TODAY Damon Albarn, 53 and looking good on it, is in London to rehearse for a gig. It’s summer 2021, a quarter of a century since the high summer of Britpop. A quarter of a century since he was swapping insults with the Gallagher Brothers as Blur took on Oasis in the charts and falling out of Camden’s Good Mixer pub at closing time.

In the intervening years Albarn has formed three new bands, one of whom, Gorillaz, has outsold everything else he has ever done. He has made music in Africa and Iceland, co-written an opera about the Elizabethan mathematician and possible magician John Dee, another based on a 16th-century Chinese novel and a third, an African opera about a Malian fetish animist, which he worked on with Mauritanian film director Abderrahmane Sissako and staged in Paris last December.

He has also written a musical, Wonder.land, co-wrote and co-produced Bobby Womack’s final studio album The Bravest Man in the Universe, recorded two solo albums, the second of which will be released later this year and which those who go to his shows at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival will get a sneak preview of. He has also been raising his 22-year-old daughter Missy with his long-time partner Suzi Winstanley.

And yet there are still some people who can’t get past the fact that he is the singer with Blur.

“I still get called Damien quite a lot and asked what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years,” the man who once sang Country House and Parklife tells me . “I just have to accept it.”

He’s doing okay with that, I reckon. Today, Albarn is talking to me on Zoom whilst sitting in a rehearsal room in west London, looking and sounding relaxed and laidback . In our relatively limited time together he laughs a lot. Quite something considering, as perhaps might be expected given that we are both men in our fifties (I’m further on in that journey than he is), we spend much of our time talking about the past, about ageing and even mortality.

But we also talk about cooking, the Tory government, and the dangers of wearing a Scotland top in late 1970s England. Yes, Blur will get a mention or two. But so will David Bowie and MasterChef.

You may be pleased to know the mullet he was sporting in his last press photo has gone. “I kept it for 10 months and enough was enough. I just did it for a laugh,” Albarn says.

HeraldScotland: Damon Albarn with mullet. Photograph Linda BrownleeDamon Albarn with mullet. Photograph Linda Brownlee

Today he’s short-haired, slightly stubbly and wearing a sleeveless shirt. “I’m in Gorillaz mode today,” he tells me, “hence the T-shirt. Not the folk smock. I have got it. I just took it off. I should have worn it.”

The implication being that said smock would be more suitable apparel to talk about our subject today, his second solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, a (mostly) quiet, shimmering mixture of the electronic and the orchestral that takes on grief and mourning and the poetry of John Clare.

We are speaking a couple of days after he had played tracks from it at the Latitude Festival. It was a bit of a challenge, he admits.

“We were playing on a lake. But that lake was right next to the main stage where Rudimental came on at exactly the same time as me and we found ourselves playing along with them because we couldn’t hear ourselves at all. If you know the record, it’s quite delicate, reflective. So, it was interesting trying to sing The Nearer the Fountain … with a Rudimental drum ’n’ bass beat. But we rose above it as a group of musicians and saw the funny side of our situation.”

That shouldn’t be a problem in Edinburgh. What associations does the Scottish capital hold for him, I wonder? “Going down to Leith many, many years ago with Irvine Welsh and drinking in the pub with all the people who inspired Trainspotting. I don’t really remember what happened to me that evening. I definitely entered that world. I just remember being in Edinburgh, in Leith and in Trainspotting.”

Albarn’s new album is based on an idea he had to take orchestral musicians to the front room of his house in Iceland and “play the weather and the outline of the landscape.”

And so that’s what he did, mounting three workshops, one in the last of the summer light in September the others in the depth of winter in Iceland when it’s almost entirely nocturnal.

“It’s just an amazing process for making music and I recorded hours and hours of very interesting orchestral improvisation. And then I had to leave it at the beginning of last year. But it was just such a haunting experience, in such a stark contrast to how the world metamorphosised within a month or so.”

