Damien Rice

The Accidental Rock Star

Music Features Damien Rice
Share Tweet Submit Pin

It’s about 3 a.m., and a motionless Damien Rice is lying on the floor of a small Seventh Avenue hotel suite. His arms resting on his chest and his eyes half-open, the singer is pinned to the floor by utter exhaustion. About four hours ago, Rice waved goodbye to a New York City audience, and the after-show party has now relocated from the Beacon Theatre to this narrow hotel room in the shadow of Madison Square Garden.

Lisa Hannigan, the angel-voiced beauty heard on most of Rice’s songs, is seated beside him, sipping a glass of red wine, occasionally pulling a murmur or two out of her singing companion. Friends, bandmates and crew members, meanwhile, are stepping over Rice en route to the kitchen for beer, wine and pizza. He’s half-awake but smiling gently.

His body is clearly begging for a clean pillow and a firm bed, but it’s not yet time to call it a night. Rice and the band have had many reasons to raise a glass over the past year, but they have even more reasons to hoist them high tonight. They’ve finally concluded a seemingly endless U.S. tour behind Rice’s celebrated debut, O, save an appearance at the Bonnaroo music festival. It’s time for Rice and the gang to step back and reflect, and there’s arguably no better place for that than New York.

The Irish-born singer’s meteoric rise from obscurity began when the city hosted Rice’s inaugural U.S. performance in fall 2002. At the time, Rice’s self-released O was scaling the charts in his native Ireland while making a microscopic dent in the American musical consciousness. Tastemaking deejay Nic Harcourt began spinning tracks from an imported copy of O on Morning Becomes Eclectic, the flagship program of Santa Monica, Calif., noncommercial station KCRW. But as Rice slowly built an audience in Los Angeles, he remained unknown to most New Yorkers, beyond Irish immigrants and record geeks.

So with little fanfare he and Hannigan flew to New York in November that year to perform on the air for Harcourt, who was broadcasting from the Museum of Television and Radio in midtown Manhattan during the CMJ music festival. There were perhaps 20 of us in the audience that afternoon, most completely captivated by the end of the duo’s first song, “Delicate,” O’s soul-spilling opener featuring Hannigan’s operatic swells.

As folksy as he was bohemian, Rice charmed us with his songs and aw-shucks demeanor, especially while gushingly thanking Harcourt. Eighteen months later—after a whirlwind year in which he picked up the coveted Shortlist trophy (the new American equivalent of the U.K.’s Mercury Music Prize), and global sales of O reached some 700,000 copies—the 30-year-old singer seems truly unaffected by it all. Onstage, he’s more fearless than ever, but offstage, he’s just as kind and genuine as he was on that first day in New York.

Before the band’s soundcheck earlier today, Rice and I sat in one of the Beacon’s dressing rooms and chatted about the past year. He said he hasn’t paid much attention to the career leaps and bounds he’s made. Not until early afternoon, after he takes his father on a stroll through the band’s tour bus, do things actually start to sink in. “He saw this and that, and I was talking to him a little bit about what it involves, running a show like tonight, the expense that it involves. It was weird, the relativity of chatting with my dad about it. It blew his mind. He actually put his hand over his head and said, ‘Oh, my god.’

“It’s very weird,” Rice continues, “it’s very strange, especially from where we grew up and how we grew up. We never had that much money. Ireland is a small place. We started off playing music in tiny little bars and stuff like that. So after talking to him, I kind of noticed that I haven’t really noticed that it’s changed. It surprised me that he was so sort of shocked. It was like, ‘Oh, has it really changed? Oh, I suppose. Yeah, we have a bus,’ and”—he pauses—“For me, it’s still just music, and the only thing that changes for me is the constant search for newness and how to improve what it is we’re doing. And that’s what I spend my time focusing on.”

Thanks to the success of O, Rice’s search for newness has become much easier. He’s found himself occasionally overjoyed when pondering his career possibilities. “It’s funny, I would have never expected that. But … seeing the potential that came out of this simple little record that I made—it does make you get excited, especially when you see the members of the band coming up with new things. You get this feeling of like, ‘It would be great just to make a record where we all just jam in a room.’”

If Rice is surprised by the new life he’s created for himself, he should be. Especially considering how unlikely it is that he’d be fielding phone calls from the likes of filmmaker Mike Nichols, who wants the singer to create music for his forthcoming project, Closer. (Needless to say, Rice promptly accepted.) By most accounts, Rice was committing career suicide when he walked out on his first band, Juniper, who had inked a deal with PolyGram. But it yielded an entirely new approach to his music—quieter, softer and built on deeply intimate lyrics.

Rice was so sick of the industry and its hunger for radio-ready singles that, once his new approach coalesced into the songs that ended up on O, he decided he wanted nothing at all to do with the music biz, and recorded and pressed the disc himself, issuing it on his own DRM (Damien Rice Music) label. And he held the industry at arm’s length as long as he could.

Although Rice rebuilt his career with soft, acoustic songs, his future—and the next album—are sure to be a much more electric affair. His currently untitled sophomore disc is certain to reflect the louder, somewhat raucous side of his musical personality.

This isn’t something entirely new for him. He was writing faster songs for O, but they weren’t easy to record on his tight budget. “The songs on O all turned out acoustic,” says Rice, “because … I was limited with the equipment at the time we recorded. I was in my bedroom, and setting up the drum kit and getting a big drum sound in a small bedroom didn’t really work.”

But money is no longer the barrier it once was. Rice went from recording songs in his bedroom to recently laying down early tracks for his next record at the fabled Abbey Road Studios.

When the band’s U.S. tour ended in December, Rice gathered about a dozen friends for a day at Abbey Road. “We got a big room in there and did almost like a gig; we just sat in a circle, and played the songs as if we were just off the tour and playing another show.”

