INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Times NOVEMBER 28, 2009 - by Sathnam Sanghera
BRYAN FERRY: "I LEAD QUITE A SHELTERED LIFE"
He comes across as the Victor Meldrew of pop, yet you can't help but love the man once described as so cool he ought to be hanging in the Tate.
If you log on to Bryan Ferry's official website, you'll find Roxy Music's front man proclaimed as "a performer with the poise of Sinatra, the charisma of Gainsbourg and the intensity of Johnnie Ray", a description I object to in only one respect: it's not long enough. For the sake of accuracy and comprehensiveness, it should also state that Ferry exhibits the melancholy, misanthropy and grumpiness of Victor Mildrew.
My God, he's miserable. During our time together in the subterranean West London studio he once rather unfortunately described as his "Führerbunker", the sixty-four-year-old complains, among other things, about the music industry ("the art world was my first love, really"), the demise of records shops ("I used to like seeing the displays in the windows, and then you'd buy the album and pore over every detail"), the agony and isolation of recording ("I lead quite a sheltered life"), the agony of songwriting ("some days are frustrating because you haven't finished the lyrics, and you're not sure what the lyric should be"), touring ("travelling gets harder as you get older"), Gordon Brown ("I don't like the way the present Government has done things"), the press ("I'm very suspicious"), the fans' predilection for original material ("they generally prefer it if you write your own songs, but for me it's a great diversion to cover a song I love and pull it apart") and, after admitting that he has never downloaded music or used Twitter, and is only just getting his head around the concept of texting on a mobile phone, technology too ("What's IT?" he asks at one point).
On the rare occasions he manages a life-affirming thought, he nearly always follows it with a wrist-slashing, world-weary observation of some kind. So, for example, when he talks about his glamorous social life in London, swanning around between his home in Chelsea and various galleries, parties and restaurants, it comes appended with the mournful complaint that "I don't get over to the East End of London as much as I should... it's a bit far... you end up spending all night in a car". When he recounts how he and his family survived an incident on a Boeing 747 in 2000 when a mentally ill passenger ran into the cockpit and grabbed the controls, forcing the aircraft to plummet, he says that the whole thing made him appreciate life more, but adds that he has recently been devastated by the deaths of close friends. "It's sad when people die... and don't come back... yeah."
And when, halfway through our chat, he starts complaining about how, with age, one becomes increasingly bogged down with administrative responsibilities ("Life gets more convoluted, you spend it dealing with bills... it stifles the creative process"), I want to place my mug of tea on the visibly expensive antique table between us, grab him by the lapels of the corduroy blazer that would make most men look like a geography teacher, but which he carries off with considerable panache, and scream: "You're Bryan Ferry, for God's sake! As the singer, lyricist and principal composer of Roxy Music you introduced sex and style into the sweaty world of '70s rock! You're so cool that Peter York once said that you should be hanging in the Tate! You've enjoyed a successful solo career! And while you've never really broken the US, and don't produce as many records as you could because you spend too much time tinkering (Mamouna, released in 1994, took one hundred and twelve musicians and five years to finish), you're still loaded, as evidenced by your house in Chelsea, your country mansion and a reported ten-million-pound divorce settlement in 2002. Let's face it, you can afford to hire someone to deal with your gas bill!"
Still, I like the guy. The grumpiness is enervating, but it also means that Ferry never veers into rock-star pretentiousness. Meanwhile, the self-loathing is merely a form of modesty, and when you pay him a compliment, as I do when I tell him how much I like his rendition of I Want to be Alone on an obscure Jools Holland compilation, he seems genuinely chuffed. "Oh, I'm so glad you liked that. I thought it was quite good, that song..." Though he can't help adding: "It was on an album that didn't do terribly well."
The other charming thing about Ferry is that he is fantastically off-message. Before our chat I'm warned by his PR to keep the conversation focused on his work: no questions about his private life, or references to the tabloid storm sparked by his description, in an interview with a German magazine, of Albert Speer's buildings and Leni Riefenstahl's movies as "beautiful". But Ferry dispenses with the subject of his new compilation album in a few moments, remarking merely that one of the new tracks it features, a cover of a Drifters song, is "all right", and that I should come back next year to talk about his new record, which will be "more interesting". Featuring Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist, and Nile Rodgers of Chic, it will not be, as has been widely reported, a Roxy Music comeback. "It was overly publicised, when Brian Eno and I went into the studio together, that we were re-forming. We worked together for a few days, weeks maybe, and I decided I didn't really want to do a Roxy thing. It's going to be a solo record. Brian plays on a couple of tracks though."
And with that, Ferry seems perfectly happy to move on to more personal matters, and even though he initially mutters "don't want to talk about it, don't want to talk about it" at the mention of the Speer and Riefenstahl controversy, which caused outrage in the Jewish community, triggered a House of Commons motion and led to him being forced to apologise and dropped as a model by Marks & Spencer, he ends up talking about it for some time.
