Pop & Hiss

The L.A. Times music blog

« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

SXSW 2011: Bob Geldof the musician returns with hard-won happiness on view in new album 'How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell'

March 14, 2011 | 11:28 am

Bob Geldof For nearly any other musician, the first question about a gap of a decade between albums would be: What took so long?

For Bob Geldof, the man who literally helped change the world by spearheading humanitarian efforts on behalf of sick and starving millions in Africa, the question about his new cheekily titled album “How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell” is how he squeezed out time to write songs and record while tending to his globe-spanning efforts over the last 10 years.

It’s a legitimate question to the man himself, who was surprisingly relaxed and even — believe it or not — happy as he sat on a quiet afternoon last week in the restaurant at his West Hollywood hotel during a brief stop on his way to the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, where he’ll not only perform with his band but also deliver this year’s keynote address.

In decades past, the onetime leader of the Irish punk group Boomtown Rats has sometimes fidgeted through interviews, suffering the process not gladly but as a necessary evil that comes with the territory.

These days, however, he’s of a mind to talk about the hard road that’s led him, as he approaches the age of 60, to a newfound sense of joy in his personal life, something that hasn’t always been commensurate with the remarkable shifts in public attitude and political policy he’s helped bring about as the driving force behind 1985’s Live Aid global concerts and the subsequent Live 8 shows that rocked the world of music and international politics.

“If you’re involved in that sort of stuff, it’s all empirical,” he said with the sharply enunciated Irish brogue that’s become so familiar over the last quarter-century of his high-profile campaigning. “It’s a facility: You can do it or you can’t. … Certainly music has a separate function, and it’s the more dangerous one because it’s of the self.

In fact, the process of writing a batch of songs and recording them is an endeavor that doesn't abide regular deadlines for Geldof.

“The impulse, the urge to do music occurs infrequently in my case,” he said. “I don’t seek it. I’m not impatient for it. I don’t fear it will never come again. I kind of retrospectively understand why it occurs so infrequently, simply because my head is so crowded with the empirical.”

The new album, which is released Tuesday in the U.S., takes its title from a 1930s instructional songwriting book by musicologist Leslie Sheppard. It's Geldof’s first since 2001’s “Sex, Age and Death,” an intensely dark collection that documented the emotional pit into which he was plunged after his wife, Paula Yates, left him for INXS singer Michael Hutchence. The pair had a child together before Hutchence died in 1997 in what was ruled a suicide. Yates died three years later of an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Geldof subsequently adopted their daughter to raise with the three he and Yates had (including Peaches Geldof).

“I was in Dublin in a pub a couple of months ago with my mate Phil Davison who’s the novelist, and Phil said that he writes books to frame his experiences, to render his own world understandable,” Geldof said. “I didn’t pick up on it then, but subsequently I thought about it and it struck me as being very true.”

He now recognizes that’s the function “Sex, Age and Death” served for him a decade ago, ultimately  helping extricate him from what he describes as “universes of grief and pain.” His Boomtown Rats bandmate Pete Briquette shepherded him through a fitful emotional recovery, recording bits and pieces of responses that Geldof shaped into music. 

“Gradually he assembled these mumblings into a record, which I was really not aware I was making,” he said. “The point is, at the end of it, I had this thing and now I’d externalized all that loss, and I could see it, it had a physical shape; here it was. And so I could say, ‘I know you …. get back into that available compartment,’ rather like a memory disc you just slot in.

“It’s exactly what Philip had said: I had framed my experiences, I could now get a handle on it."

Geldof considers “How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell” to be the bookend of that whole episode in his life. Several years ago he met French actress Jeanne Marine, whom he credits for rescuing him both from crippling despair and his anger and distrust of women. That sea change is at the heart of the album’s song “Dazzled By You.”

"I was at a dinner in Paris and there was this beautiful woman opposite me, and I registered it objectively: She’s beautiful, big deal. Spare me. This girl persisted in finding something lovable in this most unlovable of creatures.

“I was detestable. I was at my most ugly, physically and spiritually. But the revelation to me in my dotage is that the ... only response to an insistence of love is that it inevitably and must reciprocate, and so a soul gets stitched back together and something vaguely resembling a human being gets reconstructed.”

Unlikely as it may strike some, the historically combative and often cranky Geldof now sings earnestly of what it is “To Live In Love” in one of the album’s new songs, and confesses, in “How I Roll” that “I feel good, Yeah I’m feeling fine, I feel better than I have in a long time.”

“In my late 50s I’m Happy Burns,” the Irish rocker said with a broad smile, referring to the annual celebration in Britain of Scottish poet Robert Burns. “The song ‘Here’s To You’ is the next single in the U.K., Just before I left Friday to come here, I looked at a review and the guy said, ‘The key line in this song is “I’m in love with life.” Bob Geldof? In love with life? What’s going on in the world?' ”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Bob Geldof. Credit: www.bobgeldof.info