Certainly, The Verve’s monster worldwide smash “Bittersweet Symphony” from its multi-platinum third album Urban Hymns back in 1997 can stand as one of frontman Richard Ashcroft’s finest artistic moments, long before he released his brilliant trilogy of reverent, metaphysical-minded solo efforts, 2000’s Alone With Everybody, 2002’s Human Conditions, and Keys to the World in 2006. But even then, the prescient singer saw a much bigger picture, and proudly embedded deeper messages within the swaying, melodious music. “I think “Bittersweet” was a perfect mixture and balance, where you’re already into the song before you even know what I’m going to say, and then I say it in the first verse – 'You’re a slave to the money then you die,’” he says, during a recent hour-long chat from his home in rural Gloucestershire, England.
And that’s his raison d’etre as a composer, he adds: “How do you make music that can still wake people up and rouse their interest, without slapping them over the head?” Six years ago – after briefly reforming the splintered Verve for a single disc, 2008’s Forth and issuing an eponymous hip-hop-infused experiment as the United Nations of Sound – he was wondering if such a lofty goal could even be achieved anymore. After contracting pneumonia, and growing metaphorically sick of the digital hi-tech world, he made a bold aesthetic decision – he went completely off the grid, tossing out his mobile phone and no longer logging on to his home computer for four long years, and spending quality time with his wife, musician Kate Radley, and their two sons instead.
Only gradually did he return to songwriting again with his 2016 comeback These People, awash in his lissome, gentle strumming and rich, sonorous singing voice, on socio-political commentaries like “Out of My Body,” “They Don’t Own Me,” “Ain’t the Future So Bright,” and the piano-pounding “Hold On,” which counters the lyrical observation that “Life can be so vicious” with an optimistic “You’d better hold on/ You know here ain’t a lot of time but I know that we can make it.” The following are PureVolume excerpts from the conversation.
PUREVOLUME: Who are “These People” who ‘test us’?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: I just realized that everyone has a version of them. I was saying to someone last year, ‘If we had a bingo sheet and we could do a ‘These People’ bingo, I think you’d get a full house in about 25 seconds of the daily news. If you put Fox on, they’ve got their ‘These People,’ and if I was to flick over to CNN, they’ve got their own version of ‘These People.’ And I’ve got my version, but it would be foolish of me to spell it out, so it’s now the listener’s version. And what I’m saying is, were always looking to blame somebody else. And it was written more about anyone who was actively working to take away any of my freedoms as a human being on this planet, because it just felt like so much has been encroached on over the last 20 years, under the guise of some legitimate reason. And that’s how it feels sometimes – like it’s you and your wife, you and your partner against the world. Like love tempered with agonizing mortality.
PV: Looking at British people standing on a streetcorner, all jabbering mindlessly on their cellphones next to a dusty, unused red telephone booth, you once observed, “All those conversations that never needed to take place 10, 20 years ago.”
TA: Yeah. That’s right. And that whole thing has just consumed us now. A long time ago, I knew we’d reach a point where social, face-to-face interaction was going to become more difficult for a certain amount of people, because their whole way of interacting was going to be through tech screens. So things that we got through at certain ages – uncomfortable things with the opposite sex and things like that – became a whole new ball game for the younger generation. And it’s incredible the lengths they’ll go to just to communicate, while almost avoiding all face-to-face contact. And the amount of things that get misrepresented and taken the wrong way in tech form now is phenomenal. But we’ve set our course now. And that’s why I didn’t have a phone for four years.
PV: How did you make such a radical decision?
