As he returns with an ambitious new solo album – his most personal yet – the Blur guitarist talks candidly to Elizabeth Aubrey about his mental health, losing his mum and wearing eyeliner to play with Duran Duran
“I’m very different now to how I was then," dit Graham Coxon, singer-songwriter and guitarist in Blur, inhaling on his vape. He’s reflecting on the difficult Think Tank album sessions, which led to his departure from the band in 2001. “I should’ve been talking about what my difficulties were with myself, my anxiety, fitting in with the world, a lot earlier.” But he’s ready to speak up now? "Oui, bien, I’ve been in therapy for well over a year nearly every day because of some recent events and stuff," il dit, now up close to his computer’s video screen.
The famously shy musician is one of the most acclaimed in the UK, both as a solo artist with nine albums to date, and as one quarter of Blur. Yet he was always the group’s introvert who struggled most with their stratospheric rise in the Nineties. On his new album, he’s found a way to vocalise his recent grief by adopting a number of different personas. Superstate is a dystopian concept album where Coxon plays varying characters, to explore themes of loss, regret and a neurotic fear of the future without the people and places we love.
“I was writing and discovering that I was a better singer and lyricist if I pretended not to be myself,” he shrugs. “Putting myself in other characters gave me a strange freedom to say things that Graham Coxon wouldn’t say, to attempt to sing things he probably wouldn’t feel comfortable attempting.”
Coxon cuts a gentle figure in his cosy DIY studio, set up in the spare room of his London home. He’s surrounded by instruments piled high in every corner, and is wearing a grey and black striped vest and his trademark heavy-rimmed glasses. His answers are quiet but thoughtful. What led him to therapy? He pauses, thinks carefully before suddenly jolting far back in his chair. He looks away and inhales deeply.
“I can’t really say much about it, à présent. I will one day, but it’s quite difficult at the moment. I lost my mum in March. I don’t even know whether I’ve processed it properly yet. It’s horrible," il explique, pain etched across his face. He’s dealing with more big “recent crises” too, il dit, “personal stuff”, mais pour l'instant, he just can’t go there.
En effet, the album’s starting point was losing one of his idols in 2016. “When David Bowie died, there was a particular strange feeling and I remember going up to my studio and I wrote a song called ‘We Remain’,” says Coxon. In this mournful masterpiece, the 52-year-old adopts a voice and style redolent of Bowie’s The Next Day era. As paeans to Bowie go, you’d struggle to find one more unremittingly beautiful.
There was the loss of home, trop. Coxon moved to America in 2018 but longed for England too much: he returned home last year, mid-pandemic. “That song was also about regret, missing and not cherishing our surroundings, [imagining] a future where culture has gone. Je pensais, ‘God, we might live on Mars soon,’ and I started to think about what I’d miss.” And what would he miss? “The views on the train going through the Essex countryside. The roads, the walls, the roses.”
Coxon found that taking on different personas was the freeing ingredient he needed to lay himself bare. Take, par example, the piano-driven, cinematic “Tommy Gunn”, where the song’s protagonist, a parent, fears for his children who are left behind when they pass away, a premise that feels crushing in light of Coxon’s recent news. “It’s really personal for me, cette, because as a parent, the whole idea of you not being around any longer and your kids having to go out in the world, you sort of hope you can look down on them.
“Originally, the names of my two daughters were in that song, but I changed that – too emotional. I realised that you can think things and you can write things but actually, if you say some of these things out loud, even worse if you sing these things that you’ve written, the emotion behind what you’ve written or what it actually means amplifies so much that it’s quite overwhelming.”
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Writing in character, rather than as Graham Coxon, has liberated him. It was a trick he discovered creating the soundtracks for angsty comedy series The End of the F***ing World et I Am Not Okay With This, which he wrote from the points of view of the characters in the shows rather than himself.
“When I was pretending to be in a post-punk band in 1979, or pretending to be someone like Roger Miller, or pretending to be someone who might have been knocking around with Beck in 1991, or Scott Walker, putting myself in other people’s shoes, freed me," il dit. The result, ironically, is that it feels like the most autobiographical album of Coxon’s career to date.
“The overarching thing about Superstate is that it is basically about my head," il explique. "Je veux dire, it can’t be about anything else. It’s really about my paranoia and my experiences with overbearing and difficult personalities and how I have reacted to them. I’ve just split it up all into characters and really put them through it. I suppose a way of understanding it all is to give these characters all of the traits, good and bad, your own and other peoples, and see how they fight it all out.”
Fighting it out is a key element of the new album. Across 15 songs, Coxon has constructed a sprawling sci-fi universe where characters battle against forces of evil. There are angels, demons, gods and masters, the weary and the downtrodden. The album’s synopsis, written by Coxon, dit: "Superstate is a story of escape in a society where war rages between the forces of negativity and positivity, encouragement and discouragement. Where only the struggle from oppressions, chaos and brutality leads to the fragile road to freedom… to a planet called heaven.” Characters in songs frequently battle demons, something Coxon links directly back to those he battled in 2001, just before the birth of his first daughter.
