Tuesday 16 July 2019

Bryan Ferry: The life of Bryan, and the life in Bryan

The epitome of cool, Bryan Ferry's voice is improving with age

Bryan Ferry
Bryan Ferry
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Like a particularly good wine fit for the king of the lounge lizards, 72-year-old Bryan Ferry has improved with age.

Listen to him sing live Where Or When - from his 1999 album of jazz and pop standards As Time Goes By - and, as The Guardian pointed out in April: "New depths [are] added to the lyrics by his ageing, wavering vocals. 'Some things that happen for the first time', he croaks touchingly, 'seem to be happening again'."

Complimenting the man who helped inspire the 1970s with Roxy Music (a band whom author Michael Bracewell described as "the portal through which one might glimpse, or even reach, the empyreal world") on the evolution of his voice is hardly a revelation.

Ferry himself has been rhapsodising on his own phrasing as far back as the mid 1970s. In an interview with The New York Times in 1975, the coal miner's son from Durham pointed out to John Rockwell that it was possible for him to sing a line and feel a whole gamut of emotions.

The master then added that he can phrase a line "so that it has several meanings instead of a simple meaning", before adding, to eliminate any doubt about his self-belief as a singer, "I don't think anybody has ever pointed out to me an interpretation of one of my songs that I wasn't already aware of. I'm really more interested in emotion in music than in style".

It will be interesting to watch Ferry perform at the Trinity Sessions in Trinity College in Dublin on July 27.

Unlike some lesser singers, Ferry never goes through the motions when singing live. He doesn't want to merely be a living legend doing karaoke versions of his greatest hits. There is more to Bryan Ferry than that. He brings something more real on the sad songs than on the dancey ones like Love Is The Drug, Do The Strand or Let's Stick Together.

I prefer Ferry's voice on numbers like Jealous Guy, Slave To Love and When She Walks in the Room.

The latter, from his 1978 album, The Bride Stripped Bare was described by The New Yorker as "a study in elegant romantic pain", not least because of lyrics like: 'All your life you were taught to believe/ Then a moment of truth/ You're deceived/ All the wine in your life's all dried up/ Is now the time to give up?'

In 2014, when I met Ferry at his studio complex in Olympia, London, and asked him what drew him to melancholia, Ferry answered that "maybe the first music I was attracted to was that kind of sad blues songs and stuff like that. Songs where there was some kind of passion or strong emotion in it. That's what lured me into music in the first place".

Is it therapeutic to write lyrics for the songs he sings?

"It can be," he said. "I don't really think of it like that. It is hard work. It is the hardest part of the job for me, because I am quite fussy about lyrics."

I asked him when he sings a song, is he back in the time and place of when he wrote it.

"Sometimes you are, but in a particular specific way, but you get a kind of sensation of how you felt at that time. It varies. All the songs inhabit different spaces or different moods. There are quite a few melancholic ones."

When is he at his happiest? "When people applaud," he said with a smile.

What goes through his mind when he sings love songs from the past, his past?

"What is stranger than anything is when you hear songs from 20 or 30 years ago and they seem to describe exactly how you're feeling at the moment."

What does that say about the nature of human beings? That we don't really change?

"Exactly. Sometimes that is quite moving, It's great when you get it right. That's why I agonise over songwriting. I was just listening to To Turn You On," Ferry said, referring to the 1980 Roxy Music song which went, 'I could walk you through the park/If you're feeling blue...'

Perhaps go to Trinity College on July 27 if you are feeling blue and let Mr Ferry lift your spirits.

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