On a January evening in Los Angeles, Britney Spears and actor Colin Farrell made tabloid headlines by making out vigorously in the VIP room of the Troubadour club. What compelled them to get so affectionate so suddenly? Quite possibly the music of Damien Rice. After all, the rakish twenty-nine-year-old Irish folk sensation, whom they came to see perform, crafts songs that attack the heart strings like an angry bee.
Rice's debut album, O, brims with swelling string sections and unrequited longing. Self-released and self-recorded, the album has garnered glowing reviews from the U.K. press for its absorbing melodies and emotional wallop. Comparisons to David Gray and Jeff Buckley have been made, and there is a passing resemblance to Sixties folk singer Donovan. But Rice, who has lined up two U.S. appearances for July before mounting a full seventeen-date tour starting in September, is nothing if not determined to be his own man. Growing up outside of Dublin in the town of Celbridge, Rice discovered at thirteen that songwriting felt as good as any other boyhood pursuit.
"It was literally like discovering masturbation," he jokes. "I'd just play for hours and a song would pop out. In high school Rice and his friends formed a band called Juniper, in which he played guitar and shared the singing. In their eight years together, Juniper managed to score a record deal and a loyal following, but Rice felt constrained by the band's more straight-ahead rock sound.
"There's a place in Dublin called the Olympia," he says. "It holds 15,000 people. Everybody's played there: Radiohead, Neil Young, Bjork. It was my dream to play there -- it's like a watermark. I was standing backstage, with my manager with his arm around my shoulder, and there was all this hype. I had gone onstage like a performing monkey, doing what all these people had paid to see me do, but missing the actual experience."
Commercial expectations compounded the problem. "I got into a big fight with the record company over the direction of the music," Rice says. "They'd promised me freedom on the second single, but I was brought into the office and told, 'This is what you're doing.'"
When creative differences within the band emerged, Rice figured it was time to split. "The lads didn't really like the acoustic songs I wrote," he says. "They wanted to go in more of the Radiohead direction. I'd had the taste of being signed, getting to record in the top studios that U2 had been in, getting to play the gigs . . . but underneath it all, I was genuinely unhappy," he recalls. "So I decided to run away to Tuscany [Italy]. I had this dream of living in the hills and thought, 'Jesus, it's not that far away.'"
But a funny thing happened in those hills. "I'd kind of given up on music," he says. "I figured I was just gonna be a farmer or something." Rice recalls having an epiphany while surveying the rows upon rows of perfectly manicured vineyards and olive groves. "I like being scattered and random, and I'd left because the record company was trying to box me in and make everything orderly and functional. I suddenly realized that I'd come to a place that was very similar to the state of mind I'd complained about being in before. I was just bringing my stuff with me and not escaping anything."
Rice returned to Ireland a new man, recommitted to music but determined to listen to his own muse. In order to avoid compromising his vision, the formerly scattered singer decided he'd have to put his hands in everything. Rice set up his own label "just a part of my room with a computer and a fax and phone." He also borrowed enough money to buy portable home studio equipment and make his dream album.
Rice threw whatever pleased his ear into O, including opera singers, Gregorian chants, and secret weapon, Lisa Hannigan, who shares vocal duties on the album and performs with him on tour. Possessing a honeyed voice that falls midway between Bjork and Cat Power, Hannigan has earned her share of admirers among Rice's fans. "You definitely get that," he says, laughing. "Especially on the message board. You get a thread that starts 'The Lovely Lisa Hannigan,' and all these people going, 'I love her.' 'Oh, I love her too.' 'Well I'm going to marry her.' 'No I am.'"
A year after its release O remains on the Irish charts, and was recently put out in the States on Vector Records. But, in the wake of his success, Rice is still careful to listen to his muse. "I never want to be so busy that my job becomes 'someone who promotes his music.'"
Damien Rice tour dates:
7/17: New York, South Street Seaport
7/20: Philadelphia, Great Plaza
9/10: Philadelphia, Theatre of Living Arts
9/11: Toronto, El Mocambo
9/13: Boston, Paradise
9/15: New York, Irving Plaza
9/16: Pittsburgh, Club Cafe
9/17: Louisville, KY, Headliners
9/18: Birmingham, AL, Workplay
9/20: Nashville, Belcourt
9/21: Atlanta, Cotton Club
9/23: Chicago, Park West
9/24: Minneapolis, Fine Line
9/26: Boulder, CO, Fox
9/29: Vancouver, Richards
9/30: Seattle, Crocodile
10/1: Portland, Aladdin
10/2: San Francisco, Great American
10/4: Los Angeles, Fonda