Damon Albarn describes himself as a “serial collaborator” and it would take a tough prosecutor to refute the evidence. This gifted singer/songwriter/bandleader/producer/composer/label owner has been making music professionally for 25 years and with positive profligacy for the past decade or so, defying the old snobbery which had him pegged as an indie pop frontman with ideas above his station.
Recent dispatches marking the 20th anniversary of Britpop have revisited the infamous Blur v Oasis rivalry. But having come to notoriety as Blur’s hyperactive and, when provoked, gobby singer, Albarn just wouldn’t stay in that Britpop box, pushing the band into more experimental territory to outlive the movement they helped to shape.
These days, he is a much mellower man with less to prove. His back catalogue can do the talking for him. Blur’s place in the pop canon is assured. Gorillaz, the high concept cartoon group he formed with artist Jamie Hewlett, brought him success in the States. His love of African music has yielded a number of collaborative albums and the live force that is the Africa Express ensemble. He has helmed two albums by all-star bands, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon, co-written two film soundtracks, composed two operas, Monkey: Journey To The West and Dr Dee, and co-runs Honest Jon’s Records, releasing new and catalogue sounds from around the world. All are team ventures with Albarn as nucleus, so it’s hardly surprising that a solo record has never been top of his agenda. And yet a solo record is finally here in the beautiful, contemplative form of Everyday Robots.
“I’d be disingenuous to say that it hadn’t occurred to me,” says Albarn, catching a few minutes on the phone while being driven across New York, “but I’d never taken the thought seriously, because I enjoy doing stuff with people too much.” Instead, the impetus came from one of those many collaborators, XL Records head honcho Richard Russell, whose day job is releasing albums by Adele, Radiohead and Sigur Rós.
Albarn and Russell established such a good working rapport when they co-produced Bobby Womack’s 2012 comeback, The Bravest Man In The Universe, that they considered forming a band together, “but it seemed a bit unrealistic for two middle-aged men to start a male pop duo,” says Albarn. “So we knocked that on the head.”
Instead, Russell made an alternative proposal, that he produce an album of intimate songs by Albarn, highlighting the plaintive, melancholic side of his songwriting which has been making grown men weep into their beer since This Is A Low and The Universal distinguished Blur as far more than a knees-up party band.
“I had to go away and think ‘I’ve agreed to do this, now what does that mean?’ and I suppose the only logical direction I felt I could take was to go back and start a huge archaeological dig of my own experiences. So I just started travelling in my own psychogeography.”
This meant illuminating trips back to his childhood homes. Albarn was raised by his artist parents Keith and Hazel in Leytonstone, a multicultural suburb in north-east London. On a Culture Show special earlier this year, Albarn talked about feeling like a giant when he stepped out of the local tube station for the first time in decades. A visit to Hollow Ponds on the edge of Epping Forest stoked memories of the long hot summer of 1976.
“It’s a very evocative date,” says Albarn. “A lot happened in the UK in 1976 – musically, there was a transition, things were really stirred up that summer and, looking back, it felt like a moment where, especially in London, the transformation of the city post-war was really revealed. Everyone was out there in their shorts having picnics, out on this piece of land.”
Albarn wrote Hollow Ponds inspired by those memories, then continued his excavations on the outskirts of Colchester – thoroughly alien territory when he moved there at the age of nine, but also the place where he discovered music and met his future bandmate Graham Coxon. “It was probably something to do with my age,” he says of his musical epiphany, “and feeling like a bit of an outsider when I arrived there from multicultural 70s London to Thatcher’s white Essex. That was a bit of a mindf*** for me really.”
Years later, Albarn was to celebrate such contrasting aspects of English life on the classic Blur album Parklife, written as a reaction against the homogenous mall culture he encountered while on endless tours of the US. The album’s success, in turn, ultimately yielded a Scottish link which Albarn recovered on his recent roadtrip of memories.
In 1995, at the height of Britpop fervour, Blur undertook a tour of British seaside towns which included a date in Dunoon. Two decades later, while toying with a sample of the Oscar Wilde story The Selfish Giant, Albarn was struck by a recollection of that night in Dunoon and seeing a decommissioned submarine – a selfish giant – in Holy Loch.
“It was a beautiful misty evening,” he remembers. “There was a single submarine in the loch – why it was there I don’t know. I had a very strong image of the loch and submarines and walking down the main drag in Dunoon after the gig, going to someone’s house for a party, and a song came out of it.”
Said song, The Selfish Giant, recalls “walking down Argyll Street when the evening colours call” and imagines the dislocation of a submariner staring at his screens (“it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on”). It’s one of a number of songs on Everyday Robots, including the title track, current single Lonely Press Play and Photographs (You Are Taking Now), inspired by Albarn’s memories of the 1999 solar eclipse, which muse wistfully on our relationship with technology, relationships in general and Albarn’s relationships in particular – even if he has an enigmatic way of expressing it.
“Every song is 100 per cent about me,” he confirms. “It wasn’t the easiest record to write lyrically but I don’t think it would be worth even talking about if it had been too easy. In a way that’s how a record this personal has to be made. It can’t be something that you just patch together. It’s got to be a continuous, focused outpouring for a period of time and then you just stop.
“Whatever you say sounds a bit trite when you talk about this kind of thing,” he continues, “but I think I’ve definitely grown up a lot making this record. I’ve learned how to play and sing with my eyes closed – not in the sense that it’s easy but in the sense that I can be completely and utterly absorbed in that moment when I’m singing. Now every time I sing The Selfish Giant I go back to that night in Dunoon, which was a really great night, a fantastic night.”
So great that it’s still on his mind later when I ask if he might play solo in Scotland. “I’d love to,” he says. “Maybe Dunoon? Then I can walk down Argyll Street again.”
• Everyday Robots is released on Monday