Damien Rice: Fading back into view
On the eve of the release of My Favourite Faded Fantasy, Reykjavik resident Rice talks to us
Damien Rice: “Once I got to that place and I started fixing the things inside, everything changed”
Damien Rice performing in Whelan’s, Dublin, last May. Photograph: Kieran Frost
Those days: Lisa Hannigan and Rice, circa 2004
“You’re doing something, you’re doing something, boom, you crash, burn, you fail. You beat yourself up, and then you find your way out of it.”
Damien Rice is talking about how everything just . . . stopped. He’s sitting in a room high up in a building called Idno in Reykjavik, an old restaurant-theatre- venue that looks out on to the water. When Rice talks about the “big crash and burn” that began an eight-year hiatus from releasing records, he speaks about the disintegration of relationships in his band. They had started from a place of innocence, he says, then touring was exciting, then everything got bigger, then money came in, then the whole thing fell apart.
At the time, Rice’s internal voice shouted that he should be happy because he was so lucky. But he was confused, and scared; he felt like he had just messed everything up. “I was just in this spin. What the hell just happened? How the hell did that just happen?”
It makes sense that Rice eventually found himself in Iceland, with its seemingly endless cast of musicians who balance eccentricities, expertise, nonchalance, and camaraderie. It was at Sundlaugin studio, built as a swimming pool in the 1930s, and bought by Sigur Rós in 1999, that Rice finished his first album in eight years, My Faded Favourite Fantasy. The title evokes Kanye West’s finest work, and in something of a curveball for an artist such as Rice, West’s collaborator Rick Rubin oversaw the LA end of the recording sessions.
As well as breaking his musical silence, Rice has resumed his interaction with the media. Perhaps he’s making up for lost time, pouring out the story of his journey and process for the best part of the past decade with tremendous honesty.
In Kex in Reykjavik, an old biscuit factory turned into a typically Icelandic venue (a hostel, a bar, a cafe, everyone looking like they’ve just hiked Mount Cool), Rice’s new album is playing. On the opening track, a voice arrives unexpectedly and unrecognisably. It takes a while before you realise that it’s his.
Rice had been in Zurich the previous week with his manager when she chastised him for casually telling someone he had a record coming out: “Shut the fuck up.” “It doesn’t matter," Rice responded. "No one believes me anyway.”
The album is lush and complex, with sweeping strings and a sense of perfectionism about it. Later that evening, Rice pads out on to the floor of Sundlaugin in front of gathered friends, musicians and interested parties. There is a glass of red wine at his feet.
He appears craggier now, eight years of soul-searching, exploration and learning under his skin. He plays some songs, old and new, and ends with Trusty and True, which concludes (in a scene straight out of Love Actually), with the bearded observers on the balcony singing along. It’s a tingling and emphatic display of musical conviction.
Alex Somers, a Baltimore artist and musician, lives in Reykjavik with his long-term partner, Jónsi of Sigur Rós. He worked on Rice’s new album and says that the thing he likes about Rice is that he’s so carefree. He doesn’t even know where Rice lives. Actually, Somers wonders, does he live anywhere?
Markéta Irglová, another Iceland resident, spent a while cooking for the bunch of people who were working on the album, including her partner, Sturla Mio Thorisson. She ended up contributing some piano parts and a singing part.
“He knows what he likes and what he wants,” says Irglová. “That’s very helpful. He’s very driven and inspired. What I noticed is that he wasn’t settling for anything. He would keep going until he felt it was there, even if it meant he had to scrap the whole session, scrap months of recording, hours that have gone into it.
“He would do that if he felt it would benefit the song and it would be better at the end of it. That can either be hard or great, depending on your perspective. I think it’s great. He ended up with a masterpiece.”
The story of O
O, Rice’s debut, sold two million copies, and was followed by 9, a record that he has since seemed ambivalent about, and a tour that spelled the end of his musical and romantic relationship with Lisa Hannigan, a woman whose beautiful voice haunts both albums, and whose ending of the partnership attracted much interest – and gossip.
Rice’s music was arguably defined by that male/female duality, embedded in his songwriting. It’s rare that one person adds to the global songbook, and he did it twice, with Cannonball and The Blower’s Daughter. And he was a star. A massive one. This tiny little wiry lad who attracted the cynicism of Irish music fans thanks to his “notions”.
Rice is sincere and earnest, the type of person you could chat to about life for hours. He is also one of the few male artists who sings honestly and sometimes uncomfortably about male sexuality. Sex, death, and finding one’s purpose are central to his thinking and talking. His initial discomfort with sexuality came from growing up in an oppressed environment where he used to put money into a Trócaire box every time he masturbated.
“I remember at the end of the year getting this letter from Trócaire saying ‘thank you so much for your kind donations this year.’ That was the mentality in me, that if you masturbated, it’s a sin. It’s wrong.”
Once he started to give himself permission not to behave in the way he was told to growing up, he began to explore that sense of repression.
“I don’t want to die with that stuff repressed in me. I remember my grandfather passing away, and it took him being on his deathbed for him and my uncle to say ‘sorry’ or say ‘hey, we’re okay’. And then,” he clicks his fingers, “he’s gone. I don’t want to wait until I’m lying on my deathbed to uncover these things that I’ve repressed. Whether it’s emotions, whether it’s sexuality, whether it’s my fear of being honest, whether it’s my fear of just getting to know myself. My fear of exposing myself to other people as well, and going, ‘hey, you know what? Sometimes I’m a dickhead’.
“I’m putting my hands up now, and I know I can think of plenty of times in my life where I’ve been a dickhead. I can also think of plenty of times in my life when I’ve been really kind.
“I’ve noticed it’s the same with everybody I come across. We’ve all got these abilities to be all these different extremes, you know? Friendly, unfriendly, angry, joyful, whatever. We all float through this stuff. I’ve no desire to repress these things any more. I’m far more interested in actually having really open conversations to discover who we are before we’re gone.”
Dot dot dot ... dead
An epiphany came when he was talking to someone about death. “They drew a little picture of a bed, a little stick drawing bed, and they drew a little stick person on the bed. And then they went dot dot dot dot and drew a little stick person standing up. And they said ‘this is you here, and dot dot dot, over here that’s you dead on your deathbed. You’ve no idea when that is. It could be tomorrow, any time. So what do you want in between now and then?’”
Part of that epiphany contributed to him cleaning up the mess post 9. Fond of metaphors, he equates it to a house party that is loads of fun until people get a bit drunk, start a fight, and then you wake up with your gaff trashed, and have to go about cleaning every glass individually.
“It took years. It took years just to get okay with acknowledging the fact that I had done stupid things. And to be able to just sit there and go: ‘fuck. Okay. Sorry.’ It took a while to be able to be comfortable with that, and to be able to sit with people and just go – and authentically, not just be fakely going ‘oh, sorry!’ but to really go, ‘I’m. Sorry.’ Once I got to that place and I started fixing the things inside, everything changed, and the songs started flowing.”
Now, there is a serenity to Rice. His demeanour is calm, open, curious. He says he has “tried to scrub off the scales that I had grown on my skin for protection. Scrape all of these things off, just to find out who the creature is underneath all of that.”
That creature has made a record with the depths that are typical of a man on a journey of self-exploration and a search for artistic authenticity. The rootless tree has sprung anew.