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Damon Albarn in east London

July 2014

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Britpop's biggest star, protagonist of cool Britannia, co-founder of Africa Express and composer of two operas... As he releases his debut solo album, Damon Albarn is going back to his roots — London's East End. Craig McLean meets him there
Damon Albarn photographed at Netil Market, east London
Julian Broad

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Recently, for the first time in almost three decades, Damon Albarn went home. Properly home, to his childhood house in east London. He can't exactly say there were Proustian memories of sweet madeleines. But when the world-famous Blur singer turned up outside 21 Fillebrook Road, E11, he did experience a gooey feeling at recollections of boyish adventures.

'It looks exactly the same: small, terraced house, late Victorian. It had a cellar and the coal chute is still outside. I used to love sliding through the chute into the cellar.'

The millionaire pop star beams at the memory, his gold tooth glinting. At 46, he has 20 years on his Britpop-era prettiness, but he's more handsome, annoyingly.

'I didn't knock on the door, but this very sweet girl in her 20s came out and said, "Hi. You're Damon Albarn. You used to live here, didn't you?'''

Puzzled, the arena-filling frontman, Gorillaz founder and on/off opera composer asked how she knew that. The girl explained that during the height of Britpop — a youth culture-quake of such national importance that the chart battles between Blur and Oasis made the BBC evening news — a TV crew came to film the humble origins of one of the scene's leading lights. That's how big Albarn was in the giddy era of Cool Britannia.

'So she carried that event with her from when she was a kid,' says Albarn, a man who has himself been feeling all reflective of late. So much so that he wanted to pass his karmic best to the home he once shared with his younger sister (now an artist), theatre designer mother and art teacher father. 'I said, "Can you give the house my love?" and she said, "Of course." It was a very sweet encounter, not only with the house but with the people who now live in it. It was nice. But no, they didn't invite me in.'

Why not? 'I did have people with me at the time,' he replies. And did he visit his infant school, George Tomlinson Primary? 'I did, yeah. We walked past it. But middle-aged men hanging outside a school in the middle of the day is not a particularly acceptable look.'

As he trips the light nostalgic, this man who was once pegged as possessing a somewhat chippy manner is in a relaxed, easygoing, comfortable-in-his-skin mood. We're talking in an ugly office block-turned-hipster art/workspace in London Fields. From the groovy rooftop bar you can see all of Damon Albarn's hometown.

Damon's childhood street in east London

To the east, Leytonstone, the unglamorous, stolidly working-class and community-minded neighbourhood in which he spent his earliest childhood. To the far west, Notting Hill, the bohemian borough in which the musician has lived this past quarter-century, ever since Blur exploded into (inter)national consciousness.

Well, on a clear morning you might see all of that. With binoculars. And a pair of stilts. And an imagination. But for all the brilliant spring sunshine pouring from the skies, today is not a good day. Meteorologically speaking, that is. A sand cloud, blown all the way from the Sahara desert, is fuzzing up London's horizon and leaving its dust on cars all over the city. In a very literal, dusty sense, Africa has come to London.

How gratifying that must be for Albarn, the continent's greatest Western musical champion — a man who has worked with musicians from Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, helped found the Africa Express concert collective and has visited Mali 13 times.

'I do try to follow up on stuff,' he says of his firm commitment to African music culture — for all his multifarious projects, ranging from 'cartoon band' Gorillaz to his operas Dr Dee and Monkey: Journey to the West, he's no bandwagon-hopping dilettante. 'I try to keep in contact with my good friends in Mali and see what they're doing. And when I go, it's really nice. I first went there 12 years ago and it feels like home when I visit. Mali is the place where I know the most people.'

But London is the city he knows best. You can hear as much in Albarn's latest musical endeavour. Almost 30 years since forming his first band at London college Goldsmiths, he's finally released a solo album. It's called Everyday Robots and it's the quiet, melancholic sound of a 40-something father looking back on his own roots.

'I feel like a west Londoner now,' admits Albarn. 'I've lived there for 24 years. I wouldn't live anywhere else in London.' It's where his 14-year-old daughter attends school, and where he writes and records all his music, nine-to-five, five days a week. 'I bought a building, nearly a decade ago, where everything takes place.'

But for his first solo project, he wanted to go deeper, further, homewards. So his songwriting began with a research expedition. Albarn travelled back in time on a Central Line Tube train from Notting Hill to Leytonstone, scything across London from west to east. His public-transport odyssey continued out to Colchester in Essex, where he spent his teenage years and met a fellow disaffected, artsy-eyed pupil, future Blur guitarist Graham Coxon. And it ends on the beach at Star Point in Devon, on England's southwest coast, where Albarn and his partner artist Suzi Winstanley have a second home.

