Damien Rice's Wanderlust
Damien Rice likes to wander. The young Irishman has lived on a small farm in Tuscany, spent time alone in an abbey in the south of France with a monk who composed Gregorian chants, and busked his way across the rest of Western Europe. So it’s no surprise that the road to his solo debut, o, was circuitous.
His band, Juniper, signed to Polygram in 1997 and received some attention with singles “The World Is Dead” and “Weathermen,” but Rice left the group when upheavals at the label delayed the planned full-length follow-up. The rest of the band reformed as Bell x1, but Rice needed a break. He had seen a movie about an Irishman who’d moved to the hills of Tuscany to paint.
“The landscape and the lifestyle attracted me,” he said during a stopover in New York on his first stint in North America. “Just this idea of living with a big group of people in a big house out in the middle of nowhere. You all have dinner together. No pretension. Nothing but simple living in this beautiful, beautiful landscape.” A naïve idea, but surprisingly he found what he was looking for on the second day in the region. He met a girl on a bus who had a friend in the area, who had a friend, who knew of a woman with a horse and a donkey who needed some help with the animals.
“I moved up there for a while, and it was amazing. But I discovered I was too itchy still. I knew that I wanted to make a record. After a couple of months of living there, I knew ‘I’ve got to go back and make a record.’”
He was still under contract with Polygram, which had just been gobbled up by Universal, and began recording demos for the label. His A&R representative loved the track, “Amie,” but his boss didn’t think it was commercial enough. “I said fine, ‘F--- it. I’m not going to make something you think is commercial.’”
He hit the road again, this time with no destination in mind. He sent the label a fax from Hamburg, Germany, telling them he didn’t want to extend the option, and began busking his way from city to city. With a guitar, a microphone, and a small, battery-powered amplifier, he made his way through England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland. Some days were better than others. “I literally would be sitting on the street hungry. I’d be starving but without quite enough money to buy dinner. But I’d have to wait until later on in the evening to busk because that’s a better time for the songs. That was a little bit scary every once in a while, but once I got used to it, it was fine.”
But what began as a way to pay for meals became something of an epiphany for Rice. To keep it from feeling like an act of desperation, he only played his own songs. “I did it to make money, but by doing it, … I became happy with just the songs and me and no other reason for their existence. Before they had just become tunes to impress other people. And I hated that.”
Revived but still broke, he returned to Ireland and began recording more demos. With the help of film score composer David Arnold (Die Another Day, Zoolander, Independence Day), Rice bought studio equipment and began recording on his own. The independently released o is a far cry from the flashy rock of Juniper, with whom Rice went by the pseudonym Dodi Ma and played loud hard and loud under a rock ’n’ roll light show. Instead, it’s quiet and beautiful, smart and layered. The album debuted at #7 on the Irish charts, and Rice has been selling out theaters in his home country. While o is only available as an import in the U.S., Rice made his first foray into North America last fall, and it certainly won’t be long before his wandering brings him back.
The Paste Guide to Busking
busk•er (n): most commonly a person who sings and/or plays a musical instrument on the street, usually for donations. Probably from Italian buscare—to procure, gain
Best Place in Europe for Busking Damien Rice: Ireland “I have to say the best place of all for busking was Ireland, funnily enough. It just had the best vibe. You’d get the best crowd, the best money. They were the loosest. Maybe it was because I was comfortable with Irish police, as well.”
Toughest Place in Europe for Busking Damien Rice: Germany “In Germany, they were a little bit strict. They were a bit more regulated, but they would be. If the German police come up to you and ask you to move on, you say, ‘OK.’”
Rice might be thankful that Singapore wasn’t on the itinerary. While the National Arts Council of Singapore encourages busking to “enliven the streets of Singapore and to add colour to city life,” busking there requires a Letter of Endorsement from the NAC and is restricted to an official “List of Locations for Busking.” Fines for breaking any of the stated regulations can reach up to $10,000. That’s a lot of loose coinage.