10 March 2000

A Breed Apart

He lost his father at 11, nearly lost his mind at 20, and lost his band, the Verve, not once but twice. Is Richard Ashcroft fated to be alone? As he prepares to release his first solo album, Sylvia Patterson met him

'I had a dream," says Richard Ashcroft. "It was just the other night. This voice told me everything would be all right when I was 50. And I woke up going (clasps head in terror, bawls), 'Fifty?!'"

Richard Ashcroft is 28 and already feels "like an old man". He feels he's lived life "three times faster" than his perception of what is normal, but living life three times faster is the official speed of rock'n'roll. In 1997, when the Verve came back from their initial "death" in 1995, Ashcroft wanted first-time Verve viewers to have an experience "like seeing The Godfather or Apocalypse Now for the first time". It's less megalomania, more the enthusiasm of a child; he simply wants you to experience life like he does, on as profound a scale as possible. To feel, for certain, that you are alive.

It's December 1999. We're in a studio in west London, and Ashcroft looks like a fugitive poacher. Fawn duffel coat, chequered Farmer Giles hat, long hair spiralling down to his neck, young black labrador twirling round his feet. Everything about him is unique and expressive; his deep, northern brogue; his angular features, like a Picasso gone right; deep blue crystal eyes; pole-thin limbs and long-fingered hands that act out scenes as he narrates them. His nose, a boxer's from the front, is Audrey Hepburn's in profile.

Ashcroft runs on passion, a nervy, genial man who can talk, if you let him, in hour-long sentences with no regard for tense or precision of thought. Subjects include the "shocking power of MTV" after the Bittersweet Symphony video changed his life for ever (wags would shout out of car windows, "'Ere, mate! The video's finished!"); Haigh Hall, the Verve's 33,000-peopled homecoming show in Wigan in May 1998 - "Top, coming from a town that'd given you fuck all, standing there saying, 'I did it'"; doing "the total rock star thing" of buying a big house in the country for escape, getting the builders in and having 18 months of "someone staring through the window going, 'Ooh, he eats Weetabix too!'"; Oasis ("I think they might be the last of their kind: The Rock Band"); his wife Kate, ex-Spiritualized keyboard player, who's here today, "the most important person in my life"; the imminent birth of their son, which they hope will arrive on time (mid-March), "otherwise it's an Aries" (Aries males being notoriously blokey).

He is also a human spliff. Spend any time with Ashcroft and you feel stoned and start thinking about infinity. Free drugs! What a guy! He's Richard... Mashcroft! Heeheehee! And then he plays you a new song called Brave New World and everyone shuts up.

"Look at the state I'm in," sings the familiar, pensive voice - except warmer, clearer, even better - over soul-skewing country guitar. "I'm sittin' at the table, hearin' a song... wishin' I was able... stable. Naaaaaaah... nah-na-na-na-na-naah!" Blimey. Welcome back, dude.

February 2000. Standing on the deck of a privately-hired tourism boat floating down the Thames, Ashcroft is enjoying an afternoon off. He's never done this before. Bounding from one side to the other, he marvels, wide-eyed, "Look at it - it's beautiful." Today, the man Noel Gallagher calls Captain Rock, the man who inspired Cast No Shadow, looks like a fugitive prince: black knitted hat forcing bonny curlicues on to the 45-degree angle of his cheek-bones, white, flecked, woolly jumper zipped up the neck, over which shimmers the world's finest, vertical-collared, deep red velvet jacket.

Living life, as he has done, at the speed of rock'n'roll, Richard Ashcroft is now into his sixth life. He was a boy, then he was in Verve, then he was in the Verve after US jazz label Verve threatened legal action. Then, in 1995, the Verve split up just as the mesmerising, melancholic History single was publicly eulogised by the Gallaghers; internal relationships wrecked through the poor communication, exhaustion and drug psychosis underlying the making of their second LP, A Northern Soul. Blame was apportioned to lifelong tension between Ashcroft and "genius" guitarist Nick McCabe. "I was being a miserable bastard, basically," said McCabe in 1997. "They got sick of my fucking sad face all the time. I have mental problems. I just got paranoid about everything. So they sacked me."

The Verve "couldn't exist without Nick", said Ashcroft. He fled to Cornwall and began his fourth life as an unemployed nomad with no home, possessions or money. He reappeared a year later, and the remaining ex-members (with additional guitarist Pete Tong) began work on what would become the space-pop-country-rock classic Urban Hymns. Then, six months prior to the album's release in September 1997, Ashcroft and McCabe papered over the bomb site of their relationship and the Verve existed again. Until April 28 1999, that is, when they split up for precisely the same reasons they split up the first time.

And now it looks like he could be the new Gram Parsons. With Glen Campbell's rhinestone boots on. Of the five songs ready to hear on an album still with no name, two - Brave New World and You On My Mind In My Sleep - are timeless, country-soul classics in the Campbell and Elvis mould. There's the odd, winding, multilayered I Get My Beat, and the immeasurably sad Everybody. Which makes the first single, A Song For the Lovers, an anomaly: it's a shamelessly joyous, clap-along pop song for girls about "jumping into the unknown".

