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Sunday 18 March 2018

The quiet man: Brian Ferry on his 30-year-old songs

Prior to his two shows in Dublin next month, legend Bryan Ferry talks to Barry Egan in London about his late father, shoe fetishes, and what he learns about himself from singing love songs he wrote 30 years ago

Bryan Ferry with his former partner Jerry Hall
Bryan Ferry with his former partner Jerry Hall
Bryan Ferry
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'WHEN I dream of afterlife in Heaven," Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz, and it's a fine summer night."

When I dream of afterlife in Heaven, it's 1972 and pre-eminent sultan of suave Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music is singing Virginia Plain while Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars look on.

Today, on a fine summer's day, the legendary, if sometimes detached, lounge lizard himself is sitting in a designer chair in his giant and rather elegant studio complex in Olympia in London.

There are huge framed pictures of his famous ex Jerry Hall, and other girls who posed for the covers, or thereabouts, of his albums down through the years, on the white walls, as well as copies of rare art books and the like nestling on antique-y tables.

I feel like I have stumbled into a très hip Paris or Berlin hotel in the 1930s. There is a touch of the art deco, cafe society Prince Charles about him as he holds court amid all this slightly self-regarding elegance. He speaks quietly and says very few actual words.

(When I say this to someone later the response is typical. "But it's Bryan bloody Ferry. A god. A few words from him are better than a hundred thousand words from Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.")

You once said you identified with Jay Gatsby. Who was the Daisy in your life?

"Now that would be telling!" he laughs. And there is no more on the subject.

It was only two months ago that Ferry and his second wife, 37 years his junior, Amanda Sheppard were granted a decree nisi at London's High Court. So I am wondering whether his reluctance to be drawn out is perhaps to do with that. Pre-Amanda, he was married for 20 years to Lucy, with whom he has four sons: Merlin, Isaac, Otis and Tara, I am introduced to Tara as I leave.

As I mentioned before, there is a framed picture of his former, perhaps most famous lover, Jerry Hall prominent on the wall. So he mustn't have forgotten her. Bryan, so the story goes, was so upset when Jerry swapped him for Mick Jagger in the mid-70s that he never spoke to her again. When I asked Jerry three years ago – I met her for lunch in London – does she ever think of ex-lover Mr Roxy Music, she giggled: "Never!"

His legs are crossed to reveal some striking yellow socks peeking out of his brown shoes .

He once admitted to New York magazine Details in 1993 that he had something of a foot fetish ("I'd be a fool and a liar to say that I wasn't interested in things that are concealed, and not apparent to the common eye") and that if he were a woman, he would wear "the sluttiest available" shoes.

"At least a three-inch heel. I think the higher the heel, the better the leg shape. I think there's been an unfortunate trend against this teetering around in the last few years. It's caused me a lot of grief. As I walk down the streets of our major cities and see only chunky boots, I shake my head sadly and think about what the world has come to."

He laughs when I remind him of the comments.

I ask him does he have a shoe fetish.

He uncrosses his legs and laughs.

"No!" he smiles, crossing his legs. "I like shoes! I'd rather shoes than trainers!"

I try to giddy him along by saying that he once said that "Louis XIV was more up my alley than Karl Marx".

"I'm more of a Cavalier than a Roundhead," he says.

Whatever about the supporters of King Charles I and his son Charles II during the English Civil War, it is hard to believe Ferry is 68. In truth, the man sitting before me has probably had more than his fair share of disbelief in life: chief among them perhaps that the poor coal miner's son from Durham went on to epitomise style in the 1970s. There was a tin bath in the kitchen of his family home in Washington, Tyne and Wear. He says he once "made a trip" with his kids to show them the house he was born in. "My parents are buried there. It just was an original, old pit village."

He was the once gauche Geordie who grew up to hang out with Princess Margaret; whose sons went to Eton; who dated some of the most beautiful women in the world. And his voice on classics like Do The Strand, Love Is The Drug and the aforementioned Virginia Plain defined the decade.

