Badly Drawn Boy
It was a beginning of something most musicians can only dream of: A decade ago, Damon Gough — known to most as Badly Drawn Boy — was catapulted from his humble beginnings writing introspective acoustic songs in his Bolton-based bedroom to stardom when he won the Mercury Prize for his debut album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Then, two years later, his songs were the soundtrack to the hit Hugh Grant film About A Boy.
A few years later, in a bid to retrieve his initial heights, Gough left behind his DIY beginnings on the Twisted Nerve record label he founded with Andy Votel to sign to a major. When the result, Born in the UK, actually fared worse commercially than his previous albums, Gough found himself back on his own. His latest, It’s What I’m Thinking, finds Gough working again with Votel, and returning to what he does best.
eMusic’s Elisa Bray talked to Gough about returning to humble beginnings.
You wrote the soundtrack to Caroline Aherne’s The Fattest Man in Britain last year, but it’s been four years since you released your last studio album Born in the UK. Why the gap?
I could probably talk to you for three hours about the reasons. The fact that Born in the UK wasn’t commercially successful depressed me a bit, because it was my first album with EMI and, probably wrongly, I was expecting a shift in my success as an artist. And I just think there’s a misconception — because my career started with a big bang with winning the Mercury Prize and then the About A Boy soundtrack, after that people seemed to think I’d disappeared, but the records I’ve made have been consistently good, I think. So I just went into a state of mind of not wanting to do it anymore. Also, my house was up-ended because I was having my kitchen done and I write in the kitchen. So for about a year I couldn’t write because I had nowhere to do it.
So many musicians have a dedicated writing spot. What is it about the kitchen that made it an inspirational place?
My kitchen’s at the back of the house. To embrace my creative thoughts, I need to be near to the outside — it’s something psychological about being attached to the outside world when I’m writing. The kitchen table was where I’d always sit and work, but after we had a lot of work done on it, it’s changed it completely. It’s really modern now. I knew one of the writers from The Simpsons and he had a coffee shop where he used to go and write which was demolished and he couldn’t write anymore because that was his space. So he had a replica of the coffee shop made in his back garden so that he could write again. I can relate to that.
It sounds as though starting your career on such a high winning the Mercury Prize is more of a poisoned chalice.
I wouldn’t want to change the past. I’ve got to be grateful, but I think what it has done is create this illusion of my career going downhill since, which I don’t think is the case. My career now is perhaps where it should be. I’m not a Robbie Williams, or a pop star who’s going to be in everyone’s living room everyday on TV. Winning the Mercury at the beginning of your career puts you in that sort of position — a distorted amount of success. I’m still here still doing stuff and doing all right, really.
The good thing about making records is they’re still there, even if it takes people 10 years to find it. That’s more appealing to me than being in the zeitgeist. I read this quote the other day that a great artist is always ahead of or behind the times, and I kind of agree with that. When I won the Mercury Prize, I’ve got a theory that perhaps that was my worst piece of work because it connected so well.
Are you a harsh self-critic?
I probably need therapy about the whole thing, because I’m never happy with what I do. I made an album with Stephen Street that I didn’t release because I didn’t like it. There are probably 2,000 or 3,000 songs on tape from the last 20 years that I’ve not even released — it drives me mad because I really want to finish all of them and get them out into the world and then I want to write new ones. They all pour out of me and it’s too many to deal with. After 13 or 14 years of releasing music I’ve not found a system that works for me.
So what happened to all those songs?
They’re on cassette tapes in a big old bag. I should really have transferred them all digitally, chronologically ordered and stuff, but they’re still just stuck on tapes. It sounds disorganized, but although I’m scruffy to look at I’m actually meticulously tidy.
Are any of those unreleased songs on It’s What I’m Thinking?
“This Electric” is 20 years old — it’s the oldest song that I’ve written but had never recorded. “This Electric” and “This Beautiful Idea” are danceable, which is not what I’m known for, but is something I’ve always done. Everyone says those two songs should be at the start because they’re the most accessible, but I like them at the end because it’s almost like it’s a sense of what’s to come next.
So which song are you proudest of?
“I Saw You Walk Away” is my favorite because it took a long time. There are a couple of songs that took seconds to write, but “I Saw You Walk Away” was a different beast. I was trying to write a song for Doves for their last album; they had this idea, but they had no structure for it and no words so they sent it to me and said could I help them finish it. I sent them my ideas, but none of them could sing it in the way I did so it didn’t work and I ended up with about 20 different melodies and I restructured them into “I Saw You Walk Away.”
What are the benefits to being back on your own label, and working again with Andy Votel?
It’s liberating to be back where you were at the beginning. I can do exactly what I want, and not worrying about pleasing anyone else frees up your mind to be creative and try different things. The other day I was in my manager’s office signing this box set of the album and it took hours, but it’s like a cottage industry thing. I’ve started wearing T-shirts with myself on to promote myself and my label. Andy means a lot to me in terms of when we met and started Twisted Nerve. He’s a good friend anyway, but symbolically one of the first people to show faith in my ability.
Are there any other musicians you’d like to work with?
I’d love to do something with Beck. In the early ’90s he changed the way the music industry operated, really. I’ve met him a couple of times and I’ve told him and he was really flattered and grateful. He opened up the door in 1994 when he released his first album and John Peel was playing him, saying “I think this is the same Beck” because he had two or three albums out that all sounded different and he had this deal with Geffen that he could release different albums on different record labels as long as it was 20 or 30 days prior to or after a Geffen release. No one had ever done that in the history of recordings.
I was 24, in my bedroom, writing songs and not knowing what to do with them, and he made me think I could do this so I started my own label because if it. So I owe a lot to him. He’s the ultimate person I’d want to work with. I think it might happen one day.