Badly Drawn Boy on His First New Album in 10 Years, Brexit, the Pandemic, and Getting Sober | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020  

Badly Drawn Boy on His First New Album in 10 Years, Brexit, the Pandemic, and Getting Sober

Get Up and Try Again

Jun 16, 2020 Web Exclusive
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In the year 2000, once everyone’s Y2K fears were assuaged, Badly Drawn Boy appeared on the music scene, fully formed, with a stunning debut album, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast. That album walked off with the UK’s highest music accolade, the Mercury Music Prize, leaving Coldplay’s Parachutes and Richard Ashcroft’s solo debut, Alone With Everybody in its dust.

Damon Gough, the one-man operation behind Badly Drawn Boy exceeded the expectations raised by his debut with the memorable soundtrack to About a Boy, for which he wrote all original songs, much like Simon & Garfunkel did for The Graduate.

After About a Boy, attention and accolades for Gough began to dwindle with each release. Still massively prolific with no lack of talent, Badly Drawn Boy artist albums came fast and furious, as did other soundtracks. Then it all came to a standstill with the last album, It’s What I’m Thinking Part 1 released in 2010, and the soundtrack to Being Flynn in 2012.

At the start of 2020, Badly Drawn Boy started showing himself on social media. Doing livestream performances and interacting with his fanbase, the core of which has stayed with him for two decades. Badly Drawn Boy 2.0, as it were, is clear-eyed and humble, grateful for the audience that has stuck it out with him, grateful for the second chance he’s been given at being a partner to his wife Leanne and a father to their three-year-old Ruben (as well as being the father to his two children with his first wife), grateful to have overcome personal, medical, and financial demons, not the least of which is alcohol, and accepting that none of the above has been conducive to creativity. 

Gough comes storming out of the gate with a brand-new album, Banana Skin Shoes, full of honest looks inward and outward, fitted around beautiful, sweeping melodies and comforting, understated instrumentation—right into the eye of a pandemic. His Manchester, UK family home has become Badly Drawn Boy HQ with cameras and computers set up in different rooms for Zooms and Skypes and FaceTimes, Instagram Lives and Facebook Lives, and any other interactive platform that is suggested to him. He may have been absent for a decade, but Gough is making up for lost time, giving more of himself than he ever has before, virtual or otherwise, with the hope that there is some acceptance on the receiving end. 

You released eight albums, including soundtracks from 2000 to 2012, but have been MIA since then, what happened?

“I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness” is kind of an explanation as to why I’ve been away, which is the breakup between me and Clare, the mother of my two older kids. We had been together nearly 15 years. The split was the beginning of my absence from music. For three years, I was getting over the relationship that had failed, partying, getting drunk. But every single day that passed, I was trying to make a record, until somebody said to me, “Why don’t you take a break, don’t worry about music.” Then I thought, “I could do that, I’ll just do nothing.” So I did nothing for a year and then that turned into two years. Then I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and diabetes. Then I was told I had to have both hips replaced from a complication with the medication I was on. Then I had financial issues like you wouldn’t believe. Buying this house and then the taxman wanted a ton of money off me for a fraudulent scheme I invested in, which has stung so many people. I invested in the British film industry 15 years ago and the taxman wanted all the money back and basically bankrupted me. I didn’t think for a minute it would take me this long to recover, but it was a snowball effect of one thing, then another. A year went by and it just gets harder to get back. It’s like when you haven’t called a friend for a few months and you think, “I should call that person,” then another month passes and that makes the call even harder. Then it gets to three months because it escalates. The time you’re away can be a little bit damaging to your confidence.

You have since stopped drinking. What brought about that decision? 

I wasn’t a boozer when I was younger. I didn’t go down the park as a teenager with my mates trying to have a cheeky bottle of cider. I frowned upon that behavior. I was a bit snobby. In my 20s I wasn’t a big drinker. I drank down the pub a few times a week. In my late 20s when I released my first music and went on tour, I slowly began to drink every day without realizing it. It got worst toward the breakup and it was the main cause of the breakup. It slowly caught up with me, the booze. I had a reputation for drinking at some points in my career. But I could always do the job. That 12 years from 2000 to 2012, I was either recording or touring or both. I used drink as a way of getting through it, to relieve the boredom, or to make it more interesting. The staying power you need on tour and the staying power you need in the studio to stay listening to music and mixing it, booze eases the pain of a lot of things. I didn’t realize how out of control I was. I could be the last one standing and not really get drunk. I was probably drunk but I could act quite normal. I could just keep going and going and I started to wake up feeling like this isn’t going to get me anywhere. I started to not enjoy drinking. I remember starting to feel like I’m not being very productive and I don’t even know if I’ll be here in five years if I continue this behavior. 