Ah yes, the pandemic. He spent most of lockdown in his home in Devon, where he started thinking about making an album out of those instrumental “atmospheres.” (They weren’t songs yet, he says).

In the press notes he talks of the album taking him on a dark journey, I say. How dark?

Albarn begins to talk about John Clare’s haunted, mournful poem Love and Memory. “Such an ode to the death of somebody. I’ve always loved his poetry. I love his story. I love what he represented to the beginning of the 19th century; the anti-aristocrat poet, someone who was self-aware and into that kind of English magic realism.

“So, I’ve always gravitated to his poems, and I had the line From Love and Memory, ‘The nearer the fountain, more pure the stream flows.’ I was using it for the title for what I was doing in Iceland.

“But then I felt there was much more in this poem that means something to me at the moment through personal loss and just that sense of loss of a generation … Do you know what I mean? All these kids not able to express themselves.”

Because of the moment we’re living through? “Yeah, exactly. So, when I sing, I don’t necessarily sing about the death of a young person. It’s more the death of that moment. People’s dreams.”

This prompts him to be political for a moment, citing the infamous government poster urging a ballet dancer to retrain for a job in IT . “I think when you look at what the government were doing with their ‘retrain’ manifesto … You’re doing that at this moment? At this particular moment?

“It was really insensitive. But that’s the Conservatives for you. They’re brilliant at that sort of insensitivity when it comes to the arts.”

You mentioned personal loss, I say. “Tony Allen,” he says simply. Allen, Albarn’s long-time collaborator and the drummer with Fela Kuti and Albarn’s band The Good, the Bad & the Queen, died in April last year.

“There’s been a few, sadly, since. But that was the beginning of ‘S***, people are dropping.’ And in Tony’s case, he was a very, very important person in my life. He’s one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, if not the greatest. With the exception of my mum and dad. And my daughter, because kids teach you a thing or two.”

Tell me about it, I say. “How old are your kids?” he asks. “Both very opinionated?”

There have been words already this morning, Damon.

“Mine’s 22 and I can’t do anything without it being … you know. It has to go through the realignment bureau, the mind-bending world of political correctness. All that.”

It is the time. “It is and a lot of it is very hard to disapprove, but it’s quite constricting for them sometimes, I think. They could all do with a dose of 1968 and flower power.”

That is the culture he grew up in. Albarn was born in London in 1968. His mum Hazel was a theatrical set designer, his dad had been the manager of Soft Machine and went on to be a headmaster in Colchester where the family settled.

“I was brought up an internationalist and my dad’s dad was a conscientious objector. Both my parents were very much part of the sixties in their mindsets.”

As a result, he says, “I didn’t feel any sort of nationalism. I didn’t really understand what it was. I remember when I first went to comprehensive school, Scotland had been in the World Cup in ’78. I bought a Scotland top and went into school, and I got the s*** kicked out of me. I soon learnt about nationalism after that one.”

“That’s a true story. I didn’t know you weren’t allowed to support other teams. Literally, because it had never been part of my upbringing.”

 

Curious then that when Blur started what marked them out in the early 1990s was their studied Englishness, a reaction to their miserable experiences touring America at the start of the decade.

There was even a moment before Cool Britannia reduced it to caricature when that idea of Englishness, drawing on English pop of the 1960s, felt progressive. That feels a very long time ago.

“Yeah, well, Brexit opened Pandora’s box and a lot of things our generation thought we were growing out of …That ignorant racism and bigotry … We thought we were progressing from that. But now it’s been given the platform to continue its dull, ignorant belligerence.”

We inevitably talk about his days in Blur, with Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree. Ask him for a memory that sums that experience up and he goes right back to the beginning.

HeraldScotland: BlurBlur

“When we were in my parent’s garage in Colchester and we first played Sing and She’s So High and I suddenly felt like I had moved on from being in local Battle of the Bands in Colchester and there was a chance that we might be able to fulfil our dreams, our real crazy Top of the Pops Whistle Test, TV show dreams. We could be a bit like The Who. That’s the best moment. Because ever since then I’ve just been working really.”

