Badly Drawn Boy talks to Northern Soul
You might need to brace yourself at the thought, but The Hour of Bewilderbeast – the debut album by Badly Drawn Boy, aka Damon Gough – recently celebrated its 15th birthday. To mark it, Gough has been playing the whole album live, and has just overseen its re-release in a new deluxe expanded edition.
Gough is in a thoughtful, reflective mood when he meets Northern Soul in Manchester. His first album may have won him admirers, awards and kick-started his career but, as he recalls, he wasn’t all that enamoured of it.
“I struggled with it at the time,” he admits. “When I finished mixing it all and it was done, I wasn’t very happy with it. But I think that’s just the nature of doing anything, or it is with me anyway. Even when I write a new song, I love it and then I hate it. I think that’s just a natural process of being creative and over time you just learn to appreciate something that you’re not stuck in the middle of.”
In retrospect, though, he thinks that the album might even have under-performed when it was first released.
“I mean, it might have sold a million copies over ten years, but people do that in six months or less, people like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran. But we’re talking on different levels of types of music. I don’t get played on Capital Radio and stuff like that, so it’s a different genre slightly. Mainly it’s just fondness that I feel when I look back on that album. It was the opening gambit for me as an artist and ultimately I’m pretty proud of it.”
The love that fans show for Bewilderbeast can sometimes be a double-edged sword. “It’s amazing how many people come up to me on a daily basis who refer to that album and say how much they like it and took it into their hearts, which is brilliant. But sometimes it’s to the point where I get a bit pissed off that they don’t talk about other records. Some people do, but that of all the albums I’ve done it’s the first one that they talk about. That’s the case for a lot of artists, in some cases because they haven’t bettered it. I think I have.”
He doesn’t feel that the sudden success of the album phased him particularly.
“I felt that, by the time the album was done, I was ready for the shift in fame or whatever, because it had already been there. I suppose the challenge was to put something out that justified the fame. I was famous before – I mean, not like in a One Direction way, who became world famous before they’d made a record. But that celebrity crap came before actual content. It’s not like I’m on the TV every day, but people knew the name Badly Drawn Boy.”
And what a curious name it is. Strikingly, Gough chose to embark on a career as a solo artist not under his own name, as you might expect, but under this peculiar moniker. “I mean, it’s the same as any other name,” he says. “It’s an identity. I think it’s a name that served me well early on, a recognisable, intriguing name. But over the years it’s been a struggle, because I’m not a boy, I’m a man. I was 30 already when the first album was released, so I was never strictly a boy.”
He’s also slightly unusual within the Manchester music scene, which is littered with great bands, for operating solo.
“Being a solo artist makes the whole experience different, I think. Obviously I’m friends with bands like Doves and often over the years I’ve perhaps envied the fact that they had each other, to share the burdens, to share the successes and absorb the failures together, to have people around you. But in some ways I get the best of both worlds.”
Back before Bewilderbeast, Gough had in fact been a member of a couple of bands – in one instance as guitarist, in another playing keyboards – but neither got very far, and it wasn’t an arrangement he felt very satisfied by.
He explains: “I wouldn’t have chosen to be a solo artist over and above being in a band, but I was writing songs and there were other people’s voices singing them, and they never seemed to work for me. It just seemed that my songs were so personal to me that it had to be me that sang them. That was the only way that they would have any believability in a way, any credence. So I kind of had to slowly learn to do that. I wasn’t really very confident of my voice in the early days at all, so I’d disguise it with effects and stuff, but gradually I became more confident. Also, I think I’m not technically gifted enough to just be a player in a band, so I never felt justified just standing there playing a guitar. I felt like I wanted to be doing more.”
Much of The Hour of Bewilderbeast has a romantic tone, inspired by Gough meeting the woman who would become the mother of his children. “That album is a song cycle, really. The first song, in a metaphorical way, describes meeting Claire and I was writing that album in the early stages of our relationship, just before the kids. Claire would have been pregnant through quite a bit of the finishing stages of the album, so there’s a lot of those emotions in it.”
This has now taken on a rather bitter-sweet aspect, as the couple broke up four years ago.
“I’ve struggled to write and I haven’t released an album since then. Playing the album live last year, there were certainly times on stage, especially in Manchester where Claire came, the kids came, my new partner came, family and friends…I actually started to play the album and I had to walk off and gather myself initially, because the emotions of it all did hit me. Playing that album with everybody there that I care about it, I didn’t think it was going to be that difficult. I was in a really good mood and then I walked on stage and I thought, shit, I’m going to lose it here. I was holding back tears. But the audience were fantastic and just got behind me and it turned out to be an amazing gig, a pinnacle really of everything I’ve done, kind of like boxing this 15 years off in a nice way in order to move on.”
The reissued Hour of Bewilderbeast contains a flotilla of rare and unreleased tracks across various formats, and fans will be in clover. Looking ahead, though, Gough talks with enthusiasm about the future.
“I feel like I’ve been through all that now and I think re-releasing Bewilderbeast, it’s coincidentally timed just right with me being reborn for the next phase of my career, if I’ve got one. I want to keep busier this year. I’m ready to tackle it again, be a bit more productive, more prolific.” He reckons that coming off the treadmill recently has had its advantages, though. “I’m becoming a better dad every day and appreciating that status even more than I probably had time to in the past.”
One intriguing possibility is that he may start collaborating with other artists. “I’ve opened up the door to writing with other people much more than I used to have the time for or want to, just because I like the idea of co-writing songs for other people. I’ve been asked by several people to help them write songs and stuff. Nothing’s started yet, but I predict throughout this year I’ll be writing for different people’s singing abilities.”
In the immediate future, he’s set to headline the opening night of Prestwich Beer Festival, with a remarkable sense of timing.
“I’ve stopped drinking recently, just because I wanted to see the other side of life and I’m enjoying it,” says Gough. “I’m enjoying life a lot more and I feel like I’m in control of what I’m doing. It’s kind of ironic, but this is the first gig I’ve been booked for since I stopped drinking: I’m headlining a beer festival.”
In all, he seems to be in a happier place than of late.
“I’m older and slightly wiser, hopefully, and I just want to enjoy the moment more. I think I’m learning to enjoy every day as it comes much more than I was capable of in the past. I think that comes with age and it comes with experience. I’m not as fearful of it as I used to be, not as worried about what people think, but in a good way. I just feel like I’m in a good position to justify the love that people have shown me over the years. I want to do something really brilliant again. It’ll feel like a first album again, because it’s been a while.”
Images by Chris Payne
Badly Drawn Boy plays Prestwich Beer Festival February 25, 2016: www.prestwichbeerfestival.co.uk
The 15th anniversary reissue of The Hour of Bewilderbeast is available now in assorted formats
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