Richard Ashcroft is the essence of Brit Cool. Like Syd Barrett or Nick Drake before him, Pete Doherty and Alex Turner after him, Ashcroft is one of those rarified rock eccentrics; the type of visionary spirit that's one of England's greatest musical exports. As the frontman of The Verve, Ashcroft was the signature voice of 1990s English pop music. The band's global megahit "Bittersweet Symphony" - which Chris Martin famously called "the best song ever written, sung by the best singer in the world" - made them stars in the States and heroes at home. He's played Saturday Night Live, graced the cover of Rolling Stone, been nominated for VMAs, GRAMMY's, and The Mercury Prize but he's never made a soul record with a hot shot hip-hop producer and venerated Motown greats, until now. In 2009, Ashcroft disbanded The Verve and focused on writing songs inspired by his love of soul, funk and gospel. The result is his first solo album in four years, United Nations Of Sound.
Last autumn, Ashcroft met with producer No I.D. (the man behind Jay-Z's Grammy-winning smash "D.O.A." as well as hits by Common and Kanye West) in a New York studio. The chemistry was instantaneous. "I started chatting with No I.D.," Ashcroft remembers, "saying that I always wanted to make music that was genre-defiant, that didn't have any kind of stamp on it. I don't feel weird about having Curtis Mayfield and Funkadelic ideas all in the same song and neither does he." Once they had sound engineer Reggie Dozier onboard (in his remarkable forty year career he's worked with everyone Outkast to Diana Ross to Stevie Wonder) the team was set.
The recording schedule was brutal; they only had ten days to work. Ashcroft threw himself into the recording process making sure he was the last guy to go home at night and the first one in the studio the next morning. "It had to be like that 'cause I had to get as much as out of this situation as possible," he says emphatically. "I was absolutely full on."
All that manic energy spilled over into the songs, which surge with urgency. The stirring opener "Are You Ready," is swathed in lush strings, courtesy of Benjamin Wright, the master behind arrangements on Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" as well as countless hits by the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and other Motown greats. But it's the track's head-bobbing backbeat that hammers home one of this album's central points: you're supposed to move to this music! "Born Again," furthers the message, soaring with the multi-layered, elegant, build of classic soul. Ashcroft says of the lyrics: "It's about those moments in life where you feel there's no coming out of the tunnel you're in, it's all a dead end. But then something happens - a spark, a conversation, a friend, a piece of music - something makes you feel you've been born again and you have another chance."
The sense of willful elation continues on "America," a song that could be described as "spaghetti western hip-hop" thanks to Sergio Leone whistles layered over propulsive beats and relentless guitars. As compulsively listenable as it is, Ashcroft originally considered amping it up another few notches via a collaboration with Lil Wayne, but the US penal system thwarted that effort. "I wanted him to ask me: 'What the fuck do you know about America?'" the singer says, laughing. "But I think he was recording fifteen videos and three albums right before he went to prison."
"She Brings Me The Music" is a classic big-hearted Ashcroft ballad (in the vein of The Verve's seminal love song, and their most covered track, "The Drugs Don't Work") but with a No I.D.-patented twist at the end: hammering drums and a cacophony of vocals. The song is Ashcroft's ode to his wife, his muse and onstage keyboard player. "And more than that," he elaborates. "Without her I wouldn't be having this conversation. Without her so much wouldn't have happened in my life. I wouldn't have had the momentum or the ability to do it on my own. I've been really, really fortunate to find someone supportive like that."
This blend of undeniable emotional power and infectious, preternaturally appealing R&B-tinged pop is what United Nations of Sound is all about. It's an album that can feel joyful and celebratory, wistful and emotive, or loud and dangerous, all depending on which track you're listening to and what kind of mood you're in. For Richard Ashcroft, the record is an evolution; he's channeling influences he's never before tapped and working with artists way outside his realm. For everyone else, United Nations of Sound just what you'd expect from this ever-enigmatic, beguiling, iconic artist: something new. United Nations of Sound is out on Razor and Tie on March 8th.
The first single off United Nations of Sound, "Are You Ready" will play during the credits for Matt Damon's new film, The Adjustment Bureau, out in 2011
The single was also featured predominantly in the Volkswagen TV commercial rollout for the new Jetta campaign in Fall 2010 and featured in ESPN's 2010 coverage of the World Cup Finals
Ashcroft is currently collaborating director Thomas Newman on an original song for the film The Adjustment Bureau.
Ashcroft's songs have appeared on television programs such as HBO's Entourage, The Unit and House.
During The Verve's acclaimed 2008 reunion tour they headlined Coachella Music Festival.