04 December 2018

Songfacts Songwriter Interviews: Richard Ashcroft

On using his songs to seek out a better place in a desensitized world, and coming back for his "Bitter Sweet Symphony" money.

Richard Ashcroft isn't falling for our tricks. "That's where the mystery has to stop for now, Scooby Doo!" he says when we press him to explain the "red box of memories" in "Sonnet," an absolute gem from the 1997 landmark Verve album Urban Hymns. We don't discover what's in the box, but we do learn about what his songs are saying about fame and struggle and this bittersweet symphony of life.

Most Americans discovered The Verve when they saw Ashcroft bumping into people on the streets of London in that "Bitter Sweet Symphony" video, but their story began years earlier. Virgin Records signed The Verve in 1991 on the strength of their songs, which they wrote themselves. Their first full album came in 1993, the year they played Glastonbury and Lollapalooza for the first time, toured with Smashing Pumpkins in Europe, and set out on their first headlining tour, with Oasis as their opening act. Their 1995 album A Northern Soul was poised to be their breakthrough, but their high-impact lifestyle took so much out of them, they imploded while recording it and broke up soon after.

Urban Hymns was conceived as an Ashcroft solo effort but ended up reuniting the band. "Bitter Sweet Symphony," the first single, was a global hit. The follow-up, "The Drugs Don't Work," went to #1 in the UK but wasn't even released in America, where The Verve never again troubled the charts. The group broke up again in 1999; this time Ashcroft launched his solo career for real.

Ashcroft has always had a talent for condensing the swirls of thoughts in his head into poignant songs, but he talks in the expansive discourse of a philosopher, frustrating reporters looking for a quick sound bite (fortunately, not what we were after). We spoke with him shortly after the release of his fifth solo album, Natural Rebel, starting with the first track, where Ashcroft repeats, "You own my dreams."

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Richard, you have a song called "All My Dreams" where you sing, "the radio man said someone died." Who died?

Richard Ashcroft: Whoever died when you put the radio on. It's just every day, isn't it? It's everyday shit, unless you're living in a remote part of the country or the world. When you're in a city, in an urban environment and you've got family and the insecurities of modern-day life, it's just an inevitable fact. It says, "I turn around and I see your face that reminds me of you." It's our vulnerability. Our vulnerability is anybody: parents, husbands, brothers, sisters sometimes.

Songfacts: It's quite a sentiment in that song, how somebody else can own your dreams.

Ashcroft: Absolutely, yeah. That's part of any relationship, in a way. Not all relationships are a perfect ying-yang situation - sometimes people put a lot on someone else. It's a bit like music. If you put McCartney and Lennon together with Harrison and Starr over a series of years, you're starting to mix a beautiful brew together. But if you took two of them out of the mix and put two wrong guys in a recording session, then it's not going to happen, and suddenly everyone's going to be thinking, "Can you get the other two back in the room, because we had something with this combination, this union."

We could, together, reach that dream, but ultimately without that person being willing to follow that path, that reality won't happen. It takes two to tango, as the cliché says, but that's the truth. In any relationship, in a sense, the other person does hold a lot of your dreams within them because if you haven't got a positive love ambition for that relationship, then what the hell are you dreaming for? What are you dreaming about? Ultimately, hopefully, it's spending some healthy time together and being positive.

It's just simple stuff like that, that is actually life. As we see all the trappings and the fear and the anxieties and desires that are constantly beamed at us, of course we're going to lose a little sense, certainly in an urban environment, of an analog world. An analog world that is about tactile things, that is about skin touching, holding, is about tears. It's about that kind of thing.

I had a feeling the other week. Something happened to a younger person and I was thinking we've made language redundant in a sense because you've now got a texting language. People have now got a sort of texting language and everyone's "OMG" to everything.

Real life continues, that's what I really want to say. This analog world will always remain until we become part-machines, which unfortunately it seems like they're forcing us to be down that road. Up until that point, people in your family are going to die, you're going to split up, you're going to fall in love. Real analog stuff is going to take place. That's a basic way of describing it. You learn to live life like Spinal Tap, so you remove yourself from many situations in life and look down on it.

And, ultimately, Natural Rebel is a collection of songs that come in from that world really and they are sung to a sort of desensitized world where even every vocal you hear will add some kind of perfection effect, something that takes away from the real human element of life, which is death, which is birth, which is breakup, which is dreams, which is our aspirations, our desires, our fears.

So really, the album is a union of all those things. I also wanted to send a message to certain people. I wanted each song to have its own flavor, emotionally.

The real groundbreaker for me was my wife bought me an old LinnDrum machine that has got amazing swing to it. And the drummer, Emre [Ramazanoglu], who played on the record, said he's never played to anything with such feel as this machine.

