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The busker’s half century: Damien Rice at 50

We probably all know by now that Lisa Hannigan, the Blue Diamond herself, was at one time a strategic music assistant to Irish indie folkie Damien Rice and that the partnership dissolved abruptly, leaving both artists to forge their own paths. 

Now marking his half-century, no one knows more than this particular multi-instrumentalist how there have been many critically lauded (and hyped) singer-songwriters over the years who quickly turned from snow to slush overnight, and like his former foil, Damien’s been crazily quiet of late: releasing one solitary single since his third solo album My Favourite Faded Fantasy, a 2014 chart-topper helmed by Beastie Boys producer Rick Rubin. 

A decade earlier, Rice launched his music career with the hard-hitting ‘90s indie outfit Juniper, who released a couple of 45s which did moderately well on Irish radio. After label shenanigans sunk the band, he scrounged up enough money to record a demo, which he sent to producer/James Bond film composer David Arnold (who, helpfully, also happens to be his cousin). 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yqM–IMkX4

Suitably impressed, Arnold set up a mobile studio for Rice to make a record. His first single, The Blower’s Daughter, was a top 20 hit when it appeared in 2001, and he released the O LP the following year, hitting the UK top 10 and earning four-times platinum status. It was arguably the most overplayed Irish album of the early noughties.

Probably its most famous extract, Cannonball even had the unsavoury distinction of becoming an X Factor winner’s song. Nonetheless, time has been kind to the Dubliner’s debut, which has managed to retain a sense of intimacy despite its ubiquity.

Rice released his sophomore set, 9, in 2006. The album hit number one in Ireland, top 5 in Britain, and became his first record to reach the US Billboard Top 40. After heavy touring, Rice pulled back a bit, and focused on his domestic affairs, though he’s still treading the boards.

Of course, with minimal strings and rhythmic accompaniment, this gentle folkie’s songs are so hushed to be almost inaudible at parties. Yet they’re perfect for the morning after too, when you’re gathering up empties, feeling a little empty yourself. Suffice to say that if all the malarkey about Rice’s creative sensitivities can be ignored, he remains a searingly honest performer. And no better example of that is the YouTube video someone shot while attending his concert in the Spanish city of Valencia on 26 July 2023.

Rice only found out that Sinéad O‘Connor had died because the audience shouted it at him during a pause in his set. Visibly shaken, after snatching a few brief moments of quiet contemplation he burst into a very impromptu acoustic version of Nothing Compares 2 U as a tribute to the fallen firebrand.

Chuid eile éasca.

Steve Pafford

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