This is a story with a happy ending. But first, the unhappy beginning. Picture the scene. Although not too clearly 'cause it might make you cry.
A bloke is slumped at a piano on the top floor of an old toffee factory in Stockport. He's been in this space, now a recording studio, for five 'intensive' weeks. He's barely seen his missus and kids. Spring has turned to summer. Twenty rough'n'ready songs, played live by a band, have not turned to album-worthy gold. Many Marlboro Lights have been held in trembling fingers. Things ain't good. It is last year.
'I think I lost grip on what I was actually trying to do,' says Damon Gough, softly. 'I had this goal in my head of putting out five albums in five years, from The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast in 2000. That was my big mistake. That was stupid. In a way I rushed it. At the end of those five weeks I didn't feel it was going in a direction I liked. And I just walked away from it and left those songs alone.'
The next Badly Drawn Boy album was abandoned. The producer was told the bad news - not an easy call for Gough to make, especially when that producer was Stephen Street, esteemed studio whiz for everyone from The Smiths to Blur to Kaiser Chiefs. 'Stephen was brilliant, and it's kinda inexplicable how it didn't work. It's like the stars weren't aligned or something. I blame myself. At the time I was devastated. I had to phone him and say, "I'm not sure I can continue with this material." I just wasn't feeling where it was going.'
Damon Gough sparks up another fag. Now it looks like he might cry. Little wonder. This was not how things were meant to go. Since winning the Mercury Prize for his 2000 debut The hour Of Bewilderbeast, the Mancunian songwriter had led a charmed creative life. The good stuff had poured out of him, a torrent of heartfelt, homespun, charming, sublimely melodic songs, from the soundtrack About A Boy to Have You Fed The Fish? to 2004's One Plus One Is One.
The latter album had seen him fulfill his contractual obligations to XL. He had used the opportunity, this last throw of the indie dice, to write an album that was deeply personal and almost painfully intimate: One Plus One Is One was a tribute to the bits of Cheshire that spawned and shaped him, to his young family, to a dead friend, and to his grandfather, bayoneted during the Normandy landings. It was more a Damon Gough album than a Badly Drawn Boy one. Partly for those reasons, and partly to get himself 'out of people's faces', Gough opted to barely tour or promote the record.
But now he was signed to EMI. It was a bold new beginning on a big new label. Badly Drawn Boy was about to charge ahead into a motoring new phase in his songwriting, and his career. Then the wheels came off.
Now, musicians are not meant to talk too much about failed projects. Outsiders - fans, 'industry observers' - might begin to think the musician has feet of clay. That they've lost their mojo. Those concerned with the money aspect of an artist might worry about their 'brand' being tarnished. Publicly discussing - over and over again - their creative collywobbles, the musician might be paralysed by The Fear too. But stoic silence wouldn't do for Damon Gough. He's not that kind of person. He's honest, often wincingly so, and forthright and upfront. He does things his way. He's not a faker nor a spin-doctor nor overly concerned with his own image. That's why his records are so brilliant. If the birth of the fifth Badly Drawn Boy album was a pain in the neck/arse/heart, he's gonna - gotta - tell you about it.
The other reason that artists are not meant to dwell on abandoned records is that this raises expectations for the record that actually does materialise. It's gotta be extra-specially awesome, right? After all that grief over shonky songs, the artist must be 200 per cent cock-a-hoop with the ones that do see the light of day. And who can live up to that?
Well, hang on to your tea-cosies, for Badly Drawn Boy has snatched bold victory from the jaws of sticky defeat. At the second go, and with some ongoing difficulty, he's finally made his fifth album. It's called Born In The UK. It's great.
His own expectations and his hunger played a part, as did honest toil, in the rebirth of Badly Drawn Boy. 'I just had to regroup,' remembers Gough. 'So from September to December last year I was in the studio every day with just my drummer and bass player. I set myself an objective, a task: I'd sit down every day, predominantly at the piano, and try to get a song out each day. A realised arrangement of a song idea with part lyrics and melody ideas. In those months we probably put down 60 or 80 song ideas.'
In December he met Nick Franglen, one half of animated sampledelic organo-dance maestros Lemon Jelly. Franglen is great with computers, and with not a few instruments. He and Gough clicked. In January this they began recording the 25 new songs that Gough was most happy with.
Things still didn't come easy, mind. Twenty-five songs would have to be whittled down to 18, to 14, to 12. (Ordinarily BDB albums have 14 to 18 songs, but this time Gough wanted to make a 'concise' album.) It would take Gough and Franglen almost six months, mostly in the legendary Rockfield studios in bucolic Wales, to finish the album.
