27 October 2021

Richard Ashcroft: 'You can feel the lineage from Urban Hymns'

The former Verve vocalist is revisiting some of his old songs for Acoustic Hymns Vol 1, an album recorded at Abbey Road that includes a guest appearance by Liam Gallagher 

Richard Ashcroft explains that his throat is hoarse on the back of two recent sold-out performances at the London Palladium, his first shows since a plan to take his songs around the world with various orchestras were shelved.

Not one to be stopped by a global pandemic, the swaggering front-man has mustered his forces and reworked the back catalogue for the new long-player Acoustic Hymns Vol 1, recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London.

“It was pretty full-on; like a science-fiction B-movie. I never want to see that again; 22 string-players in masks. Abbey Road was open, I thought if everyone is up for it let’s do it and credit to everyone they went in and got on with it,” says the singer who hit the headlines during the summer for refusing to play gigs that were enforcing Covid restrictions. 

The album includes eight songs from Urban Hymns, his international blockbuster with The Verve which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year.

“It would be really difficult if I was steaming in with a new album right now,” says the singer who celebrated his 50th birthday last month. “This time was meant to be about going to Australia and Italy and working with those orchestras. It’s the worst time ever to put out an album but I know my fans wanted some content, it’s a bit of nourishment and light; there’s a lot of love in these songs and it’s as simple as that.

“You can feel the lineage from Urban Hymns,” says Ashcroft nodding to his songwriting breakthrough. “Songs like Velvet Morning, Space and Time and Weeping Willow were never singles. On the album [Urban Hymns] I sing Velvet Morning through a loudhailer and I love that version, but I thought it would be nice to sing it properly with where my voice is at now.” 

Urban Hymns captured The Verve at their zenith, amid the spaced-out ambience of Neon Wilderness and full-throttle psychedelic rock of Rolling People saw Ashcroft push rock'n’roll towards hip-hop beats, sampling, strings and loops to create a compelling sonic stew. It felt like a violation when The Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein claimed 100% royalties from the album’s lead single Bitter Sweet Symphony.

“You can’t have everything your own way,” says Ashcroft philosophically. “In terms of real ownership that song had already left the building, it had already become a people’s song and opened up the world to me. There’s a deep connection between us all and that sentiment just resonates from Bitter Sweet Symphony whether you are in the toughest city in Mexico or the Glasgow Barrowland. I started to do different versions taking out the loop and changing the rhythm.”

When a discussion between both sides’ management began about a reworked version of Bitter Sweet Symphony (without the Stones orchestral sample of The Last Time) it led to Ashcroft being granted publishing rights, and provided momentum for this new collection.

The conversation turns to an encounter with the band's late drummer when Ashcroft supported the Stones in 2018 for shows in Edinburgh and Manchester. “That was special and with the passing of Charlie Watts even more so. Everyone does a photo with them, it’s all a bit of a blur but what was strange; as they left the room Charlie turned around and looked at me. I said to everyone afterwards, ‘Charlie sent me this kind of telepathic message’; it was like: ‘This is mad isn’t it? Imagine what it’s been like for me all these years!’. There was no way he was going to leave that room without acknowledging that to me.”

While Urban Hymns was perceived as a game-changer by the time Ashcroft released his United Nations of Sound album in 2010 he was on the receiving end of a critical onslaught by the London-centric music press. A new stripped back version of This Thing Called Life from the album features on Acoustic Hymns.

“I wanted to launch that record in America and build it there, essentially they got it more, it was rock'n’roll meets hip-hop, soul and R&B, I got more of an understanding there than with the British media. Is it something in our psyche that if you don’t like something you take a stab at it? How about you pause for a minute as an industry and then promote something you do like instead …which is more like the American mentality. Someone like Van Morrison has given us Astral Weeks, if he was American it would be award season for the rest of his life; why do artists need to be taken down as a sport?”

Ashcroft points to Liam Gallagher’s two-sell out shows at Knebworth and the former Oasis singer's remarkable comeback. “Something is happening when they are like ‘what’s going on; I thought we buried him?’…with those gigs Liam’s put on, the horse has bolted. Instead of being trampled on, rolling over and being carted out for the chicken-in-a-basket tour, like those '80s [nostalgia] tours, this is different in the way that the Stones are different, some things are different.”  

Since The Verve began playing gigs with Oasis as far back as 1993, Ashcroft and Liam Gallagher have stayed in contact for nearly 30 years. He suggests it’s a relationship that “goes beyond” friendship, perhaps alluding to the fact that while Gallagher’s brother Noel is absent, Ashcroft fills something of that void. Touring together as unknowns, then as rock stars, and providing succour for each other during feast and famine has created a significant alliance.

“There’s a huge connection and we acknowledge that. Obviously, it goes back a long way, we have a kinship because we are both the dude at the front, which we take on and enjoy but it comes with a lot of sacrifices. He got it way beyond a level where I had it and what I had was enough for me so I can empathise. Also just as people, words don’t have to come into it, there’s something else going on. There is a support where you might not see and speak to each other for a certain amount of time but we just pop up at the right time.” 

Ashcroft invited Gallagher, who also appeared on Urban Hymns, to record C’mon People (We’re Making It Now) for the new release. It was the song he first jammed with Gallagher as far back as 1998.

“People need to appreciate the soul in Liam’s voice. For me, I could appreciate my song again, like any creative person, we are always on to the next thing and we all have insecurities but that was so fantastic to hear. It’s this brilliant, natural thing and he knows that. There are special reasons and musical reasons that it sounds the way it does, he brought his musicality and added something so it works on multiple levels. Hopefully one day in the future we can create something brand new, that was about creating something [during the lockdown] that was good for us all, it was about saying life is not grinding to a halt.” 

A cinematic nod to James Barry 

Acoustic Hymns features a nod to John Barry (Born Free, James Bond soundtracks, etc) on Ashcroft’s tune, A Song for the Lovers. Originally demoed for Urban Hymns and released as a solo single in 2000, the new version evokes the haunting 1965 soundtrack of The Ipcress File starring Michael Caine. 

“I always liked the sound of the dulcimer,” says Ashcroft. “I’m a big fan of those John Barry scores. With the original version, I was trying to make future music, on this, I wanted to draw it back. What I wanted was to paint a picture of driving on the Grande Corniche in the south of France or Italy somewhere. I wanted to put the lovers there cinematically and into that situation from the intro. It’s romantic and exotic, this idea of driving to meet the lover, it puts you in that space straight away. We brought in [Rolling Stones pianist and touring member] Chuck Leavell, it was just great to see all these people being creative during that time."