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Damien Rice In The 'Here And Now'

San Francisco — Damien Rice is a man questioning his faith in love. "You know when you've found it, because you feel it when they take it away," the 29-year-old Irishman sings with a gentle Zen spontaneity and enlightened sadness, characteristic of the style throughout his self-produced debut, O. The critically acclaimed album was released in the United States in late June, after a year out in Ireland and the UK. O is a song cycle that traces the arc of a relationship.

Rice, who plays guitar, piano, bass, clarinet and percussion, has turned his troubled heart into a thoughtful, soulful folk-rock album that has won him awards in his own country (three Meteor Music Awards for songwriting), and rave reviews in the UK and, most recently, the U.S. "I don't want to be famous," Rice said, attempting to explain himself during an interview at San Francisco's Café Du Nord, a dark little basement club with blood-red velvet curtains, a mahogany bar, and crystal chandeliers that give it the feel of a brothel from the late 1800s.

Still, Rice's resistance to fame has not stopped him from appearing on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and opening for Coldplay. "I do want to play music," Rice emphasized. "And I don't have any fear with regard to the music, where it goes, because I have learned it goes better if I follow it, rather than me deciding where it goes."

Thus far, the critics seem too agree with the results of this attitude. Rice has gotten rave write-ups in such high-profile publications as Newsweek, Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times and the New Yorker. While Newsweek called O, "An out-and-out gorgeous CD, so full of undiluted, unfalsified emotions that it verges on open-heart surgery," the L.A. Times described Rice as "Nothing short of a complete package of art, personality and presence on a level with Jeff Buckley or Thom Yorke." A writer for What's On in London enthused, "Only Bob Dylan comes close to such cracked passion."

Rice radiates a boyish bashfulness and mischievous energy. Though not tall, he has a tremendous presence. Speaking in a discreet Irish accent, he used the word "passion" several times to describe a certain type of inspirational exasperation that fuels his art. Sometimes he delivered the word with such a force that he nearly doubled himself over. He sat animatedly, poised to pounce when an idea that resonated with him passed by. Clear marine-green eyes grew rounder, and his fit vegetarian body larger, in relation to his excitement. He is both sensitive and scrappy, in looks and demeanor — a dark-blond grunge poet.

Sitting at a small round table near the back of the club after sound check, Rice spoke passionately about a life journey he has been on that has allowed him to find success making music on his own terms: "I got to where I wanted to be, and it wasn't where I wanted to be!"

'The Dream Betrayed Me'

His first band, the hard-rock group Juniper, were signed to PolyGram Records and had a hit in Ireland in the mid-'90s. Rice was suddenly on the way to becoming the rock star he had fantasized about being while a teenager in high school. Only problem was, he was very unhappy. "The dream betrayed me," he said.

Promises were made to him by people in the music industry that were not kept, he said. He felt that he was losing control of his music and his life to music-business executives. Disillusioned and depressed, he decided to do the inconceivable: he would quit the music business altogether, leave the band that comprised his closest friends since childhood, and move to Tuscany, Italy, to grow tomatoes.

Once in Tuscany, he embraced a new personal philosophy: "I'm just going to do whatever it is I do, as opposed to planning what I do and having an idea about where I want to be."

The ambitious self-challenge to stay unambitious yielded an unexpected epiphany. One day while sitting on a hill overlooking the fields below, he began wondering what exactly it was about Tuscany that made it so beautiful. What he suddenly realized is that it was the symmetry of the fields, the precise spacing of the olive trees in the groves — the way it all fit together that produced such a harmonious effect on the eye. He knew then it was not the music industry that was the problem, it was his problem with control. "I just ran into [in Italy] what I ran away from — me having a difficulty with form, but being completely attracted to form at the same time," he said.

This insight was quite liberating, Rice said. He hit the road, spending a year bumming around Europe, playing his songs on street corners before returning to Dublin. Finally, he was ready to make a record on his own terms, for himself, without stars in his eyes and without obligation to a corporation with commercial objectives.

When asked "Why make a record? Why not just play in your living room if you had such a strong aversion to re-entering the music world?", he replied, "It's an experiment. It feels like the natural thing to do. I did not think many people would like this record at all. I decided this was the only record I was going to make; I'm not going to get involved with the music business again. So I'm just gonna make this, make a beautiful cover for it, and just say 'If anybody likes it, you can have it.' [It was] an experiment to let this thing out of me that I wanted to do."

