If you haven’t heard Miami – BAXTER DURY’s snarling, surrealist masterpiece in agit pop – yet then, first of all, where’ve you been pal? Secondly, bump it up to number one on today’s to-do list. Taken from Prince Of Tears, his fifth record, and first on the Heavenly Recordings imprint, the entire album deals in menacing descriptions, surreal vignettes, inflated egos, emasculation and wounded lovers, and Miami is the perfect microcosm of this world. Open about the recent heartbreak that fueled the album’s conception, Dury projects his feelings onto a world of warped storytelling – lyrics on tracks like Mungo and Porcelain are bleak and desperate; elsewhere on the album, his words are full-on grotesque and sexy. Lush cinematic arrangements underpin the record, tying these scraps of human nature together to culminate in his best received effort yet. Cementing his status as a cult artist has been no mean feat – consistently delivering astute and brilliant records is one task, doing so under the shadow of one famous father no doubt makes carving your own identity more difficult. Comparisons to Ian Dury are probably a little lazy, and though there’s discernible lineage in Baxter’s voice, the orchestration on the album and sardonic vocals veer more towards the Serge Gainsbourg songbook, or even Leonard Cohen on his swansong, You Want It Darker.
Beneath its veneer of sordidness, Prince Of Tears taps into the human emotion so eloquently and uniquely, with a depth of perception that takes an acute cross section of the human ego, making Baxter Dury’s set one of the most anticipated performances of this year’s festival. Georgia Turnbull spoke to the Chiswick bard about the writing process behind his new record, shaking off the shadow of famous parents, and what the future holds for him.
Your new album Prince Of Tears is explicitly influenced by your own heartbreak, yet hopeful in the face of sadness. What made you choose heartbreak as a theme for the album?
Any source of any feeling of anything is a good motivation point… it just happened that I was feeling a bit miserable, so I exploited it. I delve into what is a very obvious source of songwriting within most people’s field, the kind of soppy or romantic thing, but it didn’t turn out that way with me and my description of it because it all went wrong. Songwriting is a conceptual thing, so if you’ve got feelings you might as well put them down. It feels shallow that emotion is not validated by an art form like music. It can be painfully bad if you go into too much detail – like shopping list world – but if you can capture a little bit of what you genuinely feel, it makes all the difference.
Instead of the standard love song, you created characters and surreal vignettes. What made you decide to take this route of songwriting?
I don’t know if I had many choices, or if I really thought about it that much. Laundering is always, always a good thing. I believe you launder your real emotions via something else. You can’t directly tell somebody exactly what you’re feeling. Also, you have to maintain a mystery about what you’re doing because you can’t be too documentary about the subject matter, because the musical mystery is lost if that’s done. I still think I sound like Al Green so I think ‘Oh my God, I’m really soulful and I’m an amazing singer!’, which is maybe not true. But I still labour under that misconception that it’s true, and that delusional thought motivates me. I wrote what I thought were romantic songs, but I just find characters to be vehicles of expression and free speech, so it’s more thought-provoking than just saying ‘I feel miserable’ when writing a song. Though I don’t mind feeling miserable, I think if you feel miserable and you can’t talk about it, you’re fucked. But if you’ve got the skills to, whether you’re boring everyone else, it’s good for you to be able to talk about it.
Music is entwined in your DNA, but your work obviously encompasses its own identity. How do you shake off the pigeonhole of ‘Ian Dury’s son’ to become your own separate musical entity?
I’ve been talking about this a lot recently, because my son is 15 and also really into music. I look back, thinking about that process and thinking about how, for everyone, it’s hard for you to create your own unique space and to be something different; no matter what anyone does, no matter who they’re related to. The good thing about being related to someone is also the bad thing, because eventually you have to find that distance because no-one takes you seriously. What happens is there’s an accelerated process when being related to someone famous, there’s maybe more acknowledgment to your efforts, more quickly because of your relation. But eventually you have to prove who you are and what you’re about yourself, within anything, and that perishes very quickly. I’m confident that I am my own person though. It took me quite a while, so when my son asked, I try not say anything because influence can be contaminating and I want him to do his own thing, and he better bloody work harder than I ever did to make it somehow work. Becoming your own separate self is just about hard work, and from that comes confidence, and from that comes something good.
What was it like to have collaborators on your album such as Rose Elinor Dougall and Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods, as well as regular collaborator Madelaine Hart?
They’re all friends, I wouldn’t work with them unless I really liked them, all lovely people. It was all very easy, almost actor-like in a way, where we’re all a bit gushy, kissy-kissy, so wonderful to work with. Within minutes or half an hour, the song would be done and there was no drama. It’s been nice for them to sometimes come back on stage on key occasions throughout the year, which I think they will. Collaborations make the album into a real circus, it’s brilliant.
What were your influences while recording this album? Literary or musical?
I went into a slightly film world with this one. I thought with the provincial, little emotions I wanted to deal with, I wanted to project them cinematically. That’s why there’s loads of strings and orchestral moments throughout the album, as well as verses of the little broken dude from Chiswick with a little Star Wars soundtrack behind him. I wasn’t necessarily listening to Star Wars, but I was listening to a lot of film soundtracks, and big scores in their music. I’m always in that world, always thinking about it visually in a way, it’s quite like Dunkirk. A shitty plane fighting through the forces of tyranny. That’s the way I see myself, a shitty plane with one engine left, but with a big score at least motivating people.
What are your plans after this tour?
I’ve just come back off a tour that was three of four weeks long, and I did about three days of relaxing and then I started getting stressed like ‘Right, right, I need to do something!’, and thinking about radical things. So, I’ll wait and see what happens, I’ve got another album that I’m trying to sign at the moment that I did with a French dude called Etienne de Crécy, who composes mainly dance music, which will be interesting, so I might do a few gigs with that. And then I plan to make another album really quickly.
It kind of depends on where the music industry is. The music industry is really weird and [it’s] hard to determine what should happen now, because it feels like guitar music and indie bands sound quite tired. Not that I’m there trying to divert the trends of music, but it’s hard to work out what will happen. I’d like to work with some sort of nutter in Detroit, work with something completely off course, and see what happens. The more you progress, and you feel supported – like I do with this album – it opens up the opportunity to do odder, more adventurous things, so let’s see what happens.
Baxter Dury performs at District on Sunday 6th May.