Prince of Tears, the fifth album by singer songwriter Baxter Dury, was a record that caught a few people unawares late last year.
Written in the aftermath of the break-up of a long-term relationship, it found the 46-year-old suddenly the subject of considerable praise. Having been unfairly overlooked during his previous 15 years of making music, it seems the attention – albeit belated – has come as a welcome relief to Dury.
“You’re always egotistically secretly prepared for it to happen,” he says, “a bit like a nuclear war, if you’ve got a panic room, you go ‘Haha, I’m ready!’, like you’ve got your costume underneath your civilian clothes. But I guess there’s a little bit [of surprise] because you’ve done it for a long time.
“You never know what the reaction is [going to be] but you do know when you’ve done something personally good. Historically I’ve done a few things that I thought were quite good and then they’ve not been recognised but here I kind of thought, ‘Well, this is good, if they don’t get this then the world is collectively ignorant’. I think I would’ve had that on a big banner. I would have gone a bit potty.”
He dismisses the idea that in his mid-40s he might have settled into a comfortable niche as a cult artist. “Those two words together, ‘comfortable’ and ‘niche’ are dangerous,” he says. “That’s a bit like a ‘surprising pie’. Comfortable’s not good. I think the thing about being older and trying to make something is allowing yourself to remain uncomfortable. The total point of loss, when you lose your perspective, is when you think ‘Ah, this is a nice chord, I can relax here and be comfortable’, then it goes wrong musically.
“It was about allowing myself to remain uncomfortable and make something. It wasn’t that easy to do because I exposed myself – and then you’re even looking at music and not trying to be mature, but it meant definitely not trying to be young. It was just a blend... I don’t know if it’s about experience, I think it’s about being able to maintain the belief that you can do it.”
Despite some scepticism over the idea that Prince of Tears was largely fuelled by the break-up with his French girlfriend – “It’s a bit editorial, it’s not really that true, I was writing an album and I had a bit of an argument” – nevertheless he accepts: “I get it, I quite like the idea of the old bloke with his girlfriend not there any more, it’s sort of a good theme. It is partially true. I think being unhappy and writing songs for a long while and then being able to account for that unhappiness by writing was quite a clever thing to do. I couldn’t have done it before but I was able to do it this time, I was able to collect those thoughts and then transpose them somehow.
“I guess because it’s me and I’m a bit f***ed in what I do it doesn’t come out right so then it doesn’t feel cheesy. But it’s very cheesy territory, it’s a creative blindspot for me, but because it’s me it doesn’t really come out that way, I hope. I’m on the edge of sentimentality but I’m not quite there because I wasn’t born with a sentimental outlook on life, that is actually an unnatural emotion.”
The album’s opening song, Miami, features a string of brilliant word associations reminiscent perhaps of Dury’s late father, Ian. He says he “kind of” started with a particular character in mind but then he “just let it flow”.
“One thing I’m good at is letting it flow. Whenever I try to steer it too much or be conscientious about being poetical it’s awful, I can’t hear myself think. The only thing I can do is a sort weird 1960s free form conversationalist bull*** and it feels good to me. I think it must be a panel of demons inside my head that I can’t see or hear but let rip when given the opportunity, and a song like that it just had a moment. The thing is you write it in a moment and then to re-record it in the bigger, grander London studios is a difficult process, to recapture that nuanced character is very difficult, it’s like method-acting.”
I quite like the idea of the old bloke with his girlfriend not there any more, it’s sort of a good theme. It is partially true.Baxter Dury
Dury admits he sees parts of himself in the bruised male characters that inhabit many of his songs. He likens it to Ewan McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. “Sometimes it’s convincing but sometimes not. There’s a bit of me in there but it’s not all me. There’s a bit of what I wanted to say that I wasn’t allowed to as well but I’m not some sort of post-Brexit ass, which I think it might sound like on that record, some pre- and post-Weinstein creature.”
Pricking the male egos in Dury’s songs are the voices of Madeline Hart and Rose Elinor Dougall. Dury says: “It’s not set up like a play; it’s a tonal thing completely. The records are about sound as much as they are about narrative and message. I’m really obsessed by sounds, I think about every single aspect of it – drums, the bass sounds, everything – so you’ve got simultaneous stuff going on that I like. I really use the production and I like the way it’s recorded, I think the female thing is as much about that.
“And I like an open society, with everyone doing it. In a band it makes it a much more equal experience with male and female people. If you’re on tour for six months it just makes it a nicer society, I think. It doesn’t turn into a masculine cliché.”
The sumptuous string arrangements on Prince of Tears recall Serge Gainsbourg’s work with Jean-Claude Vannier in the late 1960s. For once, Dury says, he didn’t have to press hard for the budget for an orchestra. “I was in a good position with the record label [Heavenly] and they went for it. I gave up my [publishing] rights, but I thought the right weren’t worth anything in the diminished world of record sales, so I swapped my rights for strings.
“If I signed the deal that I did 30 years ago it would’ve been shocking but you’ve got to look at it differently [now], so you invest all the money into strings. I do worry about how many sales because that’s good for them, the guys that finance it, but I don’t really see much back on it.”
Like Gainsbourg’s classic L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, Prince of Tears is done and dusted in 30 minutes. Dury says he likes to be succinct. “I think if you’re going to unload a lot of free form poet jazz and awkward arrangements just don’t do it for long and try to maximise the accessible moments. What you want to do is a verses versus experience, you’re taking away from clichéd pop world stuff but you’re adding enough in there for it to be interesting. It’s a famous old conflict that only certain people get away with in terms of making the unaccessible listenable.”
He cites the example of Nico. “At first you go that’s a bit sour and then a month later you go, ‘That’s probably one of the greatest recordings ever’. One person doing a song that’s so amazingly written and orchestrated. I’m not comparing myself to that but that’s what I’m looking for.”
Having a father famed for the lyrical brilliance of records such as Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and What A Waste, perhaps it was inevitable that Baxter Dury would have a similar way with words. Dury agrees that the influence of his mother, Betty Rathmell, and his aunts, who raised him when Ian Dury left home, is overlooked but he says: “It’s fair enough. If you have a wielding, loudmouth person like my old man you’re not going to talk about anyone else.
“Also it’s nice to have one person to vent and not everybody. By having a very exposed part of your life it makes another part of your life quite private. They’re of equal influence. My mum’s a musician who knows a lot about music.”
As well as his own headline dates this month, Dury is due to support Noel Gallagher on his UK arena tour in April and May. For someone used to performing in intimate venues, the prospect of playing on much larger stages interests him. “It might be awkward, I don’t know. I guess it depends on which territory you’re in, how avid they are about him. I haven’t supported that many people in my career. I’m sure it’s going to be pleasant being with him and he’s going to be a good guy. So far he’s show that he is and I think it will be a nice experience. Supporting somebody is quite tough, you’re trying to buy into someone else’s audience a little bit, But I think it will be nice.”
Baxter Dury plays at Belgrave Music Hall on February 19 and he supports Noel Gallagher at First Direct Arena on May 7. www.baxterdury.net