Damon Albarn was so busy recording and touring with his bands Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, the Bad and the Queen over the past two decades that the thought of releasing a solo album barely crossed his mind. "I just never imagined it was something I'd do," he tells Rolling Stone on the phone from England. "Who doesn't love playing in a band? It's fucking brilliant. The best. Maybe I was just subconsciously avoiding a solo album."
That changed two years ago as he was winding down work on The Bravest Man in the Universe, a comeback album for soul legend Bobby Womack that Albarn produced along with XL Recordings owner Richard Russell. "We wanted to keep exploring what we were doing," says Albarn. "We had the inevitable conversation about starting a band. It was fun to come up with concepts and names, but one day he came in and said, 'Look, if you ask me what I want to do, I want to produce you.' And I went, 'Alright, I suppose that means I've got to put it out under my own name.'"
Albarn gave Russell a cache of 60-plus songs and let him choose. Some were digital files, some were on cassettes, some on scraps of paper. Others were recorded on cell phones, including “Mr. Tembo,” which Albarn wrote to sing to a baby elephant adopted by friends in Tanzania. "In an ironic way, it's sort of the most collaborative record I've ever done when it comes to songwriting," he says. "Some of the songs just came from the two of us experimenting in the studio."
The result was Everyday Robots, a mournful, reflective record set for release on April 28th. Many of the songs trace Albarn's life back to his childhood in East London. "I started at the beginning by going back to the neighborhood where I grew up and walking around and filming stuff with my iPad," he says. "It was like my own archaeological dig, cordoning off areas that I wanted to concentrate on."
The nostalgic journey also forced Albarn to contemplate how technology has changed interpersonal relationships, another theme he explores on Everyday Robots. "By going to where I came from, I got a good perspective on a time where there were no telephones apart from the one in your house," he says. "There were no computers. If you watched a TV show, you had to watch it during the particular moment that it aired. I wanted to ask, 'Are we further from ourselves or closer to ourselves because of technology?'"
Brian Eno contributed guest vocals to "Heavy Seas of Love," the final track on the album. "He's actually a neighbor of mine," says Albarn. "I've gotten to know him since we belong to the same health club, though we engage in very different activities. Mine are mind-numbing, machine-based running things. He was doing something much more interesting: unisex water aerobics. Even in the health club, he's being Brian Eno. I just figured you don't hear his voice very often, so I thought it would be a great idea to get him to sing."
Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) sings on "The Selfish Giant" and The Leytonstone City Mission Choir guests on "Mr. Tembo," but the rest of the album was created by Albarn and Russell alone. Russell handled the drum programming while Albarn took on the singing, piano and guitar parts. "We did it in just three months at my studio," he says. "We'd work five days a week, 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m."
Albarn is extremely proud of Everyday Robots, but he has no idea whether it will lead to any more solo albums."I've always made music," he says. "This one just has my name on it. You could say that I'm embarking on a new stage in my life, but really I could turn around next time and do something else. So it's not a given that I've become a solo artist."