Badly Drawn Boy Biography
No one else makes aching lo-fi folk sound quite so transcendental, or lyrically renders the ordinary so extraordinary. Live, moreover, no one else combines sweet, tender songs with the wit and quirky banter of a stand-up comedian. Which is no doubt why his gigs attract everyone from film stars (Meg Ryan, Harvey Keitel, James Caan) to disaffected indie kids to clubbers who crave tunes, and why his new album is entitled Have You Fed The Fish? (XL Recordings/ARTISTdirect Records) “because it’s the question that gets asked the most at home.”
“The whole album is a reflection of real life versus the incongruous stupidity of the life I now lead as a minor celebrity,” he says. “So the statement that meant the most to me was ‘Have You Fed The Fish?’ The fish angle is symbolic of the fact that it’s the tiniest things that need the most looking after, as opposed to the jet set lifestyle that’s occurred because of my songs. I rub shoulders with people that I’ve long admired. And that’s the thing I’m trying to understand a bit more about and whether it means anything to me.”
He has been, as he puts it, a “minor celebrity” ever since 2000’s long-awaited debut album, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, won the highly-coveted Mercury Music Prize, thanks to its inimitable, winning combination of wit, vulnerability and glorious stripped down tunes. Its fans, of whom there were many, understandably, included one Nick Hornby and directors the Weitz brothers, whose film of Hornby’s About A Boy Badly Drawn Boy scored. But though its sprightly, winsome songs were the subject of much praise, introducing him to a whole new audience, “it didn’t pull my heartstrings quite like ‘Have You Fed The Fish?’” Which is understandable: said album is superb.
Placing more emphasis on guitars than on ...Bewilderbeast, it is unusual in so far as it combines maturity with ingenuity, resulting in an album that boasts few antecedents. On “You Were Right,” perhaps the finest song he’s yet produced, he attempts to comprehend his new-found lifestyle; (“This album was started in January, then I took a break for Oscar, my second child, to arrive in March and then returned to LA”) by flipping, unexpectedly, from humour to pathos, lamenting the deaths of Jeff Buckley, Frank Sinatra and Kurt Cobain. “I’m most pleased with that song ‘cause it says everything that I want to say at this point,” he says. “It’s a bit of a message to yourself track. It’s a reminder of what’s important and not to lose your marbles. More than that, it’s a reflection of exactly how I feel about people who’ve died because of music.”
“How” is the sort of track that buskers will try to emulate and fail, oblivious to the fact that Badly Drawn Boy’s a one-off. Fed The Fish?, for its part, begins like the soundtrack to a ‘30s horror film before making its mark in more amorous terrain (‘The keys to your heart open the door to the world/You’ve got to give me two days and, woman, I’ll make you a girl’), while the nimble “Using Our Feet” is Young Americans era Bowie minus the cheekbones. “For me the key to staying in the game and remaining credible is to slightly expand your boundaries and think, ‘Well, I can do a song like this now. I can do a song with limited or massive instrumentation’,” he says. “They’re one and the same. The goal as a songwriter is to find the core. I want to evolve into someone who, ultimately, can write entirely acoustic albums, like a ‘Nebraska’ or ‘Freewheelin’ by Bob Dylan.”
Right now, in 2002, he has one prime concern: to convince those who casually label him ‘shambolic’, albeit affectionately, that it’s no longer apt. “There was only a short period - perhaps after I won the Mercury Music Prize - when that was applicable. I was never inept, but I wasn’t as professional as I might have been. But I don’t think it can be said again because I think there’s something about what I do that is valid in today’s climate. Being called shambolic is no longer appropriate.”
Being called a maestro, though, is appropriate. After all, that’s what he is. The Boy is back in town.