Badly Drawn Boy: Smoke Before Fire | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Badly Drawn Boy

Smoke Before Fire

Feb 03, 2011 Web Exclusive
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You can always hear Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, smoking cigaretteseven if you can't see him. Speaking from his home in Manchester, England, the crackle of the 41-year-old British musician's omnipresent cigarette punctuates his sentences as he blows smoke into the phone. Gough has more than a few identifying characteristics: the wooly cap, the layers and layers of clothing no matter what the weather, the facial hair, the outspokenness. Often, he'll start an explanation by saying, "A)..." before going off on a tangential, stream-of-consciousness ramble and forgetting to add the "B)." These quirks were part of Gough's personality long before he won the most coveted music award in the U.K., the Mercury Music Prize, for his 2000 debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast.

Now on his seventh album (not counting all his soundtrack work), It's What I'm Thinking Pt. 1, the once cocky braggart has become increasingly more humble and accepting of the fact that he is human and, as such, might have some flaws. "My whole life, I've been completely wrong about almost everything from the beginning," says Gough. "You learn about yourself from the way other people see you. Being in the public eye exaggerates all of that. You see yourself a lot more than you normally would."

He continues, "Even seeing myself in my video for 'Too Many Miracles,' I know I'm a tree, so it's not going to be flattering, but I see my expressions and I think, I do that weird thing with my mouth all the time. Whilst it's difficult and there are things I don't like about being known by other people, the way others perceive you teaches you how you perceive yourself. It's good on a lot of levels, and it does make you question everything."

It may not seem obvious on the familiarly Badly Drawn It's What I'm Thinking, but this self-realization played a large part in the album's creation. Instead of narrowing down countless songs to a core tracklist, Gough put the first 10 that had lyrics on this album, hence the Pt. 1. The other songs are expected to appear on ensuing parts. Then again, he may scrap them all and start from scratch.

At this point in his career, Gough has come somewhat full circle. Self-releasing It's What I'm Thinking has given him a freedom and renewed excitement that harkens back to the early days when he had his EPs on consignment at the neighborhood 12" store. "When my first EP, which I put out myself, sold 10 copies in the local shop, I went in to ask them, 'Who were the people that bought them? What did they look like?'" says Gough. "I couldn't believe 10 people had bought this single I made. I was going to thank them. I'll never forget that. I remember exactly how I felt. I'm back to that mentality."

A byproduct of experience, growth, and musical confidence, It's What I'm Thinking is charmingly simple. Gough has given up his previously unrelenting wrestle with the music and the playing of every instrument. Delegating some of the responsibility to producer Steven Hilson, with whom Gough recorded the soundtrack to The Fattest Man in Britain, he also agreed to use a few understanding session musicians on It's What I'm Thinking, for a "less is more" approach. 

"As long as people are sensitive to the writing, it works," says Gough. "I'm not a technical player. I'm a feel player. I play ham-fisted like Neil Young. I'm not a technically gifted singer. I play and sing from the heart. All those things have to sound right for it to sound like a record by me. You can hear the heart and soul in the music when it's somebody who isn't that gifted but they're trying. Joe Strummer used to talk about records where you can hear the sound of the person struggling with the instrument. It's that kind of thing."

It's What I'm Thinking comprises a mixture of old and new. The expansive "The Electric" was originally written in 1994, while the whimsically pretty "The Order of Things" and the bouncy, upbeat "I Saw You Walk Away" (on which you can hear his ever present lighting of a cigarette at the close) are brand new. The latter, which took two years from inception to completion, is Gough's personal favorite. Others, such as the uncomplicated "A Pure Accident" and the chiming, lighthearted "You Lied," were written on Gough's iPhone. On all of It's What I'm Thinking, Gough's voice sounds clearer, more intimate, and infinitely more revealing than it ever has, with lyrics that that turn his insides out.

"I've been trying to make sense of the world for as long as I can remember, especially during my recording career," says Gough. "The first album being called Bewilderbeast is a reference to my not knowing anything, not understanding everything. It underlined a naivety. I developed my talent a bit furthernot technically, but how to craft a song. This album has a slight return to the naivety."

The older Gough becomes, the more tolerant he is of his limitations. He looks back on himself around the time of Bewilderbeast with razor sharp hindsight. "I stupidly had a bit of the Gallaghers in me. Because I was from Manchester, I felt that was how you had to do things," he reflects. "One thing I admire about Liam and Noel Gallagher is even though Oasis are split for the time being, if you've got them in a candid moment, you might see some humility, but whenever you see an interview with either one of them, they're never going to talk like I am now. They're always going to say, 'Yeah, I'm the best.' In some ways, that can never be true, and I don't think even they believe it. But it's not a bad idea to keep telling people how great you are because a certain portion of them are going to start believing it."

Gough has given up on the world domination agenda, but on the rare occasion the Gallagher in him rears its muzzle-free head. As was Tweeted to death, and then reported in newspapers worldwide, Gough had such a moment at Los Angeles' Troubadour on the last date of his stateside tour in promotion of It's What I'm Thinking. On the second night at the venue, the sound was getting worse with each song, frustrating Gough no end. Profanity and vulgarity ensued, aimed at the venue, the sound engineer, the crowd, anyone within shooting distance, reallypresent company excluded, thankfully. For Gough, whose trademark gig banter is one of the draws for his live shows, this turnabout was a shocker.

"The whole gig is a narrative between me and the people there," says Gough, speaking generally and not specifically about that incident. "I give a lot of myself. Not so much in terms of performing, but connecting somehow. [Yet] I don't feel like I'm doing enough. I'm finding it tough on one level and too easy on another."

He continues, "The first gig I ever did, within the first few minutes of being on stage, I made a hash of the first song. I was devastated that I missed the guitar solo I was supposed to do. It was me on my own. I was sitting on a stool. It was too high. I hadn't really given it enough thought and I couldn't reach the distortion pedal. After I got through that, I started to talk and it was a natural way for me to get through the first gig. It stayed with me since then."

But Gough rarely worries about how a song is going to sound live and focuses more on how it is going to sound in someone's home. His objective is sharing the music. "I could keep the music to myself, but it would be worthless," he says. "Until someone else hears it, it doesn't mean anything. That's all it's ever about."


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