Great Britain

Damon Albarn on how nature influenced new album The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows

DAMON Albarn vividly recalls being dispatched to a farm aged five.

It was a life-changing experience for the little boy from a Victorian terraced house on Fillebrook Road in urban Leytonstone, East London.

“My mum was seriously ill in hospital for six weeks, then she was convalescing for two months,” he says. “So I went to live with my grandparents up in rural Lincolnshire.”

The peace, the solitude and the wildlife all had a huge impact on Damon and help explain why the great outdoors informs his solo works now, the latest in particular.

“Going to that farm was very influential for me,” he affirms. “I spent a lot of time sitting in my grandad’s Land Rover, following him around all day, hanging out with his dog. I was on my own a lot, too.”

He would have spotted farmland birds — maybe kestrels, rooks, woodpigeons, lapwings, skylarks, buntings, finches and wagtails — and soon birdwatching became a hobby.

“I joined the Young Ornithologists Club,” he tells me. “I had the kestrel badge and I was very serious about it.”

It’s clear David Attenborough isn’t the only “D.A.” with a passion for the natural world.

Damon continues: “Once, during a really snowy winter, we had a bird feeder in the garden.

“I worked out if I wore a white muslin cloth with two little holes for my eyes and if I was really still, I could stand next to the feeder and watch the birds close up.” 

Profound and poetic

All these years later, he is releasing The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, the follow-up to 2014’s autobiographical debut solo album Everyday Robots. 

Two songs are named after birds, The Cormorant and Daft Wader, suggesting Damon’s childhood infatuation has never left him.

I was a Young Ornithologist and had the kestrel badge... I was very serious about it’

The project began as an orchestral piece inspired by the rugged beauty of Iceland, where the singer keeps a house. There he recorded serene instrumentals with a classical ensemble but, as the pandemic kicked in, his work underwent an enforced and dramatic shift.

The album had to be finished in Devon, where it morphed into 11 songs drenched in old-school synths, processed beats and found sounds, complete with thought-provoking lyrics. It is possibly the most profound and poetic thing he has ever done.

If Gorillaz is Damon’s vehicle for riotous sound collages and intense collaborations, this is how he reveals his heart and soul.

It is another notable swerve in a vast and varied CV featuring Blur, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Africa Express and scores for stage productions such as Monkey: Journey To The West and Dr Dee.

“They even like it in America, which I’m very surprised about,” says Damon of his new effort. “Apparently they like soothing music at the moment.” We’re talking via Zoom, Damon at his Devon farmhouse where he likes to feed the crows, and me at our HQ overlooking London Bridge.

Though torrential rain is sweeping in from the West, he picks up his screen to show me the view from his window — a picture-perfect impression of England’s green and pleasant land.

“It’s literally the end of the line down here,” he says. “There isn’t another house in a two-mile radius. You are seeing the valley I live in and the sea just beyond.

“Further up, the landscape opens up into a bay with a lighthouse. I swim there every day when I’m here, summer or winter. Right now, September into October, the sea is at it warmest.”

This leads us on to another spectacular view, the one Damon can marvel at from his house on the edge of Reykjavik.

He holds up a picture of a desolate bay framed by snowy mountains and immediately launches into more talk of birds.

“The water recedes at low tide, leaving mud flats,” he explains. “Thousands of wading birds gather here.”

‘Magical world’

These include distinctive black-and-white eider ducks, their mention prompting a fascinating anecdote from Damon.

“In the ancient deeds for the land I own, there’s an agreement that all the people in this area share the eiderdown,” he says. 

My collection of old synths is a labour of love, like old cars

“Eventually you can accumulate enough to make a duvet but the most amazing birds we have there are ravens. You really appreciate how big and how smart they are.”

Just as he loves Iceland’s fjords, glaciers, geysers, volcanoes and waterfalls, Damon admires the Icelandic people who, he says, are steeped in myths and legends.

“They’re still very much in touch with their magical world,” he says. “It’s because they’ve had to deal with such crazy physical problems. At one point in the 16th Century, the population went down to 200 because of plague, starvation and volcanic activity.

“The imaginations of Icelandic people are supremely attuned to big, open spaces where they set their fantastical stories. 

“They are also very calm, balanced people, very democratic, and they don’t have an overt class system like ours.”

Damon is happy to report that his new album incorporates the haunting sound of an Icelandic stone marimba, a percussion instrument usually made of wood and akin to a xylophone.

“It was put together by this amazing artist who has a workshop up in the mountains,” says Damon. “He gets the stones, including some really big ones, from streams but forming a coherent, harmonic keyboard can take years.”

