21 March 2011

Q&A: Richard Ashcroft

Richard Ashcroft, former lead singer of the Brit pop band The Verve, primarily recorded his forthcoming solo effort, "United Nations of Sound," in the United States.

"It was made in America, pretty much apart from a couple weeks in London," Ashcroft told SoundSpike via telephone from his English home. "Nearly everybody on it, apart from me, was American. So I think, in my mind, Americans will probably get it and understand where I'm coming from and understand the narrative, perhaps, and understand the history and everything else involved in it. But maybe they won't. I don't know. I hope so."

The album features 12 songs produced by noted hip-hop producer No I.D. (Kanye West, Jay-Z). No I.D. worked with Ashcroft to create a huge sound that makes use of live orchestration, big beats and his widest range of influences yet.

Ashcroft's first solo album in four years, "United Nations of Sound" will be released on March 22 through Razor & Tie. To celebrate the release, he will perform two shows in the U.S., March 23 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York and March 24 at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in Boston -- marking his first performances in America since 2008.

Ashcroft's track "Are You Ready?" is featured in the closing credits to the new Matt Damon film, "The Adjustment Bureau." A second track, "Future's Bright," which was co-written by Ashcroft and 10-time Academy Award nominee Thomas Newman, is featured within the film as well.

Ashcroft spoke to SoundSpike about his reasons for recording the U.S., the meaning behind "United Nations of Sound" and if he intends to perform with The Verve again. 

SoundSpike: Why did you decide to record in America?

Richard Ashcroft: 'Cause No I.D. works in America. I flew out to meet him in New York and do a few days work, which kicked off a little bit and we extended it. But he's very busy, as he had just done a tune on Jay-Z and it was all kicking off. His diary [calendar] was filling up. So, I had to try to do as much as I could in a short space of time, which led to not much sleep and me doing my thing, which I imagine for someone, a spectator, would seem a little bit close to madness. That's what happens when you ain't got much time and you're feeling quite creative, you're in New York and it's an Indian summer. That's the way it was. I came over with a few samples and a couple of tunes that I thought might work. We just set to work really. It was pretty crazy. Then we went to L.A. and had a few crazy sessions there. [We recorded] some strings with the legendary Benjamin Wright. The making of it was a story in itself and was an enjoyable journey. I met some good people. I had some pretty hairy moments. But I met some great people.

What do you think No I.D. brought out in you?

No I.D.'s main situation is really being the drummer. There's a certain side of me that's always enjoyed -- right from [The Verve's] "Bittersweet Symphony" -- sampling, looping things. I've enjoyed writing songs that stay on the same chord sequence but give the listener still a sense of a journey. That's something that rap and hip hop's been doing for a long time -- literally looping on a chord sequence, yet the delivery gives you the feeling that this thing's changing. With him coming out of a certain comfort zone and me coming out of a comfort zone as well, I think that's good. It's all a part of our time. I think the guy's got a lot of integrity. He's a similar age as me. What's interesting is how much we have in common, even though coming from what you would say are was different musical genres, backgrounds. There's a lot in common. There's a lot of influences in common as well. Songs I'd suggest about maybe looping up or sampling, they'd appear on No I.D.'s list of songs to do. These might be some crazy songs that no one's done yet. You're thinking, "Wow, that's great," leading on to working with Benjamin on the strings. The whole thing was pretty wild -- difficult to relate to people. Also, the conversation that was going on within it about genres, about the way music has been so divided. Everything's so divided. Everything's on a knife edge. America's on a knife edge even, though I think we're still basking in the glow of getting rid of what was there before because, as a tourist, I also feel I have an ear to what different parts of the world seemingly think of America, what America thinks of itself. In a way, touring America during the last government became very difficult. I tried to tour with my family. I had my young sons, so they were body searched almost at the airport. You think, "This is crazy. This is coming down from the top" while I was there and, at the same time, I'm still feeling like I'm living what perhaps we were all dreaming of -- a situation where different people can come together for something that Sly Stone was doing all them years ago. Lots of people have done before. But doing something and yet at the same time I'd be going back putting some God forsaken news channel on, seeing something about the Tea Party, watching some religious channel and then I'd fall asleep. It's all in there you know. That's what it's about in a way.

Tell me about the title "United Nations of Sound."

There's always been a massive debt to American music, certainly black American music without a shadow of a doubt. Even though Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time, there's always been a thing about, "Can he rock 'n' roll? Is this right?" and all that kind of shit. When we play live, I think you're going to see people get what I'm all about. I'm all about English rock 'n' roll. My love of funkadelic, my love of soul, my love of all this. There's a way of taking away a lot of the cleanness and a lot of the fear away from the way music is presented and the way that kind of shit goes. A lot of the time, people's idea of soul and to have soul or to perform soul is just complete nonsense. A lot of people think soul singers just warble and should just go all over the place. Soul singers should just get to the point. Mavis Staples got to the point. She didn't mess around. She didn't do vocal gymnastics to show what a great singer she was. We chatted about all that stuff [in the studio]. New soul. All this crap. I'm thinking this record, it's not going to do really well because people ain't going to get it. But what it will do is it'll make it difficult for people. Whether they like it or not, it's not going to be easy. It takes you to different places.

It seems like it was very freeing to be able to do this record.

A lot of the vocals were done in the control room, very improvised. A song like "Royal Highness," it was about doing what I was actually doing at the time -- riding the wave of creativity when a lot of the city's asleep. It's an amazing place to be. I'm very fortunate to have felt what that feels like. That's rock 'n' roll when you're feeling the buzz from making music. I also know how stale studios can be and making music can get for bands and artists alike. That's when a lot of money's wasted and people's time's wasted.

Have you ruled out playing with the Verve again.

[Long pause] Um, I think so yeah. I think so. I really couldn't imagine it. We played. Nothing left to achieve.
  • Source: Soundspike