Everyday Robots encompasses, then, the span of his life. And also, you might say, the span of England. Why, then, at this point in his life has Damon Albarn turned backwards, or even inwards? Because he's spent his adult years touring the world with this or that planet-rattling band, or journeying to the bright heart of Africa?

'No. I think it came out of the thought: "What is a solo record? What does that mean?" And it seemed it had to be a very personal, honest record. And on this journey back to Leytonstone and Colchester, those childhood memories were the first things that came back.'

So there are lyrical recollections of the building of the A12, a busy arterial route that chopped off the edge of Albarn's road, and of the childhood thrills offered by the old, water-filled gravel pits known locally as the Hollow Ponds.

'It was 1976. That was a big, big moment,' he says of a British summer so unusually hot it lives on in the collective memory. 'That year you could chart as a big moment in our culture. I didn't pick up on all the punk stuff,' he says, 'but I was very aware that everyone was hanging out at the Hollow Ponds — and they certainly weren't all white. They were of every single colour and creed you could imagine, and in a very relaxed, friendly environment. So I think it was an important year.'

Elsewhere on Everyday Robots, Albarn remembers his teenage years in Essex, in the shadow of the capital, fooling around outside the village of Aldham in a spooky copse called Fiddler's Wood. Then at Stanway Comprehensive meeting Coxon.

'Graham and I were two kids who weren't particularly into playing football, and who found a common interest in music. It's a much better school now, but at the time it was a very average comprehensive. Very low expectations,' he recalls without rancour.

'But,' he adds, 'we had an amazing music department, and that's where Graham and I met. And we were encouraged brilliantly by our teacher, Mr Hildreth.'

In the song You and Me, Albarn's musical travelogue also detours via a brief period when he was 30. It was, he concedes, an experiment in creativity. 'It's part of that journey, in a song about the ghost of Notting Hill,' he says. And Everyday Robots travels further still, to the present day and a trip to Tanzania, to include a joyous, gospel-flavoured tribute to a young elephant he met.

An old haunt, Hollow Ponds, Leytonstone

All told, it's a gorgeous album, brimming with striking images and pretty melodies. But it is, well, rather downbeat. Why the long face? 'It's a wistfulness,' counters Albarn in his quiet rumble. 'But that's the way I write. I think I write in an English folk tradition. And that's why it sounds like that. If anyone knows anything about English folk music, it does sound very melancholy. It's just the chords. It's just the way it is. That's the DNA of it.'

Prior to writing Dr Dee — commissioned for the 2011 Manchester International Festival — the ever-ambitious Albarn said he wanted to write an English opera. Is Everyday Robots another crack at that goal?

'I think everything I do is an English thing,' he offers. 'That's what I am. The more I travel the more English I become, and the less I need to appropriate other cultures' stuff. And the more I'm confident in just being myself.'

Three weeks later Damon Albarn stands on the tiny stage of the George J Leonard Lecture Hall in Leytonstone Library. It's a small, quietly ornate room, bound by strict local authority rules: only 80 people are allowed inside. Most of those are family and friends, drawn by this hour-long homecoming show from Albarn, his four-piece band and four strings players. They're joined by eight gospel singers from the nearby Pentecostal City Mission Church — outside which a young Damon would sit on his bicycle and marvel at the heavenly voices hymning glory to God.

He's clearly thrilled to be revisiting his roots. He plays most of Everyday Robots' wistful songs, before ending with a couple of Blur classics, For Tomorrow and This Is a Low. He explains that after his trip back to the Hollow Ponds, 'the whole album took shape... I dedicate it to the people of Leytonstone.'

Afterwards, everyone troops over to a busy, cheery pub called the Red Lion. It is, neatly enough, St George's Day, the annual nod to England's patron saint. To celebrate, the landlord has booked a piano-and-vocal duo called The Gents: two cockney geezers in waistcoats who sing shouty versions of pop classics.

It's all too perfect. Of course our hero joins them. And so the night ends with Albarn and The Gents bouncing on the wooden floors of the Red Lion, bellowing through a wobbly but lusty rendition of Parklife, Blur's signature tune, with the entire pub singing along. As homecomings go, it's been a good one.

Damon Albarn's new album Everyday Robots is out now on Parlophone. He will headline the Latitude festival in Suffolk on 19 July.

Styling: Damon wears reversible navy suit jacket, £615, Paul Smith; shirt, £150, and tie, £90, Spencer Hart; tie clip, £35, The Vintage Showroom; trousers, £109, Paul Smith Jeans; socks, £12, Folk.

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Posted by Craig McLean


London, UK, celebrity, East-End, music, culture

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