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Damien Rice: The world's most reluctant pop star

How the world's most reluctant pop star wrote a best-selling album, ran away from fame, met a Hollywood actress and then came back to fight another day. What drives Damien Rice, asks Nick Duerden. And is conquering his demons enough to keep him on a roll?

A busy London street, early morning. Amid the bustle of weary commuters shines a vibrant young woman whose hair is acting as if it's in a shampoo commercial. Coming the other way, in inexplicable slow motion, is a man, crumpled but still handsome in his unironed suit. Their eyes find one another, and the fumes of rush-hour traffic fade gradually away as lust begins to envelop them both. Into this heady snapshot falls "The Blower's Daughter", a song of exquisite delicacy that clings to the ebb and flow of the action and heightens the emotions exponentially.

A busy London street, early morning. Amid the bustle of weary commuters shines a vibrant young woman whose hair is acting as if it's in a shampoo commercial. Coming the other way, in inexplicable slow motion, is a man, crumpled but still handsome in his unironed suit. Their eyes find one another, and the fumes of rush-hour traffic fade gradually away as lust begins to envelop them both. Into this heady snapshot falls "The Blower's Daughter", a song of exquisite delicacy that clings to the ebb and flow of the action and heightens the emotions exponentially.

If this all sounds pointedly removed from a mere mortal's experiences of daily commuterdom, then it will come as no surprise to learn that it is, of course, only a movie, the opening scene from Closer, the "she" being Natalie Portman, the "he" Jude Law. The film does wonders at the box-office, while the album from which the song is lifted, O - already two years old and on its last commercial legs - enjoys a 100-per-cent sales resurgence. The record company, much as you would expect, is ecstatic. But the singer, something of a contrary bugger at the best of times, is far from happy.

"I wish we hadn't jumped on the back of that particular bandwagon," Damien Rice tells me now, over a plate of chopped and diced Thai vegetables on a balmy June night. Even a year on, the frustration still smarts. "The album had done enough, it had already been TV-advertised, and I didn't want it to be again. I wanted it to be stopped altogether. But, you know," he shrugs, "I didn't want to fight over it."

By this stage in its unexpectedly enduring life, O had given Rice many reasons to fight, and with many people: those within his record company, his management team, and even his own band. As Closer revived public interest in him, he says, gravely, "I had had enough."

This, it transpires, was actually fairly typical behaviour for Damien Rice. Six years earlier, just as his first band, Juniper, were on the brink of big success in their native Ireland, he abruptly quit and fled to Tuscany to live off the land and grow his own vegetables. Later, he ambled around Europe busking on street corners, an act which filled him with more simple pleasures than playing Irish enormodomes ever could. In 2001, by now back in Ireland and with money lent to him by his film-composer cousin David Arnold, he wrote, recorded and produced O, an unusually intimate and stirring album, which he confidently expected would sell no more than 1,000 copies. But over the course of the next three years, it became a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon, going triple-platinum in the UK, and shifting close to two million copies around the rest of the world. His celebrity fans included US talk-show host David Letterman and pop star Britney Spears. The Financial Times, of all newspapers, branded him "extraordinary", and he was on first-name terms with Julia Roberts. And then there was that other actress, the Bridget Jones one, with whom he was reputedly intimate...

"It was all very strange," he admits. So strange, that by the end of last year, its cumulative effects had become somewhat harmful. "I was absolutely wrecked, and I had to take a break. So I did. But I didn't know what to do with myself. Every day was like - was like coming off drugs, or something."

And so he went into hiding. From everyone. For some protracted time, he wasn't sure whether he would ever re-emerge.

Six months after his self-imposed exile, I meet Damien Rice in a vegetarian restaurant in west London. He arrives looking every inch a Glastonbury-dwelling hippie, in a faded patchwork jacket, a pair of threadbare corduroys and some happy-clappy Christian shoes. He hasn't shaved in days, and the hair on top of his head is doing whatever the hell it likes, often in several different directions at once. He looks both older and younger than his 31 years: the crows' feet are pronounced, but the sparkle in his eyes is youthful, and somehow catches all available light and throws it back at you.

"I'm fucking knackered," is the first thing he says, but he says it with a sense of celebration that almost suggests he is happy to be back in the public eye. Who knows? As a consummate contrary bugger, perhaps he secretly is.