When Blur were at their peak, Coxon was debilitated with undiagnosed anxiety. He drank heavily to ease the pain and ended up in rehab, later being sacked from the band. “Thirty years ago, nobody was saying, ‘This is anxiety,’” Coxon recalls. “I was drinking a lot because that was the only thing that knocked off the anxiety, but then I just couldn’t stop. Then I’d get a hangover which made me anxious all over again. No one then was as obsessed with mental health as they are now. It was a bit like, ‘Buck up, you idiot. What’s the matter with you?’ A slap on the back if you’re lucky and ‘Get out there and get on with it.’”
Incessant touring schedules meant his condition worsened to the point where he hated going on stage. He says he’d “really had enough” and felt like his “state of mind wasn’t being taken into consideration” in an industry where demands were incessant. “There was nothing worse for me, dans 1998, [than] going on stage and feeling resentful to the audience. It wasn’t a very nice feeling,” Coxon says sorrowfully. “I spent a lot of my twenties going from this very quiet, anxieux, brooding person to, within an hour, being completely different and difficult to handle and not knowing quite why. I’m a lot better now because I can see it in action. I can see how I’m wired and how easy it is for the template in my brain to click to default and be exactly as I was at seven, 18, or 21.”
“The other boys in the band too, we were being worked to death and that was normal. We were touring America and you’re left to do whatever you like. You go into dressing room after dressing room with a bigger pile of booze and you drink it all. You play well and then you drink. Then you wonder why, after two weeks of touring, you’re crying. You don’t know what’s happened. ‘Why am I crying?’ Because we’d had enough and reached our limits.”
Part of Coxon’s recovery after checking into The Priory came via art and “drawing therapy”. Since he was a child, Coxon has escaped his anxiety by listening to music and trying to “draw songs”, with art proving an effective strategy. Coxon brings art and music together on Superstate in a way he’s never done before. The album is being released alongside an accompanying graphic novel with a comic book story matched to each of the album’s songs. Coxon has written them all (with help from Alex Paknadel and Helen Mullane) and he selected artists to bring them to life. As with all his solo works to date (and Blur’s 13), he’s also drawn the project’s dystopian cover art himself.
“I used to draw songs and I used to figure out how the world felt by listening to and [drawing] songs of The Beatles or whoever," il dit. “That sort of became my world. I expressed myself with drawing and I got other people’s feelings or inspiration about how to feel, all my information about the world, from music and art.” They both saved him. “Music was a playground where I did feel confident. It’s almost like a world where my shortcomings disappear.”
He would struggle in most social situations, il dit. “It was always really difficult for me to be comfortable. It was easy for me to give myself a hard time about how I was performing as a person, socially and all the rest. When I first met Damon, he was pretty confident. He didn’t seem to care what people thought. He was unapologetic and honest and I was always impressed by people who were really straight talking and assertive.” He thinks he’s getting better at this now: “What is good about getting older is that you give less of a damn what people think.”
This not-giving-a-damn is vividly seen on Superstate. Songs are much longer than on Coxon’s previous solo offerings and much more experimental. As well as playing all the instruments himself, he’s ventured into new and surprising genres. “I think people will be freaked out by Superstate, but in a good way. I was listening to Sly and the Family Stone, King Crimson. There’s a sort of progressive funk-rock thing going on, which is new, with a lot of psychedelia.” There’s also a hint of the Eighties on songs such as “LILY”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a sci-fi soundtrack or even a Duran Duran album.
"Oui, I somehow found myself in Duran Duran for a bit,” Coxon laughs. He’s played on several songs on their upcoming album Future Past and performed with them at this year’s Billboard Music Awards. “The hardest bit was trying to find something on the clothes rack that wasn’t really too mental for me to wear,” he smiles. “I did put a beginners’ amount of eyeliner on. I quite enjoyed that. It was surreal and so much fun. They’re all really nice and they’re not, as individuals, dissimilar to Blur.”
After he reunited with Blur in 2009, the bandmates became closer than ever. “When we got back together, I think we were all a little more grateful for what we had and realised that Blur was actually good fun.” Do they have any plans to work together again soon? “It’s been sort of discussed," il dit. “We’ve had a few loose talks about it. But it’s nice that we all do different things, too.”
Pour le moment, Coxon has enough to be dealing with. He’s focusing on therapy and another project he describes as “beautiful and really positive”. He says we’ll expect to see this towards the end of the year. “Creative people have to be creative," il dit, on what keeps him going. “Songs are good places to process any kind of disturbance, sadness or anger; internalising it isn’t going to be any good.” He looks assuredly into the camera, for once. “Drawing, making music, it’s a subconscious clean-out for me in a way. I’ll always have to do it… as me or somebody else.”
While he may need to draw and make music as other people, the real Graham Coxon has never felt more vividly on show. Superstate is his solo masterpiece, and nobody else’s.
‘Superstate’ is out now