Was it difficult to stop?

Drink is a weird one with me. I went to AA meetings and I didn’t really relate to the typical stories of booze being this shiny beacon when people first discover it. It wasn’t like that for me. Some people were fascinating in AA, really informative, enlightening stories. I enjoyed it but I didn’t keep going because I felt I could stop drinking without it. I was motivated enough by feeling like my kids and Leanne had me more present in their lives. I wouldn’t want to say I look back shamefully because it’s not fair to that person, or to other people. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. People talk about addictive behaviors and maybe I’m one of those people, I don’t know if it’s a truism or not. I don’t even like saying I’m an alcoholic. I’m not in denial. I feel like I’m a non-alcoholic. I’d rather call it that. I gave up drinking November 2015. I was really buoyant for that year, not drinking, waking up hangover-less, feeling proud of myself, feeling that I deserved the love of my kids, for once. The amount of love I’ve received in my life and feeling that I didn’t deserve it, not because I’ve done anyone any direct harm, I was just hard to be around. Not as present as I could be in people’s lives because I was always obsessed with music and always obsessed with getting it right and dealing with fame and not liking some of it and driving myself insane. I get asked advice from people who feel like they’ve got a problem with alcohol. I try to give them the best advice I can without being preachy. They think they’re losing out if they’re giving up drinking rather than focusing on gaining so much more: gaining yourself. I couldn’t be happier that I don’t drink anymore, especially now this pandemic has happened. If I was still in my drinking days, I would be drinking my way through all of this. I have dreams all the time that I’m drinking when I shouldn’t be. I wake up thinking, “I don’t want to do that.” I’m as committed to not drinking as I was to drinking when I drank.

Music played in a role in your starting to drink. Has it played a role in your stopping drinking?

When I was boozing, every day was more or less the same. You get to a certain time, you drink. Now that I don’t drink, my days are more varied. I do more varied things throughout the week. I’m not shackled to that timeslot of, “Better have a drink now.” You become free and your life opens up. The novelty got me through that first year of not boozing. I’m okay without booze and I’m still creative, I’ve still got ideas. I always more out of life when I’m helping other people. My music helps, to some degree, but sometimes I feel like it’s not quite enough.

Everything you’ve gone through certainly gives you a lot of material for writing an album.

Clearing everything out and getting a balance back, I was feeling really good, but I didn’t know what to write about. The breakup had to play a part, but I didn’t want to write a breakup album. I paid it enough respect in “I Wanna Wish You Happiness,” which is the only breakup song I will have to write, I hope. “Funny Time of Year” is the breakup song from Clare’s perspective. It’s acknowledging that she called the shots and asked me to leave. I’m acknowledging that that wasn’t an easy decision for her to make. She knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride for me, breaking up with the kids involved and how do we make that smooth, having to move away from a house that I’d bought. But that was around the time the world started to go a bit more bonkers than usual and I felt I had to address that somehow.

Your last artist album is called It’s What I’m Thinking Part 1. Even if you had put out another artist album sooner than the 10 years since that once, it’s doubtful it would have been called Part 2 as it seems you were already far removed from the person you were during Part 1.

I like the idea that all the songs I’ve ever made are just what I’m thinking. It’s What I’m Thinking covered a whole range for potentially the rest of my career. I was doing it to encourage myself to get more productive again and make Part 2 and Part 3. By the time it came time to make the record, I felt like that idea was really in the past. My life is feeling like it had Part 1 and now this is Part 2. I don’t mean that it’s only halves, there may be more, but for now. I’ve been given another start, another chance in life. The parallels are really quite freaky with this release. For example, I’ve got a really young child, similar to when my first album came out and my eldest was born. It feels like it’s all happening again, but not repeating itself. Keeping the good stuff, shedding off some of the bad stuff and the negative stuff. Doing it all again with a little less hatred for it, less fear of it. I used to worry about everybody loving what I do and I couldn’t understand it if they didn’t love it. That would drive me mad. Now I hope people like my stuff, especially those that cared about me in the past. But there will be people that come and go, dip in and out. I don’t want to please everyone, but, I don’t want to upset anyone either.

Would you agree that this album is your most honest and personal?