He laughs. “I’ve been busy.”

That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy what followed. There were dark, possibly drug-induced moments. There were fallings out. There were spats with the Gallagher brothers. But from the distance of today he can say he enjoyed much of it.

“I even enjoyed playing the Sanremo Festival. Graham didn’t want to come, so we got a cardboard cut-out of him, and we got on a private plane, Dave and myself and a cardboard cut-out of Graham. Alex was supposed to come but he’d been out all night with Keith Allen - this was in the mid-nineties, so he didn’t make it.

“We turned up at Sanremo in Italy and started to do a playback. I think it was Charmless Man. And about 30 seconds into the playback the cardboard cut-out of Graham fell on the floor. It was just Dave and me … I enjoyed that as well.”

What I wonder, does he now feel about that twentysomething mouthy, cocky king of the walk he was back then?

HeraldScotland: Damon Albarn Photograph Linda BrownleeDamon Albarn Photograph Linda Brownlee

“Now it’s coming out,” he says, laughing. “I’m more confident now. That’s all. And with more confidence comes less affectation, hopefully. I never aspired to be really irritating. Clearly, I was,” he says, still sniggering.

“But I don’t hanker for the past at all. I don’t live in the past. But I don’t feel remote from it. I just feel lucky that I’ve managed to step out of it.”

He has spent half a lifetime now finding new ways to work. And new people. He has collaborated with everyone, it seems, this century. Or nearly everyone.

“Dr Dre, Prince, and Kendrick Lamar … I missed all three of those. All my fault. Which is quite a lot of people to miss.

“And David Bowie asked me and Ray Davies to make an album with him. It was actually a serious thing we were going to do. He summonsed me when he was playing in Switzerland into the labyrinth of his backstage and I went to see him and he said, ‘Well, we’re going to do this but if this tour keeps doing as well as it is then I’m going to carry on touring.’”

The tour kept going. “And that’s why there’s no album. I regret that one. I just imagine what that might have sounded like.”

At 53 Albarn is well into the middle of his life. Is he onboard with the idea of ageing?

“I think you just have to start coming to terms with the finality of life. In a way that’s quite liberating because once you get over that … I mean, who knows how we face death until we face it? There’s nothing else getting in your way, really, other than death. So, if you see it like that, it’s very liberating. There’s one thing you can’t avoid, so head towards it joyously.”

Joyously? “Well, yeah, of course. Why not? Rather live a life of joy than to fear the end.”

I have wondered sometimes if your Stakhanovite appetite for work is in any way a raging against the dying of the light, Damon?

“Raging against death? By being super busy?” The idea amuses him. “I think there’s definitely an element of avoidance by being super busy, obviously.

“I love making music. It’s just a joy. I’d rather live a life in joy than not.”

Does he take time off? If so, what does he do with it? “I love reading, but falling asleep on the sofa is more what I do. I like cooking.”

Is he any good at it? “I’m a very good cook.”

I’m surprised Celebrity MasterChef hasn’t come calling, I say. “I can’t be f****** bothered to go on TV. Why would you do that? No way would I go on telly. I’ve been asked to do so many things over the years. All those talent shows. MasterChef, I’ve been asked on that. The dancing one. Celebrity Come Dancing.

“Someone came over from America for American Idol and I said, ‘why would you want someone like me on your programme? I will be negative about everything. Either no one will watch the show after one episode or there will be such a backlash that you’ll get rid of me. There’s no point in me doing it.’ F*** all of that. I hate it.

So, no, he says, he won’t do TV. But, he adds, “I do love watching it.” And there’s that cackle again.

Let’s leave it there. With the image of him sitting watching telly on the sofa. It is most definitely not the 1990s anymore. Damon Albarn is OK with that.

Damon Albarn plays Edinburgh Park on August 24, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. His new album The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is released on Transgressive Records on November 12