How fitting it is that the album title includes the words “more pure the stream flows” then. 

Damon accepts the general mood is “melancholic” but the sweetly sung final two tracks, euphoric Polaris and airy Particles, adopt a “joyous” tone.

Particles, he says, emerged from “an intense metaphysical conversation with a rabbi from Winnipeg” on a flight to Iceland.

“This lovely old lady told me she was trying to escape from certain particles but she couldn’t. If they were meant for you, they’d find you, she said.”

He mused on this notion in the context of Covid but also turned his thoughts to the aurora borealis or Northern Lights, a familiar sight at their North Atlantic destination.

“The aurora is a beautiful spectacle, a direct result of particles sent on solar winds from the sun,” he says.

“They die when they hit the Earth’s protective skin but, in their death, they cause a chemical reaction that gives us a magical light show.”

Damon smiles at the thought of “particles constantly moving chaotically. When chaos happ-ens, it’s joyous!”

I wanted the whole record to have a strong poetic feel. Its mood demands it

‘Poetic feel’

He likens it to the randomness of our journeys through life, inevitable death and thrilling rebirth and this brings us on to the album’s title, a couplet from the elegiac poem Love And Memory by John Clare.

One of the Victorian poet’s best-loved works, it is a meditation on grief and renewal with imagery drawing on the passing seasons and the wonder of nature.

Damon is a huge fan and says: “Clare was a working-class poet, an interesting guy and really ahead of his time. He even checked into a wellbeing clinic, 19th Century-style.

“When I was much younger, my mum gave me an anthology because he was from Essex and we had spent a lot of time there. I’ve had the book for ages and I’m a dipper into poetry.

“I underlined the ‘nearer the fountain’ line years ago because I thought it would be a wonderful springboard for something.”

When Damon sat at his keyboard in Iceland, gazing out of his window at the pure, wild scene and subsequently invited the small orchestral ensemble into the room to play, he knew he had the perfect title.

But it was only when the project continued in his makeshift barn studio in Devon and lyrics started to flow that the rest of Love And Memory “came into focus”.

He says: “I wanted the whole record to have a strong poetic feel. Its mood demands it.”

For these sessions, he brought in long-time associate Simon Tong, the ex-Verve guitarist who plays in The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and composer, arranger and Gorillaz live-band member Mike Smith.

Again, Damon points to his screen, this time to show me the stone building which has become a haven for his music endeavours during the pandemic.

“I’m having it renovated in the next year,” he says. “It’s very rough-and-ready, extremely cold, damp and very dusty.

“We all got chest complaints and some days the instruments didn’t work. I had a guy who was constantly having to drive down and fix my collection of old synthesisers. They’re a labour of love, like old cars.

“The one I use most on this record is an Elka, a classic Seventies synth that would have been used by people like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It’s huge — huge. Weighs a ton!” 

If The Nearer The Fountain is a product of lockdown, the opening up of society means Damon is finally getting to perform its songs live.

He says: “I’ve already done some weird and wonderful things playing this record.”

On Monday he is putting on a solo show at Shakespeare’s Globe on the capital’s South Bank, which he is “hugely excited” about. 

He will be revisiting material from Dr Dee, his score for an opera about the life of Elizabeth I’s scientific adviser — not exactly the Chris Whitty of his day, mainly because he dabbled in alchemy and the occult.

Damon says the Dee music and his new album are “bedfellows” because of their exploration of metaphysical concepts. “But I can’t just spend my whole life doing that stuff or I might disintegrate and become just particles,” he laughs.

Next year brings more solo gigs “in lovely old concert halls around Europe” as well as huge festival dates with Gorillaz.

He’s also writing an orchestral suite for the Holland Festival in Amsterdam and hopes to return to Paris to reprise his African opera in four languages, Le Vol Du Boli, a collaboration with Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako.

I suggest that, with everything going on, Damon really is a bit like a particle, pinging around the universe.

“OK, I am a particle,” he agrees. “Sometimes the oppor-tunities arising for me are quite tangential.

“But if they offer me the promise of making music, I will follow them. I just want to make music.”

DAMON ALBARN

The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows

★★★★☆

The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows - track listing

1. The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows

2. The Cormorant

3. Royal Morning Blue

4. Combustion

5. Daft Wader

6. Darkness To Light

7. Esja

8. The Tower Of Montevideo

9. Giraffe Trumpet Sea

10. Polaris

11. Particles

Damon Albarn gets carried off stage

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