Most musicians require a fair amount of gentle coaxing before an interviewer can dive into the juicy personal stuff. In Damon Gough’s case, all it takes is “hello” and he’s off, voluntarily spilling his innermost thoughts and anxieties.
“I just want to be happy, for a start. I don’t want to conquer the world anymore with music.”
“I’m pretty used to Zoom. I do my therapy this way,” he says, settling into a seat in front of a computer in his South Manchester home. For the next seven minutes, the singer-songwriter better known as Badly Drawn Boy doesn’t pause for breath as he discusses love, heartbreak, overcoming depression, finding happiness, the merits of speaking to therapists (and journalists) via video conferencing, Brexit, the EU referendum, collective amnesia and the election of Boris Johnson.
“We’re straight into it here, aren’t we?” he says upon realising a question has yet to be asked. “Is that all right with you?”
The reason for our chat is the release of Banana Skin Shoes, Gough’s brilliant new album, which marks his return after almost a decade away. During that time, there’s been plenty of live shows, including a well-received tour to mark the 15th anniversary of his celebrated debut album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, but no new music since 2012’s Being Flynn, the soundtrack to a largely unseen Robert De Niro film.
The reasons behind Gough’s prolonged absence are many and varied, but a key one is his split from the mother of his two grown up children, Clare, who inspired most of Bewilderbeast. After their relationship ended in 2011, Gough spent several years struggling to get his life back on track. He credits the help of his therapist, “giving up the booze” and meeting his new partner, Leanne, with giving him the desire to once again start writing and recording new songs.
“It’s a cliché but true that stuff you learn most in life comes out of hard times,” he reflects from his home studio, decorated with pictures of The Beatles, stage props, photos and an array of musical instruments.
“When things are coasting along and going well you don’t tend to learn as much. As much as the last several years have been tough, I feel like I’ve got a lot more out of them. I know what I want and don’t want from life. I just want to be happy, for a start. I don’t want to conquer the world anymore with music. I just want to be appreciated on a level that’s appropriate and fulfilling.”
Rewind back 20 years and Gough wasn’t just coasting along – he was flying high as one of Britain’s brightest new music stars. The roots of his career date back to a chance encounter with DJ Andy Votel in a Manchester bar. Together, they started a record label, which they named Twisted Nerve, and released the first in a succession of critically acclaimed Badly Drawn Boy EPs in 1997.
“We got the first EP made in America and shipped over. Taking the 7in vinyl out of the box for the first time was a moment I’ll never forget,” the Bolton-raised singer excitedly recalls.
The Hour of Bewilderbeast, a shimmering blend of tender folk songs, romantic piano ballads and luminescent lo-fi pop, followed in the summer of 2000 and beat Coldplay, Leftfield and Doves to that year’s Mercury Prize, elevating Gough and his trademark woolly hat to national fame. His next album, a soundtrack to the hit Hugh Grant romantic comedy About A Boy, brought further commercial success. Ditto 2002’s Have You Fed The Fish? Sadly, his golden period was not to last and despite occasional flashes of brilliance subsequent records were met with a more lukewarm reception. The fact that Being Flynn failed to get a theatrical release in the UK symbolises Gough’s fading fortunes around the time he stepped back from making music. Next thing he knew, five years had passed and he was still no closer to starting a new LP.
“The pressure was building to do something. I started to think people are going to expect an amazing record because I’d been away so long that I must be making some masterpiece.” He worried about how he was ever going to fulfil people’s expectations. “The past three years of making this record have felt close to how it did making the debut. I genuinely felt like I had something to prove again.”
Banana Skin Shoes funnels that pent-up ambition into 14 songs that recapture the magical charm and warmth of his best work. It’s also the most colourful and upbeat album he’s made, marrying vaulting pop melodies with shuffling lo-fi beats, pastoral strings and triumphant horns, while making respectful nods to everyone from Beck to Chicago to his lifelong hero Bruce Springsteen. Dig beneath the Technicolor surface, however, and glimpses of Gough’s darker, melancholy side emerge.
“The subjects I’m dealing with are often quite depressing,” he admits, pointing to I’m Not Sure What It Is as a deceptively upbeat song inspired by his own mental health struggles. “I realised I had depression going back years, but I hadn’t acknowledged it or labelled it. It wasn’t denial. I just didn’t know.”
Gough, who turned 50 in October and became a father for the third time in 2017, says his joke working title for the album was A Pocket Guide To A Midlife Crisis and hopes that listeners will take comfort from his heart-on-sleeve outpourings. “I wanted [the songs] to not feel like they’re morbid or defeatist, but be like: ‘This is all right. I can deal with this.’ There’s so many people struggling in the last several years. I didn’t want to be another casualty. I want to laugh at these problems, if I can, and I’m getting to a place where I can.”
The title Banana Skin Shoes is a playful admission of both his personal failures and the failures of wider society in recent years, he explains, describing lead single Is This A Dream? as a mildly political “comical take on the craziness of the world”.
“The songs are meant to send positive messages to help people through these tricky times we’re living in,” he says, nervously fiddling with the long grey locks of hair that peek out from beneath his ever-present headgear (yes, he wears a woolly hat in interviews too. He even wore it on his wedding day).
Gough never sits down and sets out to write a song about a given subject. “I have to allow it to come through my system and somehow find its way out… it comes through the music.” He recalls hearing an interview with Don McLean where the American Pie singer described being a songwriter as a constant nightmare, plagued by endless nagging ideas.
“That’s the burden you learn to live with,” agrees Gough. “I love writing songs. The best part of my job is the creation of a new idea. The rest of it – the finishing of ideas, trying to produce songs to be the best they can be, promoting, even the touring sometimes – is tough. But any time I sit at the piano or pick up my guitar, that little spark is the most enjoyable bit. It doesn’t last very long, but that’s what keeps you going.”
As our conversation nears its close, talk returns to coronavirus and the impact lockdown is having on daily life. “I fear for people’s livelihoods and their mental health,” says Gough, who admits to feeling torn about promoting an album at a time when people are suffering. “My therapist has, again, helped me with these mental tussles. I just want to do what’s right and if people want to hear the music, I want them to be able to hear it. As long as your intentions are good, then nobody can pull you up about what you’re doing.”
Looking ahead, he’s optimistic that something positive can ultimately come out of the pandemic.
“There is a new world around the corner. I’m hopeful that the world has got some goodness left in it that we can squeeze out. The opportunity is there for a lot of us that have been frustrated that our efforts haven’t really amounted to much to make proper changes. Grasp the opportunity that this quiet time is giving us, properly rise up and do something, and not keep listening to the crap that politicians come out with.”
Whatever happens next, Gough takes comfort from the fact that no problem or challenge, regardless of how insurmountable they appear at the time, is too large to overcome. Reflecting on how his experiences over the past 10 years, good as well as bad, have changed him, he says that he’s become a better person as a result.
“I feel mentally stronger than ever and my outlook is brighter is than ever. Even before coronavirus, I had reached a point in life where I understand that happiness is paramount. For all the things I’ve been through – the knockbacks, the break-up with Clare, giving up the booze, other things along the way – you learn from them. You’re lucky in life if you’ve not experienced crap to deal with. Now I just want to achieve happiness, and I’m pretty close to it.”
Banana Skin Shoes is out now
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