Damien Rice: hits, heartbreak and an eight-year silence
The songwriter has surprised fans with a sell-out show tonight
Just over 10 years ago, in April 2004, I saw Damien Rice headline a concert at the 3,500-capacity Beacon Theatre in New York.
He was at the height of his powers having seen his debut album, O, win the previous year's Shortlist Music Prize – the now defunct award that was considered to be a US version of the Mercurys.
The atmosphere was incredible in the old theatre on Manhattan's Upper West Side and the troubadour from Celbridge, Co Kildare, lived up to the hype. His then bandmate Lisa Hannigan, and a special guest appearance from future Oscar winner Glen Hansard, helped to take the performance to a special place that night, but it was Rice's singing and understated showmanship that lives longest in the memory.
The sustained applause suggested this New York audience had been smitten by his heart-on-sleeve brand of confessional songcraft. Although Rice was well known to Irish audiences, it really felt as though he had reached a tipping point in the summer of 2004 and his elevation to the status of global star was there for the taking.
It didn't quite turn out that way. A follow-up album, 9, arrived in 2006 but sold poorly (in relation to O's two million sales). Rice's lack of interest in engaging in the usual promotional activities didn't help its cause, nor did the fact that the album wasn't as consistently strong as its illustrious predecessor.
There has barely been a peep out him since and few indications that a third album will see the light of day in 2014.
With the exception of an appearance at the Electric Burma tribute concert to activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Dublin in June 2012, Rice hasn't played a show in Ireland since supporting Leonard Cohen in Kilmainham, Dublin, in June 2008. So, it was something of an event last Wednesday when it was announced, with little fanfare, that he would play a one-off show in Whelan's, Dublin, tonight. The Wexford Street venue is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a year of concerts and Rice was said to be keen to give thanks to a place where he cut his song-writer teeth in the late 1990s.
All 450 tickets sold out in minutes when they went on sale on Thursday morning and it is likely the venue could put on 10 Damien Rice shows and not be able to keep up with demand.
Intriguingly, it's just one of three concerts that Rice has pencilled into his diary for 2014 – the other shows take place in destinations less travelled for the singer-songwriter: Seoul, South Korea (this Saturday) and Winterthur, Switzerland (August 23).
"The thing about Damien is he's never been interested in following the herd," says an acquaintance, who does not wish to be named. "The album-tour-album cycle just doesn't do it for him and the success of O has allowed him to release music when he wants and play live shows when the mood takes him."
Rice first came to the attention of Irish music lovers in the early 1990s when he fronted the band Juniper, which he had formed with schoolmates at the Salesian College secondary school, Celbridge. Known as Dodi Ma back then, Juniper were tipped for the big time but the band split in 1998 before they could release a debut album.
Disillusioned, Rice went to Tuscany, while his bandmates picked themselves up, and under the new moniker of Bell X1, went on to enjoy a successful career.
Rice's time in Italy was well spent, and he wrote the bulk of the songs that would appear on O, which was released in February 2002. The album was one of the great Irish cultural success stories of the decade.
It never topped the charts here – number 2 was its highest position – but it would go on to sell around 150,000 copies in Ireland alone. Much of its appeal was down to the raw emotion expressed in songs like The Blower's Daughter ("I can't take my eyes off you") and Cannonball ("there's still a little bit of your taste in my mouth"), the understated arrangements revolving around acoustic guitar and cello and the vocals of Lisa Hannigan, Rice's then girlfriend.
Hannigan also played a pivotal role in 9, but the relationship, both personally and musically, would end in fractious circumstances during the album tour. A brutally emotive song from that album (Accidental Babies), plus material on Hannigan's own subsequent solo offerings, appear to reference their break-up.
In a revealing interview years later, Rice poured his heart out to Hot Press journalist Olaf Tyaransen about the pain he felt at the end of his relationship with Hannigan. "I love her so much," he said. "And I love her so much that I love that she hasn't spoken to me – because even in that I have learned so much over the last two years," he said. The same interview provided a clue about Rice's inactivity of late: "I'm not the guy that wants to be famous and make loads of money and sell loads of records. I don't want that. I just want to be true. I want to be ... I want to serve music. I want to be honest."