These are simple, enormous, orchestral, beautiful songs for emotional catharsis, for romantics, for the vulnerable and the lost-in-love. McCabe's spectral guitar is gone, but it sounds like the next Verve album; it sounds like music to help people. "I want to make music that makes people cry, or elevates people to a different place," says Ashcroft. "I think it has to do that. That's why so much music makes you actually feel ill. And there's nothing depressing about it, nothing wrong with it. Look at any poetry, poetry from 300 years ago. What do you think they were talking about? What do you think man's been talking about since he had the words to express it? Before that? Love, life, death, quest for happiness, misery, war..."

Ashcroft has never talked about the troubles in the Verve. "I couldn't begin to go into what happened," he says, staring across the table, through the window and over the murky water. "The book can only be written when I'm dead. Not from any personal disgrace but it's - it's a story full of... full of things that are gonna really upset people. And you wouldn't fookin' believe it."

Years ago, James Dean Bradfield said of Richey Manic, "He's yet to develop a second skin." Some people are like this: they 'feel' more than others. Ashcroft is another. When he was five, encouraged by his skygazing grandfather, he already had a profound awareness of the absurdity of life, of existing "on a ball spinning in infinity". At school, he was such a nervous child that he was sacked from the nativity play: "I was shaking so much, shaking with my frankincense. Terrible nervous guy." At nine, he'd wander round his home town thinking, "Why Wigan? Why? I used to get depressed over aesthetics. I felt like my valve was open way too wide."

The death of his father from a brain hemorrhage remains the single most life-defining experience he's known. He was 11. "I don't think I would've ended up doing this if he'd stayed alive," he says. "It just sent me off. Definitely. Booted me off into the chaos at speed. And I wanted it. The bubble had burst - who knows what the next day's gonna bring? - and all those things trigger off not only a sadness but a sense of urgency and a need for adventure and a need to do more, perhaps, than he did in 41 years."

By the time he was 14, he'd find himself on holiday in Cornwall telling people, "You better remember me - you better remember Richard Ashcroft." The confidence just grew and grew. He'd always stood out, anyway, "because I've got a big nose and a big pair of lips and look a bit strange". His passion for music became everything: the reason he walked out of school exams (because they meant nothing), the reason he was referred to a school psychiatrist (he refused to go), the reason they trawled the local river for his body, thinking he was dead (he wasn't) - thinking, at least, he was on drugs ("I probably was"). He immersed himself in psychedelic culture, and by the time Verve began rehearsing in a cave in Wigan in 1988 ("the motivation was to make music to stop boredom"), Ashcroft was already a student of telekinetics, astrology, chaos theory, creative visualization and mystical folklore.

Ashcroft, like most people, discovered drugs alongside music. At first, the drugs were principally "to hear music on 50,000 different levels - I wanted to be blown apart". The psychedelics worked. So he used them for aesthetics, "to see solid objects morph into things that my mind wanted them to be", and, finally, hilarity, "to cry laughing just looking at, y'know, my mate's eyebrow!" He watched chemical culture explode and, as ever, asked himself why.

Did he ever feel like he'd lost the plot? "Probably," he nods, "a little bit after Northern Soul. I didn't feel too good. Just psychosis." Did he have a spell with heroin? "No. I think I've always understood that, to put my personality in the womb and comfort it from any thoughts of fear, y'know, worry or anxiety, would be like, putting me in a coffin."

Later this year the Richard Ashcroft soul revue beams into town with a host of sonic wizardry, including DJ Shadow on transcendental vibes. He'll be playing the Verve's songs, too, because they belong to him. He hopes you'll have "an experience". That you'll feel ill. And that way you might feel better. That's how it's been for him, "the chapter" now closed, between his first life as a boy and his fifth, the end of the Verve.

"From 11 to 26," he says, as the boat glides back into its port in Fulham, "was 15 years of rocketin' in a certain direction to fulfill whatever needs. And it doesn't make me feel depressed now, I can dip into it all - my dad, my family, the Verve, everything - and take out the good stuff. And that's what everyone else should do. All of it's nothing, really, compared to how you feel. And right now, floating down this river, emotionally I feel better than I've felt for... 20 years, almost. To where life existed on a 'get on your bike, go round the corner to your mates' level. Even though there's all these huge things going on, I feel more centered than I've ever felt in my life. Amazing. So who knows who I'd be if I hadn't done all that shit." He suddenly clutches his head. "Doesn't even bear thinking about!"

Still, only another 22 years till everything's "all right". Meanwhile, this ordinary, extraordinary, beautiful, big-nosed man is the most human rock'n'roll star on earth. That's why his songs, those soul-saving aural drugs, do work. He's just like us. Us, mind, with a much better jacket on.
  • Richard Ashcroft's new single, A Song for Love, is out on April 3