Time & Location
16 Sept 2023, 19:00
Southampton, Brunswick Square, Southampton SO14 3AR, UK
About The Event
Badly Drawn Boy
+ Liam Frost
Of course Damon Gough knows how it looks. Ten years since his last studio album (wince). Yes, there was a soundtrack album in that period, and the Mancunian singer-songwriter does view his soundtracks as proper albums. But that was eight years ago, and the film never came out in the UK, so… (shrug).
So, yes, a decade that was, to all intents and purposes, a Badly Drawn Boy-free zone. And what a badly felt loss that was. Here was a DIY trailblazer who managed to simultaneously blaze and shamble into the music world, straight outta Chorlton, with his still-towering debut The Hour of the Bewilderbeast in 2000. A Mercury Prize-winning debut, no less.
Then, to pick some highlights from a repeatedly enthralling purple patch of creativity: the soundtrack to Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy (from 2002, and 100 per cent A Proper Album); Have You Fed The Fish? (also 2002), which featured You Were Right, his biggest single; and the mental-state-of-the-nation epic Born In The U.K. (2006).
And then: dead-air. Dial-tone. The cat in the hat was missing presumed… “resting”. But even if rumours of his death were exaggerated made up here, ten years is a long time in anyone’s money.
Which begs the question: BDB, WTF?
“I hate saying it’s been ten years,” Gough begins, combining a rueful smile with a guilty squirm, “because it just sounds like: how lazy have I been? But I don’t mind talking about the truth in all this. Because it’s deeply relevant.”
So, deep breath, diving straight in, here’s what happened: life got in the way. Life in all its sick-making plunges and giddy-causing highs. Some really crappy stuff, and some really brilliant stuff.
Eight years ago, his long-term partner and the mother of his two elder children threw him out of the family home. At Christmas. Then, his drinking problem – he’s not gonna lie (’cause Damon Gough can’t lie) – worsened. As did his depression. Rehab beckoned, as did therapy, but certainly not immediately.
In his cups and in his isolation, Gough managed to keep working, just. From the mess he crawled together a song, I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness. He dug deep and alchemised the shit of a split into a song of salutation to his ex-.
“It’s hopefully the only breakup song I’ll need to write in my life,” he says – although if all breakup songs were as beautiful, embracing and loving as I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness, the world would surely be a better place. “But that was the starting point.”
Still, there were further muddy rivers to cross. It would take Gough until 2016 to finally knock on the head the alcohol that had been a long-time personal crutch, and an artistic one.
“Boozing became a habitual thing in the periods of time I’ve been making albums, touring, the last 20 years… I tended to work at night, after midnight, really. That’s when I thought I got my best work done – you’re well into a few rounds of drink and just relaxed. And it worked.”
Until it didn’t work anymore. Gough eventually managed to kick the habit, with the help of a residential facility in Kent, counselling and the love of a good woman. After meeting while he was at his lowest ebb, they were eventually married and, in May 2017, had a son.
In this period, of course, all around, the world was going to hell in a handcart. Gough, like most of us, wasn’t immune to those social and political changes, and they messed up his head even more. But those personal developments were “a big step in my evolution as a person,” he admits, acknowledging the help of the therapy that he finally began 12 months ago. “I’ve had to grow up a lot.”
Now, he says, he wants to help. He wants to reconnect, with himself and with others. He wants to sing and perform and engage again. He doesn’t want to say he’s on a mission, but, well… “It can sound corny all this stuff, but I’ve genuinely made an effort to look at myself, fix the things that were wrong.”
Presenting, then, the emancipation of Damon Gough. Or, per a title he jotted down at one point, A Pocket Guide To A Midlife Crisis. Or, as the new – finally! – album from Badly Drawn Boy is actually called, Banana Skin Shoes.
Or, to give it another name: only the most glorious, colourful warming, honest pop record you’ll probably hear all year.
Gough’s ninth album begins with a blast, a toot and quite possibly a parp. The opening title track is statement of intent, mea culpa and call to arms – and it does all that to a riotous, Beck-meets-Beasties “cartoon-y” hip-hop throwdown.
As he sings in that much-missed soulful rasp: “It's time to break free/From this plaster cast/And leave your pastbehind…/It's time to supersize your soul…”
It’s the singer acknowledging that “I’ve slipped up here, so what am I gonna do about it?” But equally, it’s the singer refusing to be dragged down (or, worse, write a woe-is-me wrist-slasher). Rather, the song is upbeat, defiant, inspiring – and fun.
They’re attributes it shares with second song Is This A Dream?, the teaser track that snuck out in early February. It’s political with a small “p”, but pop with a big “P”.
