A desire to "just to some experimenting, musically" led Richard Ashcroft down the soulful path of "The United Nations of Sound," his first solo album in five years.
"This is a record made by, essentially, a rock 'n' roll artist from England with a hip-hop producer and R&B man from Chicago, in New York City, with string arrangements from a guy who worked with Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin," the Verve frontman tells Billboard.com. "So the pot was thick. I really wanted this thing to sound like a natural collision, not a forced kind of thing, and we managed to do that."
Ashcroft recorded "The United Nations of Sound" -- which comes out March 22 in the U.S. after being released overseas last summer -- with No I.D. (ne Earnest Wilson), who's worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rihanna, Young Jeezy, Drake and others. The two "pretty much nearly finished the album" during an "energized" seven-day session during September 2009 in New York. The orchestrations were done later, in Los Angeles, with Benjamin Wright, who besides Jackson and Franklin lists Quincy Jones, Justin Timberlake, OutKast, Destiny's Child and more on his resume.
"There's a lot of joy in making something like this, no fear involved," Ashcroft explains. "What I listen to is so eclectic that I don't go into studios trying to make one particular record. Ultimately I'm making soul music, I think. Beyond that I don't know what I'm doing. Sometimes it's folk. Sometimes its' blues. There's a lot of hip-hop in there, and rock 'n' roll mixed in. There is no dividing line. That doesn't make it easy to sell, maybe, but it works."
Video: Richard Ashcroft, "Are You Ready?"
The album's first single, "Are You Ready?," has already made a substantial impact via a Volkswagen Jetta ad campaign and in promotions for Major League Baseball and 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals broadcasts. The song is also featured in the end credits for the film "The Adjustment Bureau," while Ashcroft teamed with Academy Award winner Tom Newman to write another song, "Future's Bright." "Tom came over to London, and it was bizarre," Ashcroft recalls. "I could've had a guitar and he could've played piano, but he ended up on a Wurlitzer and I was playing a vocoder -- two keyboards writing a tune in different rooms. It was interesting."
Ashcroft and his United Nations of Sound Band will play a pair of U.S. shows -- March 23 at New York's Bowery Ballroom and March 24 at the Villa Victoria Center For the Arts in Boston -- and will perform with the Roots on March 22 on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." But mostly he's looking forward to getting back into the studio to make some more music.
"My aim is to get more stuff out," he says, "because there's so much more and I really wouldn't like to be judged on solely what I've done so far. I haven't even really scraped the surface of what I'd like to do. My goal for the next album is to step on and somewhere fresh from ('The United Nations of Sound'), perhaps as closed to stripped naked as possible. That's probably what interests me after this."
And he doesn't rule out working again with the Verve, which last reunited for 2008's "Forth" and select live dates. "It's pretty much an open-ended thing," Ashcroft says. "When we were recording ('Forth'), I don't think anybody was thinking we were going to do something else straightaway. From my angle, it didn't all go the way I would've wished, so that affects your decision about when you'd work together again. So with the future, who knows? I'm enjoying seeing whatever comes next, and I'm not necessarily making big plans or bold statements about the Verve or anything else. We'll just have to see what happens."