After rocking the joint at Live 8, the former Verve frontman warms to a new alliance with Coldplay
Richard Ashcroft and Coldplay will now be forever linked by their Live 8 performance last summer in London.
The two British acts came together for a powerful rendition of Bittersweet Symphony, the huge breakthrough hit by Ashcroft’s former band, The Verve, which fuelled sales of their 1997 breakthrough release, Urban Hymns, to seven million worldwide.
In fact, Coldplay singer Chris Martin introduced the number as "the best song ever written, sung by the best singer in the world."“It’s a gift and a curse, anything like that,” Ashcroft, 35, says down the line from London recently. “It’s a gift to be given an opportunity to communicate to billions of people. The curse comes when, for the rest of your life, you’re going to be talking about it. It’s not a curse to be talking about Chris all the time, but I did say to him on the day, ‘Do you realize how linked we are now? Do you understand the nature of this? I hope you’re comfortable because you might as well be married to me.’”
Now Ashcroft finds himself opening for Coldplay at the Air Canada Centre for sold-out shows Wednesday and Thursday. Just don’t expect them to play during each other’s sets.
“I don’t know, actually,” Ashcroft says.”I’ve got nothing planned. But I don’t see why not. I’m not really into We Are The World situations but (Martin’s) a hard man to say no to, so I won’t rule it out.”
The two artists met through mutual friend/DJ Wayne Griggs.
“Chris Martin was one of the few of my peers to publicly to speak up, especially in England, on my last album (2002’s Human Conditions), and say, ‘Look, I think there’s moments of greatness on this record. I think people have got it wrong and you don’t understand where he’s coming from.’ He’s someone that isn’t … influenced by fashion in that way and he’s not afraid to speak up for things that he enjoys. And that made an impression on me.”
The end result was that Ashcroft — who is now father to two young sons with wife Kate Radley — went on a European tour with Coldplay. It worked out so well that he decided to do another three weeks in North America.
“It was very bizarre ’cause we were leaving early ’cause we had to get my son to bed,” Ashcroft says of the European leg. “We just had one crew member and we’d fit (our stage gear) into a kind of transit van, and we’d drive past 22 articulated lorries that were holding the whole of the Coldplay’s gear. And it was quite cool to go back to none of the pressure. Practically having a standing ovation of 20,000 people 20 minutes before, and then leaving in a van. It felt like a bank robbery in a weird way.”
Ashcroft says because he’s the support act, he only plays for an hour without his full stage production.
“You don’t have all the, for want of a better analogy, Nuremberg Rally buttons to press,” Ashcroft says with a laugh.
Still, both he and Martin have discussed the effect a potent song — delivered by the right singer and the right band on the right stage — can have on a large crowd.
“He said to me, one night in Italy, he said, ‘It’s like watching an archer pulling these songs off his back.’ ”
While Ashcroft hopes to return to North America for a solo headlining tour in support of his third solo album, Keys To The World, the Coldplay gig “is a good chance to play to a significant amount of people and say, ‘I’m back. And this is what I do.’ ”
For now, Coldplay’s supporting slot will more than suffice.
“To be honest, with Coldplay, I can play over a series of three weeks, to more people than I probably play to with eight months of touring on my own,” Ashcroft says. “It’s quite simple as that. I’ve got to, at this stage in my career, get to as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Because I haven’t got the energy to give away to North America like I did when I was 21 years old. When I would go every night for six-seven weeks, give my heart and soul, and burn myself out, and sell 50 more records. I enjoy the whole experience of playing live but you pay the penalty in the end.”
In the meantime, Ashcroft’s obsession with strings continues on Keys To The World, released earlier this year. Don’t forget that Bittersweet Symphony famously sampled an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ The Last Time.
“My style of singing probably lends itself more to Sinatra, Elvis, the crooners, Bing Crosby, I like them all,” he says. “I like Dion. I love his voice in the ’70s. That deeper sort of tone (and) the way it sort of hits the strings seem to complement each other a lot. And I find that strings are just one part of my palette, really. Whether that goes down to being a kid and just enjoying Sergio Leone or Morricone or soundtracks like that and John Barry and classical composers like John Williams — I’ve always enjoyed anyone who’s used strings in a really good way.”
In fact, Ashcroft is planning a DVD that will feature him performing surrounded by an orchestra and would love to tour one day with strings.
He also embraces American soul on Keys To The World, specifically sampling Curtis Mayfield on the new song Music Is Power.
“I think most music that I love goes back to the church anyway, probably the deep South of America, ultimately,” he says. “And if not that, you follow it back to the slave ships back to Africa. There were quite a number of little sidetrips along the way. Whether it be Celtic folk, or American white folk, country, blues, whatever you want to call it. All this stuff is part of my heritage, too, and I don’t deny it. And I see how much all of that influenced the greatest band to ever come out of my country — the Beatles. Without black American soul and R&B, many of the Beatles’ songs really wouldn’t exist, to be honest. They were some of the keenest Magpiers in the history of music but they just had a way of Beatle-fying their influences, which can only come through time.”
Ashcroft does see songwriting as a way to get some pretty big ideas out into the world. For instance, the new song Why Not Nothing? challenges political and religious figureheads while the title track examines social imbalances.
“I’ve always used it as this outlet to say certain things, and the great songs I love, like Instant Karma … almost had a built-in philosophy, the titles were also really strong.”
Luckily for Ashcroft, the consensus is that he’s back at the top of his musical game with such big-sounding, epic new songs as the aforementioned Why Not Nothing?, the title track, Cry Til The Morning and Simple Song.
But the singer-songwriter says he doesn’t pay attention to such proclamations — good or bad — only personal attacks.
“That’s taking it to a Frank Sinatra level,” he says. “But when people say, ‘You’re back,’ or ‘This is better than the last one,’ they haven’t got a clue, to be honest. They’ve got no idea whatsoever. Most people’s opinions on me are based on something that’s untrue anyway. They often review the music with my personality, or what they think it is, rather than actually listening to the songs. So I gave up a long time ago worrying about what other people think.”
Ashcroft says his working-class background in Wigan, England, has always worked against him in the British music press, stemming all the way back to his alleged drug-fuelled, unhinged days with The Verve that led to the tag “Mad Richard.”
“I think there’s a premeditated effort by certain people to literally try (to) end my career in my own country,” he says. “Not necessarily now but for the last few years. It’s sad, really. It’s almost like because of my upbringing, I’m not allowed to talk about certain issues or I’ll be humoured. And that’s something that’s gone on since the days of Mad Richard and all that kind of stuff. You get to a certain level, whether it’s John Lennon or whoever, there’s always a certain faction of upper middle-class characters who will want to keep you firmly in a place somewhere. They can’t do it in a monetary way, so all that they can do is intellectually try to break me down in a way, to humour me, and sort of make me a comedic kind of character, rather than someone to be taken seriously. I can appreciate that. I’m not here to save the world. I’m just here to make rock ‘n’ roll.”
COLDPLAY W/ RICHARD ASHCROFT
Wednesday, Thursday 8 p.m.
Air Canada Centre
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