It’s not often an artist texts after an interview concerned that they haven’t told you enough about their private life. That insufficient credit has been given to their wife, and how ‘she got me through recovery. Then back to doing music. Her strength gave me the courage to do this again.’ To be clear, it isn’t about him. ‘I’m just making sure she gets the credit she deserves in the article,’ the text continues.
But this is Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy: no ordinary artist, with no ordinary series of challenges in his rear-view mirror, and incapable of resorting to the dissembling on which musicians with troubles usually rely. He’s too honest for that.
In ironic contrast to the purposefully unassuming alter ego he adopted, Gough reached giddy heights at the very beginning of his career 20 years ago. Trailed by the charming lo-fi funk single Once Around the Block, the singer-songwriter’s debut album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, won the Mercury Prize in 2000. It was followed two years later by a hit soundtrack for a hit film, the Nick Hornby/Hugh Grant romcom About a Boy.
With little fuss, fanfare or, frankly, fashion sense, the scruffy troubadour in the woolly hat provided the soundtrack to people’s lives. And then, for the past decade, he pretty much vanished, save for creating the soundtrack for a 2012 film (Being Flynn) never released in UK cinemas. But now he’s back with Banana Skin Shoes, his first non-film album in 10 years – and it’s up there with the brilliance of his groundbreaking debut.
‘Without knowing, I captured a moment,’ reflects Gough, now 50. He sucks on a vape and fidgets over morning coffee in a local brasserie – both of his elder children, Edie, 19, and Oscar, 18, occasionally work here – near his home in the gently affluent Manchester suburb of Chorlton. Considering what he’s been through, he looks remarkably unchanged, save for the grey colouring the long hair poking out from underneath his ever-present headgear. ‘But the stories people have about my music and what it represents in their lives,’ he continues, ‘are mind-blowing.’ And yet: the first law of pop states that, for every vertiginous high, there must be a plummeting low. Or even several. Alcoholism, depression, diabetes, the dissolution of a long-term relationship, Crohn’s disease, a hip replacement: Gough’s dealt with the lot.
All of which makes the unalloyed wonder of Banana Skin Shoes all the more gratifying. Damon Gough’s ninth album is a triumph, a melodically rich collection of songwriting gold clawed from the muck of what sounds, to be honest, like a pretty terrible decade. A confessional album of self-lacerating candour, it includes I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness, a glorious tribute to the ex who chucked him out at Christmastime nine years ago. And it features another song, You and Me Against the World, addressed to the new partner who helped him get sober. As he puts it, ‘I have to accept that my art form, making music, is expressing what goes on in my head. If I chose to ignore it or lie about it, it wouldn’t work. There has to be authenticity.’
That authenticity is a major part of how and why Bolton-raised Gough broke through from the Manchester indie scene in the late 1990s. Over the years and the gigs and tours, he’s heard all the stories. People walking down the aisle to his music, or listening to his music while pregnant, or giving birth to it. That’s all he ever wanted. ‘I want the songs to be with people on their journey, to be [their] friends, to give them a boost,’ he says.
One fulfilled that last role, and then some, in the unimaginably tough story he heard at a gig in Louisville, Kentucky. Gough was hanging out with fans in the bar afterwards, celebrating a good show. But what about the kid nervously loitering by the bar, clearly keen to speak but initially too shy to do so? ‘He said he wanted to thank me because he’d been on the verge of killing himself. “I had a gun to my head, and your song came on,”’ Gough relates. The fan had been listening to The Shining, the brass-and-cello-rich opener on The Hour of Bewilderbeast.
‘He said that, in that moment, he stopped to listen to the whole song, took the gun away from his head, then left the house, walked down the street and met a bunch of friends.’ So the song had shown this tortured, suicidal teenager that there was some beauty in the world? ‘Yeah, potentially,’ Gough replies. ‘So I gave him a hug. And that’s as extreme a story as you can be told. But if I ever feel a little bit low about what I’m doing, whether it has any worth, I can reflect on a tale like that. Because that song did something.’
