A Sonic Explorer Tries a Solo Turn
For most of the show that he played on a recent Thursday night at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan, Damon Albarn focused on introspective and autobiographical music spanning his pop-music career of some 25 years. Then, as he wound down the set, Mr. Albarn brought out a gospel choir to accompany him on a new song, “Mr. Tembo,” a cheerful tune that includes the refrain, “It’s where he is now, but it wasn’t what he planned.”
It says a lot about Mr. Albarn that he wrote this song for a Tanzanian elephant but that it still ended up being more or less about its author: a sonic explorer who spent the 1990s as the frontman of Blur, one of the most successful British rock acts of that era, only to set that aside, first for Gorillaz, a band consisting of fictional cartoon characters, and then for further meanderings in other side projects and immersions in the music of African and Asian cultures.
By following a career that often seems unplanned, Mr. Albarn is now at the point where, at 46, he has completed his first solo album, called “Everyday Robots,” which Warner Bros. Records will release on Tuesday.
“Everyday Robots” is Mr. Albarn’s opportunity to demonstrate what it means to make music as himself, freed from the burdens of his previous bands and unadorned by artifice or contrivance.
But who exactly is that person? He’s still figuring it out as he goes.
“It would have been harder to explain if I had put this out under any other name,” Mr. Albarn said in an interview, expanding himself comfortably along a couch in the lobby of the Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa. “I’m a complete first-timer, a newcomer, under my own name, which is bizarre.”
“I feel like I’m on my umpteenth apprenticeship,” he added. “It’s actually quite a relief to be starting again. There’s something honest about starting afresh.”
A London native with tousled hair, sleepy eyes and a smile that gleams with a gold-capped front tooth, Mr. Albarn was still recovering on this Friday afternoon from the previous evening’s show and the after-hours he spent celebrating at the table-tennis club SPiN New York.
It was still a far cry from the loutish behavior he celebrated (and sometimes engaged in) during the ’90s-era heyday of Britpop, a rock genre that spoke to the aimless values of young, middle-class Britain and sent bands like Blur, Pulp and Oasis to the top of the charts.
“It was a time of change and celebration, and a time of excess,” said Steve Lamacq, a D.J. for the BBC’s Radio 6 Music station. “After three or four years of listening to angsty American grunge, there was an appetite for bands who actually wrote about what it was like to live in this country at the time.”
Eventually, this musical moment came to an end, and Blur released its last album in 2003. And when it came time to move on, Mr. Albarn had a ready cache of passports and aliases to draw from, having cultivated other projects like the cartoon band Gorillaz (created with the comic-book illustrator Jamie Hewlett) and a group called the Good, the Bad & the Queen.
“He couldn’t be more overt at not wanting to stand in the spotlight,” said Jian Ghomeshi, the rock musician and CBC Radio host. “Now, you could say that’s a Machiavellian attempt at modesty. But I think there’s a genuine discomfort with being the cliché rock ’n’ roll star, and it plays out in the choices he makes.”
Mr. Albarn said there was no calculation in these decisions, nor in the travels he has made over the last decade to African nations like Mali and Ethiopia, where he has learned indigenous musical traditions, recorded albums and met with artists like the kora player Toumani Diabaté.
“It gives you a bigger vocabulary,” Mr. Albarn said of these trips, “and the bigger your vocabulary gets, surely the more articulate you can be.”
He has also been involved in unexpected endeavors like the Chinese opera “Monkey: Journey to the West,” created with Mr. Hewlett and the director Chen Shi-Zheng, which was presented last year at the Lincoln Center Festival. (Reviewing that production for The New York Times, Charles Isherwood called it a “boisterous spectacle.”)
During all of this, Mr. Albarn said he had been consistently creating music in a workmanlike way at his London studio.
“I start work at half past 9 in the morning, and I finish at half past 5, five days a week, except vacations and weekends,” he said.
Asked how he kept to such a reliable schedule, Mr. Albarn responded with slight incredulity, “That’s my job.”
Can he simply turn on his creativity in these discrete blocks of time?
“Yeah,” he answered with a sheepish chuckle. “Some days, nothing particularly wonderful happens. In fact, some days, nothing happens. But the fact that you went through the process means that you’re still in the process.”
When Mr. Albarn decided to work with Richard Russell, the music producer and owner of the label XL Recordings, on what would become “Everyday Robots,” he had already accumulated a significant stockpile of material.
“Damon hit me with a huge collection of songs and sketches and half-songs and quarter-songs that he’d written,” Mr. Russell said. “I mean, more than 100 of them.”
Mr. Russell, who has collaborated with Mr. Albarn to produce music for Bobby Womack, and has also produced for artists like Gil Scott-Heron, said of Mr. Albarn: “He’s a believer in keeping the tap on, which means you’ve got to be creative all the time and not necessarily worrying about the results.”
In further sessions, Mr. Albarn and Mr. Russell worked out songs like “You and Me,” a quiet elegy inspired partly by London’s annual Notting Hill Carnival (when, Mr. Albarn explained, “two million people walk past my front door and then they just disappear”); and the title track, a rhythmic ode to the automation and alienation of humanity.
If the overall feeling of “Everyday Robots” was a desolate one, Mr. Albarn said he liked to operate in a mode that was “dystopian yet hopeful.”
“It’s more my Englishness than my melancholy,” he said. “If you want to get really melancholic, go listen to Welsh folk music. They really push all the buttons.”
For all of his innovations, Mr. Albarn has not entirely left his past accomplishments in the past. He has played a handful of Blur reunion concerts in recent years and, at his Highline Ballroom solo show, appeared to get a bit choked up as he introduced the song “This Is a Low,” from the band’s best-selling 1994 album, “Parklife.”
(As the prescient chorus of that song observes: “This is a low, but it won’t hurt you/When you’re alone, it will be there with you/finding ways to stay solo.”)
Mr. Albarn explained afterward that he had never previously played that song in a live, public setting without his bandmates from Blur.
He said he did not feel confined by the success of that band nor obligated to play its songs when he goes out on stage. But if he’s being truly honest with himself, Mr. Albarn said, he could appreciate the kind of adulation that seems to come only when he is playing the enduring anthems he helped create in that period.
“When you’ve got 200,000 people in a field in Glastonbury singing one of your songs, it’s a mighty noise,” he said. “So, yes, I do like that.”
Among his peers from the Britpop era, Mr. Albarn is one of a few artists regarded as having pushed past the margins of that movement and for continuing to evolve in new incarnations.
“You can be a really clever” bloke, said Mr. Lamacq of the BBC, using stronger British slang, “but you won’t get the best out of yourself unless that’s attached to an amazing work ethic.”
“There’s no boundaries to Damon,” he said, “I think some people pen themselves in. They have their one trick, whereas Damon’s got a box full of them.”
Mr. Albarn could not say for certain what comes next on this ad hoc trajectory. He said he was working on “a new opera thing” with Simon McBurney, a founder of the British theater company Complicite, but could not disclose further details because “I haven’t written anything for it yet.”
Sounding like a high school student who has remembered the big class project is due tomorrow, Mr. Albarn said, “Hell, I’d better get on with it.”
Beyond that, he said, “I hope I hang around long enough to have as many adventures as possible.”
With chagrin, he pointed out that, for all his global travels, he had never been to India, a nation rich with cultural possibilities.
“Who knows what will happen to me when I go to India?” Mr. Albarn said, adding that he could easily imagine himself falling under the influence of a swami there. “I might end up tying my penis into knots and standing on one leg for several years.”