"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Sunday Times FEBRUARY 18, 2007 - by Dan Cairns
THE FREEWHEELIN' MR FERRY
Bryan Ferry is back, with a collection of Dylan covers and the first Roxy Music album in twenty-five years. "I'm much more cheerful now," he tells Dan Cairns
His singing voice we know: the tremulous, swooping, crooning baritone, inviting us to do the strand, to dance away the heartache, to wait for the bell to ring. But, hearing Bryan Ferry in conversation proves as, and possibly more, illuminating a mapping of the circuitous route the sixty-one-year-old founder of Roxy Music has taken to where he is now. His old-fashioned, clipped delivery, his use of "one" in place of "I", his habit of letting sentences trail off into an implicitly unbreachable silence - these mannerisms mark his journey from a council house with a tin bath in Co Durham to his current position as a country squire in Sussex. They also define a protective zone he wishes to establish around himself, as surely as does his lack of eye contact. Someone who has known Ferry for years once described him as "horribly shy".
If that's a reputation that precedes him, it seems to suit his purposes just fine. The route-planner can spring surprises, however. One is his warmth, as evidenced in the gusts of laughter, often self-mocking, he emits and the passion with which he recalls the key musical inspirations of his life. Another is the way his learnt accent, as it were, is constantly waylaid by the singsong cadences of his youth. A renowned stickler for punctuality and good manners, he is extremely late for the interview and lopes into the room full of apologies. "I've had this day-long meeting," he sighs, "that I have to have once a year, to pay my bills. Really deadly, really depressing. And to come out and find a traffic jam the length of the Westway... Anyway, onwards and upwards; onwards and upwards." The small talk completed, he seems to remember why he's here. "Down to the grim business of Dylanesque," he scowls, a glint in his eye, and slides the artwork for his album of Bob Dylan covers across the table.
Shortly before this conversation, Simon Cowell had said of Dylan: "A singing poet? It just bores me to tears." (Thus is one of music's most significant bodies of work consigned to the dustbin of history.) "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" Ferry laughs contemptuously. "But actually, when I heard Dylan was at university, I was into Otis Redding, the mohair suits, electric guitars and horn sections: one man with an acoustic guitar didn't grab me at all. It was too folksy - beards, sandals... awful. I wanted flashy Cuban heels, lots of quiffs and pomade, girls going wild." It was only, he says, when Dylan went electric that he picked up the thread, which in time led him back to the earlier albums. "And I'd think, 'My God, these are beautiful songs.'" Ferry first covered Dylan in 1973, on his debut solo album, These Foolish Things. His version of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall remains one of the most audacious interpretations by one artist of another and sparked an interest Ferry has revisited over the years, most recently on Frantic, his return-to-form album of 2002. A mere thirty-four years after the idea occurred to him, Ferry has finally made an all-Dylan record. "I mean, I have been doing other things," he jokes.
Well, yes, he has - apart from an imminent new Roxy Music album, made in collaboration with Brian Eno, there is the small matter of ten solo records, in addition to the six further studio albums he made with the band after Eno left. Yet, until his decision to resume touring eight years ago, Ferry had been in danger of being forgotten. The formidable, trail-blazing work he created both with Roxy and as a solo artist counted for less and less. Retreating into the studio to make a succession of immaculate but frustratingly arid albums for a rapidly dwindling fan base, Ferry searched high and low for a muse, but she wasn't answering his calls. The way he describes the period now sounds like depression: all sense of time and perspective seems to have gone, and the recording studio became a refuge where he indulged his obsessive-compulsive traits. When his former wife, Lucy Helmore, was reportedly receiving treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, Ferry was immersed in making Mamouna, an album that took years to complete and cost so much that he was apparently forced to sell his New York apartment to fund it.
"It's sometimes quite a dark place, and you don't know your way around," he says of the creative process. "You have to go through all that grief to create something. And you think, 'Well, there's no point going in here unless you're going to try to make sense of it.' But you just go round and round, taking for ever." He's not convinced he was depressed, although he admits to "dark moods". "But I'm much more cheerful now, in the past four or five years, than before," he says. "It's great when you suddenly find yourself feeling like that - that you want to carry on."