My schtick is to be honest. I can never be anything but honest, or as honest as I feel I can be. It’s a new level of honesty for me than I’ve had the capability of in the past. I’ve tried to always touch on the truth but I’ve been so confused, that I’ve not quite got there. This album is the most honest because of what I’ve been through and I’ve had no choice but to deal with it and articulate it in this way. On “Note to Self,” on “I Need Someone to Trust,” there are lots of mentions of the truth. Lyrics like, “I need electronic eyeballs/just to see past the truth” and “Do I trust myself.” It doesn’t make the album more worthy or anything. I don’t deserve a gold medal for being honest. It’s just something I can’t avoid. I really wish I could because it is tough to talk about, not because it’s painful, but I wish I could make some nonsense up so I don’t have to talk about me all the time. But it’s the holy grail as a writer to connect something true, a line that makes people think. 

Considering your protracted absence, it was an even bigger risk for you to release an album at this time, rather than another artist who has had ongoing activity. It’s great that you didn’t put off the release.

There was so much uncertainty at the beginning of lockdown, and it hasn’t gotten any clearer. It could be a long time before anything really normal happens again. It’s tough to call it. There’s no right or wrong. Some people might think of arts as a trivial thing, and I can see why, but the arts are fundamental, they connect your spirit to humanity. They keep things ticking along. Keeping some normality going is important. The pandemic is unprecedented, but the world before this was in a state of affairs that was pretty bad anyway. The album was predominantly conceived and written in the last three years since the [Brexit] referendum in 2016, which I was appalled that the feeling in this country was wanting to leave Europe. Me, and others like me, have had the worst three years not being able to talk about it. We’ve been silenced and called moaners because were didn’t get the result that we wanted. I don’t think this has to be the case for every artist, but for me, personally, I feel the need to strike some tone of responsibility with the subjects of this album. On a selfish note, I waited long enough for this album to come out. I’ve always maintained, as cheesy as it sounds, that the music means relatively nothing until it enters the lives of other people. I was gigging for the last seven years, a lot of solo shows to keep that connection with people, keep myself occupied and interested in music. I was playing the back catalog and feeling like a nostalgia act, which I didn’t mind because I’m always going to play my old songs, but I was also waiting for the chance to play something new. When I started to filter in a couple of new songs this year I felt a relief that I was current artist again. I’ve always felt current, but you need to back that up with something new. 

How do you connect the macro issues you’re addressing in the overarching message of the album with the micro issues you’re speaking about in the lyrics? 

A lot of the lyrics in this album are about moving forward and never looking back because you can’t change the past. It’s been the most frustrating seven or eight years of my life, decade even, because of not having music out. I wish I could change that now but I can’t go back. That’s why Banana Skin Shoes is the title. I’ve had to take a long look at myself in the last several years and try and improve and learn from the mistakes I made. The world falling apart as I’m getting better has been a strange dichotomy to navigate. I was fixing myself, but not feeling bad about any of the tough moments. I was always feeling positive and feeling like there’s a way forward. I tried to make a record that’s positive, even with things like Brexit and climate change being the two big issues over the last three years. Trying to get back to things that are important. “Banana Skin Shoes,” the first track on the album, saying “super super supersize your soul,” was an opening statement of what I’d had to do, but a message to the world as well. There’s a parallel between me fixing myself and wanting to help the world fix itself. That’s the balance I was trying to strike on the album. 

Your regular livestream performances have become like virtual residencies. You’re performing such a wider selection of music than in-person audiences would have ever been able to experience. You seem very comfortable with it, are you?

Since the last time I had an album out, social media platforms are much more established. I had to build up my social media, because I hadn’t really been active, because I had nothing to be active with. It was a crash course getting some of my social media platforms a bit livelier and a bit more connected with people. It was daunting at first, but the immediacy it gives you is amazing. It’s been psychologically tough to do these livestreams because at first it was to promote the album and I was nervous about doing it. Then I found I enjoyed it. Then lockdown happened and I was doing shows from my home thinking, ‘Is this cheesy? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is going online performing.’ But I had to get my head around that. I’m not trying to grab everyone’s attention. I’m really only connecting with people who want to see me. The core fanbase that have stood by me all these years, it’s to stay in touch with them and a lot of them have given me nice feedback saying it’s something they look forward to. They’ve kept me going. I’ve been forced to learn my catalog of songs as well, which is something I don’t ever sit down and play songs from, unless I’m doing a gig and I want to do a song I haven’t done for a while. I’ve been doing these livestreams so regularly, I want to change up the set each time and perhaps play songs I’ve not for ages, or ever even. If it wasn’t for a forced situation that we’re in, perhaps I wouldn’t have embraced it or had to embrace it as much as I have. All the skills we’re having to learn might become useful. We’ll potentially be more multi-faceted than we were. I can do real live shows and I can do these ones too.

 

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