Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien is taken aback. “I never expected this, I really didn’t,” he says, telling Long Live Vinyl about his first venture into becoming a solo artist. It was a move that surprised even him, but the result is an album, Earth, that has untapped something within the musician. “I feel awakened as an artist now. I’m on a bit of a mission.”
O’Brien’s awakening came when he was living in Brazil for a short period of time. He’d taken over some gear with him, with the vague idea of making electronic music, but it wasn’t connecting. “I wasn’t getting anything back from it,” he says. “After about six or seven weeks, I wasn’t feeling it.” His head and his heart were wrestling. “I thought making electronic music was where I should be,” he says. “I felt that electronic music is the frontier of sound and that it’s where the pioneers of sound are at the moment, but what my gut was telling me was to pick that acoustic guitar up in the corner.”
Then, he put a blast from the past on the stereo: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. Something clicked. “I thought, ‘this is it’,” he recalls. “I wanted my music to have that joy and light, the depth and breadth of that album, with elements of dance, soul and ambient, to be uplifting in parts.” This moment of instantaneous reaction, combined with listening to his gut and knowing that a flat-out electronic album wasn’t in him, began to drive forward what O’Brien was doing musically. It became a project based on intuition.
“It’s been a letting go and surrendering process,” he says. “I’ve really been led by my intuition on this, which has been quite revelatory because your mind can throw up quite a lot of barriers, whereas intuition can see around the corner and what you weren’t expecting. It allows you to see the bigger picture, and so surrendering to that has been the most powerful aspect of making this record. I ended up doing things that I normally wouldn’t. I’d think it wasn’t possible, but instead I was like: just do it.”
In the end, O’Brien says he was trying “to make an existential dance record”. One inspired by the words of Walt Whitman and William Blake and their ability to focus on “this feeling of the big picture. The extraordinary show that is life on this planet.” Musically, the album touches upon ambient dance, such as on the looping, Jon Hopkinsesque Brasil, but it possesses more breadth.
Indie, art-pop and stripped-back acoustic moments also feature, all led by O’Brien’s soaring voice, which feels familiar because of his key backing vocal contributions in Radiohead, but there’s a sense of a new vocalist being born here. Finding his voice, literally, is something that came over time and required a growth in confidence. “If you haven’t got a voice and a character in place, you’re not going to proceed very far,” he says. “Having not done any lead vocals before, my confidence grew over time. It grew from uncertain demos and then working with someone like [producer] Flood, he supported me so much that I knew I’d get there with the vocals.”
A lack of confidence is not something one may expect to associate with a member of one of the most successful bands in the history of music, but it played a part in O’Brien’s journey. “People have asked me why I would feel unconfident and I don’t know. I guess lack of confidence is a sign of being uncomfortable, being in an area that is out of your comfort zone. But I think that that’s the only place to be as an artist because it means you’re on new ground. It’s also very true to the spirit of Radiohead and where I come from that you don’t go over old territory. If you feel that you’ve done something before or you’re doing something for reasons other than artistry or creative pursuit, then it’s not right. So for me this project is entirely consistent with what I’ve known about being in music for the last 30-odd years.”
“IF YOU HAVEN’T GOT A VOICE AND A CHARACTER IN PLACE, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO PROCEED VERY FAR”
Also, a sense of uncertainty is so fundamental to this album and project, one borne almost from accident, that O’Brien embraced it. “It’s about trusting in the process,” he says. “Knowing that you don’t have all the answers but you have a feeling of the process and you have an idea of what you want to do. That’s enough to lead you on. You don’t have to have everything and all the answers there from the start. My limited experience of songwriting tells me that when you’re at that stage you hear the potential of how these songs can be. The hard part is realising that potential, that’s the craft, in getting to that end point.”
Despite this very much being a record plugged directly into the guts and heart of O’Brien, he had some help along the way, too. Catherine Marks, Alan Moulder and Adam ‘Cecil’ Bartlett joined Flood on production duties, whilst there are an impressive number of musicians who feature: bassist Nathan East, drummers Omar Hakim and Glenn Kotche, and The Invisible’s multi-instrumentalist David Okumu. Plus Portishead’s Adrian Utley appears on two tracks, with Laura Marling singing alongside O’Brien on the album closer Cloak Of The Night.
The album is fundamentally an exploration of the micro and the macro. At one end, it pulls out and looks at the planet, and on the other it zooms in and focuses on specific places, people and feelings. “On one hand, this record is me trying to deal with loneliness, which I think we’ve all suffered from,” says O’Brien. “In this case, it focuses on a young woman living in a city in a very patriarchal society. So it moves from the micro of things like that to then the pulling back and the macro of looking at the earth from space.”
DOWN TO EARTH
Earth was put together over a period of several years, with O’Brien suggesting the most difficult part of making the record was when he was called back into Radiohead duty, and then trying to rekindle what had started years earlier. But also over that period the world has changed a great deal, and what O’Brien heard when he slapped on Screamadelica all those years ago was hope.
Does he remain hopeful for the world now and is this a hopeful record? “Hopeful is a funny word,” he offers. “I thought I was making a hopeful record, but I think I was just making a warm record – there’s a lot of love in it, it’s an open-hearted record. There are times when I’m hopeful and times when I’m not. The world is a very different place to what it was six years ago, but all the things going on now I was feeling six years ago – a lot of what is going on doesn’t surprise me because it’s cause and effect, and the cause was there six years ago. We get drawn into the fear and hysteria of our times and one thing I felt was important to do was to pull back up and look at the bigger picture. These are challenging times, but I wanted the music to look towards the light as well.”
The warmth of this record is one O’Brien loosely connects to one of Radiohead’s best albums, in a sense. “The record you make is going to be the product of what you’ve been making before, so the colour and the warmth of the record has connections,” he says. “I don’t think there’s been a warm Radiohead album since In Rainbows . The others I wouldn’t call warm, there’s a coolness to them.”
Was there a need for O’Brien to distance himself from the band on this record then? To make something distinct that could avoid comparisons to Radiohead records? “I had a great conversation with Johnny Marr about this,” he answers. “He said: don’t be scared of sounding like yourself. He initially avoided that, but has since embraced it. It’s your head that says you should do this or that, but it’s your heart that will guide you as to whether it’s right or wrong. Of course, there’s going to be an overlap with what I do with Radiohead. Although the album is distinct enough as it is, so I’m not trying to deliberately move away from Radiohead territory.”
One thing this project does have in common with Radiohead, however, is that O’Brien views it as the beginning of a trilogy. “I like the idea of trilogies and things in threes,” he says. “I always viewed the Radiohead albums as being in trilogies: Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer were all part of one chapter.”
Does being in one of the most critically acclaimed bands of all time lead to a sense of pressure releasing a debut solo album? “When you put music out, there’s going to be some people that like it and some that don’t, and you just have to hope that there will be enough that do,” O’Brien says. “I haven’t read reviews for about the last 20 years, but I need good feedback for this, critical constructive feedback is good. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want people to like it, I do.”
This artistic awakening that O’Brien has had makes him feel rejuvenated, alive and buzzing with excitement for what the future holds. Before the first album is out, he’s already pressing on with thoughts about the next.
“I’m already thinking about the second record,” he says. “That’s the process of creativity, you close one thing and become happy with it and then very quickly start to think about how you can make something better. I’m ambitious musically and I want to do something different. In 10 years’ time, I hope I have four or five really strong albums under my belt and will have really established a musical journey. It feels like I’m at the start of something.”
Daniel Dylan Wray