"The whole thing was made up, really. Really shocking, very disheartening, very nasty. I mean, I have worshipped black music since the age of ten, and some of the greatest artists of every description have been Jewish, and to suggest that I... ugh." He shudders. "Luckily we had a CD of the interview and we could show that I didn't even use the word [Nazi] during it." Was he annoyed at being dropped by Marks & Spencer given that The Daily Mirror was forced to apologise for the way it spun his comments? "I wasn't dropped. I never had a contract with them."
Ferry descends into a glum silence after the remark, providing an opportunity to glance around the room, which is full of prints, vintage keyboards, Roxy Music album sleeves and impossibly stylish furniture, all so beautifully arranged that it reminds me of Nicky Haslam's famous remark that Ferry was more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it. I eventually disrupt the silence by observing that the media storm he experienced was something that politicians often endured, to which he retorts "politicians are of course... very thick-skinned", and which, in turn, provides an excuse to raise the issue of his political inclinations.
Ferry has been a supporter of the Countryside Alliance and last year he alluded to support for the Conservative Party, referring to himself as "conservative by nature". He has always stopped short of backing the Tories outright, saying that politics and art shouldn't mix, and that he has never really voted. Might this change now that David Cameron is on the brink of power?
"Never talk about politics," he responds. "I mean, I don't know anything about it. I'm just a musician." He uncrosses his legs. "I think I would say I am conservative, though." A hand through his hair. "So yes, I would support a Cameron government. I have met him, and he's a bright guy. I hope they do well. I don't like the way the present Government has done things, most of all putting my son in prison for four and a half months, totally unlawfully... and that's not just my opinion: judges, all sorts, have said it was a stitch-up. It was politically motivated. The poor lad just wants to live the traditional country life."
The warm reference to Otis Ferry, the gamekeeper who broke into the House of Commons to protest about anti-hunt legislation, and who is Ferry's eldest son from his twenty-year marriage to the model and socialite Lucy Helmore - which officially ended in 2003 on the ground of Helmore's adultery - is one of several that Ferry makes to his grown-up boys. He has admitted in the past to being "quite a strict and controlling father", but is clearly very close to Otis, who was educated at Marlborough; Isaac, who went to Eton and now works for him - in fact, it is Isaac who opens the door for me when I arrive and then lollops around handsomely throughout our chat - Tara, who attended Bryanston and plays in a band called Rubber Kiss Goodbye; and Merlin, who went to Marlborough and is now on a gap year. The children's privileged upbringing in the South could not contrast more starkly with their father's upbringing in the North as the son of a farmer who looked after pit ponies, and who was brought up in a house with no inside lavatory.
"It's extraordinary, really, how much things can change in a generation." Does the man who once described himself as "an orchid born on a coal tip" ever worry that his children won't benefit from the satisfaction of being entirely self-made? "Of course, yeah. I think they've had a different kind of journey, though. And, you know, we were poor, and I thought I was poor, but in many ways my life was easy. My education was funded by the State, I went to a really nice northern grammar school, and then I went to university on a full grant. I was nurtured. I have nothing to kick against."
He adds that another advantage he enjoyed over his children is that, while he and Lucy divorced ("I'm sure it affected them - it affected me very badly"), his parents stayed together for a lifetime. "I mean, they courted for ten years before they even got married!" A laugh. "My dad used to court my mother on a plough horse, wearing a bowler hat, a sprig of heather in his lapel and spats, and she would be really embarrassed because she lived in the town, you know. Different world, eh?"
A very different world. Not least because Ferry, at the age of sixty-four, is still courting. The man who was pushing thirty when he dated the eighteen-year-old Jerry Hall (who left him for Mick Jagger), thirty-six when he married Helmore, then twenty-two, and a few years ago was dating Katie Turner, a musician thirty-five years his junior, is now stepping out with Amanda Sheppard, who works for Topshop and is aged twenty-seven. That raises the question: why doesn't Ferry go out with women his own age?
"I don't know... maybe I just don't meet them." He laughs. "Maybe they're all married. You are likely to meet more single younger girls than older ones... they get taken..." He sighs and the sentence peters out mournfully. "...I haven't actually had that many girlfriends..."
Only Ferry could make going out with a string of glamorous women sound miserable. The gloom doesn't lift when I ask what advice, if any, he'd give to his younger self. "I'd say get into branding, or go into movies." But why? He's hardly done badly out of rock'n'roll. He's Bryan Ferry!
"Making music for a living is quite hard. With every album you have to reinvent the wheel, reinvent Tabasco or HP Sauce. You have to do it again and again and people are quite unforgiving if you don't do your best work. It's like exams. You're only as good as the last record." Dear Lord.
Is he getting grumpier as he gets older? "Good question. I would say the grumpiness becomes more apparent, but it was probably always there." A rare flash of that famous handsome smile. "But I wouldn't like to die. I love my life, really. Yeah."