Singer-songwriter Damien Rice made a stunning debut with his self-produced album O in 2003. The album won both critical and fan acclaim, and also garnered Rice the Shortlist Prize, a highly respected award that "honors the most adventurous and creative album of the year across all genres of music."
Rice spent his early years in the inner city of Dublin, Ireland, where his father taught engineering skills to the unemployed, and his mother, Maureen, was a homemaker. His parents had both grown up poor in Dublin, and after Rice and his two sisters were born, their parents moved the family to the country to try and give their children a better life. Rice spent a mostly peaceful and happy childhood, going on long walks, fishing in a nearby river and playing with his dog. When adolescence hit, however, he became more conflicted. He spent more time with girls and grew introspective and sensitive. He decided that he couldn't fish any more because he didn't want to put a worm on a hook. Rice told Andrew Billin in the London Times, "So that changed my whole perspective on life. I became a vegetarian. My whole life started twirling."
Rice went to school in Celbridge, south of Dublin, where he met a group of friends who eventually joined with him to form a band called Juniper. The five friends went on to Trinity College in Dublin, where they studied engineering. Rice's four friends stayed and completed the course, but Rice dropped out after a year, feeling bored with school. His distressed and angry parents ordered him out of the house. For the next nine months he worked as a secretary at a boys' school, and then studied the clarinet and piano. However, as with school, he disliked formal education and quit the lessons. He then took jobs working as a barman in pubs, where he also played gigs.
When his friends graduated from Trinity, the band Juniper began playing in larger venues, such as the Olympia in Dublin, and the group signed a contract with PolyGram. They stayed together for eight years, when Rice's characteristic unease with structure forced the band to break up. Rice was writing introspective, acoustic songs, while the other band members wanted him to write music that would sell and would be played on pop radio stations—music with drum machines and a heavy beat. Rice was also feeling constrained by the record label's expectations. He told Billin, "I felt like I must be wrong because everybody else thinks differently to me. I felt like I was going mad. So I said I just couldn't deal with it any more." The basic difficulty, Rice told Alexis Petridis in the London Guardian, was the loss of artistic freedom, with "record companies coming into the studio and asking you to be a bit more radio-friendly."
Rice left the band and made his way around Europe, singing on the streets and in subway stations for coins given by passersby. "I threw everything away and I was happier than I've ever been, so independent, so free," he told Petridis. He also noticed that he made more money when he sang his own songs than when he did covers of other people's songs. Rice eventually wound up in Tuscany, where he grew vegetables and began to reflect on his life. He had hoped to stay there and live a simple life, but the urge to make music wouldn't go away. Rice told Petridis, "I felt sucked back in, seduced. It was like going back to a woman who beats you or something."
After eight months off, Rice returned to Ireland, where he bought a drum machine and some microphones and made his room into a studio. In his room he recorded the songs he had sung while wandering around Europe, and created his debut album, titled O. Already knowing that he had difficulties with established labels, he released the album on his own label, DRM. According to Nick Marino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rice called the album O because "we just go around and around, never learning from our mistakes."
Marino praised the album, commenting that O was "a graceful, thoughtful, emotional piece of work that somehow seems ethereal (like a cloud) and handmade (like a toothpick bridge). It's a singer-songwriter record, ostensibly, but it also has the dramatic air of opera and the confessional overtone of emo." In the San Francisco Chronicle, James Sullivan wrote that O "is youthful emotion laid bare." Sullivan also commented that other critics had compared Rice to Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley, and he added Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison to that list. Petridis described the album as "stuffed full" of "lovely, effortlessly touching songs."
O became a top hit in Ireland, and in the United Kingdom it sold more than 300,000 copies. Rice toured Europe and the United States, beginning as a support for the band Coldplay, but later becoming a headline act. His reputation grew in the United States, and in October of 2003 he won the Shortlist Prize.
Billin wrote that part of the album's beauty comes from "the impression it relays that he is playing, spontaneously, just for you." The critic also praised Rice's writing style and delivery. "We are talking here about someone who with the confidence of Cole Porter can lyrically harangue a girlfriend with 'Why do you say hallelujah, if it means nothing to ya?'" In another example, Billin cited a song that has the repeated refrain, "I can't take my eyes off you," but which ends in a twist with, "Until I find someone new."
Rice believes that he doesn't actually write his songs, but that they come to him spontaneously, and that if he tries to force himself to write, he can't. His songs are often triggered by unrequited love, like "Cheers Darlin'," which commemorates a night in a pub where he thinks a woman is flirting with him, only to have her say at the end of the evening that she is late for a meeting her boyfriend. Rice recalled that he was furious, but by the next morning he had written the song. Rice told Billin, "I remember feeling really quite excited [about the song] and I'd forgotten all about the crap that I'd gone through that night."
Rice also noted that his fame seemed strange to him, telling Billin, "The whole notion of what I do is ridiculous. I moan about things that have gone on in my life. I get up on stage and moan about these things in front of people and they bang their hands together and tell me I'm great. That's ludicrous."
As a result of his success with O, Rice, his cellist Vyvienne Long, and his backup singer Lisa Hannigan were signed to Warner Music. However, his discomfort with fame and success led him to take time off when his tour of the United States ended in May of 2004. Rice told Billin he was considering moving to Barcelona, Spain, where "it's alive and it's poor and artistic." He has also remarked that he feels that if he became too successful and too happy, he would no longer be creative. He declared, "The day I get happy I'll probably just stop." Rice is currently working on a second album, and he told Marino the project was the complete opposite of O. "It's heavy and dark and aggressive," he said.
For the Record …
Born in 1964 in Ireland; son of George and Maureen Rice. Education: Attended Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.
Played in the band Juniper; began solo career with debut album O, 2003.
Awards: Shortlist Music Prize for Artistic Achievement, for O, 2003.
Addresses: Management—Vector Management, email: [email protected] Website—Damien Rice Official Website: http://www.damienrice.com.
O, DRM, 2003.
B-sides (EP), Vector, 2004.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 29, 2004, p. C1.
Boston Herald, April 19, 2004, p. 38.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 23, 2004, p. NA.
Guardian (London, England), September 26, 2003, p. 6.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 4, 2003, p. D1.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), February 22, 2004, p. NA.
Times (London, England), May 4, 2004, p. 10.
Damien Rice Official Website, http://www.damienrice.com (September 24, 2004).
Shortlist of Music, http://www.shortlistofmusic.com (October 4, 2004).
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