Thursday, July 15, 2010

Australia gets ready

Richard Ashcroft is embarking on an Australian tour

Richard Ashcroft is no stranger to grand statements. The English singer's music output over the past 20 years is awash with pop anthems, not least the song for which he is most famous, his band the Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony.

Later solo efforts such as A Song for the Lovers and Music is Power have a similar anthemic swagger. Now he's gone and called his new group RPA and the United Nations of Sound, a bold declaration backed up by a multinational cast and as many musical genres.

"I want to make music that sounds like it's from the future," he says, dropping in another whopping big sound bite.

To be fair, most of Ashcroft's conversation is reassuringly down-to-earth, aided by his thick Wigan accent, particularly in his enthusiasm for his new project and the musicians and technicians who helped him make it, such as American guitarist Steve Wyreman and veteran arranger Benjamin Wright.

"It was an honour to be working with some of those people," he says humbly.

Yet one can sense also a strong self-belief running through Ashcroft's veins as he explains his place in the modern pop pantheon. He has some justification. He has survived Britpop and the break-up of the Verve (three times) to stand tall under his own name, with three successful solo albums under his belt and the new one, cunningly titled United Nations of Sound, about to float him across the world for the foreseeable future.

It hardly seems possible, but the new Ashcroft project also sees him make his Australian debut, with a tour that begins in Melbourne on July 30 and takes in an appearance at the Splendour in the Grass festival at Woodford in Queensland.

"It's very unusual for someone who has been making music for as long as I have not to come to Australia," he says apologetically. "There's no definitive reason for it. It's just fate and timing, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Accompanying him on the trip are his wife, Kate Bradley, and their two sons. Bradley, once of English band Spiritualized, plays keyboards in the United Nations of Sound line-up. Completing the UN music delegation are two Californians, a Swiss and an Italian.

"It's a powerful band and they're great players and improvisers capable of taking it somewhere different every night," says Ashcroft.

Certainly United Nations of Sound, the album, goes off in a variety of unexpected directions, most notably to the town of hip-hop. Ashcroft enlisted American producer No ID, who has worked with Jay-Z and Kanye West, among many other hip-hop stars, to oversee the recording in New York of his latest work.

The producer's influence is regularly apparent, particularly so on America (there's that grand statement again) on which hip-hop beats play foil to Ashcroft's ungainly rap.

There's blues, too, in the John Lee Hooker-inspired How Deep is Your Man, slick soul in the Ashcroft falsetto of Life Can be So Beautiful, and footstomping, lighter-waving intensity in the power pop of Are You Ready and Born Again.

This might be seen as hedging one's bets, but Ashcroft sees it more as a way of melding various styles into something that can be called his own.

He cites 1970s American roots pioneer Gram Parsons as an influence in that respect.

"Parsons had this grand vision for cosmic American music as he called it," says Ashcroft, " this idea that at some point all the sources of music - blues, folk, country and what have you - would bleed into each other without being forced and create a new type of music.

"I've been trying to do that all my life really, trying to put together pieces from things that I enjoy. I suppose the philosophy behind hip-hop has influenced me through my life because they don't really care - people involved in sampling - don't really care where it comes from."

For all that he has chosen to immerse himself in black American music, most of United Nations of Sound is identifiably Ashcroft. The vocal inflections and anguished choruses that infused much of the Verve's brew remains.

"When I look back on the songs I have written, it is starting to become my own thing, whatever that thing is," he says.

"It's some weird hybrid, but I guess it comes back to soul. I still consider myself a soul man at the end of the day."

It's 20 years since Ashcroft and three mates formed the Verve. They split up five years later, only to re-emerge as a five-piece in 1997 and release one of the best British rock albums of the decade in Urban Hymns, which launched them across the world and had critics raving about Ashcroft's songwriting ability. By the end of the decade they had broken up again.

The Verve's third stint was even shorter, beginning with the recording of a new album, Forth, in 2008, promoted with a massive festival tour and then fizzling out - this time for good, he says - at the end of last year.

"I think it put a lot of things to rest in everyone's mind," Ashcroft says of the reunion. "Everyone has 'what if?' moments in life. That was ours. I can't speak for the others in the band, but we did a number of things differently from a lot of bands who re-form. We recorded some new material for one thing, so that it wasn't completely a nostalgia event, which was an achievement for us.

"We played some of the biggest festivals in the world. We headlined Coachella [in California], We headlined Glastonbury. We did festivals in Japan, Germany and France. We did way more than I ever imagined we would when we initially discussed it. I thought we would do a handful of shows, but once those wheels start turning you realise you have to play x amount of shows."

Not that he regrets any of it.

"Looking back on it . . . it was emotionally draining at times," he says. "It's also a sign of madness, going back like that. But mostly I look back with a sense of achievement, in that something most people thought would never happen actually happened. It's good to rewrite the big rock book that has consigned you to history."

The Verve might not have a future, but Ashcroft will soldier on, confidently, a UN ambassador for rock 'n' roll, making his grand vision a reality.

"Putting yourself on the line and going for it is what art is all about," he says. "It's not about catering for an audience or catering for a critic, or for what people think you should be doing."

And there's plenty more of the bold and the beautiful in the Ashcroft cupboard.

"I've always got a lot of canvases waiting to be hung on walls," he says, "There's never an end, a full stop. It's a constant thing. That's the blessing and the curse of doing this. There isn't a switch-off button."

RPA and the United Nations of Sound tour begins in Melbourne on July 30 and travels to Sydney, Woodford (Queensland) and Perth.