Gough acknowledges that he always struggled with depression, even when he didn’t know that was its name. But he insists he wasn’t in denial – he ‘just didn’t have any evidence or know-how’ to diagnose himself. Then he started tracing it back to being five, six, seven years old, ‘and being discontented with who I was when I looked in the mirror. I’ve worked on this a lot recently.’ Not in regular therapy, he clarifies. ‘It’s more investigative research with somebody who’s really clever and clued-up. Amanda she’s called, and she refuses to be classed as a therapist. She’s more like a life coach. ‘I wanted to change certain things about me that were bugging me,’ he continues. ‘The patterns I fall into, [responding to] the way the world impacts on me, being sensitive.’
For Gough, ‘undoubtedly’ that feeling is tied up with Catholic guilt. ‘I ain’t been to church since I was 20. So that’s 30 years [ago], and I’m still reeling from the dose of Catholicism that was bestowed upon me by my mum from the age of four and being an altar boy. Weirdly, my dad was totally atheist,’ he says, smiling. All that, he explains, played a part in his mental and emotional crises. As did the drinking that became a daily habit, at work and at home. ‘Not to make excuses, but touring and making records are the kind of jobs where you can drink and still do the job well. Or, you think you can. I definitely did some gigs in the early days where I’d had too much to drink. But I could still manage them. Then as time went on, and I had more songs to learn and play live, I found I couldn’t keep that up.’ The cracks began to show, publicly and internally. On a handful of occasions, Gough acted out onstage, either wrong-footing his fans or getting into arguments with them. ‘About a Boy brought in a new audience. I did have an issue with doing it,’ he admits.
‘At the gigs there would be couples in their 30s who loved the soundtrack. And I’d be doing 20-minute fuzz guitar solos. Not to p—s people off but to show that I wasn’t just the guy who did this mainstream romcom. That caused a bit of turmoil for me around that period.’ Indeed, having previously enjoyed near-blanket adulation from the music press and media, Gough began to endure criticism. To some, he went from bedroom/ DIY-artist hero to Badly Behaved Boy.
We’re talking just after the suicide of Caroline Flack, so I ask: can he imagine if he'd received the kind of social-media scrutiny and hounding that contributed to that tragedy? ‘Gosh!’ he exclaims. ‘Well, I’ve had moments throughout my career that have hinted at what that could be like, a backlash here or there. I did a gig in Northampton, got a bit of stick for it and was almost banned from the town. And after the odd gig in LA when the internet was just becoming what it is now, people would post stuff…’ He tails off. ‘That’s the problem with these social-media platforms: I do one bad gig and it gets talked about for five years.’
It is hyper-accelerated by Twitter and its ilk. ‘Without a doubt,’ he nods. ‘The likes of poor Caroline Flack, can you imagine you pick your phone up and half the stories that are trending are about you? Because that must have happened to her. Most people don’t care but try telling yourself that when you’re in the eye of the storm. Most good people would be supportive of Caroline, and it’s just a tragedy that she couldn’t see past that.’ For Gough, there was turmoil at home, too. In part catalysed by his depression and drinking, in 2011 Clare, his partner of 15 years and mother of Edie and Oscar, threw him out. It was Christmastime and the day after Edie’s birthday.
Gough, though, isn’t bitter. Far, far from it. ‘Bless Clare – that period we were together was eight albums in 12 years, if you look at it like that. And touring, and two kids. And I used drinking to make that more a cope-able experience, more pleasant. Which is again an illusion.
‘So I think, more than anything, that’s what took its toll. Part of me feels like Clare ended things for my own good.’ Or, he wonders with a frown, did she? ‘She’d probably just had enough of me, but there’s an element of me that fantasises that she did it as a goodwill gesture, and the last thing she wanted to do was split up.
