With fifth solo album Natural Rebel out now and a UK tour underway, Richard Ashcroft’s star is once again in the ascendant. John Earls meets him in the studio for a personal rendition…
Long before Long Live Vinyl turns the dictaphone on to formally speak to Richard Ashcroft, he’s already offered more entertainment than most singers’ full interviews. We meet at State Of The Ark Studios in Richmond, where Ashcroft has recorded since The Verve. He’s chosen the venue so he can play two of excellent new album Natural Rebel’s songs at full volume on the studio speakers: unabashed love song That’s How Strong and the album’s swaggering closer, Money Money.
Although he merely mouths the words to That’s How Strong while sat next to LLV at the huge mixing desk, by the time the riff from Money Money kicks in, Ashcroft is on his feet, pacing around the console and giving the familiar ‘Come on!’ outstretched-arms gesture as he yells the song’s words to the studio wall. He looks every bit as happy as he does facing an arena audience. Not only is your startled reporter here, but so is Ashcroft’s producer Jon Kelly, his publicist Katie… and his friendly wife Kate, the subject of That’s How Strong.
Just as Katie and Kate discuss where our interview should take place, Ashcroft strides off down a side room, grabs a pair of swivel-stools; and that’s when the fun begins. You don’t so much interview Richard Ashcroft as play pinball, hoping any words you manage to get in will lead him down a route that may occasionally resemble the question you asked. Which isn’t to say Ashcroft isn’t engaged – he’s just got more life going on in his head than even someone with his rapid-fire mouth knows what to do with.
Ashcroft’s eccentricity is a reputation he’s keenly aware of, and playful with. “I started out as Mad Richard,” he acknowledges. “I’ve avoided the traps I could have fallen into and, after a lot of scrapes, I’ve got to the point where I’m a professional human being now. I’m thankful for what I’ve got, and for what my fans want to hear. I still want a good time and to have a laugh, but I can’t be out of my mind taking drugs. People always want the northern soul to be luxury scum. If you want, I can be luxury scum. But, really, do you think I’m going to be daft enough in this visual age to look like a trawlerman from some indie band standing in a field of rapeseed oil?”
Indeed, having shaved his head for his previous album These People two years ago, Ashcroft is back to looking the luxuriously haired, whippet-thin Proper Rock Star he’s essentially been since Verve debut A Storm In Heaven 25 years ago. Do his supersize sunglasses stay on for our interview? Of course. Ashcroft’s medical certificate probably states: “Colour of eyes: mirrored.”
A recurring theme in his discourse is that it’s time to “draw a line in the sand” between quality music and everything else. That isn’t to say Ashcroft is a ‘real music = guitars’ traditionalist. He speaks as approvingly of Drake as Catfish And The Bottlemen. For Ashcroft, it’s all about intent.
“I want to take people back up a level,” he asserts. “There was a time when people woke up to what was happening and went ‘Yes! Fuck that fake shit. We want these musicians’ energy: they’re us, and we’re them.’ You’re either an end-of-the-pier entertainer on steroids, or you’re making a living from your own creation.
Ashcroft has previously stated his antipathy towards The X Factor, but is more amenable now, saying: “I saw the show at the weekend, and I actually thought, ‘Bless everyone on it’. As an entertainment show, carry on – make your money and enjoy it. But don’t come onto musicians’ turf, because you’ve got a six-month prime-time TV advert every year. The mainstream needs to start accepting that the ones who come from a different path to get their songs must have some kind of vehicle within that mainstream. There’s two parallel cultures now. But we can come together, without dividing us.”
As part of that unifying vision, Natural Rebel shuns political lyrics in favour of songs of love and hope. It’s a message Ashcroft is fully committed to, explaining: “I’m trying to be more open on this record. I can’t save the world, and I don’t have a great enough opinion of myself to believe I can guide anyone in any political way. But I can offer a transcendent experience when you see me play live. We can leave the daily world behind, to go to a higher place than that.”
What about those who say it’s music’s role to reflect the world in which it’s made? “I get groups of people at my concerts who may have thought they were divided: at the front of a show in Glasgow, it’ll be one guy who supports Rangers, another Celtic. Why would I affect that with my opinion? I’m more like Socrates. I haven’t worked out the answers, so you tell me, oh all-knowing-one, what we should do. Because my job is to survive this business, keep a family and try to become a better man.”
It’s a theme expressed most directly in that’s How Strong and its declaration of love for Kate, the ex-Spiritualized keyboardist who married Ashcroft in 1995. “I’m glad to have got that song down forever for me and Kate,” he smiles. “I admired John Lennon doing that with Woman. It would have been easy for Lennon to have done a punk-sounding record and been regarded as cool. To make Woman when punk is happening? He’s opening himself up, and that makes him the biggest punk of all. Woman is as punk as it gets.”
The new album’s lead single Surprised By The Joy features the line “I’m surprised I’m alive, I guess.” But Ashcroft makes it clear he’s not referring to his own past misadventures. “It’s not about me, but the sense that waking up every day is a personal resurrection, and that’s a miracle in itself,” he says, his smile filling that narrow face. “Every day, you get a new start.”
At its best, Ashcroft feels his music contributes joy. “I’ve written songs that are modern-day folk classics. The Drugs Don’t Work will be handed down among generations, whether it’s vinyl, digitised or all of that finishes. People will still go: ‘Do you remember that song that went, ‘All this talk of getting old…’? I was 26 when I wrote that, and me and my audience have been through a hell of a lot since. And I’m still learning from those songs I wrote years ago, I’ve not outgrown them – the meaning of some songs I wrote in my 20s is only hitting me now, like a stone.”
As an example, he cites The Drugs Don’t Work and its description of someone past the point of medical care. “I lost my nan and my auntie recently, and this is the first time either of them won’t witness an album of mine. Playing The Drugs Don’t Work now, it’s…” Ashcroft tries to sigh with regret, but begins to cry. Taking a gulp of water and, yes, removing his sunglasses to wipe his eyes, he soon recovers his composure. Our interview had been delayed while Ashcroft arranged his grandmother’s funeral, and he ruefully smiles, saying: “Sorry, man, it’s a bit raw.”
There’s no need for Ashcroft to apologise – as he points out, gigs like this are one of the few places it’s socially acceptable for men to cry. He doesn’t like to over-complicate the emotional he he wants that music to have, explaining: “I don’t know much, and I know that, in a sense, I’m limited. That’s not on purpose, but I know that there’s so much more to explore with the music I make. So why would I try to play a jazz chord in the middle of a song, just to show that I can?” He admits new song Birds Fly shares its chord structure with Dion’s Runaround Sue, laughing: “I could have said to the musicians: ‘Can you squeeze something in there, so it’s not like all those other songs?’ But I want that essence underneath my melody, as I love ’50s rock ’n’ roll when it was just about the song, not obsessively analysing everything.”
One area where Ashcroft feels technology brings benefits is the ability to release music instantly. He approves of artists such as Kanye West and Drake constantly releasing new music, and hopes to follow suit. “I can go: ‘Right, it’s February, Natural Rebel is still out there, how about these eight tunes which maybe have a completely different spin?’ I’m excited by that freedom.” Before These People, it was six years since Ashcroft had released new music. “I’ve had a lot of clogged years, a lot of pain and a lot of wasted time,” he concludes. “I’ve reflected on that as I’ve got older. I can either go down with all that waste, or I can get on with the time I’ve got left. I was known as ‘Columbo’ in The Verve. And now it’s time to make haste – this is Columbo Rides Again.”