Who Needs Fame?

Badly Drawn Boy weighs the cost of being a pop celebrity

Badly Drawn Boy at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, October 24). $25. 416-323-1251. Rating: NNNNN

badly drawn boy damon gough has a well-cultivated taste for irony. After the Mercury Prize-winning chart threat spent much of the past two years being called the British Beck in the press, how else can you explain his decision to work with Beck producer Tom Rothrock on his epic new Have You Fed The Fish? (Twisted Nerve/Beggars Group) disc?

Musically speaking, Rothrock’s transparent studio technique proved an asset in making Gough’s elaborately layered orchestrations somehow seem direct and personal, bringing into focus the Boy’s masterful way with a melody.

Of course, the media will delight in seeing Rothrock’s name in the album’s credits, taking it as proof that the cockeyed Beck comparisons were right all along.

“The real reason I chose Tom Rothrock is because of my daughter Edie,” confesses Gough over a cellphone after wrapping up a Manhattan photo shoot. “When she was about seven months old, I found that if I put on an Elliott Smith record she’d start dancing around on her tether to the song Waltz No. 2. It turned out that Tom Rothrock produced it.

“But being plagued with the “British Beck’ thing from the time I arrived, I initially felt that Rothrock wasn’t a name I should connect myself with, since it would only give the press more fuel to burn me.

“Then I thought, “Hang on, I’m an ironic asshole! That’s what I’m all about! Working with Tom would be the perfect two-fingers-up to anyone who thinks I’m trying to be Beck.'”

That Gough decided to record in Los Angeles this time didn’t make the creation process any less arduous. And once again he wound up cutting loads more material than necessary.

After putting down the basics for 20 songs over three weeks in January, Gough found himself with a pile of good tunes yet no closer to completing an album. There was something missing — namely, a concept. Evidently, the whole “high cost of fame” subtext that neatly ties Have You Fed The Fish? together didn’t occur to Gough until after he left the studio. Oops.

“In retrospect, those 20 songs we did during that first session in L.A. would’ve made a good album, but a very different one. I went back into the studio in April, and that’s when I came up with You Were Right, Using Our Feet, Tickets To What You Need and, in particular, Have You Fed the Fish?, which gave me the album title.

“I hadn’t put too much thought into what I was saying in each song as I wrote it, but when I looked more closely at the lyrical content, the thematic links began to reveal themselves.

“Suddenly, it made sense to begin the album with me travelling away, and end up with a lullaby at home. For some reason, I never have a clue about what I’m doing on a record until I’m just about done.”

As it happens, the album’s catchy first single, You Were Right, which makes an apocryphal reference to turning Madonna down, just hit number nine on the UK charts, making it Badly Drawn Boy’s first top 10.

So it could be that Gough’s song cycle weighing the value of celebrity stands to make him more popular than ever. Talk about irony.

“I hadn’t considered that,” chuckles Gough, “but you’re probably exactly right. That’s so typically Badly Drawn Boy, isn’t it? I wear a hat to avoid being recognized and it becomes my identifying feature. Then I put out an album questioning the whole fame thing, and it could make me even more famous. There’s a poetic beauty in that.

“I’ve been through the mill for the past two years while making three albums and having two children. Sometimes I wish I could just stay with my family and be safe at home, but my job keeps taking me away. The thing I love doing seems to cause me the most pain — another irony. That’s life.” timp@nowtoronto.com

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