A Story Tale of a Relationship on the Rocks

Once drawn into Rice's music, like one caught unexpectedly in a rip tide, it's best not to struggle against the album's emotional currents. O is the tale of a relationship on the rocks: sweet, self-destructive naïveté swaying in manic musical winds. Compassion suddenly turns to desperation, acceptance to cynicism, then a gale of soaring spiritual hope that love will be reborn from the devastation of passion. Surveying the ruins from his soul's shore, first quietly, then with the anger of a dark Irish rage, Rice rummages through the debris, looking for signs of life. He is accompanied on his search, and on the album, by the tragic romantic voice of Lisa Hannigan, the mysterious muse credited by Rice for her "huge help" on the project.

O's lyrics raise more questions than they answer, but after listening to the album, (and seeing him live, if you're lucky enough to witness his performance), you're left with the refreshed understanding that comes after putting a complex question to bed, and waking up with equanimity. On the song "Volcano" he admits to Hannigan like an apologetic lover, "You step a little closer to me, so close that I can't see at all," sadly concluding, "I can't take my mind off of you, 'til I find somebody new."

Rice's antidote for overindulgent self-scrutiny is found in these simple, straightforward statements from the heart. His songwriting has a quality of "the truth will set you free," which he relies on again and again to keep this "spiritual" music grounded. The transitions between the songs are deliberately ambiguous, creating a stream of consciousness effect. Sometimes, Rice is serenading Hannigan more than singing with her. Oftentimes, he is menacing and bitter, projecting the fury of frustrated desire and the defeated fatalism of knowing his lyrical prayers for forgiveness and deliverance will not be answered.

A few times, Rice and Hannigan communicate with such lush solidarity and precise authenticity and pitch it pierces your heart and might even make you cry. He seems to be gently unfolding a tale of his truth, looking back on the making of the record and their relationship, allowing her to whisper her side of the story. In the tormented, confessional, and strangely inspirational "Coldwater," Rice embellishes the song with a both sinister and soothing Gregorian chant (inspired by the monks at the monastery he lived near in Italy) which anchors the song's question — "Am I lost with you?" — and supports the drowning sensation the melody evokes. "Lord, can you hear me now? Or am I lost?!" he pleads.

The religious metaphors that swirl in the whirlpool of Rice's memory spiral towards surrender to their traditional symbolism, but what triumphs here is the conviction that it is the mysteries one can never solve that are the most honest and fulfilling sources of hope. By the end of the album, he seems to be floating in a sea of serenity, at peace with his personal spirituality. He has embraced a gospel that offers no answers for himself or anyone else: "The only thing that is solid for me is the realness of just never knowing where you're going to be, what your going to do, and loving that," he exclaimed.

'Just Walk Down There At Night'

Before his show in San Francisco, Rice said that if one really wants to understand the "feel" of his music, go to Killiney Beach in Dublin. "It's a stony beach, where the waves are quite crashy," he said. "Just constant motion. Just walk down there at night and listen to the record — it just makes sense then."

He could not explain his songs that evening, perhaps aware of the inevitability of diminution trying to relate to another one's inner perception of the reality, of something you feel rather than see. He preferred instead to suggest politely to the people who would listen to his "experiment," that if they insist on trying to understand anything about it, focus on the emotion of the record, not the mechanics. "It's like lovemaking," he said of his songs. "Everything in life for me that I absolutely love has exactly that same essence."

Although he's a fan of such soulful artists as Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen, Rice has said that he doesn't listen to music much. It wasn't until his teenage years that he decided he wanted to make music. "I know I always sang," he explained in his official bio. "In school I was always in the choir, but I didn't have one of these classic upbringings, like Joni Mitchell records playing all the time and my parents being hippies. My dad plays, so there was always that, but it was never a musical household from the point of view of having loads of records in the house, or music playing all the time.

"My dad had one Dylan record and I listened to 'Blowing in the Wind' on it," Rice continued. "But that was the only song I connected with when I was a kid. I used to spend a lot of time outdoors. I had a dog and I used to fish a lot. Down by the river and taking the dog for a walk — I used to spend tons of time like that on my own. The time the music came into my life was when my elder sister had a boyfriend who played guitar. Then girls came into my life, and fishing kinda stopped. I picked up the guitar at that time, and once I had something to play while I was singing, it just never stopped. I used to find a lot of peace just writing something and playing it over and over to myself in my room. I was always getting into trouble for not doing my homework."

