Damon Albarn is the Britpop survivor. No one associated with Britpop was able to move on as gracefully or inventively as the Blur frontman. Albarn has regularly reinvented himself, to the point where you just expect the unexpected from him. In Blur, he wrote the most ingenious songs of his generation. In Gorillaz, he co-created a chart-topping cartoon pop/hip-hop collective that heightened the mixed media experience. And then there are all of the other disparate collective projects, from Mali Music and a Chinese opera, to two projects with legendary Afriobeat drummer Tony Allen: the Good, the Bad & the Queen, and Rocket Juice & the Moon.
Now, as he releases his debut solo album, Everyday Robots, he also finds himself marking the 20th anniversary of Blur's Britpop-defining classic, Parklife. The contrast between the two albums couldn't be greater. One is by a man in his mid-20s looking to ignite British youth culture with some bitingly playful social commentary. The other one is by a man in his mid-40s both looking back on his life and observing the frantic, tech-obsessed future unfolding before him. Only Albarn's unmistakable voice really links them. But hold them up side-by-side and you hear the palpable evolution: cheeky pop virtuoso who kicked open the door for a massive musical movement becomes seasoned singer-songwriter singing his own type of soul-folk music.
Exclaim! reached Albarn by phone to discuss why he chose to make a solo album after 25 years, how much he likes his iPad, whether we'll hear anything more from Blur and Gorillaz and how serious he is about collaborating with his ex-nemesis, Noel Gallagher.
I read that Richard Russell convinced you to do a solo record. I imagine there have been plenty of opportunities between projects. What made this time right?
It was working with Richard again, but with this time me being the subject matter and not Bobby Womack. The reason why this sort of came about, was because Richard turned around and said, "I'd really like to produce you now." So we had a very good working relationship, and I think this record is really a by-product of working with Bobby Womack. I think his influence has informed this record.
Did you ever think about doing a solo album prior to Everyday Robots?
Why would I? It's kind of the last thing I'd consider doing. I love collaborating. That's the beginning and end of it. It's a rewarding experience, but it's a very different world when it's about yourself, I'm finding. Everything is excruciatingly on the individual, and it's way beyond anything I've done before. But I'm old enough and ugly enough to deal with what comes my way. Nonetheless, I also see myself primarily as a father. So there's a very fine balance between being candid and cognisant of the reality of having a teenager and the social media world that exists now.
You produced Bobby Womack's album with Richard. What was it like for you to turn around and have him produce your album?
He was somebody I completely trusted and I knew he would be a fantastic editor. I knew he would be honest with me and he wouldn't settle for any half-finished pieces. I knew he'd make me work really hard. I suppose that was very necessary with a record like this. Although it maybe comes across as quite an impressionistic record, everything is very thought out and autobiographical. Not everything is in a particular order, but they all happened.
Why did you decide to make this album personal? How much more personal is Everyday Robots than, say, some Gorillaz and Blur songs?
No more. It's just the sort of concentrated, complete record of that nature. As opposed to them appearing and then moving into something different. But no, I've always written personal songs. That's the reason it went this way. Richard sort of pinpointed the areas of my back catalogue that he responded to over the years. It's essentially the more melancholic, personal side of my music making. So that's why this one sounds so like that. But I think it'd be a mistake to say that's who I am. That's just what this record is.
Is it easier to write songs at this point?
Well, I will always love writing like this because I think it's a lovely tempo to sit down at a piano and sing your heart out. And the lovely thing about the songs on this record is that I can perform them completely on my own or acoustically or with a band. They can work in so many different ways because there's so little in them, you can reinterpret them every time.
What does your daughter think of Everyday Robots?
Yeah, initially she said it was a bit slow and boring. But I think she's grown a bit. Just a few days ago she said she really liked my new video for "Heavy Seas of Love." Obviously whenever my daughter likes anything I do it's the greatest kind of compliment I can get. I wrote songs for my daughter's birthday and recorded them ever since she was born. On the last one I presented it to her and she actually cried because she was so embarrassed and didn't want me to do it anymore. So I've stopped. It's heartbreaking. But that's her growing up.
You're 46 now. Do you ever see yourself writing another loud rock song like "Bank Holiday" or "Song 2"?
I don't really like shouting that much anymore. I am 46. I can still shout. I did a lot of shouting. I've done my share of shouting.
What do you think your next album will sound like? Slow? Fast?
Yes. I'm determined that my next record will be very upbeat, and I will try to set myself the benchmark of 125 bpm and nothing underneath that.
Would you have more guests on it?
If I did that it would inevitably turn into the next Gorillaz album. Which it may well do.
Some songs reflect on the numbing effect technology has on us. You recorded a Gorillaz album on an iPad and made your new video on an iPad. How affected are you by this?
I've made two videos on an iPad. They're fantastic because they don't cost anything! The cheapest video I think we made with Gorillaz was a quarter of a million pounds.
Do you rely on it?
I try to rely on it as little as possible. I do find that it's a fantastic creative tool when you learn how to work it. Unfortunately, it's only the simplest technologies that I use. But the iPad has been very productive for me. I don't have a smart phone though. I won't do it. Partly because they know where you are at all times. Whoever they are. Whoever they are I don't want them to know exactly where I am.
That sounds like another theme for an album.
Yes, yes, that's the next one!
What made Brian Eno the right voice for "Heavy Seas of Love"?
Like all these things they're extremely random, how they come to be. Both Richard and I know him, and he came down to the studio to listen. I think we were both curious to get his feedback. He's the producer's producer in many ways. He was very positive about it, and we thought "No one hears Brian singing anymore and he's got a great voice why not ask him?" So we did and he agreed, which was obviously a very thrilling moment for us.
His voice sounds fantastic on the song.
He's got a beautiful singing voice. He has a choral group that he holds every Tuesday in his studio, which is just a very informal thing. But if you want to sing, you can go to Brian's studio every Tuesday. I believe it's open to the public too. They sing a variety of music.
You're always so active. What do you have planned next?
Yeah. I've got a very big thing I am struggling to find the time to start. Hopefully next month I can sink my teeth into it though. I'm not going to say, but it's a big thing. I just haven't had any time to think about it.
Which will come first: a new Gorillaz album or a new Blur album?
A new Gorillaz. I have no idea whenever I will make another Blur album, if ever. It's just something inside me that says it should happen, but it can only happen in a particular moment, but it hasn't happened yet. Until we really feel collectively that we have something to say, I don't see that there's any point in doing it.
Liam Gallagher tweeted the word "Oasis" the other day. What do you think about a possible reunion?
Good luck to them. I know exactly what it's like. I'm sure it will be a triumphant return. I think it might be more him hoping. But yeah, I don't know. I wouldn't want to get involved between the two of them.
What truth is there to this news of you and Noel Gallagher making music together?
Well, I mean that's a classic example of a fragment being amplified and therefore distorted. What I did say was we have hung out on several occasions and in the most sort of light-hearted and casual way we have talked about working together. But for it to be translated like the way it was is ridiculous. It's as casual as saying we should go out for another drink some time.
So, Blur never made it over to Canada for the reunion shows. Why is that?
There were a lot of places we didn't manage to get to. I think by the time the momentum gathered to play in the States and Canada, we sort of felt we'd done enough. It was definitely not personal. The thing is, I was there not long ago with Gorillaz. I know it's not the same as Blur. But I feel like I've been in Canada relatively recently.
Will you tour this new album?
I think if people genuinely want me to play, then I will. But I'm certainly not planning some ridiculous world tour where I don't see my family for eight months or whatever.