When I finally get around to speaking with Richard Ashcroft, him off The Verve, it’s five hours later than our agreed time. He’s been up all night, ‘signing albums’, according to sources. I wonder if he slept alright.
“I hope I strike you as a lucid and clear gentleman,” says a woozy Manc accent down the phone. “Although I have been awake for 36 hours.”
Well alright then. The new album he’s gamely plugging, Natural Rebel, comes out the following day (today), and (counting The Verve) will be Richard Ashcroft’s ninth proper studio release. Does he, I wonder, still get excited on album eve day?
“It’s bizarrely getting more exciting,” he tells me, lucidly and – for now at least – clearly.
“Johnny Cash is a hero of mine, and as he got older, if anything, he exuded more experience, more pathos.”
The album has so far taken a bit of a critical drubbing – unfairly, in my view – from the likes of the NME, and of course he knows it. Before long a chippy scintilla of anger peeks through the clear lucid veneer.
“I burned the NME. Fuck you, I’m not selling you, you’ve got my kipper on there now ripping me to pieces.”
(I think he means face)
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“Don’t put my kipper on your stupid daft fucking fucking digital piece of shite again, I don’t give a fucking rat’s arse, go and put Lady Gaga, all those fucking American bands. Hashtag-fucking-save-the-world virtue-signalling bollocks. You’re not even a magazine any more.”
Pffft, print is dead amirite. And he’s not all negative.
“My voice is getting better, and never mind the naysayers. The people know it, the people who dig my thing, in Buenos Aires or Santiago, or Mexico City, or Glasgow Barrowlands.”
Let’s talk about the record, shall we. Natural Rebel finds our hero in reflective spirits – other than incendiary screaming closer ‘Money Money’ which expresses an unedifying preoccupation with cash that we’ll return to in a moment – and comprises mostly mid-tempo ballads that some critics have labelled ‘country’ but I reckon owe more to spiritual, almost hymnal themes. Take, for instance, track three: ‘Surprised By The Joy’.
“Spiritual is the wrong word,” he sets my straight. “But I want to go back to the sense that when you were young, you could smell the soil, smell the flowers. That emotion of joy. That’s what my shows are, an hour and a half of catharsis, people coming together, people crying together.”
Well that’s lovely, I say, and in spite of myself seize upon an upbeat pause to gush that Urban Hymns was the first album I ever bought. “Sorry it’s all been downhill from there, mate,” he jokes.
I’m about to ask a really grown up question about his trademark string sections, which are all over Natural Rebel of course, when another grievance sadly rears its head.
“You know about 'Bittersweet Symphony' anyway. That bastard Klein and his scumbag company, selling it out to adverts.”
As you might be aware, his biggest tune ever was at the heart of a bitter legal tussle between Ashcroft, the Rolling Stones and, more precisely, the Stones’ old manager Allen Klein. Essentially, The Verve got clearance for a six-second string sample from the Andrew Oldham orchestra’s version of The Stones’ ‘The Last Time’, but failed to get clearance for the Stones song itself. Ashcroft reckons he was fobbed off with just a dollar in the contract for a track that’s gone on to make somewhere north of $15 million.
“It used to piss me off,” spits Ashcroft, referring specifically to ITV’s use of the record in it’s international football coverage. “Before England started doing better, I used to think that song was cursed.”
“That bastard Klein”, the business manager who negotiated the deal and did our boy out of a fortune, is now dead. “His son’s in charge now though. That company, ABKCO, has so many brand new leather sofas, because I wrote their biggest hit for years. A worldwide hit, and it took a young lad from Wigan.”
“I’m going to embarrass that company so badly. We’re gonna get a documentary made, we’re gonna take it to Sundance, we’re gonna do emoting really interesting.”
“Do they think we’re soft lads who’re just gonna sit back? When I was put under duress to sign away one of the greatest songs of all time?”
…no I guess…
“It’s sport for me. It’s going to be very enjoyable, getting that money back.”
“What if they snuck into your house, and stole 15 million dollars? Or a couple of hundred quid even, would you forget it?”