The first track is 'Born In The UK', 160-seconds of rollicking rock'n'roll which details the events that have shaped his life since 1969. BDB-watchers will note the reference to Gough's hero Bruce Springsteen. 'Born In The UK' will come out as a seven-inch single on Twisted Nerve, the boutique label Gough set up with DJ, producer and graphic designer Andy Votel in 1997, and on which the first Badly Drawn Boy singles were released.The lyrics were a 'nightmare' - he wanted to 'capture something about being British or English. It didn't want it to be just a list of events, but it had to be things that captured a version of events in my life. The fact that the Silver Jubilee meant more to me than the Sex Pistols 'cause I was only seven years old, it's not a diss on them. It's just a fact of my ignorance.'I want to stand up and say I'm proud to be English. And it seems that that right's been taken away form us for some reason.' He admits that he thinks 'the song's teetering on the edge of being jingoistic and being embarrassed about shouting your corner. But being proud of where you're from is part of being a human being.'
He's also particularly proud of 'Nothing's Going To Change Your Mind'. A swelling, intricate, ballad that, when he wrote it, it felt like a turning point. He feels it's 'tinged with Seventies-ness, with Bacharach-ness. I can imagine Pan's People dancing to it. It's part Bond theme too. That's my experience of being a kid in the Seventies. "The Long Way Round" has a bit of that too, a three-minute Bacharach-tinged pop song.'
He acknowledges that a few of the songs are 'reflective', but counterpoints his nostalgic tendencies on 'The Way Things Used To Be' - 'it's having a go at myself, 'cause I do tend to live in the past in my songwriting'. It's a countrified epic, built round gorgeous pedal steel.
Bold uplift, meanwhile, comes in the shape of 'Welcome to The Overground', which Gough describes as 'a euphoric burst of joy. I wanted it be like something from the soundtrack to Hair or Godspell.' The sound of 'Without A Kiss' - a masterclass of shuffling, cascading, quietly funky beats that gently points to Franglen's dayjob in Lemon Jelly - is equally ear-tickling, although Gough concedes that the lyrical subject matter supplies one of the album's more sombre moments. 'It's about the futility of pursuing things that aren't feeding your soul.''Time Of Times' is one of two songs that survive - in a new incarnation - from the Stephen Street sessions. Gough likes its simplicity: chord-wise, it revisits 'The Shining', the first song on ...Bewilderbeast. 'It's a three-chord blues song, in essence. It's about feeling that time's passing you by, maybe 'cause you're having too many nights out, waking up feeling like shit, thinking, "we're victims of our own success". People are affluent and part of that spills into the fact that you're probably not making the best of the time you've got. You're just pissing it all up a wall and having a hangover after it.'
Elsewhere, themes of journeys and movement and progress surface in 'Journey From A To B' and 'Degrees Of Separation'. The images, says Gough, are 'of having the strength to carry people along with you in life and keep things going and get the best out of it all.'
Where One Plus One Is One was an intimate, introspective album, Born In The UK is more inclusive, reaching out. It's the arm around the shoulder, the encouraging, cautionary but ultimately positive word in the ear. 'It is an album with which I want to embrace the wider world.' But of course, in the end it comes back to one man and his doggone-obsessions: family, love, Springsteen.
The final track is 'One Last Dance', inspired by the long-gone Manchester club night, Holy City Zoo, where Gough met his missus. 'It's a homage to that place, really, 'cause it's a good name. An attempt to relive that moment and kickstart the next chapter in your life together. It's a nice album closer. A human connection thing again, which summarises what's gone before. "And if we don't have a plan let's just listen to 'Thunder Road'" is the last line on the album.'
Damon Gough, a fan's fan, likes that.
So here we are. Gough is tired but buzzing. He got there in the end. 'It's been the most difficult record I've made to date,' he admits. 'But maybe that's all my fault. Maybe it's my demons that have made that happen. Or maybe it's just that I'm trying to seize an opportunity that I've been given. It's kinda been humbling to have a failed project, and regroup. 'The challenge mentally is that the time has come where I need to do something that will live in the climate of the mainstream. That's what I wanna do - it's an attempt to be up there,' he says with characteristic unfashionable Blunt-ness. 'And that's difficult. I don't really wanna be James Blunt, quite frankly, with mediocre material that makes it to Number One. But good luck to the guy. And I've come round to thinking, well, actually, you can't fault what he's done. He's not the only one. There have been so many artists that have emerged in the last few years that are not challenging anything but are doing something that sits well on radio and gets played and housewives sing along.'
Another Marlborough Light blazing away, his album almost (finally, at last) done - a mix here, a tweak there - Gough slips into tap-room philosopher mode. 'You've got one life. I've got Clare and the kids. I want them to be happy, I want to look after the kids as long as they live. So, right, this is where my success has brought me so far, I'm gonna make a few big albums. And then perhaps after that's done I can sit back and just put out what I want on Twisted Nerve. But this is the period in my life where I'm gonna see how far I can take it. See how many Number One hits I can have, for a laugh.'
As Gough says this, there's a twinkle in his eye, but something - iron? steel? resolve? beer? - in his tone. Number Ones, eh? Puff, puff, exhale, shrug. 'Why not?'