Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was uncharacteristically open and revealing in a wide-ranging, freewheeling interview for BBC Radio 4’s “Desert Island Discs” show, describing his ability to “see” music, the origins of the band and the heartbreak he felt following the December 2016 death of his longtime former partner Rachel Owen of cancer.
The couple were together for more than 20 years and had two children before splitting in 2015. When presenter Lauren Laverne asked him how he was handling being the father of two teenagers, Yorke said haltingly, “I guess I’m more like their friend. I can’t hope to be their mum, but we’re all right. We do quite well. I’m probably a fairly relaxed dad, but they would probably argue differently. We have a sort of semi-chatoic household… We just hang out. I’m just really proud of them both. It stuns me most days. I can’t believe they’re anything to do with me. They’re just such great people… When the kids’ mum died, it was a very difficult period and we went through a lot. It was very hard. She suffered a great deal and my ambition is to make sure that we have come out of it all right, and I hope that’s what’s happening.”
As difficult as it’s been, Yorke said he’s lucky now that he has a new romantic partner who has brought “a light into all of it, which has taken a great deal of strength. And really if all that’s okay I then want to be able to go to my methaphorical potting shed down the the end of the garden and carry on tinkering away on my new devices and feel everybody’s okay. That’s my ambition. And if I’m still able to make some music that expresses all that and is still important to people. If I’m still taking risks and affecting people, that’s more than I can ask for. That’s way more than I need.” If you can believe it, between them Radiohead have 13 children and the last time they were on tour the whole gang came along and Yorke said they all got along well.
He also pulled up his formerly “thick Scottish accent” — picked up during the family’s time living in Scotland when he was a child — described lazy days spent doing stunts on his bicycle in gravel pits, smashing electronics to bits to see their guts and building his own guitar as a teen after finding inspiration from the guitarist for his favorite band, Queen’s Brian May.
Yorke also discussed the eye surgery on his droopy left eye — which was completley shut at birth due to a lack of muscles — necessitating a musle graft from his “ass” to make the eyelid more functional. “I think we’re all born with something wrong with us and that was mine,” he said, noting that he kind of likes how different he looks now and takes it as a kind of badge of honor.
During the show, Yorke shared his predictably eclectic list of desert island songs, including favorites by French piano duo Katia and Marielle Labéque, as well as late avant garde singer Scott Walker (“It’s Raining Today”), the Talking Heads (“Born Under Punches”), Squarepusher and Aphex Twin (“Freeman Hardy & Willis Acid”), Neil Young (“After the Gold Rush”), R.E.M. (“Talk About the Passion”), jazz great Sidney Bechet (“Blue Horizon”) and Nina Simone (“Lilac Wine”).
Speaking of R.E.M., Yorke, who alluded at various points to the struggles he’s had dealing with the role of frontman in Radiohead over the years, said one of the most helpful bits of advice he’s gotten over the years was from the band’s singer, Michael Stipe, who “helped me when things went crazy, when people started to talk to me like I was Jesus… on the street.”
Click here to listen to the entire show.