Damien Rice: A 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 ménage-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 Hot Press. 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 Café, 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”.

Sinead Ward -


IMRO Interviews - Damien Rice

Justin Dowling Discovers the Story of O

Music quite often tends to write its own rules about how it gets around in making that journey from the inaugural seat of its creation to the hearts and minds of the discerning listenership. It can be likened to a spinning wheel of fortune dictating through its action the fine line between success and shortfall. Damien Rice has proven to be an exemplary case upon whom fortune has bestowed the wealth of her charms. The routinised music industry fabric which marked the endeavours of his previous band Juniper have provided many lessons for Damien and his venture into the 'solosphere'. Over the period of the last two years, he has allowed his music to speak for itself by way of his open and emotive live performances which have seen the sheer beauty of his songs amassing such a dedicated fanbase that the Kildare born singer-songwriter is greeted by swelled capacities wherever he performs his alluring craft. And all this before any recorded output ever got released!

The energy and passion which surrounded the music was built upon with the release in 2001 of the single 'The Blower's Daughter' followed by the debut album 'O' early this year. Of the 5,000 album copies initially printed up, few remained available a mere week after its release, a glowing testament to the profound calibre of musicianship and melodic distinction that makes up the album's content and which has gathered such devoted affection.

I meet Damien in a quiet hotel bar where the ensuing earnestness of our conversation engenders a cheery, warm ambiance completely at odds with the ferocity of the tempestuous elements of the weather which characterised the day in question. In getting to know a bit more about the man and his music, I intriguingly venture the point as to whether the two years that have gone into the making of 'O' have been at all stages along the way a labour of love of sorts?

'There were moments that were gorgeous' he ponders, 'and to be honest anything that ended up on the album, those moments were gorgeous but when I started the album I was using techniques I had learnt in the studio before which I thought should be done in order to make it sound professional but it just ended up sounding like everything I've done before'.

Was there a turning point, some moment of exaltation that in a sense guided and permeated the direction of the album to where you wanted it to go?

'Well I said to myself that if I was going to make a record that I'm happy with that it must move me' he stresses, 'and then one night I just came home after having been out with someone, wasn't pleased at all and I felt in the right way about writing a song that I could put a bit of feeling into and I just literally turned on the studio, sat in front of the mikes and just sang and when that happened I said OK!, this is the way the record wants to go and from then on in it was really easy and really, really enjoyable!'
In an additional instance he recalls; 'I remember one night we did a session in my house where I was living at the time and we all sat in a circle facing each other and we did 'Delicate', 'Volcano' and 'I Remember' just in that evening, just listened back to the songs and went that's it! and again that was just another magical night'.

This is the essence of what makes 'O' such an exceptionally special, unique and heartfelt piece of work. It is an album totally informed by impulse and devoid of mechanical conformity where capturing the sensation of the moment in effect will instinctively write the song.

'O' is an organic odyssey. 'O' is obsessively outstanding. 'O' is overpowering.
Even the packaging of the album is wonderful. Holding it within the palm of your hand, it immediately exudes the impression of holding a classic book where contained within are wealth's of wisdom waiting to be bestowed and which can be returned to again and again to relive its splendour.

How did such an idea for the cover come about?

'I remember one day sitting down looking at my life', he reflects while drawing on a cigarette, 'and saying to myself what is it that I am aiming to do? I just thought to myself that what I am aiming to do is to make plastic! It's not the same with writers who write books and there's a completely different energy to holding a book in your hand so if this was to be the only album I was ever to make I wanted to make something that made me go 'I love this, I love to hold it, look at it, listen to it' and that's why I wanted to make an old style hardback book with a material cover'.

They say to never judge a book by its cover but with this eye-catching album design and delightful content, Damien Rice has slowly begun to re-write some old proverbs.

Helping Damien in the crafting of the album were a number of musicians, Vyvienne Long on cello, Shane Fitzsimons on bass guitar, Tomo the drummer and perhaps the most outstanding is Lisa Hannigan who provides backing vocals on the album.

She exemplifies that the voice is a true instrument and adds that extra dynamic which is immobilising in its allure and compelling in its appreciation of the albums elegance. The fact that they met by what Damien describes as an 'accident' is remarkable and gives the impression that the album and all those it features were brought together by intentional designs of fate.

Damien also had occasion to work closely with the renowned film composer, David Arnold (Stargate, Independence Day, Tomorrow Never Dies scores, also co-wrote 'Play Dead' with Bjork a UK top ten hit in 1993) on the track 'Amie' and whose string arrangement on the work lifts the listener to levels of wonderment at the magnificence of the orchestration, surely a spellbinding collaboration?
'Oh yeah! I was actually there when the strings were going down and it was in this studio which was a big church and just sitting there with the string players, it was just an incredible experience!'

It has certainly more than once crossed my mind as to why the album is called 'O', is there any significance or deep cryptic meaning attached to such a title?
'Well no!' he gripes laughing to himself, 'I think one day I was on my bicycle and I just went oh! and the minute I said it, it was just right and I've made up all these reasons as to why it's called 'O', y'know all to do with relationships and going round in circles but to be honest there's no reason but looking back it fits so the only reason there is is that I just like the name!'
Mystery well and truly solved, 'O' is because . . . it is!!!

'O' was recorded and released without any major label support which in the end allowed Damien to shape and mould the album according to his designs and preferences.
It must be quite satisfying to have completed by yourself an album that in the end you openly declare complete affection for?

'To be honest, I haven't really thought of it from that point of view, what I am really proud of is that I actually finished the album because it got to the stage where I thought that it was never going to be finished. I suppose why it took so long is that I don't like perfection, I prefer imperfection and I was waiting for the perfect version which was slightly imperfect but yet was really emotional and I have that now and that's what makes me really proud'.

The dedicated fan base that has steadily grown over the last two years had waited a long time to take the charms of Damien's music home and as if in a collective frenzied buying spree, the first week's sales catapulted 'O' to number 7 in the Irish album charts something which he seems to take in his stride,
Regarding the success of the album, he amusingly declares;
'Y'know, I never really thought of the charts before because I thought it wouldn't chart but that's when the disease comes in, when it charts you immediately start thinking of the charts but I'm totally surprised but delighted none the less!'.

With the album now receiving such acclaim and success in Ireland, are there any plans afoot to bring the album to a more international audience?
'I want to maintain the attitude that I've had over the last two years in that I'm not making any plans' hesitating slightly he remarks;
'I need to live on that feeling of leaving everything and just going with it and it's through this that I get the inspiration to write and just be who I am. So at the moment, I'm just asking myself, 'right now today, am I happy, if not then I stop, if I am then great!' so I'm just going to follow the music and wherever there's an attraction I'll just go there!'

With such an exceptional debut album under his belt, here's hoping that the great wheel of fortune will maintain its cycle of benevolence and that all the forces that lie behind Damien Rice and his music continue to inspire the man in writing songs that continually bear his hallmark of exquisite distinction.

Justin Dowling