RA: I was spending a lot of time online, X amount of years after 9/11. After that, like many people, you started looking at the world slightly differently. And that was the trigger point for a lot of people to start looking for different sources, or a new angle on a particular narrative. When I was a kid in England, we’d have three TV channels, and at midnight the TV went off and the screen went black, and the national anthem would come on, and that was that. But I turned 30 on 9/11, so after that I was kind of vulnerable, like we all were, and I was a new father. And that led to a journey that took a few years, where I tried to find better sources of different viewpoints from the actual mainstream, and that was one of the greatest things about the Internet – at its best, it provided that. But I found that that kind of rabbit hole is so deep, it can become so overwhelming it was actually a shattering experience. So I decided to cut it off, cut it dead. I had discovered as much as any man needs to discover on how corrupt, damaged, and Machiavellian the world that we live in is. And the majority of things that I held to be fact just crumbled away, the further into it I got, so I decided to take a break from that. Because what I was finding was that my phone was quickly becoming a computer in my hand, and I’d turned into the very person that I was predicting people would be – constantly checking on shit for no apparent reason. You end up drowning in this amount of information, and the majority of it, unfortunately, is quite negative in nature.
PV: And then?
RA: Well, you go back to filling that time with being more creative and getting on with what I actually do. But it was just an experiment – I’m back online again. I’ve got a cellphone again, but mainly just to communicate with people. And my wife took over (my) Twitter, because if I really went for it, I’d be banned off there forever. And in the last year now, everyone seems to be walking a fine line – there’s this divide-and-conquer idea that’s spread ‘round the world now, where we are all so blinded by our two choices, that it’s like, “We chose this way, which means you’re bad – we’re good, you’re bad.” It’s crazy. And because of my earlier studies, I knew this was coming. We’re being chopped up into our little groups, all opposing each other, until the only thing people will be begging for after years of civil unrest and turmoil will be the strong hand of authority. That was part of my journey, as well, coming to that conclusion, that I could no longer feel part of any of these political groups, because they all feel powerless to me. The real power lies in the shadows. So any of these puppets on the world stage? For me, they do not resonate as if they truly have any great power.
PV: Well, as journalists are finally pointing out, You have a right to your own opinions. But not your own facts.
RA: That’s why I turned the bullshit off for a while. You end up tearing yourself apart, because (the truth) seems so fucking clear. Yet ultimately if you were to shout it from the rooftops, you’d be condemned as being semi-crazy, like, “Look at that nutjob! What’s he on about?” But the good thing for all the old nutjobs from the ‘80s is that most of the things they were predicting are now coming true. We were talking about 1984 recently, and the part where he goes back to his house and there’s a flat-screen on the wall. And he’s trying to find a corner of the room where he can just have a conversation, a bit of privacy from this flat-screen which has got a camera in it that relays all the information back to Big Brother. And the only thing that Orwell got wrong is that now we’ll stand in lines to buy that new piece of technology – we desire it like we desire new cars. And we’ll line up all night for some new phone, just because it’s got some new fucking feature on it.
PV: From the songbird drinking water in “Everybody” on your first solo album, through later tracks like “Nature is the Law” and “Break the Night With Colour,” you’ve always found joy in nature, everyday moments of beauty. Is that humanity’s saving grace now?
RA: Yes. I was very lucky that I bought this place in Gloucestershire. Because sometimes that stream or that woods or just that silence? That’s plugging in. Really plugging in to God, r however people would like to define that absolute spirit. When we went from tape to digital, I found that after five or six hours in the studio, I started to feel sick and worn down. Whereas when we used to play the tape back, I could listen to it ten hours straight at full volume with no worries. It was almost like the first forms of digital sickness. And that’s been part of my voyage, too – sometimes that line between absolute clarity, nirvana and what would be perceived as that-guy-needs-help madness is so, so fine. And that’s the hardest line to walk. I lost my father when I was young, but I was lucky to have a grandfather who was a big walker, so we’d always walk to this big tree that had been hit by lightning, and he’d tell me about all the constellations. And the simple enormity of just looking up on a clear night? The amount of activity that we have in the sky where I live in the country is just phenomenal. And those simple moments are amazing. They really take you back. And I think music is about somehow – whether it be joy, ecstasy, or whatever emotion you’re trying to bottle – being able to bottle it so the listener can unbottle that corked emotion, any time they want. That’s what ABBA did with “Dancing Queen.” If I want to feel that sleek, chic feeling, all I have to do is press ‘Play.’ I’ve got the same feeling for The Carpenters, as well, because a great pop melody can be so powerful. So “Superstar” by The Carpenters never fails to blow me away.