Live from Anne’s Backyard: Damon Albarn
Intimate performances, fresh sounds, and candid conversations with a view.
Since the ‘90s, Damon Albarn has established himself as a chameleon of sound. From fronting Britpop icons Blur and trip-pop troupe Gorillaz to creating operas and scoring films, just when you think you have him figured out, he's onto something entirely fresh, different, and exciting.
And now Albarn has yet another new release that takes the listener on a different journey. His second solo album “The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows” began its life cycle as an orchestral piece commissioned by French bandleader Marc Cardonnel, who offered Albarn a creative blank canvas, provided that it would eventually involve his orchestra.
Albarn seized the opportunity to explore his longtime desire to create music inspired by the vistas of his Iceland home. The process began in February 2020, and evolved from an orchestral piece into a more minimal, album-length chamber work by the time “The Nearer the Fountain” was released in November 2021. The results are stunning, teeming with quivering strings, atmospheric washes, and Albarn’s own preoccupied melancholy. Together, they amount to an intimate exploration of one’s internal landscape.
But the project’s origins in an epic orchestral movement still linger as Albarn prepares to bring the project to the live stage for a rare, one-off U.S. concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 24. For this performance, Albarn, accompanied by a string section, will play the piano, offering selections from “The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows'' alongside cuts from his vast songbook of Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, and various solo and collaborative works.
Ahead of the performance, Albarn joined KCRW Program Director of Music Anne Litt in her backyard for an exclusive conversation — his only in-person interview for this album cycle — to discuss the album’s origins, scoring the Icelandic landscape, and the existential contexts behind his works.
Want more? KCRW is offering a prize pack featuring a pair of tickets to this once-in-a-lifetime performance, plus a vinyl copy of “The Nearer The Fountain” and a litho print, available to one lucky winner. Enter here by 11:59pm on Thursday, Jan. 20 and all of this could be yours…
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Tell us the story of your album.
Damon Albarn: It started with an offer I got from somebody to do whatever I wanted to do on commission. Though it was actually quite a tough ask, because it had to involve an orchestra. I thought about it, and … the one thing I've always wanted to do was to make music looking out my window and my house in Iceland. [The house] is situated on a bay and looks out to the Arctic Ocean and mountains. And on a clear day, you can see the glaciers and the volcano.
What is it about Iceland, of all the places?
It started with a recurring dream I had as a child, of sort of levitating over vast expanses of black sand, but I didn't have any geography to it. And I think what happened, if I remember rightly, I was on tour in America, in a hotel, and I was watching cable.
A National Geographic program came on about Iceland. There were amazing panoramic shots of volcanic beaches. Only when this project became a reality did I realize how much it was a part of me now. We got this fantastic group of orchestral musicians together, and they all came and stayed in Iceland. They’d turn up every day, first thing in the morning, and get in their positions. We'd all look out the window, usually before there was any light… We had harmonic destinations, but it was really [a daily process of] scoring the sunrise, scoring the sea, the outline of the mountains, the birds…
There's a song on the album called “Particles.” Can you talk about that in context of the whole record?
Particles are joyous, as they alight on your skin… [The song] started with conversations. I was on my way to one of the first rehearsals from London. I got on the plane and I sat down. And this strange little old lady sat next to me and started to talk to me. It’s my idea of hell, the idea of being stuck on a plane talking to someone, but she turned out to be extremely funny. Very insightful. It turned out she was a rabbi. Born in Winnipeg, now a resident of Vancouver. She lived a very, very full, and fascinating life.
So it started with a conversation about Trump. We were still in the midst of that, at the time. And I was expressing my deep concerns, and she was sympathetic to that. But [then] she said; “Oh, don't worry about him … He's just kind of a particle that's been, you know… a disrupter.”
Then it became very meta. Sort of the idea that all particles, you know… progress is inexorable, and it doesn't matter to a particle when it dies, because something happens as a result of its death. It's all joyous, the universe is a joyous thing. It doesn't deal with the human concept of sadness and loss, it doesn't work in that way at all.
What is the story behind the song “Royal Morning Blue?”
Well, that was one that I actually almost finished in the early sessions in Iceland. It was terrible, horizontal rain. And we were playing it all very, very dramatic — angry, orchestral. And then suddenly, the temperature dropped a bit. And everything went into slow motion because it all started transforming into snow. So you'd literally have the rain here, and then the snow started to come in. And then everything just became very light and joyful. And so, in a way, I think that song is at the heart of the whole record. Rain turning into snow, it’s rebirth.