know there's a song coming out, there's a huge urge in me to just grab a guitar and write and a whole song could come out in 15 minutes.
This is characteristic of the spontaneity he sought to achieve with all his songs the soon to be released album 'O'. Bringing me to my last question. How did he come up with the title 'O'?
"There's this lyric in 'Amie'- 'Amie come sit on my wall, read me the story of O'. We had thrown out loads of ideas for titles but none of them were like 'yea we really want this'. But when 'O' came we said 'yea, that's it'. I guess for me personally when I look at it, the reason why it fits for me is cause like with relationships they go round and round in circles and you never learn from mistakes and it's always the same thing over and over. So many of the songs are like that as well, about the same mistakes- that whole thing we do in life - just going around in circles. And CDs go round and round as well. I mean, fuck it! 'O' just seemed to capture what the album was".