Yet today in Avonmore Place, which he has owned for over two decades, he seems placidly above it all, possibly because he has heard it a million times before. Bryan is a cultural icon of the 20th century as well as an enduring pop star. His influence is immense.

At the launch of his album Olympia in London's Dean Street Townhouse three years ago, everyone from Lucian Freud to Manolo Blahnik to Kate Moss pitched up to pay tribute to the man that helped inspire the 1970s as much as David Bowie.

Lest we forget, the provocative sleeve of Roxy Music's album Country Life in 1974, designed by fashion demi-god Anthony Price and featuring two young ladies in intriguing poses – one with her hands covering her exposed breasts and the other with her hand artistically in front of her lacy knickers – occasioned the predictable moral outrage in England. It had to be changed in America.

Bryan says he is excited about coming to Dublin in three weeks for two highly anticipated shows at the National Concert Hall. He will perform for the first time an entire concert with a full orchestra – in this case, the RTE Concert Orchestra. "It is going to be a great couple of evenings for me to hear the songs with real strings – you can't beat that sound," he says. "Cello is one of my favourite instruments.

"There is no better place than Ireland when the sun is shining," he continues. "I used to spend a lot of time in Ireland. Galway, Clare..."

The last time I met Ferry, 20 years ago in Dublin, he talked of the dark side of life and whether a grown man should be doing this – being a globally feted pop star – rather than tending to his garden. He cited his earliest memory as being in the garden with his late father Fred and his racing pigeons. The last years of his father's life were spent gardening in his famous son's garden.

"I have a gardener at the moment who is incredibly creative," Bryan says. "To think what a great job that would be, if you could do it and knew about plants to the level that he does. It can be a beautiful thing to be creating something with nature. What a fantastic thing to do. You think of Marcel Duchamp, devoting the last years of his life to playing chess. I think becoming a gardener would be quite a cool thing to do. To have a relationship with nature is quite a nice thing to do in life."

Is he out gardening much then?

"Me? No! Never! I don't have the skill or the patience or the time."

What kind of man was his father?

"Very, very quiet."

You're not exactly Mr Shouty yourself, I tell him.

He smiles. "That's right."

Was he quieter than you!? I can't believe I'm taking the piss out of Bryan Ferry, CBE.

"Much. He was very much a country guy. Very nice, very quiet. I couldn't imagine him making music."

I ask him is it okay to call him introspective.

"Yeah," he smiles. "I don't like being asked questions very much though. I'm not the ideal interviewee."

I can't stop wondering what kind of man Bryan Ferry is? He is possibly the worse person to ask, but given he is sitting in front of me I try anyway.

Bowie was always playing characters in his songs, I say to him – hoping for a way into his head. You always appeared to be singing about you . . .

"Sometimes you do a song where you create a character but you end up drawing on your own feelings and experiences."

You have to be curious about a man who wrote so many great songs about love and the heart: Love Is The Drug, Slave To Love, Avalon, When She Walks in the Room – from his 1978 album, The Bride Stripped Bare which The New Yorker described as "a study in elegant romantic pain" – among many others.

I ask 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 is quite a few melancholic ones."

What draws him to melancholia?

"I don't know, really. 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 songs you sing?

"It can be. 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," says the man who wrote the aforementioned When She Walks In The Room: '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/ Now is not the time to give up?'

I ask him when is he at his happiest.

"When people applaud."

And the lowest point in his life?

"I suppose bereavement of various kinds at different times in my life," he says, adding, when asked, "all those experiences you have end up getting into songs. Not specifics."

Asked does he have any regrets in life, he laughs: "Loads! I don't like talking about them much." I try him again about what goes through his mind when he sings love songs from the past, his past, and Bryan Ferry does the strangest thing: he opens up, finally, just as I am about to leave for my plane.

"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," he says referring to the 1980 Roxy Music song with lyrics like "I could walk you through the park/If you're feeling blue. . ."

Bryan Ferry with Strings at the National Concert Hall Dublin: June 18 19, 2014, 8pm Tickets: €55, €75, €85. See nch.ie

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