‘I don’t know. I think she’d just had enough of seeing me the way I was. I wasn’t very easy to be around,’ he says. ‘But I got lucky meeting Leanne – she’s helped me enormously to get back on my feet.’ She and Gough ran into each other two months after his break-up, in a pool hall in central Manchester. At the time he was out every night with a couple of pals, drinking away his woes. The musician wasn’t looking to meet anyone. ‘And Leanne is younger than me, really attractive – I’d have said out of my league,’ he says of the woman who’s still in his phone contacts as ‘Leanne Paper Roses’, the name of the singing duo she was in at the time.
There’s a 16-year age gap, ‘which sounds like a lot and it is a lot’. But they clicked and had their first date on 29 February 2012, which means Gough and I are meeting just ahead of what is effectively their second anniversary. Their son, Ruben, was born in May 2017, and they were married the following year.
How has he found being a father second time round? ‘It’s like anything in life: it’s easily the best thing ever, but sometimes close to the worst. You forget how intense it is. But I feel absolutely blessed to have the chance to see another child grow up. And Edie and Oscar love Ruben, so that’s brilliant, he’s got a big brother and sister.
But if anything we feel the need to have one more, so he has a sibling that’s nearer his age.’ When Ruben was born, Gough’s faltering attempts to finally make a new record stopped as he downed tools for what would turn out to be a year’s paternity leave. ‘I put a halt on going down to London to work on it – I desperately didn’t want to miss being there for the birth. And after he came along I thought, I have to relish this, because I didn’t perhaps back then.’ Twenty years ago, his career was taking off as his first two children were born. He thinks he managed the work/life balance OK, just, ‘but I don’t want to repeat myself and make the same mistakes in life. So that year off isn’t as noble as it sounds. It’s something that I just had to do. But then I also reached a point where I knew I had to get back to it.’
By the time of Ruben’s birth, Gough was two years sober. He admits that, even after the shock of being thrown out of the family home and the thrill of meeting Leanne, ‘it still took three or four years for me to unravel all this and take the step. In the last year of drinking, I just remember thinking: will I still be here in five years, 10 years max, if I carry on like this, drinking every day? ‘And if you start having thoughts like that, that’s worrying.’
With Leanne as his ‘rock’ – and shaken by the prospect of his own mortality – he finally quit. He went to AA meetings in the beginning, ‘and I loved it. There’s so many smart people there, and it was free interaction with like-minded people who’d been through similar stuff.’
Stopping drinking had other benefits, too. As he puts it, ‘it was the start of lots of other things, like learning disciplines. I had to lose weight to help with diabetes, which I’ve reversed now. I had Crohn’s disease, and the steroids for that I injected into my hip – that antagonised my hip so I had to have a hip replacement.
He reveals this pile-up of grievous health issues matter-of-factly, in the last five minutes of our interview, almost as an aside, just before we go back to his house for a quick tour. Purchased from two lottery winners, it’s an impressive late-19th-century red-brick villa complete with indoor swimming pool (built by the previous owners, he clarifies).
Life now, then, is good, on both the home fronts. His situation with his two older children is solid and loving. ‘If anything my relationship with my kids got better after the break. Then when I gave up drinking it got even better. That was just at the age where they were going to parties, and I could drive and pick them up on a Friday night at 2am. I’d never have been able to do that before.’
For a long time, there were a lot of things Damon Gough wasn’t able to do. Make a new album was one of them. But eventually, with a clear, sober mind and emotional equilibrium, he got back in the saddle. After enjoying that year of paternity leave he finally focused, securing a new record deal and making Banana Skin Shoes with local musicians in nearby Stockport and then in Wales.
‘There were points in the last few years where I thought: am I ever gonna finish another record?’ he acknowledges. ‘But I wanted that feeling again of being an artist, of being current. That’s why it really is my brain and soul and heart on this album. It felt necessary to document why I’ve not been around – to offer in the songs an explanation of sorts. But they’re disguised as pop songs as well, more than any other album I’ve done.’
Even if he’s at last managed to slip off the titular footwear, this is why Banana Skin Shoes means so much to him.
‘It makes me feel…’ Badly Drawn Boy stops, then starts. ‘Like I fit in again. That’s not something I’ve felt for a while.’
Banana Skin Shoes is released on 22 May