From Lockdown to Mission Creep: Damian Lewis’ Music Journey – Part II

“I wanted the album to give a sense of a journey to this point, from busking ‘til now. I suddenly had a lot to say. People will judge if it’s any good or not, but for me, it felt entirely natural.” – Damian Lewis

photo credit: Rhys Frampton

You can read Part I here. We had a cliffhanger at the end of Part I… Steve Abbott introduced Damian to Giacomo Smith, one of the best  jazz musicians working  in London today…

Then Jay Rayner of  Out to Lunch podcast let the world know about Damian performing Dr. John’s “Such a Night” with Giacomo and his band Kansas Smittys – and asked Damian if the experience was as fun as it looked…

“I was very nervous. As I explained to you, I am a really ordinary busker. What we tried to do is to create a little bit of that New Orleans, I suppose, bar sound… where it just feels like people are having a good time together…”

And when Jay said that the band is full of very talented and equally welcoming musicians, Damian added:

“They’ve been incredibly kind to me. We’ve introduced different songs to each other, you know, Dr. John… I mean, he is the epigeny of that sort of just laid back, slightly smacked out of my head…”

Damian at his second sold-out London Show at The Tabernacle London on November 20, 2022

Damian admitted on Out to Lunch podcast that he is typically very cautious about his artistic choices, and is not very comfortable getting out of his comfort zone. But now that Damian and the band have put a bunch of songs together, they are talking about maybe putting some tracks down in a recording studio… But he thinks he will be an easy target for some…

“Of course, they will be lining up to take shots as I stick my head above the parapet. Because no one is an easier target than an actor who thinks he can be a bit of a musician. But I don’t want to go off and be a great jazz star, or a pop star, or a rock star. I am an actor, I want to remain in my discipline. This, for me, is something that is just of unbelievable value. It’s so much fun.

What we don’t do very well in this country is we don’t cross-fertilize across the different arts, traditions. And that’s a big shame. And I’ve had some of my favorite times when, for example, I’ve read out, let’s say, a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream accompanied by the LSO playing Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream which was devised as a concert and words piece. Things like that. You sit around all those musicians. When I did a bit of musical theatre and get to hang out with musicians. So on and so forth. Little installation pieces you might do with art galleries and things like that .They will not take you anywhere. They are not career building things there. But they are lovely curiosities in their own right and you get to see how all the other artists are working in their own disciplines. We’re slow to do it.”

Well, hear our guy sing “Such A Night” here and line up to take your shot – if you can. He is fabulous 🙂 Damian says this video is an earlier version of “Such A Night” that he and the band worked on. And a reworked version is a bonus track on Mission Creep.

I should have known that this music stuff was serious as soon as I heard Damian talking about his personality on The Anfield Wrap podcast but I missed it… I am saying it like Carrie Mathison saying “I missed something once, I won’t, I can’t, let that happen again” 😀 I guess I was so distracted by Damian’s tease about a potential return to Billions on the podcast that I missed the following:

“Well, you might have guessed but my personality… I’m not the kind of personality to paint a painting and put it in a cupboard. There are thousands of people like that. They like art and creativity but then they are shy and embarrassed to show it, display it, afraid of failure… For me, I wanna cross the touchline, I wanna get out, I wanna be in the middle in front of  seventy-two thousand people.”

Back to when Damian met Giacomo: what happened there?  Damian shares his story on Katie Brewer’s  Bandwidth Conversations Podcast:

“We’ve been talking, playing music together… He introduced me to a whole bunch of brilliant jazz musicians, but jazz musicians who can play everything, and enjoy what we’re playing… which is sort of hybrid, they’re my songs, I’ve written an album… you know I wrote them on my guitar, I wrote them on piano a bit… really average piano player but I’m a guitarist for that matter…”

photo credit: Rhys Frampton

I figured at the very first gig at Omeara that most of the songs Damian wrote were based on his own life experiences and several songs such as Little One, Hole in my Roof, Wanna Get Old in Paris, and She Comes stood out as tributes to Helen. I wrote about it here. And later Damian shared with The Mirror that his album covered many life experiences and that one didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what some of these experiences were.

But then he gives Kati Brewer a more detailed account of how he sat down to write songs…

“Everyone’s probably sat down tried to write a song. I think I tried to  write songs in my 20s, and just thought those are terrible. And I must never play those to anyone. So, and then life… you know I was married to Helen. And Helen and I were very much, I suppose, an acting couple. We didn’t try to be that. We just were… And we loved acting, and Helen loved acting and the theatre world as do I. And I think I went further and further away from it. Well, I always had guitars in the house, picked them up and played when people don’t want you to… ‘ Oh My God he picked up his guitar again…’

…but all the busking was gone, and that was in the past… and then I think the truth of it is… it was that… Sitting around during Covid… thinking… well, so many things we can do when we come out  of this… just rethink things a bit, we now have a chance to sit down and reflect… That’s what happened… And then, I mean, really, just bluntly and sort of nakedly, Helen died… Helen died which she was going to do because she wasn’t well for a long time… And then I just started writing songs… They just poured out of me at that point. It seemed, suddenly, like the most natural thing in the world to do, to be honest. Unquestionably, the album is connected to Helen in that time that will be self-evident. And I feel now totally comfortable… the other people will say if they are any good or not… but  I feel totally comfortable doing it and confident doing it… that I never had before.

photo credit: Rhys Frampton

Damian says that his intention was to have some fun, but the incredible musicians he works with said the songs were good and then record companies showed interest. And all of a sudden he was asking himself if he was really doing this 🙂

“And I am. Because it’s turned out to be really good fun, and .. but then you know of course you’re more exposed when you make those decisions. But you know I’m now ‘fuck it…'”

YESSSSSS!!!! THAT IS THE ATTITUDE!!! When you see Damian on stage you immediately know that he is having the time of his life and I LOVE IT!!!

