Any well-known musician’s absence from the limelight for the best part of a decade is bound to take some explaining. But as Damon Gough settles down to discuss his long-awaited ninth album under the guise of Badly Drawn Boy, it’s clear that the 50-year-old singer-songwriter has much to discuss.
He’s candid about the downward slide that led from heavy drinking to the break-up of a long-term relationship and dealing with depression. There were health problems to contend with too, including diabetes and complications from treatment for Crohn’s disease that necessitated a hip replacement.
Yet thankfully, since sobering up, there’s been a reversal in his fortunes. Now married and a father for the third time, he’s rediscovered the creative drive that 20 years led him to win the Mercury Music Prize for his landmark album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. His new album Banana Skin Shoes is arguably his finest work since then.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a plan in my life,” he says when asked if, back in 2012 when he made the soundtrack to the little-seen Robert De Niro film Being Flynn, he’d foreseen that would be his last album for some while. “At the time I would’ve expected to have made about ten more albums by now, I’m more than capable of doing that, but circumstances dictated otherwise.”
Around the same point, Gough split with Clare, his partner of 15 years and mother of his elder son and daughter. The reason was “mainly down to my boozing”, he says. “I’d had 12 years of releasing eight albums and touring the world; not to put the blame on anything, because lots of good things came out of that for all of us, but it took its toll on the relationship.”
A few months afterwards he met Leanne, but it would take another three years before he finally addressed his drink problem. Through that, he lost weight, reversing the effects of diabetes. In 2017 their son Ruben was born and a year later the couple married.
While enjoying his new life, Gough feels the fact that he has been able to maintain “a dignified version of a relationship” with Clare is another “success story”.
“That’s kind of what this album is reflecting on, I suppose,” he says. “The reason I called the album Banana Skin Shoes is because it in some way describes how I feel. I kind of slipped up in life and this is my response.
“It’s a forward-thinking album. I’ve come through some tough times but I’m still doing okay. I’m probably in a better place than I ever was because I’ve had to learn from my mistakes. I didn’t expect it to take this long, but to me it hasn’t felt long.”
Woven into the background of Banana Skin Shoes is the UK’s lengthy Brexit saga. “Between the referendum in 2016 and up to the end of last year with the General Election and all the Brexit nonsense in-between, I was trying to make a record that reflected something of my own personal story,” Gough explains. “Coming back from the depths of personal misery and ill-health and all sorts to something good and trying to interweave that with how I feel about the world. The title felt like it encompassed my failures and the world at large, making bad decisions amongst this spell.”
Giving up alcohol has had an “incalculable” effect on Gough’s life. “The difficult thing was going away for a couple of weeks to do it,” he says, “but even when I went away to do it I didn’t think I was going to stop drinking, I thought I was trying to address some problems and maybe moderate my drinking, but after three days I could sense it was do-able and necessary for me to attempt to change the way I was behaving. I spent two weeks in that place I went to and I haven’t touched a drink since then. It was tough at first, there were moments, little hurdles along the way.”
One, he recalls, was the very first gig he did sober. “Ironically it was a beer festival, which is typical of the things that happen to me... but that was good, though. It was a trial, it went well.”
Breaking the habit of drinking while recording was “daunting”, he admits, but doing gigs had been “good practice”.
“If I could get through a day where you’re driving four hours to a show and then doing a soundcheck and waiting around for the gig, seeing the support act play and then sitting in your dressing room with nothing to do, then playing for two hours on stage and driving back, doing all that in one day without a bottle of beer or a glass of wine or a Jack (Daniels) and Coke. I’ve done many of those in the last five years and if you can get through that, you can do anything.
“Before I’d be drinking on the way, because I wasn’t driving, and it just kind of creeps up on you. I became a habitual drinker. By the end I realised I wasn’t enjoying it or getting out of it what I should. I couldn’t even really get drunk in the end. I’d be the last man standing and carry on. I obviously was drunk – the hangover would prove that.
“After stopping drinking, the obvious things [that improve] are your health and your clarity, but there’s a domino effect. There are things that have happened since then that I wouldn’t have been able to deal with if I was drinking. I reversed the pre-diabetes [symptoms] because I lost two and a half stone. Losing the weight was piece of cake because of the discipline I’d learned from stopping drinking.
“I didn’t know depression was a factor in my life until the break-up. It wasn’t the break-up that made me realise it, it was just coincidence, I noticed there were days where I had inexplicable despair. Obviously drinking is associated with that.
“Since I’ve not been drinking the depression is still there but I can deal with it way better. When you’re drinking it’s a constant state of confusion, then you have the hangover to deal with and you feel terrible and you need a top-up. It’s a constant cycle and you’ve never got a level playing field on what you’re brain’s actually thinking – that’s my personal research into this, having dealt with it. The last 12 months I’ve been trying to look at what depression is, for me at least, and understand it, where it comes from, why it happens, and I’ve largely conquered that, I feel.
“The woman I’ve been working with on this, I’d like to go into partnership with and help other people, because I know what works, I know what depression is for me... Large amounts of it are caused by your own mismanagement of your brain and where you think from. If you learn to think from a different part of your body, not your head, and you can learn basic techniques, it’s like meditation. It’s only my story, it might not be right, but you have to learn you have control over your own brain and your own thought processes, your patterns of behaviour.
“And again those are some of the things that have gone into this album. The song I’m Not Sure What It Is talks about ‘our patterns of behaviour are beginning to wear thin’. I was tired of experiencing the same thing, the world impacting on me in a way that disabled me. I think these things would be familiar not just to creative people, anybody that’s sensitive to the world around them. I was sick and tired of things dragging me down, but they were things I could do nothing about. The biggest example of that is where we’re all at now, with this coronavirus and the way the world is generally; it’s a really frustrating, scary, annoying, unjust world that we live in. I feel more equipped now to deal with all this, just having the clarity of mind. I overthink everything; I’m just trying to simplify things, I suppose. I’m so glad I don’t drink in lockdown because the first thing I would’ve done is stock the fridge with a ton of booze and a) it would cost a fortune and b) I would be getting drunk every day. Now I don’t have to.”
Gough credits his wife Leanne as a driving force behind his new album.
“I give credit on the album to the people that have helped me and Leanne is the final one. I’ve been lucky. Clare, my ex, was brilliant as well, it was tragic that it went wrong but it’s great that we’ve maintained a dignity. But Leanne helped me give up the booze and then she encouraged me to write again. She sorted out a piano for me and helped me with so many things. She’s a diamond. I think anybody that’s going through struggles needs that person that helps them through. My debt to Leanne is enormous, but I think she knows that, hopefully.”
Banana Skin Shoes is out now. Badly Drawn Boy will be joining Tim Burgess for a Twitter Listening Party on The Hour of Bewilderbeast on June 9 at 9pm.