“The new record,” he says, “is not so much a record of new songs as it’s a record with a new theme. It’s the person on O that’s sort of yearnful and, ya know, needs a kick in the head, kick onto the ground, who eventually just stands up and goes, ‘F--- off!’… So there is more aggression. Possibly, there’s more honesty as well.”

Having established himself with a set of intimate acoustic songs, Rice plans to use the new disc to “get wild and freer.” Among the tracks likely to be chosen for the album is the live staple “Woman Like a Man.” “It’s a song about getting so close,” he explains, “so close to somebody that the intensity of the love that you feel for that person has this amazing potential to make you feel amazing hatred for them when something goes wrong, because you have that capacity. You feel like you know them so well, you feel like they know you so well. So they can really get into you and disturb you.”

“Me, My Yolk and I,” another standby from Rice’s performances, is also likely to make the cut. “[It’s] a song about paying money to charity for masturbating when I was younger—or when a friend of mine was younger,” he says, grinning, then changing his tone. “I mean, a friend of mine told me this story. It’s become my own now.

“Then, there’s other stuff, like ‘The Blower’s Daughter Part 2,’ the saga continued, and completed sort of. Again, that’s just like a continuation of what I was saying. It’s like, ‘This has got to die; this has got to stop.’ It’s just like, ‘Great, I’m done with all this crappin’ around. I want to change my life. I’ve had a wonderful experience, but I’m done with being in this circle, this cycle of rubbish.’ It’s not rubbish, because it was wonderful. But sometimes it feels like rubbish when you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over and over.”

Since Rice’s CMJ performance, the red-haired, blue-eyed singer has bared his soul before New Yorkers numerous times, performing at spots as varied as the Mercury Lounge, Irving Plaza and Brooklyn’s North Six. Most have been public gigs, a few were private promotional appearances. One of the latter was a Christmas party in early December for Vector Recordings, the young label that licensed Rice’s self-financed O for sales and distribution in the U.S.

During that show, at the tiny Joe’s Pub, Vector chief Jack Rovner went about the room firing off cross stares at the chatty industry types at the bar, even shushing several individually. At one point, the former RCA label boss shimmied his way between tables to the stage, handing Hannigan bottles of red wine, before she and Rice led the group through an impressively moving and seamless medley of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and Portishead’s “Glory Box.”

While certainly involved in a business relationship with the singer, Rovner is one of the many people surrounding Rice who seems to genuinely love him. And because there are many just like him working for the singer, it’s tough sometimes for Rice to know when to say when in regard to interviews and other label-requested promo appearances. It’s something that he’s struggled with in the latter half of the past year.

There have probably been dozens of interviews—be they phoners with print journalists or studio visits with local disc jockeys—that he’s surely wanted to blow off. And at the start of this most recent tour, he finally closed the flood gates and swore off promo duties for this final U.S. jaunt—thanks in large part to Hannigan.

Rice says that when he’s feeling pulled in different directions and doing things he honestly doesn’t want to—like the umpteeth phone interview—she’ll say “What are you doing?”

“And that’s wonderful, I love that,” Rice says. “For me, she is the way I used to be when I was making the record. I’m obviously busier than I was when I was making the record. I have a lot of other things going on. And she’s a kind of hippie, chill, doesn’t-really-give-a-crap-about-anything kind of person who I kind of connect with every once in a while and remind myself, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t really give a crap about anything.’ And what I mean by that is there is nothing really [worth] stressing about, ever.

“Because we’re working with a lot of different people who are working really hard on our behalf … it’s natural for you to have a small sense of obligation sometimes—a feeling like you want to please them or reward them in some ways. Sometimes they organize things that they think are good for your career, but they’re not necessarily things that I would want to do there in the moment. And that’s natural, because they don’t tour and they don’t know that when we tour, we just like to tour and concentrate on that.”

For those who’ve seen him live during the past year, it’s clear that the Damien Rice live experience isn’t a sleepy man-and-stool show. While always passionate, Rice’s performances have become more compelling because of the chemistry he shares with the four players now backing him. While Hannigan alone accompanied Rice on many of his initial trips to the States, easy-smiling cellist Vivienne Long—another Irish beauty—soon flanked them. When bassist Shane Fitzsimons and drummer John Thomas Osander, better known as “Tomo,” rounded out the group a few months later, the O band was reunited. When Rice and the gang are locked in, the telepathy between the five of them can make for a night of music that is nothing less than transcendent. So it’s a bit of a surprise—or maybe not at all—to learn the band doesn’t use a set list. They instead watch Rice and respond, learning which song is next as the audience does—when he starts singing or strumming.

“Everybody, I think, has sort of learned each other’s space, musically,” Rice says. “And it feels like we play a lot more comfortably together. And we’ve been through a few disasters together, onstage as well.”

Where the show goes depends on Rice’s mood. “That’s the only thing I think is a little bit weird for the guys in the band. One of the guys in the band can be in a mood and we notice it onstage; it affects us all. But if I’m in a mood, it really affects the thing.”

Back in the hotel room, it’s almost four in the morning, and while some people are fading, splitting for home, the band and crew are still finding the energy to smile, debating which shows on this leg of the tour were the best. Rice is grinning too, bidding goodbye to those who are leaving.

Earlier today, while reflecting on the past year, he chuckled, remembering how unprepared he was for the fame—however relative—he’s earned this year. Having resisted stepping into the music industry for so long, he found himself in a number of rather amusing situations. At a festival in Ireland, for example, he found himself before some 40,000 when he broke a string. Without any semblance of a road crew, he just bent down on one knee and fixed the string as if he was playing a small-town pub.

“I’m quite glad we just stumbled into this and just did it whatever way we did it, and it’s kind of turned out whatever way it’s turned out.”