25 June 2000

After The Verve, Some Time Alone

The band's 1998 success was also its last hurrah. Now the singer embarks on a solo career.

Richard Ashcroft seemed invincible just two years ago, with his photogenic cheekbones, absorbing songs and a worldwide hit for his band the Verve, "Bitter Sweet Symphony."

That enchanting single, which was built around a sample from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time," was the melancholy center of a superb album, "Urban Hymns," that dealt with struggling against disillusionment.

If "Urban Hymns" was the Verve's triumph, it was also the band's swan song. Plagued by inner tensions for years, the British quintet finally called it quits last year, leaving Ashcroft to pursue a solo career.

The first step on that uncertain path is "Alone With Everybody," an album due Tuesday from Virgin Records. The collection has winning moments, including the caressing "A Song for the Lovers" and "On a Beach," that would have fit nicely in "Urban Hymns." They are songs fueled in part by the joy of parenthood. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter and his wife, former Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley, had a boy, Sonny, in March.

But other tracks lack the revelation and emotional heft of the last Verve album. This leaves the album seeming more like a bridge to a solo career than the convincing start of one for Ashcroft, who plans to tour the U.S. in the fall. His new band is expected to include Verve drummer Pete Salisbury and possibly Radley.

On the eve of the album's release, Ashcroft spoke about what went wrong with the Verve and the challenge of going it alone.

Question: What was it like making a solo album after a decade with the Verve? Liberating? Intimidating?

Answer: It was definitely both. At first, it was liberating because you don't have to deal with the pressures that had built up around the band. But then you realize you are taking on a lot of new responsibility. After you come up with the songs, you have to decide whether to keep it simple--something stripped down, just me acoustic--or try to build sonically upon what we had done with the Verve, which is what I finally decided I wanted to do.

The challenge then was infusing the musicians with the spirit I wanted on the record. It's something that takes a while to achieve, something that had become subconscious with people you'd worked with for years.

Q: What happened with the Verve? I've read that you secretly wanted to go solo, and I've read that you fought hard to keep the band together.

A: I did fight for a long time to keep the Verve together, but I think circumstances got to the point where it just seemed impossible. I think the [problems within the band] were there when we started and they gradually got worse. For periods of time, everything would seem OK, but then something would happen and I think everybody played their role in it . . . , whether someone was too bold or too crazy or too quiet.

It's nothing I really want to go into because it just tires me. It's the thing that causes most bands to break up. Just read the Beatles stories, and theirs, of course, was far more intense and probably far more insane, but it's just a blueprint for most groups really.

Q: Do you think the old Verve fans will be waiting for your album? In lots of cases, leaders of popular bands have had trouble establishing themselves commercially in a solo career.

A: I'll be comfortable wherever I land with the album. I always feel any [acceptance] is like gilding the lily. I've made the best record I can, and that's a thrill.

Q: There was optimism in "Urban Hymns," but there was also a sense of struggle and dark times. This time, you sound more comfortable. Is that a reflection of your personal life?

A: My environment has slowly changed for the better. My creative environment is healthy, and my son arrived about three days after we finished the album, so I was standing on the verge for most of the recording. I was thinking about it, inspired by it.

But we also all have different sides musically. I enjoy the Stooges and Big Star at their darkest, but I also love the kind of feeling that Brian Wilson was able to communicate on "Pet Sounds"--the rushes of emotion that he could create sonically and lyrically--and I love the simplicity of Al Green and very early rock 'n' roll.

Q: One of the British rock papers made a big deal about your wife joining you in the band. They suggested you were the "Paul and Linda of Indieville"--which was a reference to Linda McCartney's limited musical abilities. Did that anger you?

A: I think it's pretty sad that people in the year 2000 are still doing that. But I think she's had to deal with that from the start, when she started playing music with Spiritualized. I think it's basic misogyny really. *
  • Los Angeles Times, written by Robert Hilburn