So there were certain pieces of equipment that although they are old, they still have a certain quality to them. Something like "Born To Be Strangers" has got that strut because I wrote that riff with the LinnDrum machine with my Telecaster. It's got that groove because I just programed this simple beat and the way it was swinging just brought this riff out of me.
"Born To Be Strangers," from Natural Rebel, begins:
Fame, fickle fame 
I gotcha going insane with your lit-up fuse

Later in the song, Ashcroft sings:

And some of us will always be strangers 
And some of us we seek out danger 

This all ties into some salient thoughts he has on fame and technology.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about what that song means and talk about your relationship with fame?

Ashcroft: What that song means? It's just that sense of how it's very difficult to be an artistic person in a business like this. When I perform, it's not a theatrical production and it's not your normal rendition of songs. I wrote "The Drugs Don't Work" and the thing is, shit happened in the last 20 years, so when I sing "The Drugs Don't Work" I can't remove myself from that song, so things take on an extra intensity.

I've watched a number of Johnny Cash films and documentaries over the years. Sometimes I see him on stage and I think, "Yeah, I feel that. I know what that feels like." You've crossed that line. You don't know where you are right now. You're in real life, you're on stage, you're singing about yourself.

America for me, especially New York City, was a refuge in a way, just like I suppose it was later on in John Lennon's life, because once he got himself to The Dakota, he had that kind of peace and he could nip out when he wanted to. But England's really small and when you're famous in England, it's different to the States. There's not many places you can be un-famous in your own country.

So, that's a new dynamic. You learn to live life like Spinal Tap, so you remove yourself from many situations in life and look down on it. And, also, it brings a tremendous amount of pressure because people have been sold a lottery dream in life that money solves everyone's problems, and then suddenly you're looking at people and you're thinking: "I know they need X but if I give X then that relationship that should have died years ago is going to carry on and spoil." It opens up a myriad of things that you would never normally be thinking about, responsibilities on a new level.

The Bee Gees called it "first fame." They said first fame can crush nearly everyone, but if you survive and come through it like they did, you'll be OK. Before Saturday Night Fever, they split up for a bit, and then they went on for their second fame. In a way I understand that.

The problem with me is I'd have been more comfortable living in a place like Jamaica where sitting down and talking it through is part of the culture. I like to get to the bottom of whatever's going down, so when you get to the bottom of this you see the explosion in fame for fame's sake.

I come from an analog world and I still love it when I press "record." I still love seeing that. On this record, we did a tape, an orange tape. I know it's quite a retro thing to do, but it's not even about that. It about let's stop devaluing music.

To make a tape, it just brings music back a bit and says, "Stop walking around that fucking art gallery looking at that shit and telling me that's better than Natural Rebel. Telling me that that guy who spent a year spraying some frigging bricks gold or blowing up a pig or something... who cares?"

Who made this art form seem like it was just a wrapping for a fucking phone? Someone came with the hairbrained idea of making what you play it on more important. They made the headphones more important. They made everything more important than the actual energy, the moving air of music.

Songfacts: In "Surprised By The Joy," you talk about breaking away from your fears and your anxieties. Can you talk about how you do that?

Ashcroft: It's difficult, man, because I believe the best possible way is to be more honest with people, like I do in interviews. So, back in the day when I first became a father, I wasn't one of those people that would invite some magazine in to do a story like "Richard and Kate Come Home With Their New Child." So I'm not part of the celebrity/family world.

I was trying to straddle the whole damn thing. This is something that carries on, because once you're into family, that's the whole thing. I'll tell you one thing, I hate when artists get a bit cult leader-y, you know? Jim Jones-y. I might have the shades, but I don't want to be no Jim Jones.

I like messing around taking photographs and digital stuff, but if I can go for a walk by a channel of water in the countryside and be tactile with nature, I find that creatively more rewarding than digital creativity. On this record I wanted to let the songs lead the narrative, not sonic gimmicks. I just wanted really good melodies, strong lyrics, heavy stuff, uplifting messages. It's hard to do a record with no real agenda, but that's what happened. I came down into my cellar, I turned on the LinnDrum machine, I got some chords, got some scraps of songs that I had, and just let it flow to see what pieced together. Recorded a hell of a lot of shit and just picked the best.

Songfacts: Can you take us through some of the other songs on the album? I'd particularly like to get your thoughts on "Money Money."

Ashcroft: Yeah, in "Money Money," I'm sick of the lame guitars, I'm sick of bands or artists that come under the guise of "rock." They're driving the whole genre off the cliff. And it's a message to ABKCO Records. At some point in 1997 a tremendous amount of money was stolen from me and I'm coming back for it.
This is the famous "Bitter Sweet Symphony" affair. The song used an obscure string sample from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones song "The Last Time." The sample was cleared, but not with the publishing rights, which ABKCO (Allen Klein's company, which owned the rights) held hostage until The Verve agreed to sign over 100% of them. So publishing royalties for the song went to Klein and the two fellas who wrote "The Last Time": Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Jagger/Richards are also listed as co-writers on "Bitter Sweet Symphony" even though they didn't write a word or a note of it. We weren't gonna bring it up :)

An irony is that this tussle led to its American ubiquity: Nike, the company that appropriated "Revolution," put the song in a commercial that launched it in the States. Ashcroft didn't like it, but because he didn't own the publishing rights, Nike could have just recorded their own version if he didn't consent.
"Streets Of Amsterdam" is a lament on life and on relationships and growing old with someone. It is a reflection on a different time when potentially there was not as much responsibility. It's all about that, but it's a beautiful tune. What else have we got that we've not talked about?