In fairness, that would suck.
“Or that dude who stole the trainers from Wigan baths – I’m still looking for you man. You know who you are, and you snided off with them, beautiful blue trainers man… I’ve got a long memory man.
“In a nutshell, fuck ABKCO.”
Let’s talk about string sections, shall we. They’re clearly a defining feature of Richard Ashcroft’s work, setting his greatest songs – ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’, ‘That Other One I Probably Shouldn’t Bring Up Again’ – up in a different strata from regular meat-and-potatoes indie dross.
“I used to love Bing Crosby,” says Ashcroft, suddenly back in the room. “The old crooners. Violins are magnificent, they’re a great accompaniment, and I’m a northern soul man at heart.”
So, do you arrange them yourself, or does the producer put them on afterwards?
“Oh I do it all, everything. Although…”
(Brace for another tirade)
“….that fucking team of songwriters are getting right in my way”
Oh yeah, that actually did happen.
“I’ve asked his management to tell him to get in touch,” he offers, demonstrating at least due diligence. “To find out what drugs he was on when he said that. There’s enough fucking haters, enough people stabbing you in the back.
“That’s why I love fucking Liam, he’s the real fucking deal. Thick or fucking thin, man.”
Hang on a sec, though, I venture – Liam famously used a team of writers on his last record didn’t he?
“Does it matter? Does it fuck. He’s got the greatest voice going. Think I give a shit that Elvis had writers?”
“Liam’s on another level. He’s the man who brings those songs alive, from the start. He brought it, the people live their lives through him. 100,000 people at Wembley all wanna be Liam, they all wanna be me…
“They don’t wanna be the fucking bass player.”
Bit harsh on Noel. I remember reading the sleeve notes to What’s The Story Morning Glory, where the song ‘Cast No Shadow’ is dedicated, presumably by Noel, to ‘the genius of Richard Ashcroft’.
“Do you think Noel sat down with his quill, yeah, on his desk with the candle burning, like Dickens?”
Well, no, if you put it like that.
“Why was it ‘Cast no Shadow’ anyway? Cause I’m thin?”
In similar soliloquies during our enlightening half-hour, Richard Ashcroft takes aim at sports fashion brands (“fucking Adidas should be giving us million pound contracts, the amount of clothes me, Liam and Ian Brown have sold for them”) and, oddly, Kanye West (and his “daft fucking hotel slipper shoes”).
Despite slipping his own name in amid lofty company all the time, he claims he’s in no mood to become an institution – and certainly isn't looking for recognition from ‘the Establishment’.
“I’m never going to get that cold steel on my shoulders,” he says. “I’m never going to bow to no-one, right. I don’t need to be knighted. I’m already a king.”
Equally, it seems, he has no truck with the trappings of stardom.
“I don’t need security, I walk where I wanna walk, go where I wanna go. If I wanna walk through Hull I’ll walk through fucking Hull.”
That said his main regret regarding those ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ losses is that he’ll never get to reside in New York's exclusive Dakota Building, where his hero John Lennon lived until his assassination. It's tough to get a room there, even with cash, and references are a must.
"I want Yoko to sign a bit of paper saying I’m a decent person" he says, deadpan.
Fun as it is listening to Richard Ashcroft go off on one, in fairness I do like the album, and especially his spirt and clear naked enthusiasm for still wanting to make music.
“I don’t need this, I could fuck right off, buy an island. I’m doing it cos I want some rock n' roll back.”
Amid the abrasiveness, at least, the unmistakable chippy, brilliant voice of one of our greatest living songwriters is patently neither lucid nor clear – but 100% natural rebel.
Natural Rebel is out now. Check here for more details.
Richard Ashcroft tour dates.
Friday 26 October – Glasgow Barrowlands – SOLD OUT
Sunday 28 October – Middlesborough Town Hall – SOLD OUT
Monday 29 October – Nottingham Rock City – SOLD OUT
Wednesday 31 October – Manchester Albert Hall – SOLD OUT
Friday 2 November – Kentish Town Forum – SOLD OUT