After 10 years with the U.K. band the Verve, just as they were having their greatest success with the album Urban Hymns and the mega-single "Bitter Sweet Symphony", lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft ditched the group. VH1.com's Jane Ratcliffe spoke with the singer/sex symbol just as he is releasing his debut solo album, Alone With Everybody, and found out why.
Remember "Bitter Sweet Symphony?" That big catchy song about working hard for your money, then dying? Remember the Nike commercials that used that epic string-section riff as a vehicle to push sneakers down your throat? And the video with the skinny singer with the enormous lips shoving people out of the way as he walked down the street? Well, Richard Ashcroft is back. And his band for the last 10 years, the Verve, isn't.
Those melancholy lads officially broke up in April 1999, after the second and final implosion between lead singer Richard Ashcroft and lead guitarist Nick McCabe. Since then, Ashcroft married ex-Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley, who, in March, gave birth to their baby boy, Sonny. Ashcroft becomes ecstatic at the mere mention of the wee one. He's also quite blissed out over his new solo album, Alone With Everybody, whose title he nicked from a Charles Bukowski poem. More Gram Parsons than shoe-gazer, Alone is a complex collection of songs that will help you remember why you're working hard for that money in the first place.
Dressed in pinstripe pants and sandals with a diamond cross around his neck, Ashcroft is disarmingly regular - smart, chatty, and a hint of otherworldliness. Looking less like an insect in person and more like a young, more ethereal, Jagger, Ashcroft spoke with VH1.com's Jane Ratcliffe on the eve of his new album's release.
VH1.com: What was it like when the Verve fell apart?
Richard Ashcroft: Obviously when something dies and there's still more to do, that's upsetting. It's now the year 2000. Doing what I'm doing, with Sonny [his son] born seven weeks ago, puts it in perspective. Not that it feels like Spinal Tap talking about band breakups, or getting back together again, but there's a cheapness to it that minimizes the real problems with the band - me included. We all had real problems that most people would use to promote their records - I find that distasteful. So, yeah, it was an uncomfortable experience. It definitely knocked me sideways for a while. But it had to happen. It was the right decision. Sometimes the right decisions seem painful for six months, a year, and then it becomes very clear they were right.
Did you feel any pressure when you decided to go solo?
No, I felt more pressure when I got near finishing the record. Because then it kind of overwhelmed me how many different places I could have gone, but you have to kind of resign yourself to putting out one record and getting it out now. Different tracks are doors for different places for the next record. I could go anywhere. It could be a "New York" record or "A Song for the Lovers," "I Get My Beat," or a "You on My Mind" country/weird gospel record.
There's a real honesty you have in expressing suffering that a lot of people shy away from.
I always question whether I'm going to put something out that is the most truly honest thing I've said, like the song "The Drugs Don't Work." Perhaps there is a need for people to unwrap the candy dream that's been created by consumerism and wherever else we find our gods now. We don't seem to find it in music or art anymore. You say something like "Everybody's going to feel the weight of death sometimes" and you're honest and suddenly I'm the bad guy, I'm blowing the bubble here. But really, it's about the recognition of that thing.
But when you listen to these seemingly depressing songs you can get a lot of happiness from them.
I've got an analogy for this. They found out that if you suffer from tinnitus, which is when you've had music blasted for too long and you blow [the hearing for particular] frequencies, the cure is playing tones back to the ear. Music is a soundtrack and it plays back what you're feeling and nullifies and almost cures it really in a weird way. And that's my analogy: tinnitus meets tinnitus cures tinnitus. Melancholy can meet melancholy yet find some cure.
You clearly have a very strong sense of love that comes across profoundly on this album. Do you really think love can cure or overcome anything?
Yeah, in its purest form, without a shadow of a doubt, but [the question is] how much is it going to be corrupted from the moment you open your eyes and how you deal with that. I'm more beautiful on the record than I am in real life. Music helps me to express things that I can't express and desperately would love to. Just laying in Central Park on Sunday afternoon, it was a beautiful day with Kate and a few friends - that's what I'm talking about. Life's moments, just how beautiful it felt, with the sunshine on my face, Kate laying on me, trees blowing, and a jazz band playing in the distance and this big celebration of New York life going on in front of my eyes. That's a moment I'll never forget, and at one point that'll come out in a 10-second blast of music or that will come out in a song somewhere.
How does it feel when you release those moments into the music?
It's a feeling I can never explain. Music's been so bastardized that you almost feel embarrassed about feelings a song infuses you with. The moment you're truly creating is the moment when you're not aware that you're creating. The moment when you're quite simply not in the body, it's an amazing experience. And that's the addictive thing that keeps people going, keeps people wanting to do it again.
There's a real Gram Parsons/Johnny Cash...
I love Johnny Cash.
...feeling to this album, which is interesting coming from a Brit. Was there any particular music you were listening to at the time?
Not really, no, just the same sh*t I've been listening to for a few years.
So many of your songs are very earnest and beautiful at a time when so much music is hard with so much attitude.
It's easy to make that kind of music though.
I'm sure there are guys who make fun of your sensitivity. Does that bother you?
I don't know, perhaps guys got together and listened to Pet Sounds when it came out and thought it was way too sensitive and beautiful for them to even consider. But you know the real heads picked up Pet Sounds and were also listening to the MC5 at the same time. You know what I mean, the real heads knew. Real heads know. Heads are open, they're not closed.
So it doesn't bother you?
No, no. If you can't get some of these songs then you haven't got a pulse. I love the fact that I'm not in any kind of current trend. I feel like I was spearheading some f*cking invasion or whatever. It's brilliant. I don't come under any of these titles. Everybody else is running to get themselves into a bracket so they can fit into a genre and get played on the radio. I can't wait to get a million miles away from that. I want as many of those guys that think my stuff is too like that off my music as possible. The more I lose the better it is.
You and Kate seem blissfully happy. Can you speak to how the marriage has affected your career and...
We're happy and we have bliss, but obviously we're married and we've gone through things together that have been wild. Kate met me when I had no shoes and she was in a band and I was in a band and we've gone through a lot of processing - with people noticing the change. Because you're famous in England and it's a very small country, and that changes a lot of things. Nearly everybody around you goes through a series of emotions and disowns you before they adjust to it. So there's nobody when that happens to that extent.
What do you mean "there's nobody"?
There's nobody who isn't masquerading, or presenting something they think you want to see or whatever. So we went through that together. She's just given birth to my son, which is incredible, seven weeks ago.
How did you come up with the name Sonny?
I just liked the soul song ["Sunny" by Bobby Hebb]. But in the soul song it's spelled differently, but I didn't realize until afterward. I just liked the name Sonny. Yeah, he is the cutest kid you've ever seen in your life.
In interviews you mention wanting to have religion passed on to Sonny, and I wondered why that was important to you.
It has been something that mattered quite a lot. I've just been thinking about how fortunate it is to totally have faith in something. To have the opportunity and the relief that when your child starts asking questions you have answers. I just think faith is so important. It's just that my faith at the moment is my wife, my son, my life, music, and trying to change the bits of me that I don't like.
Well, I think as you get older...
I'm only 28. I'm 28 and I'm talking like that. The funny thing is people will think I'm a new ... people who don't know about anything are going to think I'm a new artist. As I've said before, a lot of people think my first name is "The" and my last name is "Verve."