Songfacts: How about "Birds Fly," where you talk about the two black angels that you bought?

Ashcroft: Yeah. That is whatever anyone wants it to be. What I've found with lyrics is sometimes
people's own interpretations are on another level to mine, certainly with things like "The Drugs Don't Work." I found that was the most sensitive tune to start. I realized then, 20 years ago, if I underline with a big marker pen, The Drugs Don't Work equals whatever, then I'm killing it for people.

I heard about someone who played "Lucky Man" at a funeral, and to me I was like, Wow! But it was his favorite song, so it wasn't about the occasion - it was just his favorite song. Lyrics, context, the whole thing, it's up to the listener. So, I know what I'm saying they are, but whatever kind of angels they are, it's up to the listener. They could be any kind. There's lots of different interpretations, that's why it's a good line.

Songfacts: Well, how about this? In "Sonnet," for example, there are many ways to read that song, but was there a specific "red box of memories" that triggered it?

Ashcroft: Yes, yeah there was. We even took a picture of it, actually. In England it came on an Urban Hymns deluxe thing at some point and I remember photographing the actual box for the sleeve.

Songfacts: What was this box and who was the friend?

Ashcroft: That's where the mystery has to stop for now, Scooby Doo! You haven't had your Scooby Snack yet. You meddling kids, we would have got away with that red box of memories!

Songfacts: You're right - I haven't had my Scooby Snacks this morning. Your songs are ways of coping internally with all these external events. You touched on that with "Lucky Man," how happiness can be coming and going. Can you talk about how that progressed in your songwriting?

Ashcroft: It's all relative, people's pain or people's struggle, so I ain't any different than anyone else. I just thank the Lord that I've got some way of expressing some of it. Really, that's why I have a connection with my fans: because they don't just want a complete reflection of the gutter or how low we can go, they want to feel like we can come out of that tunnel.

And that's the problem I've got with a lot of other artists. That's why I love Bob Marley so much, people like that. It was always, "OK, let's reflect for a minute on where we are, but let's never forget that there's a better place for all of us." That's what I did once I got control of the reins as it were, in terms of the songwriting, with Urban Hymns and then ever since with my own stuff.

Songfacts: What song by another artist had the most profound effect on you?

Ashcroft: That's a difficult one really. I don't know. I fluctuate. Last week I played Straight Outta Compton about 110 times in a row in the car, because the energy of a record like that is so exhilarating and it encapsulates a whole feeling and a movement and an energy so well that sometimes you just have to keep tapping into that. And, not only that, as a musician, as a writer, just seeing how it was put together. The whole thing.

Earlier in life, it was The Stone Roses album. I had already started a musical journey, and because it was contemporary to me, it was astonishing to have this record and then be able to listen to The Byrds and Love, but then have this late '80s, early '90s version of that, yet it was fresh.

So The Stone Roses' first album was a pivotal moment for me, because it made me believe that you can swim in the stew of your influence, but you can still come up with something fresh. It was like a rock and roll version of a hip-hop epiphany, really, that you can still freshen up something that you've been bathing in.

Songfacts: What song are you most proud of having written?

Ashcroft: I don't feel really proud of the songs. I feel privileged to have somehow got myself in the right frame of mind or learnt enough chords or put enough time in, because I'm quite limited really as a musician. I don't know what that is, whether it's laziness or I just don't really like the sound of musos. Unless it's Jimi Hendrix, most virtuosos are boring to me. It's not how many notes you play, it's how many right notes you can play, or what not to play.

So, anyway, I'm not proud of them, I'm just more privileged. And everyone I've worked with, whether they're negative human beings or not, and however I got to be in that space, I'm thankful for, even though all the negative creeps in.

Songfacts: Is there a definitive Richard Ashcroft song?

Ashcroft: It's not been written yet. That's the problem with being someone like me. The problem is, in real life, things are way, way, way more complex, so the definitive Richard Ashcroft song will be when the cream of a particular emotion or a particular scenario in the human condition plays out, and that song mirrors it. So, if it happens to be "Lucky Man" for that feeling of transcendence, of liberty within yourself, your body, your partner in life, you can actually fleetingly feel that moment and you want to put it in a bottle. And that's what music's about. It should be about capturing those moments for yourself and then the listener can put it on over and over again, if they want.

We don't have to watch Star Wars for an hour and a half. Some of the things we like are literally two-and-a-half minutes long. That's the beauty of music. That's why it's the most powerful art form in the world. That's why it had to be diluted, because why would people with power want the power in the right hands?