“I do think it’s the poppiest record I've made,” he acknowledges, correctly. “But within that frame of pop, I want to say a few things, and try to subtly be a conscience for people that might think like me, whether you call it your fanbase, people who are likeminded, Remoaners or whatever…”
Still, again, that took a while. Away from his personal “journey”, Gough also made many actual journeys to and from studios and producers. Four years ago he recorded six songs in eight days with producer Youth. Then year-long paternity leave got in the way. Then he worked with Keir Stewart, ex-Durutti Column, who's a neighbour and has a home studio. Then, bunkering in Eve Studios in Stockport, he worked with producer Gethin Pearson (Kele Okereke, Crystal Fighters) to whittle down 20 new songs to 14 that told a story.
Gethin recruited musicians including Public Service Broadcasting’s Johnny Abraham on brass, Skindred’s Daniel Pugsley on bass and Davey Newington (aka Boy Azooga), who recorded his drum parts at the legendary Monnow Valley Studios in Wales.
Slowly the songs and the recordings swam into focus. The toughest, he says with an audible wince, was I Need To Someone To Trust. But the Brexit-level sonic negotiation and graft was worth the effort. Beginning with a delicious nod to (oh yes) Chicago’s soft-rock classic If You Leave Me Now, it’s a spiritual song of salvation-seeking and, frankly, air-punching.
There’s more retro-futurist pop on Fly On The Wall, which evokes the Eighties pop-soul of Hall and Oates (“I’ll take that”) and lush piano-and-strings ballad Never Change, which is wholly Nilsson-esque (“I’m really flattered by that comparison”). Over 14 songs Banana Skin Shoes is the sound of a songwriter skipping between musical idioms, and between emotional extremes, but doing so with a cool, calm confidence.
I’m Not Sure What It Is acts as another cornerstone, what Gough describes as “a milestone song for me, like Once Around The Block. I’ve done a couple of small gigs recently and I sing it on the piano solo, and it feels like a standard.”
Lyrically, it’s a bracing note-to-self: “I’m tired of climbing ladders/Just to slip down all the snakes/Enough of swings and roundabouts/Just to make the same mistakes/My patterns of behaviour/Are beginning to wear thin/Can see the destination/But never sure where to begin.”
As he says now: “It’s poking fun at me and my failings. I’ve been having the therapy over the last 12 months to change my patterns of behaviour. Some days I can’t cope with the world. I’m trying to articulate this stuff but it drives me mad. So I'm trying to make this less of a struggle for myself. I don’t wanna be a struggling tortured artist anymore. I wanna enjoy this.”
Shout out, too, to Tony Wilson Said. It’s a Motown-like soul-stirrer and foot-tapper, and a celebration of the late, great mover and fixer of the Manchester music scene.
“When we emerged in the Nineties, people like me, Andy Votel, Doves, Elbow, there was a thriving scene in Manchester largely because people like Tony had kept things going through pretty hard times. And this song literally was one of those that fell out of the sky and landed in my hands at the piano.”
There are more tributes on the last song. On the absolute torch and twang of Do My Best, Damon Gough brings it all back home. The immaculately tailored closing song includes a nod to his failings, a prayer to his partner, a promise for the future and a lyrical tip of the hat to his once-and-always hero, Bruce Springsteen. “I had to work in how ‘it’s hard to start a fire when it rains’, which is obviously a bit of a nudge to ‘can’t start a fire without a spark,’” he smiles, unabashed.
The point is, in more prosaic terms: previously Badly Drawn Boy was alone under a cloud, getting pissed on (and getting pissed). Now he has loving partner and the clouds have cleared (and so has his liver).
“I’m paying tribute to all that.”
There are, finally, two quotes that inspired him to get back in the feelgood (and sometimes, sure, feelbad) saddle. One he saw written in a work space quite recently: “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring to this space.”
The other he read in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles when it came out 2004 years ago. “My grandmother said, always be good to anyone you meet because you don’t know what they’re going through.”
Out of all the darkness of the last decade, those thoughts became beacons of clarity, lights to guide his way.
“Everybody has a duty as a human being, especially in these times, to just bring something good to the table,” concludes reborn, rebooted, rebounding Damon Gough. “And if you’ve got something crap, leave it where you found it or just don’t bother. It’s as simple as that. That idea is in the chorus of I Need Someone To Trust: ‘Bring it back, make it whole.’ That’s what I'm trying to get across on this album. This is my attempt.”
For sure, a decade is a long time in pop music. It’s a long time full-stop. But when you hear Banana Skin Shoes, a towering, hard-won achievement, you have to think: it was worth it.