Interview: Damien Rice

Singer-songwriter on how he lost and found happiness

Damien Rice plays Shanghai in May 2016
After cornering the market for aching, melancholic pop ballads with his singles 'The Blower’s Daughter' and 'Cannonball' – and achieving platinum-sales in the process – Damien Rice vanished off the map. Having retreated to Iceland, 2014’s My Favourite Faded Fantasy arrived almost out of nowhere, a full eight years after 9, the singer-songwriter’s previous album. Ahead of his two shows in one day in Shnghai, Rice, ever a reluctant star, begins by telling us why success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

After your early solo success you said you felt unhappy and disheartened. What was it about succeeding that didn’t seem to make you happy?
When I had a goal, something to reach for, I postponed happiness in pursuit of that goal, thinking that I’d be happy once I achieved my dream. However, I eventually noticed that achievements only supply short bursts of relative happiness that quickly fade. I took time off because it didn’t make sense to continue doing something when I was unhappy and I really wanted to figure it out. I can’t say that I found any clear answers but I have noticed that I feel like I was doing it backwards before.

I used to think that happiness either happened or it didn’t, depending on what took place in one’s life. Now I’ve realised that, for me, happiness is a decision, in that I just choose to be happy regardless of what’s happening and life happens anyway. So I no longer chase goals thinking they will make me happy – I’ve found that to be an illusion, at least in my experience. Happiness is now a daily practice, much like brushing my teeth.

How bad did your feelings get?
Sometimes it felt as if the meaning had been stripped from my life. But, slowly, as I sat with these uncomfortable feelings, I began to see that they were mostly self-generated – I was actually the one creating and controlling this apparent mess in my head. Much like learning how to play an instrument, I did a lot of practise in learning how to keep my mind in tune, which has helped a lot. It’s very easy to get swallowed by madness or over-control.

You ended up in Iceland. What was it about the country that so appealed to you?
I love the open-mindedness of people there. No particular religion took a strong hold in Iceland, so there’s a different attitude to life, at least among the people I’ve met. Where in Ireland I grew up surrounded by a lot of pointless shame and guilt, Iceland seems to have a lighter load in that department.

There’s also an openness about following one’s artistic dreams in that country. People don’t seem to mind if their artistic ideas are considered unusual or crazy, they just go ahead and do it, and people support each other in it. It’s quite beautiful and inspiring.

What was it like working with Rick Rubin on My Favourite Faded Fantasy?
The relationship between us felt very nurturing. Rick has a great way of helping to entice the artistry to come through. Creatively, I was quite blocked and Rick helped to open the channels so that the music could flow. He also helped me put away the scissors that I’d used to cut up and throw out unfinished ideas. He helped me to stop judging my work and instead to see it through to the end.

The latest album’s gestation was a long one. Was there any particular aspect that was difficult to pin down?
The whole process was difficult. I had fallen out of the flow, that innocent and magical place where songs and ideas just flow through the body. I’d become quite self-conscious and self-critical and was caught in a loop of destroying everything that came through me with negative criticism.

Do you think with My Favourite Faded Fantasy and the recent songs for The Prophet you’re back to releasing music on a more regular basis?
Who knows! What I will say is that I’m feeling very creative and inspired to release a lot of music, I’ll just have to wait and see if that happens…

Douglas Parkes