Tom Chaplin, best known as the frontman of British alt-rockers Keane, has a thoughtful, pleasantly proper cadence to his speech — peppered with chuckles here and there as he relates the story behind his first solo album, The Wave. The chuckles may come as a bit of a surprise, given the deeply personal (and deeply dark) subject of his work: Chaplin has a well-documented history of relapsing addiction which nearly brought him to death more than once. His stunningly raw and lovely album takes a look at his journey into eventual — and, he says, now permanent — sobriety, with a lens on both his own actions and the damages done to loved ones along the way.
The fact that Chaplin’s sense of humor can emerge during a conversation about such matters is a testament to his flexibility, which he put to good use during work on The Wave — the first time he’s stepped out of the Keane-singer spotlight and attempted his hand at songwriting. Yahoo Music sat down with Chaplin to find out his methods of approaching such a monumental (and undeniably successful) work.
YAHOO MUSIC: Needless to say, the album is an extremely personal project. When approaching the task of telling your story, is it possible for you to pinpoint where you began?
TOM CHAPLIN: It kind of had two starting points, I suppose, one of which ended up being aborted. At the end of the Keane best-of in 2013 — at the end of that, that was kind of “start No. 1.” I said to the guys that I wanted to take time away and work on my solo project.
The other part, that got aborted, I was working away on all this solo adventure — and I found it quite difficult, actually. I think a lot of the songs were observational, more outward-looking. And I didn’t try very hard to get a sense of something cohesive in terms of what I was writing about. I found myself kind of creatively drying up by the middle of that year. And, at the same time, my daughter was born, and at the same time my problems with drug addictions returned in the worst way I had done in my life.
The end of 2014 was a complete mess. That first initial effort to write a record had completely evaporated. It wasn’t really until springtime of last year I got myself well; it took a while to reconnect with everything. Because I was so exhausted — and, I suppose, too void of feeling. So it took me a few months before I could get back in the studio and get writing. I ended up writing with other people as well, which was quite liberating for me. I hit my stride and wrote about 30 songs over the course of the spring and summer. I felt like I tapped into this incredible energy for writing and creating. And, I think there were two obvious elements to that. One, I wasn’t diverting all my energy and intention to sustaining a drug habit, so I had all this enthusiasm for being creative. The other thing, it gave me something really cohesive and clear to write about, which was my experience over the last two years.
Many artists have chronicled their journeys through addiction and sobriety. Did you ever consider how your story would fit into this lexicon of other (and sometimes very famous) similar ones?
I didn’t, actually. So much of what I did last year was repairing relationships that I’d smashed or destroyed in my life, so several of the songs documented that. And, repairing the relationship to myself — trying to like myself again and learn more about who I am, and understand myself. Quite a few of the songs reflect that. Really what I was doing was documenting what I was going through during that time; I didn’t really think too hard about whether it was going to stand up to anything else. Obviously, things finally felt like they were going in the right direction in my life. And I wanted to capture that process — the hope around that. I was lost in the real genuine excitement and pleasure of making music again.
Did you ever consider attempting to tell your story using the support or framework of your band, rather than take it on as a solo project?
One of things about Keane is our roles in the band became defined very early on. I was more of the singer, and Tim [Rice-Oxley] played piano and was always the songwriter. Those roles became quite firmly set. I was kind of happy in a way, maybe not unconsciously but certainly on the surface — this is a good balance, and I love singing Tim’s songs that made us very successful. But after a while I felt the effect of always singing someone else’s story. That, at times, gave me a sense of frustration, because I felt I had all this stuff inside me that I wanted to articulate and get out. I carry back to this idea –anyone who’s a fan of Keane will know my voice, the external voice, but I think very few people have gotten to know what goes on underneath all of that. So to me the process of doing this, and needing to take it into the realm of a solo project, was to kind of marry up these two things.
You collaborated with co-writers on the album. Did you enjoy that process, or find it difficult, given you were working with such personal material?
Writing an album is a very painstaking process. I think I wrote 40 songs overall by the end of this record, to choose from. I had to wade through things I didn’t think had the tone of the record, and I had to also finesse my song structures, and picking the lyrics — I think the thing for me was, I was very worried. One of the reasons I was cautious or anxious about working with other people, was that somehow I was going to lose that voice. But I think that was actually part of the process.
What was the hardest part of writing the album for you?
In terms of the lyrics, it was like a very confusing puzzle; I was trying to juggle so many ideas. You always have to have the whole song up in front of you in your head, and be able to work on different things at the same time. One of the ways I did that, I did a lot of that while I was driving. I found that if I sat down at my computer or with a notepad and just try to write lyrics and concentrate entirely on that, I’d get stuck very quickly. But I found when I was driving in my car, part of my mind was focused on the road, and the process of driving in a straight line just allowed my mind to wander. So I found that driving along, I’d often come up with ideas and the answers to problems. When your mind can wander, and your main concentration is elsewhere, great inspiration can happen. A good method.
Were some songs easier than others to develop and form?
Songs like “See It So Clear,” I just wrote that in a day and night when I was out in L.A. That one came pretty quickly. And maybe “Bring the Rain” as well, which is strange because it’s a very poetic song, and yet it was one of those that came out fully formed. I would say pretty much everything else was a bit of a struggle.
Have your bandmates in Keane heard the record, and if so, what do they think?
Yeah, they have. I think maybe they were quite surprised that it actually ever got made. I’m not sure they really believed I ever had it in me [laughs]. Certainly not when my problems with addiction had come back. They seemed very eager to hear it. I think inevitably there is more at play than that –obviously I put a pause on Keane; I’m sure there’s some bad feelings around that. Potentially a sense of envy, and fear that maybe that’s it for Keane, and all those sorts of things. But on the surface they’ve been very positive and generous and lovely about it. And that’s more than I could possibly have hoped for, and I’m really, really pleased about that.
You’ve been very open about the damage, and subsequent repair, that was done to your marriage. Is there a particular song your wife likes best on this album?
There are two very obvious love letters — “Hold on to Our Love” and “Solid Gold” — they are very much to her. “Hold on to Our Love” was one of the first songs I wrote after getting myself clean and sober. There’s a sense of uncertainty in that song and that certainly reflected where I was at that time. Obviously I’d really taken our relationship to the very limits, and I was in a sense trying to win back her faith. Certainly at that point it was hard for her to believe I was going to get myself well — I’d gotten clean and sober for a few months at a time in the past, and I think she was wary that was going to happen. So the song documents a time of uncertainty between us, but also a sense of “I really want us to survive — we’ve been through a lot and if we can survive this hurricane of my addiction, then we can be stronger.” A simple idea, really, but I wanted to tell her that.
She’s very fond of that one, but she’s probably more fond of “Solid Gold,” which is in a way a more reflective song, looking back on all the troubles and difficult times, more from the perspective of “Things are good, and can I be there for you, and I know you believe that.” I think that is a more accurate reflection of where we are now. It’s so lovely to write those things for her. There’s a great big chance I was never going to get to do that. And to get into a position where I can write that kind of song, and make those promises — it’s a very proud feeling. It keeps me from wanting to go back to that awful dark place.
Now that you’ve “gotten out” so much of your demons, do you think you may want to go in a different subject direction for your next solo album — if you plan to make another solo album?
I don’t honestly know. I do want to continue, but I am desperate to make the most of the chance I’ve given myself. I now have the confidence to continue. This first record was really just figuring out whether I could actually do it. Now I know that, I want to push on. It’s very hard to know, and I think once I start writing properly again — I have already dipped my toe in the water, I’ve got a few different ideas — I think I’ll just have to see where I’m at.