The X Factor... does Damien have Little Mix-ed feelings?
The Irish star behind 'Cannonball' -- the song set to hit the top of the charts this Christmas -- prefers to stay out of the spotlight, writes John Meagher
Seoul, South Korea, is not the first place that comes to mind when contemplating sensitive singer-songwriters. But it is here, in the city's Olympic Hall, that Damien Rice will play his only scheduled show of 2012. The troubadour from Celbridge, Co Kildare, is the star attraction at the venue on January 11.
Taking the road less travelled has been something of a stock-in-trade for the 38-year-old songsmith who, having not released a studio album since 2006 and kept a studiously low profile since, is considered a reclusive, enigmatic figure.
But Rice is having to get used to seeing his name in lights once more now that Little Mix -- the girl group crowned X Factor winners on Sunday -- will release a cover version of one of the singer's most celebrated compositions, 'Cannonball'.
Such is the wide-ranging appeal of the show that the winning act is virtually guaranteed a number one chart hit on both sides of the Irish Sea. In fact, previous debut singles from X Factor winners have been among the highest selling songs of the entire year.
Rice's 2002 ballad is, therefore, considered a shoo-in for the 2011 Christmas number one. He will enjoy a royalties windfall and his (admittedly slim) back catalogue is set to be discovered by a whole new generation who, in all likelihood, had never heard of him before.
Quite what Rice makes of The X Factor and his impending brush with the top of the charts is anyone's guess. Thus far, he has not shared his thoughts on Twitter -- he has tweeted just four times in the past four months -- and his website, such that it is, offers a single homepage and a promise that a new site is "in utero".
For a singer who has long claimed to be driven by art, and not commerce, at least part of him must be embarrassed to be associated with a money-driven TV show peopled by fame-hungry hopefuls and publicity-seeking judges.
"I think his embarrassment will disappear once the pay-cheques come piling through the door," says a music industry executive who has worked with Rice in the past."Damien is savvy enough to know that he is being handed a big opportunity to re-launch himself.
"Knowing him, he'll be anxious not to appear to be riding on the coat-tails of The X Factor but if his original version of 'Cannonball' [which is also being released this week] does well in the charts or even beats the X Factor cover to the No.1 spot, he'd be in a great place to capitalise. But then, Damien doesn't tend to play the game and part of me wouldn't be surprised if he retreated even further from view."
Rice has been making music since he was a teenager and formed a band, Juniper, while still at school. In 1995, Juniper signed a six-album deal with Polygram, but the band split before releasing an album. Rice was rumoured to have been dismayed by the commercial path the company wanted the band to take.
Juniper's other members -- Paul Noonan, Brian Crosby, David Geraghty and Dominic Philips -- went on to enjoy considerable domestic success as Bell X1, but Rice took a while to find his feet. He spent some time dabbling in small-scale vegetable growing in Tuscany, before resurrecting his music career.
After a period spent busking throughout Europe, he returned to Dublin in 2001 and recorded his first album, O, which was released amid little fanfare the following year.
An album of confessional songs in the classic mould, O met with enthusiastic reviews on release. But few could have anticipated how much the songs would resonate in Ireland and further afield.
Rice helped bolster his reputation back home with a series of intimate live performances and his stock was raised considerably in the US when a number of his compositions were used on hit television shows.
The album really took off when it became the surprise winner of the Shortlist Music Prize -- the now-defunct US version of the Mercury. It has sold in the region of two million copies to date.
I saw Rice play a sold-out show in New York's Beacon Theatre at the height of his success in May 2004, and he was untouchable. To have 3,000 people clinging to his every word, as he did that night, showed what an enviable talent he had become -- although a great deal of his appeal hinged on his interplay with then-girlfriend, Lisa Hannigan [see panel].
But it soon became clear that he wasn't comfortable with his newfound fame. He started complaining about the media's "agenda" and earned a reputation as a prickly character.
It was also suggested that he had a considerable ego. He did nothing to diminish this impression when, in an interview with an Irish newspaper, he declared that he didn't want O to be released in Spain because he had aspirations to live there and had no desire to be bothered by fans: "I want to be able to buy a pair of shoes or go for dinner without being asked for an autograph or see my poster stuck up everywhere."
His follow-up album 9 did not sell as well as its predecessor, and was met with considerably less critical acclaim, when it was released in 2006.
Much of his appetite for performing seemed to wane after Lisa Hannigan left the band. The pair had split romantically some time before, but their collaboration would conclude in ugly fashion when, in the wake of a blistering row, Rice fired her moments before a show in 2007.
The wait for a third album continues, although Rice has collaborated with several musicians and has been a high-profile campaigner for human rights in Burma and Tibet.
His lovelife has fascinated the gossip columnists too. Besides the relationship with Hannigan, he is rumoured to have briefly dated Hollywood A-lister Renee Zellweger and has been romantically linked with French actress Melanie Laurent.
Dividing his time between Dublin, Kildare and France, Rice remains an enigma. He is said to have several new songs in his armoury and a new album may surface next year.
In the meantime, before he catches that flight to Korea, Rice will surely pay close attention to the singles charts, where -- a novelty hit from the Wombles aside -- he should be sitting pretty at the top this Christmas.