He and Helmore, who have four sons (the eldest of whom, the pro-hunting campaigner Otis Ferry, famously stormed the floor of the House of Commons in 2004), divorced four years ago. Since then, Ferry has had an on-off relationship with a former member of his band, the singer Katie Turner. Public perceptions that once looked in danger of hardening around him like a shell are slowly being reappraised. Bands such as Franz Ferdinand are both glaringly indebted to, and happy to concede, the long shadow Ferry and Roxy Music cast. "It's nice to be appreciated," he smiles. "And I think one is now, more than before, a named influence rather than a hidden one." His farsightedness in anticipating the merging of art and artifice, of sound and vision, now seems genuinely prophetic. The man his friend the couture designer Antony Price described as a "taste tarantula" is emerging into what might be termed his late-period flowering.
If one key to that was his taking to the road again, another is his obvious accommodation with the different sides of his past and his personality. The avid collector of fine art and ceramics, the sartorially elegant aesthete - this person produced shimmering, hopelessly romantic masterpieces such as Avalon, and lyrics as forlorn and spare as "Tell her I'll be waiting / In the usual place". On Dylanesque, you can hear this quality on Positively 4th Street, where Ferry takes one of Dylan's most vituperative songs and transforms it into an account of heartache and shattered pride. Yet you will also hear, on his ripped-through version of Baby Let Me Follow You Down, the man who gloried in the trash aesthetic in the early days of Roxy. "You can take a song and put it into lots of guises," Ferry says revealingly. "As you can, say, with a great play." He and his band tore through recording sessions for the album in just a week. With a knowing look, he reflects: "It came so easily, I became almost suspicious."
He once described himself as "an orchid born on a coal tip", and has spoken of his pain at having, as an art student, said to his father: "What do you know? You're just a miner.' You sense he'd do anything to be able to retract that statement. But he is, he says, finally learning about himself, about how to feel confident in what he does, and to let the passion come through (and, alas, the cheques for posing in M&S menswear). Dance Away's line "All together, all alone" is no longer his calling card: the detached observer, the cold-hearted style icon documenting ardour, is opening up. And he can be catty and flip as much as measured and austere. I once shared an office space with the fashion maven Isabella Blow, and regularly listened in to her side of telephone conversations with Ferry, in which they would swap stories of country-house weekends, of naked supermodels jumping into bed with married couples and the like. He has often been derided for cosying up to the aristos; but, as his enduring friendship with the behatted Blow suggests, Ferry is arguably as much a sucker for the plumage as the peerage. "If she comes to stay," says Ferry indulgently, "she'll be in McQueen couture, the full hat, everything, at breakfast."
With time running out, I ask him if his new-found confidence extends to his voice, which I've always thought was soul singing, through a very distinctive filter. He side-steps the question. "I actually think Dylan is a great singer. For years, people said, 'Great songs, but he can't sing.' But he's one of the great voices, just as Louis Armstrong was, or Edith Piaf or Lotte Lenya - I guess they're all oddball in one way or another." His musical inspiration was, he says, "the Stax roadshow: Otis Redding, Sam and Dave. I hitched down to London, I think it was at the Roundhouse in about 1967. It was such an awakening, how powerful music could be." A concert full of soul singing, you'll note. Perhaps, now he's sorted the Dylan album out, he'll move on to Stax - and not wait thirty years to do so. He describes making music as going somewhere and trying to negotiate a way out. "With,' he adds, with a dry chuckle, 'honour and dignity intact." What both Bryan Ferry and his fans are finally realising is that it's a little bit more important to him than that - and a lot more fun.
For Our Pleasure
1972 Re-Make/Re-Model: the dark, twisted heart of Roxy's debut album. Virginia Plain: Roxy's first hit single, a rivetingly cataclysmic pile-up between Ferry the glamour-puss and Eno the avantgardist.
1973 Do the Strand: on the cusp of artistic divorce, Ferry and Eno concocted this unforgettable "danceable solution to teenage revolution". A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall: its outrageousness still shocks. Street Life: with Eno gone, Ferry was on his mettle.
1974 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: from his second solo album, a career-imprinting lounge-lizard cover version.
1976 Let's Stick Together: a standard, reworked by Ferry with giddy abandon, and featuring a certain Jerry Hall with her excitable cat impression.
1979 Dance Away: back after a brief split, Roxy unveiled their new sophisti-cat sound.
1982 More Than This: the highlight of Avalon, Roxy's last album (new one due this year).
1985 Slave To Love: the peak of Ferry's high Romantic period.