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Bryan Ferry - Art and Pop's Great Contradictions

Bryan Ferry looks very comfortable sitting on the balcony of Edinburgh
Castle. You might even suggest he looks like he owns the place. Which,
given the former Roxy Music singer and style icon's aristocratic social
connections, his place in the Sunday Times rich list and his recently
acquired CBE status, is a perfectly reasonable observation.

In a rare burst of August sun, Ferry, dressed from head to toe in
various immaculate shades of blue, looks over the balcony where what
might well be his subjects mingle below. Ferry is on a recce to the
city prior to his concert here next Thursday night, and, as befits his
art school background, is already making festival plans.

“I'd love to see the Richard Strauss,” he says, referring to the
Mariinsky Opera's German language production of Die fraue ohne
Schatten. “I'd love to see the Robert Rauchenberg exhibition as well.”

Cultural references are never far from Ferry's lips. It's like when the
dapper sixty-five year old is getting his photograph taken for The
Herald and, striking a pose, mutters how “Whenever Anton Corbjin takes
my picture he always gets me to put my leg up.”

Such casual name-dropping is only fitting for someone whose career was
founded on the twin obsessions of pop and art, from the early
psych-glam of Eno era Roxy that was all Antony Price styling, songs
such as Editions of You delivered by Ferry in a plummily otherworldly
mix of a snarl and a croon, and impossibly beautiful women on album
covers that were effectively one work of art wrapped around another.
This continued with Ferry's thirteenth and most recent solo album,
Olympia, which features a picture of Kate Moss on a cover which gives a
knowing nod to Manet's 1863 painting of the same name.

Released in October 2010, Olympia features a trademark mix of Ferry
originals, including hip to the moment collaborations with Scissor
Sisters and Groove Armada, alongside singular interpretations of
Traffic's No Face, No Name, No Number and Tim Buckley's Song To The
Siren. For connoisseurs, a collector's edition features a CD of remixes
and a book housing an essay by art writer Michael Bracewell, who penned
Remake/Remodel, an exhaustive study of the visual art influences on the
creation of Roxy Music, and which ended as the band's first,
eponymously named album was released. Olympia, then, is the ultimate
coffee-table accessory.

“I like tactile things, “ says Ferry, “and the deluxe version is very
much an artefact.”

This current tour similarly is something of a multi-media affair, with
commissioned filmed segments and images accompanying each song on
screens at the back of the stage.

“That sense of visuality is very important to me,” Ferry says, “so the
show is like a collage of all these beautiful images.”

That CBE, though, seems seriously at odds with the Ferry aesthetic.

“I was actually quite touched,” Ferry says of receiving the honour. “I
always think rock and roll should be more underground, so it's a bit
odd getting this rather grand, official recognition, but any
recognition for an artist is always welcome, let me tell you. I guess
both my parents would've been very proud of it, because they loved
tradition and history. My own children seem to think it's really cool
as well, which I was surprised but pleased about. I'm also very pleased
in terms of it being for music, because I've devoted my life to it, and
I'd like to think it adds a certain level of gravitas to a musical
career that's been hard to understand because I've done so many
different things.

“One part of me wanted to be Philip Glass, while the other part wanted
to be Frank Sinatra or Elvis. I tried to be everything, so it's been a
wide-ranging career stylistically, even though most people will know me
for Jealous Guy rather than other stuff that is maybe more undercover,
but which is more musically exciting to me. It's always great to write
a hit, but it's always great to write something you love, like Mother
of Pearl, which we hardly ever do because it's so complex.”

This goes some way to illustrating the great contradictions in Ferry's
work. As a serious auteur, he and Roxy Music pretty much invented
art-rock with a knowingly flamboyant, near alien visual and aural edge.
Yet at the same time Ferry the old-time lounge-bar entertainer was just
dyeing to get out there.

“The way I look at it, and I'm not trying to sound grand here,” he
says, “is that artists like Picasso, say, is someone who made very
serious, very dark art, but also he could do things light and free,
like his ceramics and all those odd sculptures he did, which came from
the more playful side of the man. I always thought that I should try to
expand myself and to see if I could this or that, play with a string
quartet or an orchestra. I've done all those things, and it's made me a
better person and made me feel more like I've accomplished something.
Even doing the covers albums, which were vilified by a lot of people to
begin with, has turned out to be something that's okay.”

Ferry has long been an interpretor of classic songs, from his 1973 solo
debut, These Foolish Things, released while still fronting Roxy, up to
2007's Bob Dylan compendium, Dylanesque, and beyond.

“It was because I didn't feel like I could write like a machine,” Ferry
says of the origins of These Foolish Things, “and I think a lot of
artists have overwritten, because after a while ideas become less
potent. So after the first two Roxy Music albums I'd written, I was
desperate to make a new record, almost as a cathartic thing and to try
something different, and have fun with these 1930s standards. All these
songs had been done by lots of different people, so there was a great
precedent for what I was doing, but at the time it seemed quite novel.
But that started a more mainstream career, which I didn't think was
such a bad thing, because maybe more mainstream audiences could go to
my more difficult work with Roxy. That was the plan, anyway.”

Ferry's musical roots date back to the first time he heard blues singer
Leadbelly on the radio while a ten year old growing up in working-class
Washington, Tyneside. Already obsessed with music, Ferry would devour
the music press he delivered on his paper round. It was growing up in a
house without telephone, car or fridge that fuelled Ferry's desire for
continual reinvention.

“I'm never happy being still,” he admits. “I like creating things,
which is a joy and a curse, because you always want to be adding
something to what you are. I guess it's because of an innate
dissatisfaction with who I am, and I want to make myself a bit more
than that. As soon as I read Shakespeare and Dickens I felt there was a
better world out there that was all about literature and art and music.”

Even today, Ferry is restless for fresh challenges.

I just like doing lots of different things,” he says. “I wish I could
do Richard Strauss' last songs, but they're really written for a woman
soprano. They're very soulful and melancholic, which is a mood I like.
I don't write that much happy music, which is probably because I mainly
write it at night. That's when the darker shades kick in. But there's
beauty there as well, and I like doing beautiful things.”

Bryan Ferry plays Edinburgh Castle, September 3rd

The Herald, August 26th 2011



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