INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph OCTOBER 30, 2010 - by Neil McCormack
BRYAN FERRY: "IF YOU'RE A ROMANTIC, YOU'VE GOT TO BE A PESSIMIST
"You sometimes think you've only got two songs, a fast one and a slow one," says Bryan Ferry, with a nervous laugh. He is stretched out on a chaise longue, dressed in a suit and tie. "That's what's made my 'mature period' so difficult, the feeling you may have exhausted all your various angles on things," he continues, apparently addressing the ceiling, while I sit in an armchair, taking notes.
The impression of a psychotherapy session is reinforced by our location, in an old-fashioned drawing room in his studio in London's Olympia, complete with antique busts, paintings and wall-to-wall shelves of books.
"You don't want to feel like you're boring," he says. "I still have a curious bent. I'm still ambitious to do good work. It gets harder."
He is a strange man, Ferry, so full of contradictions. At sixty-five, he has a glittering career spanning four decades and a public image as the debonair squire of beautiful women. But in person he is more shrinking violet than lounge lizard. He tends to avoid eye contact and shifts about as he talks, changing his seating arrangement half a dozen times during our conversation. He has a vague, airy laugh that serves as a kind of self-conscious, almost self-deprecating form of verbal punctuation.
There is a line on a song from his new album, Olympia: "At the best of times I feel misunderstood."
Ferry seems embarrassed when I bring it up. "Yes, I mean, I think that's, erm, I dunno," he says. "I have had a fairly successful career, which I can't really complain about but you always feel as an artist that 'nobody gets me'. It's one of the spurs to make people create, to try and communicate themselves. Conversations haven't been quite my forte. And music has been a way of trying to be the best I can be."
The son of a Durham miner, obsessed with music and fashion (he worked in a men's clothing shop as a teenager, in order to earn money to buy records), Ferry reinvented himself while studying fine art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1960s, going on to form Roxy Music, among the most individual and ground-breaking bands of the next two decades.
"I was going to be a painter. I wanted to create something that was better than me or an extension of me. My love of music took over and I just couldn't stop it. When it all goes right, every instrument working together to create the same effect and the audience is with you, it's a fantastic feeling. It's not as glamorous now as being a painter, sadly, but it'll do."
Olympia is Ferry's first album of (mostly) original material for eight years. During its long gestation, he dallied with the idea of making it a Roxy Music record, which would have been their first since Avalon in 1982.
"The difference has blurred a bit over the years but, in the end, I thought it was time I made a kind of personal statement. I wanted to work with lots of different people and have a free hand with whoever I brought in," he says.
"Earlier on, I wouldn't want to collaborate with anybody, because I had too many ideas of my own. As you get older, you try different things, to broaden your scope."
And so, alongside contributions from Roxy alumni Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera and Ferry veterans including Nile Rodgers and David Gilmour, the album includes contributions from a newer pop generation, including Scissor Sisters, Groove Armada and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.
"People like Nile and David have earned their medals in many campaigns, they bring incredible skills that aren't learnt overnight," Ferry says. "But young people have a different energy and pop sensibility, they're still hungry."
The result is a sensuous concoction of grooves and whispery vocals that has the luxurious timelessness of classic Ferry, with a sheen of modernity. On the opening track, You Can Dance, Ferry seductively entices his listeners towards the dance floor. "The physicality of music is important to me. I always heard music in clubs where people were dancing. It was nearly always black music, James Brown, Motown, Stax, that did have a strong physical element to it. Although I didn't really dance myself, I went to meet people and listen to music. I was always a bit shy."
The admission that he is not himself really a dancer is another example of Ferry's image standing in almost direct contradiction to the person. The Ferry brand as a sophisticated soundtrack for the super-rich is so distinct that a lyrical reference to "hitchhiking to Paris" immediately makes you wonder what our debonair hero could possibly be doing with his thumb out at a motorway junction.
"Oh, I hitchhiked south many times," Ferry says. "It used to take hours getting down the North Road. You would get a lorry driver if you were lucky."
He made it to Paris in 1964, apparently, where he saw Manet's painting Olympia, which inspired the artwork for his new album. "And I remember in '67 hitchhiking down to the Roundhouse in London to see Otis Redding and the Stax roadshow. It was fantastic. Best journey I ever made. I might even have danced!"
Ferry likes the idea of having "one foot in the past, one in the future. The interesting thing about Roxy is that we were trying to create something new but, at the same time, the songs seemed to me to be based on things that had gone before.
"I used to love reading science fiction - J.G. Ballard was one of my favourite authors - so there was a futuristic element. We had synthesizers and were treating sounds to make them different from things you'd heard before.
"At the same time, it's very hard to create something entirely new, you are always going to base it on something, whether it's just a modal music or twelve-bar blues. I was interested in so many different kinds of music and I think that was reflected in the first Roxy album. Not only was I a big fan of the blues and jazz, but also Broadway and Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and odd bits of classical music that filtered through as well.
"There was the same sensibility with the clothes, which were a very small part of it but were talked about a lot. We started saying what shall we wear when we go on stage? Shall we be like the Pink Floyd, all in black, hardly appearing, just a light show? And we sort of went the other way, with friends who were designers who were interested in doing weird and wacky things. It still referred to the '50s, so it was sort of retro and futuristic at the same time."
Women have played a big part in the Ferry story and it is noticeable how he perks up at their mention. "I like working with girls," he says, with a chuckle. "It's one of the fun parts of recording, really, when the backing girls come in."
In her autobiography, Tall Tales, supermodel Jerry Hall claims Ferry seduced her after the photo shoot for Roxy Music's 1975 album Siren, when he offered to help her remove her blue body paint. She later left him for Mick Jagger, inspiring Ferry's heartbroken 1978 solo classic, The Bride Stripped Bare. Yet Hall's Siren picture still hangs framed in Ferry's office.
He has been linked to many other women since, had a twenty-year marriage to model and socialite Lucy Helmore and is currently dating twenty-eight-year-old former PR girl Amanda Sheppard. When I suggest Ferry's new single, Heartache By Numbers, plays on his image as a kind of romantic pessimist, he laughs. "If you're romantic, you've got to be a pessimist. I suppose I do like romance. I consider myself more of a Cavalier than a Roundhead."
Still trying to square Ferry's image with reality, I ask the miner's son turned high-society pop star if he has ever felt truly comfortable in the world. "If you are fortunate enough to find something you can do well, you do find you can write your own script a bit more than the average guy. You try and find a life that suits you. But the best is always the work. When the work goes well, you feel you have realised something."
Roxy Music still exist as a touring band but Ferry doesn't know if they will ever record together again. "The Roxy legacy is quite an important one to me. After a twenty-year hiatus, I wouldn't like to do anything unless it was great. But I could imagine us doing something abstract and instrumental that would be quite different, where I would not have to worry about writing hit songs that would get on the radio."
Olympia is out now.