I wouldn’t usually attach a foreword to an interview but this one is particularly special to me. I grew up listening to The Verve and Ashcroft’s music has soundtracked many important moments in my life. I found him to be humble, down to earth and a genuinely passionate man who knows his stuff when it comes to music. This interview was conducted prior to his Splendour stint and Australian tour in July.
From Britpop to hip-hop, Richard Ashcroft talks buskers, beaches and bittersweet symphonies. Just don’t mention fusion.
“I’m just giving my wife a cup of tea so you carry on talking for a second,” thus Britpop icon, The Verve frontman and solo artist Richard Ashcroft introduces himself.
Ashcroft will be seen on our fair shores for the first time as part of Splendour in the Grass, and will be playing sideshows along the way in a tour that’s been fifteen years in the making.
“Someone in my past falsely accused me of some rather bizarre things once and the unfortunate thing was that he said these things happened in Australia, which really dissolved the argument at that point because I’ve never been there as a tourist, never mind as a musician,” says Ashcroft.
“But then again, I’ve never played Wales either, I don’t think anyone should take it personally or anything. I’m really excited about coming over.”
Ashcroft will be performing in Australia with his new band, RPA & The United Nations of Sound, a project which came together in New York, though his original intention had been to create a solo record.
“I went out and worked in New York with a guy called No-ID, a producer over there who’s well known for his hip hop and R&B work with Common and he recently did the Death of AutoTune with Jay on the Jay Z album…so obviously he brought in the hip hop, but beyond just making the music there was always a conversation about how I thought, and quite a few people agreed with me, that music’s certain parts of it are going in a direction we don’t agree with and whether that there be so many genres of music and so many subgenres of a genre, it’s like either you’ve got soul or you’ve not, and that’s just one element.”
“Another element is whether you look at the live thing and everyone’s playing with headphones on, whatever you want to gripe about, it’s there for you now and we’d have these conversations as we were making the music.”
The record, entitled United Nations of Sound, is a melding of soul and rock ‘n’ roll, combining the psychedelic elements of The Verve with the balladry of Ashcroft’s solo work. Ashcroft’s passion is palatable when discussing the blurring of musical boundaries.
“The music itself, the album I’m making, you cannot define it… it’s got soul and it’s rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s hip hop in there and it’s more a reflection I suppose over the years, the music I’ve been making, I’ve tried to reflect a grander vision really.”
“[The record is] a place where boundaries start blurring, rather than it being a fusion, because that’s an ugly word as well, fusion, it’s when people start slapping basses or whatever.”
“It’s kind of where the lines blur between roots music, blues and gospel and they’re combined to create something different and I think as we were making this music it felt as if we were touching upon points that were exciting, but also this thing needed a name for these people, and this idea and mentality towards the music.”
Though Ashcroft will arrive with band in tow, audiences will be pleased to know the singer plans to perform a show that encompasses his work as a solo artist, frontman of The Verve and new music, refreshing considering the history of solo artists branching out and away from the bands that made them famous.
“It’s very basic with me, when I wrote songs for Urban Hymns it’s pretty well documented now that for most of the recording of that album I was recording my first solo album. It changed near the end to being a band album so those songs are so close to me that it’s untrue, so now anyone can sing them.”
“Some of those songs I’ve written in the past, they’re covered by guys outside railway stations. Someone heard the song The Drugs Don’t Work on Christmas Day in Africa on a beach which is really, really surreal, so that’s the extreme, you can have a busker outside a train station or someone on a beach in Africa, but at the end of the day I’ve got the right, more than anyone I believe, because once you write a song and release it, it really isn’t yours anymore. But you sing it live, if you choose to as the author, then it’s your moment to have a little bit of ownership over the tune again, in a sense.”
Not that Ashcroft is impervious to finding his own songs redundant. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony still haunts him as the song that made him, and footage of the band headlining Glastonbury a few years back proved the hit still resonates with fans, and as such Ashcroft’s working class roots find him obliging to his audience.
“There are certain songs you think ‘Oh god, Bittersweet Symphony, how am I gonna make that fresh, do I really want to do that?’ I’ll question that, I mean I don’t know whether I’m definitely playing that song, but I’d never rule out playing any song.”
“But also I’m a bit old-fashioned, and I believe that if you’ve been working in a job, perhaps that is not fulfilling or stimulating and you’ve bought a ticket to a show, I’m not there to be cantankerous and so forth, I’m there to lead you into another place which hopefully is going to give you a brief respite or help you celebrate the beautiful life you’ve created for yourself, either which way it is… I understand that feeling because I had it when I was much younger.”
Times have changed since Britpop though, and Ashcroft is living firmly in the present. When the topic of music downloads comes up, his opinion is pragmatic, highlighting that the excitement of finding new music has evaporated.
“In many ways music becoming free and accessible is a wonderful thing, but also it lost its one true uniqueness; it was the only desired thing that was designed and produced and sold that its price had no bearing on its quality… the thing was that you could be paying ₤15 for something you could be listening to in 40 years time, or ₤15 for something that has the shelf life of a blancmange.”
“Like any technology there’s going to be these incredible amazing outlets for people. There’s also gonna be negativity and right now we’re sort of in the middle of it, but it’s exciting times we’re living.”