Damien Rice Talks Teaming With Rick Rubin For 'My Favourite Faded Fantasy'

Lilja Birgisdo
Damien Rice

In 2002, Damien Rice released his debut solo album, O, a breathtaking collection that won the now-defunct Shortlist Prize and placed him in any conversation about the best new singer/songwriters of this century. Much of the magnificence of that album came from the way Rice paired his vocals with that of singer Lisa Hannigan, who would go on to her own solo career.

Four years later he followed that with 9, another triumph that cemented his status as one of the top troubadours in music, an artist with a strength and honesty that hearkened back to the days of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell -- any great singer/songwriter you can name. On the tour for that album, Rice and Hannigan broke up and she was let go from the band due to creative differences.

It would be eight years before Rice would make another record, the new My Favourite Faded Fantasy. And without Hannigan, whose vocals were so much a central part of songs like "The Blowers Daughter," "Volcano" and "Cannonball," one wondered how Rice would come back.

The answer came recently when he performed in the States for the first time in years. At his sold-out L.A. show at a church, Rice performed a two-hour solo show, mostly on guitar, occasionally stepping to the piano -- it may have been the best performance in L.A. all year. Spellbinding, captivating, riveting, mesmerizing, dazzling -- there aren't enough words in the thesaurus to convey the bravura and depth it takes to hold an entire room in 2014 for two hours with no production, no visuals, no frills, just songs and stories.

Now he's bringing that same courage and candor to My Favourite Faded Fantasy, which finds Rice teamed with super producer Rick Rubin. [FYI, there's nothing that can be said about this album that can't be better learned than by listening to the aching beauty of the "The Greatest Bastard."]

Rice spoke to Billboard about the new album. Here's what he had to say. 

It seems like for most artists there is a turning point in the making of an album where the direction takes shape. What was the turning point for you in making My Favourite Faded Fantasy?

When I finally admitted that I was finished.

How far was into the process was that?

It was not me who realized. I had to be shown. We were in the studio in Reykjavik, in the process of some final mixing edits, and we were having technical problems. Mastering was booked and it seemed clear to me that there was no way we could make the mastering deadline so I was just about to call off the album release plans and then Kari, a friend in Iceland, sat me on the couch in the studio, asked Mio the engineer to line up the songs in the order that I'd planned for the album, and he told me to just listen to them all in order, as they were. I sat there, listened, and cried when it got to the end because it was finished and I hadn't noticed.

Because there was such a gap in between albums were these songs written over a long time span or in a concentrated period?

The new songs are mostly from the concentrated period preparing for the album, which is roughly from a three-year period after 2010.

How did the move to Iceland affect your writing?

The writing was already done by the time I started recording in Iceland. Iceland was the box of coloring pens.

I read the Irish Independent interview where you talked about needing a new sounding board in studio without Lisa Hannigan. How did Rick Rubin fill that role? What were the things that surprised you most about working with Rick and how he approached things?

Rick's approach was fluid when I was stuck, and solid when I needed some tying down. A kite needs to be tied down in order to fly. I learned how important restrictions can sometimes be in order to experience freedom.

Can you give an example or two of the restrictions you learned?

The best restriction I learned was getting into the habit of doing something, even if I didn't feel like it, instead of running away from it. Sometimes good work needs to be earned and when you can overcome yourself, the muse notices and celebrates.

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You talked in the same interview about all the things you learned about yourself opening "every can of worms." What were the things that emerged in the writing that surprised you?

I realized that my thinking was the only thing that needed to change in order for the world around me to change.

Can you give an example of how your thinking has changed?

I used to think that the fat, red Santa Claus and Christian God were real. I used to think that conditional love was love.

I saw the L.A. Cathedral show you did a few weeks ago, which was incredible! You're obviously a different person as you approach playing the older material. Are there songs from the first two albums you have a different appreciation for now?

I really appreciate that I still enjoy singing those songs and I really appreciate the experiences that led to those songs. No matter how painful or frustrating it may have felt at the time, I wouldn't change a thing. Truth is, I can't change a thing, so that's a relief.

You've mentioned the surprise success of O. What would you tell your younger self about how to handle all the attention that comes with surprise success?

It depends. Would you tell your children about the myth of Santa Claus or God?

Much of that success comes from the honesty and depth of the lyrics and people find themselves in there. What have been some of your favorite responses you've heard from people to how your songs have affected them?

I've enjoyed those couples who tell me details of their first night together which happened while listening to the music -- they speak so shamelessly and openly to me about it that it's impressive.

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That is definite intimacy. Were you surprised when people shared those stories with you?

I was surprised mostly because a lot of the songs were about breakups and here were these couples getting together. Life has a curious way of balancing things I guess.

As a fan, what are some of those songs from others that you turn to or you find yourself identifying with deeply?

Leonard Cohen has a way with words, and with humor, that remind me to lighten up which I appreciate very much.

When you listen to My Faded Favourite Fantasy all the way through what do you take from it?

A desire to get back into the studio and record more music.

Does that mean that will happen anytime soon? Do you have an abundance of material written in the time between albums?

I have an abundance of enthusiasm however it would be foolish to think I can predict a future that doesn't exist.