Damon Albarn, 42, former Blur frontman, now the brains behind the virtual band Gorillaz, and his sister, Jessica, 39, artist, on their ‘magical’ childhood, rebellion and becoming parents
Jessica: Right from the start, Damon was musical. Mum says he could play a mouth organ in the pram, and I can half-believe that, because he just took to instruments straight away. He always had that natural ability. We both had piano lessons, but I knew Damon had something special. Whereas I’d come home and practise my sheet music, he’d already be banging out his own stuff. He was always free like that, you couldn’t contain him, and he’s been like that ever since.
We lived in Oldham, in Essex, and when I joined him at Stanway Comprehensive he was also playing violin in the school orchestra and getting main parts in the plays — one of them was the lead role in Orpheus in the Underworld. At school you had to choose very early on between sport or the arts as you couldn’t do both, and I think that definitely provided a catalyst for him to explore everything in the music department. He was competitive too. In the sixth form he entered a competition for composing and won.
But by then it was already clear what type of music provided the biggest thrill for him, and by 15 he’d formed a band with Graham Coxon, who also went to our school. At their first gig, which was in the school hall, I remember thinking: “My God, these girls are getting excited about my brother!” And I think that’s when I knew he had something.
After his exams, Damon came to London to go to drama school, but dropped out after a year because it wasn’t music-based enough. And that’s when it became a lot clearer that he wanted to write songs for the band that would soon evolve into Blur. The other guys in the band were studying art at Goldsmiths, where there was a real scene going on, and initially they were doing a lot of hanging out and going to parties. So to an extent, Damon drove the whole thing. He was so determined to succeed, he was just relentless.
What I saw with Damon then was that he had a lot of self-belief, a lot of inner strength. And you need that in the music business, because you have to take a lot of criticism, a lot of knocks. But it’s not like I never worried about him. I remember one time we’d all taken a break down in Cornwall — it was between his first and second album — and things were a bit shaky because their manager had quit, and he was feeling low. So we were walking along these cliff paths and Damon suddenly disappeared. It unnerved me and I got into a panic. He later reappeared and was fine, but was totally oblivious to our fears.
He could be like that on stage too. When Blur played Glastonbury in the early 1990s he came on in this mod suit and straight away the audience started giving him stick because a lot of them were grunge fans. So his response was to start climbing the massive frame around the stage and they responded by stamping their feet, as if willing him to fall. Because I was so far back, all I could think was, if he falls I’m not going to be able to do anything. That helplessness was just awful. I was absolutely petrified. He was okay in the end, but sometimes I think he’s got the angels with him.
As his sister, I can’t deny that in the past it’s sometimes been hard for me to see how the public have perceived him. But as with episodes like the Oasis/Blur battle of the mid-1990s, he’s always been good at taking things on the chin because he knows it goes with the territory. But he’s only human, and away from the spotlight there’s definitely a more sensitive, vulnerable side to him.
When all the Blur members went their separate ways in the early 2000s, Damon welcomed a step back from the pressures of being the front man. But, of course, it wasn’t long before he found other projects to work on, which is the amazing thing about him — he’s always got something bubbling beneath the surface, always thinking of the next big thing. And now, with the artist Jamie Hewlett and other collaborators, his latest band, Gorillaz, is repeating the success of Blur all over again.
Of course, he’s also become a father in the past 10 years and he’s a brilliant dad; he’s also a great uncle — my son, who’s still only 12, is constantly inspired by him. I suppose what inspires me most about Damon is the sheer breadth of his talent, his passion and his hard work. He’s a force of nature and he’s most definitely in a league of his own.
Damon: When Jessica was 7 and I was 9 our parents made the decision to get out of London and move to this little Essex village called Oldham. Until then we’d lived in Leytonstone in the East End and I loved it and had lots of friends. While the move was happening it was agreed I’d go on holiday with a friend of my parents to Turkey. And that was great but when I came back I found Jessica had got herself settled and was very popular, whereas I struggled with all of that. Maybe being a bit older than her, I found that transition a lot harder and felt more aware of being the outsider. And I think that set the tone of our whole tenureship there.
But it’s not to say I didn’t love the countryside. I did. We both found a real connection with it that still exists today. The house, which my parents had bought for £9,000, was around 500 years old, and at the end of our garden there was a wood and a river where I’d often go fishing before school. So it was quite a magical place. In fact, there was a strong sense of witchcraft in the area and we weren’t averse to a bit of magic. We’re not witches but we weren’t scared of them either.
Jessica always kept or cared for animals — she had 13 guinea pigs at one point. Once, I remember, we found a pheasant caught in some bramble bushes and were worried it would die if we left it. I was too scared to get it in case it flew at me. But not her. She went in with her bare hands and gently pulled it out.
Things were less idyllic at school. In the space of 18 months our primary school got burnt down seven times. It actually turned out to be one of the teachers, so not surprisingly we both failed our 11-plus. We then both went to the nearest comprehensive, but it came as a real eye-opener to me at that point how many kids living near us went to public school. I remember once going around the houses trying to raise money for a school swimming pool and I literally had the door slammed in my face because I wasn’t a public-school boy. That really pissed me off. I still hold it up as one of those profound moments you have when you wake up to what life is really like. Sadly, the comprehensive wasn’t academically great, but it only takes one person to inspire you, and for me that was Mr Hildreth, this forward-thinking music teacher. He was instrumental in giving me a focus for all my creative energies. For Jessica, it was the art world that beckoned, and she followed more in the footsteps of Mum and Dad, whose work in art and design was a constant source of inspiration to us.
But it’s funny the way things turn out. I remember it was the year after Blur released their third album, Parklife, that Jessica had her first child, Lola. At the time I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “Hang on a minute, I’m the oldest here, this should be happening to me first!” So even though all these amazing things were going on with the band, there was still a part of me that felt really jealous.
Now, Lola’s 14, and her son, Rudy, is 12, and I’ve got a daughter, Missy, who’s 10, and I love the fact we’re all still close and that we still all go on holiday together. About 14 years ago I bought a place in Devon, where we all go, and I often think that keeps the magic of our childhood alive. We even take our cats — hers, a small, sensitive, ginger thing called Marzipan; mine, a big black-and-white, in-your-face fella called Tom. I secretly like to think they live out our different characters.
What’s brilliant now is that Jessica’s career is finally taking off and she’s getting the recognition she’s long deserved. She’s a brilliant artist, a complete master of the pencil. In fact, every time I look at one of her huge insect drawings it blows me away. And what’s so lovely is that so many of her ideas stem from our childhood. In fact, the children’s book she’s written and illustrated, called The Boy in the Oak, is inspired by a cottage we used to visit in the woods. It’s an amazing piece of work and I’m so proud of her.
There have been moments when I’ve been worried about my kid sister. So I do try my best to look after her — I can be very protective if called upon. The wonderful thing about Jessica is that she’s a good soul — the best. I’ve always known that, but as you get older you realise just how truly precious that is.