For his new album, Peter Gabriel has collaborated with the likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed on a series of lunar cover versions.
By Neil McCormick
Published: 11:59AM GMT 11 Feb 2010
"The music business is dead, but there's lots of interesting life forms crawling out of the corpse," says Peter Gabriel, eyes twinkling.
I wonder whether he includes himself in that. A superstar from a different era, Gabriel is getting ready to release Scratch My Back, his first album in eight years. Surprisingly for a man renowned as a highly original songwriter and detailed craftsman with hi-tech inclinations, he returns with a collection of understated orchestral versions of other people's songs.
A covers album, then, although perhaps not the sort of songs you are likely to hear performed by contestants on the popular karaoke television shows that have made covers so prevalent in contemporary pop culture. Gabriel's brooding, melancholic opus draws from the work of lyrically complex, left field mavericks, bringing together such "living masters" as David Bowie, Paul Simon, Lou Reed and Randy Newman with edgy, contemporary originals such as Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor, Elbow and Radiohead. And, in the kind of thematic twist of which Gabriel is fond, each of the artists will, in turn, be covering one of his songs, with twinned singles being released each full moon this year. (The first set, featuring Gabriel and the Magnetic Fields, is already available to download.)
"I'll always want an angle, something to separate me from the pack," he says, mischievously. "I'm sure I'm just a marketing man in disguise."
He insists this is not some kind of stopgap, masking his own notoriously slow creative process, but a genuinely felt response to the times. Indeed, Simon Cowell may be indirectly to blame. "With all these talent shows focusing on performance, the songwriter is being overlooked.
"It's a part of the equation that's missing and it is really unhealthy. I thought if we could make it a genuine exchange with other musicians, rather than a homage to just one song, then people might get a window into the process. In a way, when you record something, you're like a photograph trapping a moment in time, but a good song is a living entity and continues evolving. I wanted to really let the songs speak and to become personally minimal in their presentation."
It is a beautiful album, with songs such as Paul Simon's Boy in the Bubble almost boiled down to their very essence, where the melody and lyric have to carry the whole thing. "Pop introduced to songwriting the idea that sound was as important as the notes, the harmony and rhythm. I wanted to see what happens when you strip the spine away: would all the flesh just fall on the ground?"
Yet for all his talk of minimising his presence, Gabriel's voice is at the heart of everything, slightly hoarse and perhaps lower than in his Genesis heyday, but so without affectation that the songs seem to come from a place of complete conviction.
"Something happens with age," he says. "Gravity wins. You get pulled towards the ground, and you lose a couple of heavenly notes and gain a couple of earthly ones. You are becoming more yourself, whether you like it or not."
The album is not the most upbeat collection in pop history. "I think joy is really hard to get right. Ian Dury's Reasons to be Cheerful is loved for that. Maybe the human character is more comfortable down than up.
"But I'd love to try doing a joy record at some point. What I want to do with the next one is make it really up, like disco."
But don't hold your breath. Gabriel has released only three albums of new material in two decades. "I'm a tinkerer, I love to go into my shed and chop away at things." But he is also a man with a lot of other interests who has carved out a space for himself between art and science. Alongside overseeing the Womad festival and his own world music record label and studio (Real World in Wiltshire), he has been involved in music technology internet ventures, including a legal downloading service, OD2, which was bought by Nokia in 2006 for a reported $60 million. "There aren't record sales in the same way that there used to be, so I'd like to really feel that I've got income sources elsewhere, then music can purely be a passion project for me."
He sees the convulsions in the music industry as broadly positive. "Pop music was probably the unnaturally dominant art form at the end of the 20th century, and I doubt it will ever recapture that position, because it was sort of the lever through which youth culture took power. It's dissipated now, it's an
ecosystem, not a central power.
"At the same time, it feels a lot like when I first got involved as a teenager: there's a lot of opportunities, a lot of things haven't been done before, a lot of rules can be broken or rewritten. The underlying economic format has changed, in that once you had to produce music that would appeal to an A&R guy who thought you could sell a quarter of a million records to be in business. Nowadays, creative people can find their audiences, however small, wherever they are in the world, and connect to them directly. And that's the revolution."
He's also involved in what he describes as "benefit projects", most notably the setting up and funding of an international think-tank, the Elders, fronted by Nelson Mandela, whose aim is to "promote peaceful solutions to long-standing conflicts".
He cheerfully confesses that he has seen and heard things at Elders meetings that are "very scary", touching on nuclear arms proliferation, terrorism, fundamentalism, racism and global warming. "There are 'Reasons to be Fearful', to misquote Mr Dury. You always think you make progress, but actually if you look at history we drop back frequently, and so we could be on the edge of a Dark Age. But I remain optimistic; that is my natural disposition."
Scratch My Back could be the soundtrack for this vision of encroaching darkness. There is a feeling of desperation about it but it is also a romantic record imbued with the redemptive power of love. "I'm still an old hippy at heart."
His work as a technological entrepreneur and global peace benefactor sounds hugely worthwhile, but it's good to have Gabriel back on song. "Music is still my passion. When you are in a room with other musicians and something's happening, it's like no other experience. I'll carry on writing songs until I drop. It's what I love to do."
'Scratch My Back' is out on Virgin on Monday.
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