Singer/songwriter Damon Gough finds art in domestic bliss
Minutes after John Kerry called George W. Bush to concede the presidential election, Damon Gough, aka "Badly Drawn Boy," was on the phone, eager to talk about politics. "I was watching TV pretty late last night," Gough said from his home in Manchester, England. "I had a feeling it was never gonna go Kerry's way, even though at one point it looked like it might."
Gough, like many people, has had politics on his mind lately. The U.S. edition of his new album One Plus One Is One even contains the satirical "Don't Ask Me, I'm Only the President."
"It's more of a joke song in a way," he laughed, "but it's a fun song to play." Recently while performing the tune in California, he made some anti-Bush comments, and a heckler told him to "shut the fuck up."
"On one level, I understood her point," he says of the outspoken concert-goer. "Playing music is [supposed to be] the main thing. But I felt like I had to say something."
The drive to say something has always fueled the prolific career of Badly Drawn Boy. Since his professional debut in '97, the busy singer/songwriter has produced an impressive amount of material, a string of singles, EPs and four albums. Gough's confessional songs, which occasionally recall the literate compositions of Robyn Hitchcock, take a hook-laden view of an often-mystifying world. The multi-instrumentalist infuses his music with a crafty mix of mid-'60s Beatlesque pop and Dylanesque folk, as well as a healthy dose of the eccentricity of Syd Barrett and the skewed iconoclasm of Randy Newman and c. This unique sound has earned a legion of fans such as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and author Nick Hornby, who commissioned him to compose the music for 2002 film adaptation of his book About A Boy.
"I really do like all kinds of music," Gough said of his style. "I could put Guided By Voices on now and think, 'Oh, I want to make a record like that,' or put Frank Zappa on and think, 'I really want to go a bit more wacky,' or I could put Tim Hardin on, and think, 'All I want to do is write beautiful, acoustic-based songs.' I'm always stuck in the middle of all these avenues. What always ends up happening is that I just go with what feels most natural at the time. I've got a lot of quirkiness in my nature that I'm balancing, as well. So if I could balance, say, Tim Hardin and the Left Banke, with a hint of Frank Zappa, I'd be happy."
Nevertheless, despite the pull he feels from these many influences, Gough's overall approach to music is pretty basic. "I'm a sucker for melody," he said. "If a melody comes along, I'm not gonna stand in its way. For me, I always try to make the same kind of record. Something that's good to listen to, something that's thought-provoking and isn't just bubblegum pop with nothing else there."
His new album One has a sepia-toned, early '70s organic feel to it and seems much more of a true song cycle than any of his previous efforts. "It's got an imaginary set of colors to it, autumnal colors," he said. "Before, I was trying to get in the whole spectrum of colors, but for this one, one of the parameters was to stay within several shades of the same color."
The title track actually stems from a mathematical mistake that Gough turned into a personal metaphor. "One times one is one, and one divided by one is one, so one plus one must be one, right?" he said. "I realized I liked that because it has multiple meanings. It could be like two people becoming one. I just thought it was a strong concept. [Before the project began last year] I didn't know what the album was going to be about, but it slowly emerged, this sort of undercurrent of philosophies and general sort of spirituality."
Unlike many musicians, Gough finds inspiration, not in the wild life of the road, but at his homestead with his wife Claire and their two children, who have sometimes made their way into his performances. Three years ago, at his Cotton Club show in Atlanta, Gough passed around a photo of his newborn child. "One night, I just took the picture out to look at it between songs," he explained. "And someone asked what it was. So I passed it around every night of the tour. It's still in my wallet, actually." Indeed Gough treasures family time so much that he quickly jetted home to England during a brief break in his current U.S. tour.
His concern with home and family, perhaps, influences the new album more than his previous releases in that addresses the cycle of life, including love, death and loss. "[It's about] lookin' for answers and never finding them," he said, "and you're probably better off never finding them. This new album is just a spiritual overview of what it is to be a human being."