Keane frontman Tom Chaplin reflects upon his debut solo record The Wave, why he felt the time was right for a change, his personal road to getting healthy, discovering a newfound place of creativity, and how music connects us all together.
How are you doing today?
Yeah, great. Thanks. I’m in New York City, playing a show tonight, the American tour. I’m living the dream, so things are good.
What’s it been like to play the new album on the road so far? I know you did a little run in the U.K. last year and are just starting the U.S. run now.
It’s been amazing, in a word. Obviously, I had no idea what it was going to feel like without the members of Keane, and playing something that comes from quite a different place. For me, it’s a very personal story. I was kind of anxious before that run of first dates in the U.K. about how it would all work. I’ve got a really great bunch of musicians with me and it’s been really fascinating to watch how they have brought the songs to life in a live context.
The tone of the shows I’ve been really surprised at how it’s felt very emotional. Obviously, not just the songs, but what I’ve been saying in between the songs. There’s the sense of it being very intimate and conversational as well. It’s felt quite powerful for me. It’s not the sort of posturing rock show that I’ve been used to over the years. It’s something much more down to earth. In terms of personal stories, it’s almost a more authentic experience, and then that’s carried on through the States so far. It’s been great.
I’m assuming this record was a real different experience for you than making one of the Keane records, with you saying how personal it was and you’re now taking on the primary songwriting role and in charge of making all the decisions. How did you like taking on that kind of an increased role?
Well, I think I needed it. I think that’s the truth of it. If you look at many bands out there, there does seem to be that. I suppose it’s a fairly cliché progression that at some point members of the band decide they need to get away from what they have become known for or what they’ve done for many, many years just to explore something on their own.
Obviously, in terms of writing the record, it was a process that filled me with dread initially because I thought, can I actually do it? To find out that I can, that feels very rewarding. While there’s definitely more pressure on me in terms of making decisions, and I have to live and die by them, I am enjoying that.
Inevitably in a band it’s a democratic process and there’s always an element of compromise in what you do. So again, I just feel with taking a step away it has helped me to feel like I’m making my own decisions, and for the most part I feel like I’ve made the right ones. I’m enjoying that.
So much great stuff has happened with Keane over the years. I don’t want to do any of that down, and I’m sure at some point in the future it will feel right to go back to doing that. But just where I’m at in my life now, it feels like I need to be autonomous in doing my own thing.
You’ve been very forthcoming about overcoming your personal struggles you went through while making this record and your journey on that. What was it like then to take those emotions and that story and transfer it to song format?
The thing I had to do to get, well, really for the first time in my adult life, was to face up to where I was in my life, and also unearth all the dark and horrible stuff that sort of lurked inside me. I had to talk about that to fellow human beings instead of trying to deal with it entirely on my own, which clearly wasn’t working for me.
I did a lot of that through therapy. I really threw myself into that. It’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years, but never with the same degree of honesty. By the same token, I had to get open and honest with the people close to me, which again was quite a hard thing to do at the outset.
I learned pretty fast that actually it makes life much more bearable, and was a very liberating feeling, really, to not be carrying all that crap around on my own. By the time I had gotten into the swing of writing, that had become my MO. I felt like I had to be direct and open and be vulnerable about stuff. That translated into the writing process.
In the end, I documented the whole story, from its real depths to the place where I find myself now, which is coping with life and for the most part pretty happy. And everything that’s required along the way, I suppose, from repairing broken relationships to other people and the relationship to myself. Trying to figure out a way of navigating life without being self-destructive. I wanted to get that all down, so really the writing process was an extension of what I’d already started on a therapeutic level.
Was there a moment working on this album in the beginning where you felt like things started to really click into place and you found a groove in what you wanted to say?
Yeah. It’s interesting because when I first started writing at the end of 2013, I had made my mind up to write a solo record. I sort of threw myself into it but the songs were very, there wasn’t much cohesion to them. They were very outward looking. They were songs about other people’s relationships or worldview type songs. Obviously, there’s a place for that, but I didn’t hit my stride with it. I felt quite blocked most of the time creatively. And then obviously 2014 was a complete disaster and I wasn’t being creative at all.
By the beginning of 2015 when I got myself well, after a few months at least I suddenly had this real verve and enthusiasm for being creative again. I suppose in springtime of that year, suddenly all these songs started flooding out of me. I went from a man who couldn’t even sit at a piano or hold a guitar for more than about five minutes to really doing it day in and day out and it being an absolutely integral part of my life.
To me when I look back on it, it feels like for many, many years I was storing up this ball of energy but never allowing it to be released. Once I had accepted that I had a big problem and started to move in the right direction, suddenly that was released. I suppose I wasn’t diverting so much energy towards sustaining a ridiculous drug habit, so it was being used for something much more positive. As you can probably tell by how fast I’m speaking [laughs], that process hasn’t really stopped since the middle of 2015.