Rice doesn't usually do interviews. He hates them, but he is making an exception today, he tells, because he has something worthwhile to talk about. Writing songs, he says, had come to feel like an unforgivably selfish act of late, and he had lost all appetite to attempt any new ones. But after he was approached by the US Campaign for Burma, who asked him to donate an existing song for the Free Aung San Suu Kyi 60th Birthday Campaign, a global initiative to free the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize recipient, he suddenly felt gripped with the opportunity to perform a selfless act. And so he wrote a brand new composition, "Unplayed Piano", and scheduled a live show at the London Palladium to help increase the campaign's public profile.

"To be honest with you, there was no real thought process about it," he says. "They just showed me a picture of [Suu Kyi's] face and I said, Yes, I'll do it. Why? I felt a strong connection with the woman, but it's not like I fancy her, or anything..." He frowns the moment this bizarre suggestion leaves his mouth, as well he might. "Okay, that's a stupid thing to say. What I mean is... well, there is something that drew me to her and gave me, you know, hope that something could be done, but..."

As he attempts to further expound upon the subject, the poor man grows increasingly tongue-tied. While the campaign organisers did take him to Burma (or Myanmar, as it was officially renamed in 1989) to show him conditions local people are forced to live in, he confesses to knowing little about the situation, or the ongoing external attempts to end 40 years of military rule. The basic facts, as he (accurately) comprehends them, are these: in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, as leader of the National League for Democracy party, received 82 per cent of the vote in the country's elections, but was denied power by the ruling dictatorship, who instead placed her under house arrest. Since her time in detention, Myanmar's regime has recruited over 70,000 child soldiers and imprisoned approximately 1,400 political activists, while over two million refugees have fled their homes to neighbouring Thailand. The occasion, today, of Suu Kyi's 60th birthday is being used to once again throw focus on her, and her country's, plight.

But Rice is no Bob Geldof, and is loath to be seen as a political activist. He is just a regular guy, he says somewhat beseechingly, a musician "who has seen something that is wrong and is trying, in some small way, to help."

"Unplayed Piano" is far more palatable than we have come to expect of charity records. In fact, it is a twinkly and beautiful thing, but try to compliment its author on it, and he becomes curiously defensive. There is, it seems, a reason. A friend of his recently told him that the song didn't quite measure up to the clout of his earlier work, and Rice was incensed.

"Of course it didn't measure up!" he shouts. "It wasn't supposed to! My new songs are so much more powerful than this, so much more - I don't know how to put it - more grrr, because they come from deep inside me, from here." Fingers jab urgently at his stomach to illustrate his point, and he digs them in with such force that you feel it's got to hurt. "But this song is my gift for somebody else. If people doubt my reputation because they think it's a little too light, too sweet, then that'll change when they hear the new record, so I'm not bothered. And anyway," he concludes, still bullish, "this is a Damien Rice and [O backing singer] Lisa Hannigan song. It's a co-write, and co-writes are unusual for me." Presumably, he doesn't mean to slight Hannigan here, but it certainly reads that way.

If Damien Rice is anything but your textbook rock star, he is nevertheless one of the more quintessential singer-songwriters of his generation. While any misunderstood young man with an acoustic guitar these days is hailed as the next Nick Drake, only Rice appears to really fulfil the criteria. His motivations are almost devoutly uncommercial, and much of his music is fiercely unsentimental. He tells me that he often writes as a very necessary form of revenge, often after an evening spent in the pub, and references O album track, "Cheers Darlin'" (with its "What am I, darling/ Your biggest mistake?" snarl to a former girlfriend) as the perfect example. Success sits uneasily on his shoulders, and so when his record company insisted on remixing his single "Cannonball" last year in attempt to make him more commercially appealing, he was mortally offended and raged at them for months afterwards.

The experiment did prove successful, however: increased radio play and a boost to his public profile. Rice accepted it like an insult. "But I'm no celebrity," he insists. "I'm just a singer-songwriter guy who seems to have done well over the last couple of years, that's all."

He was born and brought up in Celbridge, just south of Dublin, the middle child of three to working-class parents, and was proud to be the familial black sheep. "They always thought I was strange. Strange and stubborn. Still am."

