Damon Albarn has quite a bit in common with John Dee, the man he wrote an opera about, even though the latter died about 400 years ago. Dee tried his hand at all manners of disciplines: alchemy, magic, astrology, navigation, and collaborated with various other polymaths. He was unafraid to discover and experiment. Perhaps Albarn saw something of himself in his subject. If Dee was a kind of superhero in Elizabethan England, Albarn is his modern-day musical equivalent. A trailblazer with a rich CV of achievements: from Gorillaz, the world’s first virtual band, to working with Lou Reed; Africa Express to a madcap opera about a Chinese monkey; the Bobby Womack renaissance to a band called Blur.
Albarn will receive the NME Award For Innovation, the first of its kind, at the NME Awards, with Austin Texas on February 26. At just 45 the former Blur frontman has achieved what very few even attempt. He is in the league of prolific innovators such as David Byrne, David Bowie and Thom Yorke who pioneer sound with a kind of superhuman confidence and musical tenacity.
Working back from the present, Albarn’s latest project is a self-described “very personal” solo album to be released in April. It features Brian Eno, Natasha Khan and XL’s Richard Russell on production duty. Decades after the formation of Blur, you get the impression Albarn is most comfortable entangled with new technology, ideas, collaborators and form.
Take Gorillaz. On paper it sounds absurd. The only real members are Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett. 2D, Murdoc, Russel, Noodle and Cyborg Noodle are virtual. But somehow the cartoon artifice totally worked, resulting in four excellent studio albums, a headline slot at Glastonbury and success in the US to boot.
One of the artists featured on Gorillaz’s wild, genius 2010 album ‘Plastic Beach’ was Bobby Womack (alongside Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg, Little Dragon, Mike Jones and Paul Simonon). Albarn spearheaded a Womack resurgence in 2012 when he produced ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, a stunningly soulful album. Albarn’s encouragement “brought me back to life,” Womack told me at the time.
One of the most enriching aspects of Albarn’s work is Africa Express, a project set up “to promote artistic collaboration between African and western musicians and to widen the appreciation of African music and culture.” Most recently he led a a week-long trip to Mali with a number of musicians including Brian Eno, Ghostpoet, Adelekan, Nick Zinner and Dave Maclean of Django Django alongside a host of African musicians including rapper Tal B Halala, Bijou, Adama Koita and Songhoy Blues. The resulting album ‘Maison De Jeunes’ will be released this year. ‘Kinshasa One Two ‘ an album featuring Congolese musicans (as well as British producers Kwes, Actress and TEED) was released in 2012.
Has there ever been an artist so adept at bringing different musicians together? The Good, The Bad & The Queen was another collaborative work featuring Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, produced by Dangermouse. It was a musical mystery play themed around life in London. Tony Allen surfaced again in Rocket Juice & the Moon with Flea.
Perhaps one of the reasons for Albarn’s focussed output is his complete disdain for celebrity culture. Instead of wasting time on Twitter, courting publicity or judging The X Factor – a “malignant tumour” – he just gets on with it. “I hope we can keep doing it this way – making music and art that are pure products of our influences while not really having to let the whole celebrity side of it get in the way,” he said during the height of Gorillaz. And he doesn’t dally: “As soon as it sounds fine, I’m on to the next thing, man.” It is this energy and imagination to relentlessly produce the ‘next thing’ – as well as a knack for writing a damn fine tune – that sets Albarn apart from the rest and makes him more than deserving of the NME Award For Innovation.