One thing you do on this album is embrace a lot of water imagery, whether that’s on the cover, the title The Wave or songs like “The River.” What attracted you to using that symbol and that imagery?
On a simple level, it’s a fabulous metaphor, really, to use in many different ways. Maybe there’s a laziness in there too, that my go-to metaphorical place is water [laughs]. But probably on a more psychological level, I was doing so much self-reflection and talking about journeys and this sense of having felt like I was drowning. So to go from that place to feeling like I was more in synch with the tides of life, it kept feeling like an appropriate way of telling the story.
Again, my therapy was psychoanalysis. It was quite in-depth and there’s a philosophical quality to it, as well as trying to deconstruct my dreams and my unconscious. Water seemed kind of ubiquitous in those places, so I think it was an extension of that process, too.
As far as your voice, you’ve always been one of my favorite singers ever since your first record. It’s been really cool to see your singing evolve over the years, especially in the live setting, where you continue to grow and get stronger. How do you feel you’ve grown and evolved on this record, and then just over your career in general?
Part of it is just plain and simple experience, and playing lots. The more you perform, the more you sing on record, the more you understand how your voice works. It’s definitely developed in that sense over the years. Inevitably, it’s got more depth to it. I guess that partly comes with age, but also partly what you put it through.
In my case, I’ve been through quite a lot, but actually I’m very lucky. For a lot of singers who’ve abused their voices in the way I’ve done, they’ve lost a lot of the top end of it. I think of people like Elton John, who’s lost a big portion of his voice from his kind of hedonistic years. So I’m very lucky in that respect.
But for me, the biggest difference, and it certainly applies to this record, I suppose is twofold. Firstly, I’m just healthy now. That’s inevitably going to be reflected in what you can do with your voice and how it sounds. I definitely really challenged myself in terms of the range and dynamics with the songs on the record.
So there’s that, but I think the main thing is where the songs are coming from. They are my own songs, they are my own story, in a way that it never quite was when I was singing the songs of Keane. Those were Tim’s songs, and Tim’s thoughts and feelings. I was adept at translating that stuff, but inevitably in that sense I was articulating someone else’s world.
These are very much my own thoughts, feeling and songs. That’s going to give me more authority when it comes to singing them. That to me is the biggest thing, in terms of how my voice has continued to evolve.
Before we go, in addition to the solo record Keane released its first new song in a few years last year, “Tear Up This Town” from the movie A Monster Calls, which I quite enjoyed even though it hasn’t done well at the box office, so hopefully more people will check it out. How did that song come together and you get involved in that film?
Well, J.A. Bayona, who directed it, is an old friend of the band’s. Probably right back to the Hopes and Fears days, he’s been in touch and has wanted to work with us for something. We just had to find the right thing.
Actually, the “Disconnected” video from Strangeland was the first thing we did with him, which is definitely my proudest moment in terms of music videos I’ve been a part of. He brought a whole crew of absolutely top professionals and did it on a shoestring budget, and made something that is pretty amazing and won some awards. So that was great.
He kept in touch with Tim over the last couple of years, and he obviously had this film in the pipeline. The song originally was going to be used as part of a montage scene in the middle of the film, but it just didn’t feel right when it came to the edit. So sadly, for us at least [laughs], the song was moved to the end credits, although I think it still feels like it brings something to it. You just have to stick around until the very end [laughs].
But yeah, it’s a desperately sad film. I think that’s possibly the reason why it hasn’t done as well at the box office as you might hope. However, it is an absolutely beautiful film, and if you can cope with it emotionally then I think it’s really a fantastic work of art. So for us, it was lovely, and for me it was very simple. I just had to go to Tim’s studio and spend a couple of days laying down some vocals, which is always something I enjoy.
Through your journey and struggles you’re now at the point where you’re saying these last 12 months have been some of the happiest times of your life, and the album also kind of has that optimistic bent to it. Is that something you hope someone struggling with their own darkness can pull out of this, that there is a possible happy ending out there?
I do hope so and that’s definitely my impression from talking to people, even during shows but definitely after shows. Hearing through social media and stuff, that’s definitely my impression. It’s hard work being a human being [laughs]. I think we’re all just trying to figure out a way of getting through life in a way that makes it bearable.
Obviously, I made something that was very honest where I kind of open myself up. If it encourages people who are in a dark place, and it doesn’t have to be drug addiction. Any kind of mental illness or desperate time in people’s lives. If that sense of being candid and willing to talk instead of being closed off and trying to deal with it on your own, if me having that approach and talking about it through my music encourages people to do the same, then I’m very proud of it as a record and as an achievement. And it seems to be that way.
The thing about music is we’re all trying to connect, aren’t we? I think music is the single greatest art form in terms of connecting us all together. If I can play some small part in that, then I’m a happy man.
’The Wave’ is out now on Arts & Crafts Productions. For tour dates, go to TomChaplinMusic.com.