Following the years of friction with his first band, which came to a head when they argued over whether or not their CDs should come packaged in recycled paper (Rice insisted upon it, the rest of the band "couldn't give a shite"), he realised that he had to go solo. But, as O quickly sailed past its projected 1,000 sales, Rice began to find fault with everyone and everything around him. He turned down most interview requests, refused to pose for photographs, and hated filming videos. While he enjoyed playing live, he would become highly incensed if audience members talked through the quiet bits - and Damien Rice concerts are full of quiet bits.

He was becoming, he now readily concedes, a royal pain in the arse to deal with, and as these myriad dissatisfactions grew, sprouting new tentacles every day, he arranged a series of crisis talks between him and, for want of a better word, his employees. Compromise was what he was after, but the way he tells it now, it was more a case of everybody complying with his very specific wishes.

"I simply explained to them that if they left me alone, the music would be better, and that if they started interfering again, it would fuck things up."

And so they left him alone, but he soon found himself another demon: mounting disillusion. About what, exactly? "Well, I just didn't see the point in continuing," he says. "I mean, for what purpose? To make more money? Money just makes me feel out of balance with my friends, and so I don't want more money. Fame does the same thing. I don't want to be famous."

It was at this point that he decided to seek counselling. "I just needed somebody to talk to," he says. "I needed clarity. And I think I got it." He starts to smile. "You know, I sometimes think that if I made up a new name and put on a mask to do this, I could have a blast, I really do."

And so why doesn't he?

"Because I'm a depressive fucker, I suppose. But I am searching, and I believe there is a valuable lesson to learn somewhere within my melancholy."

At the deepest point of his melancholy, which hit him with force back in January this year, a friend flew over from America for a much-delayed visit. They'd first met two years previously, but work schedules had since kept them apart, and both were keen to catch up. When they finally did, it was wonderful. I ask him who this friend was and, almost sheepishly, he offers me a name: Renée.

"We... we hung out, that's all," he says of his friendship with the actress Renée Zellweger, whose presence in Ireland brought him much tabloid attention at the very point in his life when he needed it least. "People would see us hanging out and immediately think - well, you know." He scratches the ginger whiskers on his chin. "She's really very nice indeed, Renée, so intelligent, so sharp and sorted out. I learned a lot from her, and we became very close and sweet new friends."

But when Zellweger married US country singer Kenny Chesney in May of this year, the tabloids suggested she had unceremoniously dumped Rice in order to do so.

"I'm so happy for her now," is all he says to this sensationalist claim. "And I'm glad I met her. She's a lovely woman."

The following morning, Rice is in Bristol to film the video for "Unplayed Piano", which takes place in a grand house over the course of a great many morale-sapping hours. But despite his famed hatred of such things, he seems good-natured today, and when the rest of the band joins him after lunch, he thrives in their company. And so maybe this most earnest of singers is adapting to his surroundings and, finally, mellowing?

Towards the end of dinner the previous evening, however, he was all over the place, convinced one moment that he was going to die an unfulfilled soul, the next beaming with uncertain joy.

"It dawned on me recently that I'm going to die one day," he said. "And I started to wonder what, precisely, have I achieved in my life? A lot of people may know my name and my music, but so what? I'm still not the most compassionate or enlightened of people, and I want very much to become a better person. At some point, death is going to happen, and I must fill that void before it does."

We then talked briefly of his much-anticipated second album, which he might complete some time within the next month or the next year, but he feared that its completion wouldn't bring him any closer to inner peace. Would anything?

"I can smoke my head off with pot and appear to be very happy, but that doesn't mean anything really. I want more than happiness, anyway, much more." Then suddenly, as if a veil were lifted, he brightened. "Having said that, I have felt myself happier these past couple of months than I have in a long time, and all my friends have been commenting on it. And that has to be a positive thing. It's good to feel that, right now, I'm floating very lightly indeed, don't you think?"

The accompanying smile was predictably Damienesque - full of doubt, oodles of anxiety - but his eyes were vividly, sparklingly alive. m

'Unplayed Piano' is out now. Damien Rice plays at the London Palladium, W1 (020 7494 5020) tomorrow. For more information on the Free Aung San Suu Kyi Campaign visit www.actionburma.com

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