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Damien Rice Sings for Lovers

Irish singer-songwriter shoots for the heart

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

“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

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

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

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

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