O was recorded, over a two-year period, using a small, mobile studio his cousin, the producer/arranger/artist David Arnold (best known for scoring recent James Bond films), donated to his effort. With this flexibility, Rice was able to immerse himself in his creative process as it flowed through him, be it in his kitchen in Dublin or on the streets of Paris. To help him flesh out the music, Rice, who produced the album, enlisted some of his favorite musicians from around the globe: New York drummer TOMO, French pianist Jean Meunir, cellist Vivienne Long, and opera singer Doreen Curran. Together with country-mate Lisa Hannigan, they will join him on his first world tour starting this September.

At one point, with $10,000 of funding from Arnold, he tried mixing the album at the famous Air Studios in London, and did a bit of recording there as well, but was not pleased with the results. (Just one song, "Amie," from those sessions ended up on O.) Frustrated, he returned to Dublin and mixed the record himself on the 8-track machine that he used for recording most of O. He also chose to release the album independently, forming Damien Rice Music in 2002; in Ireland and the UK the album has sold over 30,000 copies. In the U.S., Rice passed on major-label offers, instead licensing O to the new indie label, Vector Recordings (Vector has a distribution deal with Time Warner AOL's WEA division).

In the U.S., O got its first airplay last October after David Gray's management team sent a copy of the album to Nic Harcourt, music director at the Santa Monica station KCRW-FM. After Harcourt played songs from the album on his influential show, "Morning Becomes Eclectic," Rice became the station's most requested artist, according to the Los Angeles Times. At the time, O wasn't even available in the U.S.

A Road That Leads Through Hell

Rice presented his San Francisco fans with a scorching performance. That night at crowded and chaotic Café du Nord, he performed the songs of O as if he were taking part in an exorcism; his passion quieted even the loudest drunk at the bar. His fierce and fearless intimacy with the sell-out crowd was heroic, as if for the first time he was bravely standing down a dragon that had possessed him for too long. He sang the story of a time and place of overwhelming mood, revisited from the safe emotional distance of the stage. Abstract, yet familiar, themes lingered throughout the sets; stanzas of an epic musical poem.

Like Dante, Damien reminded us that the way out of our dark forests is the road that leads through Hell. Languidly haunting and heart-bruising melodies, so primal they felt awakened from the darkness of an ancient time, led us down the lonesome path Rice had cleared for us to follow him that night. They floated heavily in a "halfway to dawn" kind of rhythm and tempo, as the sensitive songwriter Billy Strayhorn had once so elegantly defined the perfect mysterious atmosphere for honest expression.

Smoldering incense gave the stage the sensuous aura of an exotic church altar. The sweet-smelling smoke defined a physical space for the psychic place between life and death, both asleep and awake, a fully absorbed consciousness in perfect harmony with the moment. Not even a group of inebriated fans singing "Hallelujah!" could break the spell, or Rice's concentration. He performed his lovely acoustic album with the ambiance of a fluid and powerfully nostalgic, candlelit dream, transforming before our eyes his aching heart from feeling to form.

Rice has created a debut album describing his bittersweet emancipation from the grips of passionate love. He titled the CD O because "like with relationships [CD's] go round and round in circles and you never learn from your mistakes, and it's always the same thing over and over. So many of the songs are like that as well, about the same mistakes, that whole thing we do in life — just going around in circles."

It appears as if the album enabled a catharsis that will be explored on his next project. "[These songs] express that cycle that I went through," he said. "In that, it happened here, and then, Oh God! It happened here — a song here and a song here.... And Oh God! These are all saying the same thing!! It's like I've gone through that cycle over and over in my life...and then the next record feels like that cycle gets pushed off the table and it all gets smashed and you get really pissed off. The next album is really aggressive, really angry."

Regardless of what the future holds for Rice, he is a young man who has searched everywhere for a secure place for his heart to live, and has found his home in the moment. He has had his dream come true, and lived to tell about it. He has traded the desire for fame, fortune and fantastic love for the richer realities of the here and now. "I'm used to having nothing," he said, quietly but intensely. "I've been really happy with nothing, so I'm not worried about anything!" — Nicole Cohen [Friday, July 11, 2003]

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