Damian rocking the stage at Hoxton Hall, March 2023

A few days after Mission Creep was released, at a stripped-down gig at Rough Trade East in London, Damian and Giacomo had a pre-gig chat in which they shared with the audience how their partnership started and evolved into Mission Creep. Giacomo said their first meeting was a one hour phone call. They got on well, and decided to try stuff together. They started with some old songs such as “Such A Night” and a song that Giacomo remembered had “face” in the title to which Damian said it would eventually come to him. And as Giacomo told us about their “30 song” plan where they put 30 songs together and chose a few from those, and then came up with another 30 and chose a few from those… the song with “face” in the title came to Damian:

“I’ve accustomed to  your face.”

Oh My God. This is a very well-known song from My Fair Lady. And Lady Trader and I would LOVE to see Damian as Prof. Higgins on stage. And you know, with the on-going musical career, a musical may be a natural next step for Damian!

Damian and Giacomo in the studio copyright: Damian Lewis

We learnt that it was Giacomo who prompted Damian to start writing songs. Damian wrote songs when he was younger without any confidence. He said they were horrible and he threw them away. When he started again, it felt much more natural and enjoyable. But Damian writing songs shifted their direction musically. Damian writes his songs on piano and on his acoustic guitar thanks to his background in busking. The songs are ‘rootsy, story-telling, folky, bluesy” quite different from what they started with but they like where they have ended up. Giacomo added:

“When you wrote things like “She Comes”, “Umbrella”, and “Makin’ Plans” that’s not something I made before but it’s something I listen to. And this was a really fun thing for me to make something out of it.”

Because, he said, the music still retains the jazz underpinning. Giacomo added that the album captured the essence of the almost three year journey that they have had. “Why” was the first song Damian brought as part of the 30-song project, Giacomo played clarinet over it, Damian found it cool, and it is now on the record.

Damian complimented Giacomo for the beautiful job he did with the album. They knew that the record could sound a little bit like a wedding album in which a band plays all kind of different music. And so he and “G” talked about how to make a record that sits and sounds like a whole. And with everyone on the album contributing in different ways, they had a hybrid album – maybe difficult to get it on a playlist but Damian just loves the album for that. He loves that different sounds and different worlds come together in the record and that it is sonically consistent.

Giacomo added:

“And we’re available for weddings. It’s just that we’re very very expensive. Very top shelf.”

😀 😀 😀

Giacomo had one last question for Damian about making an album. We learnt that Damian always wanted to know what was going on, and he brought great ideas at every stage of the process. Giacomo was fascinated with how things in the album-making process always reminded Damian of a particular film he made or a particular director he worked with. So how did he find the process? Was it new and different? Or he was like “oh I get this”?

Damian responded that since the members of his band are all conservatoire-trained they all speak in music language. And he realized he needed to communicate with the band to describe the music but he was not able to speak in coded music language. But then he remembered something that Mandy Patinkin (Saul Berenson, anyone?) shared with him: When Mandy Patinkin was at Julliard, Leonard Bernstein was teaching there. And Patinkin used to go and sit outside the orchestral rehearsals. And when Bernstein conducted, he did it  through imagination. Damian describes it as follows:

“And now you’re coming to a wide apart river, and now the river is flowing faster, ad you can hear the rumble of a waterfall, you’re now on the top of the waterfall, now you’re falling down the waterfall, now you’re dying on the rocks…”

😀 😀 😀

So Damian found a way to talk to everybody like that – imaginatively. And that’s been a fun process for him.

And, you know, people, critics to be precise, have already given thumbs up for Damian’s music. Praises and accolades vary from “a compelling performer apparently in his element” (Neil McCormick) as he “wowed the crowd” (John Bungey)  to “a natural flare for the stage as a musician, you would think he had been a touring artist for years” (Hannah Compton). And Decca Records co-presidents, Tom Lewis and Laura Monks, say they are delighted that Damian decided to sign with them:

“His songwriting is poetic, poignant and deeply personal. The album, recorded just down the road in Kentish Town, has a raw and refreshing honesty to it. Damian really opens his heart and invites us in. It is a thing of great beauty.”

Here is Damian’s music video of his first single “Down on the Bowery” filmed at Brooklyn Bowl in New York City – very fitting for a song that our guy wrote in New York. And when you hear the lyrics, you immediately know that Damian is a true song-writer. In fact, this applies to all his originals.

Press your skin to my skin

Join to me like a twin

Lay me open walk right in

I’ll fall in you lose or win

Well, he’s excited. We’re excited.  We know that the second album is in works and the new originals Damian performed in the first leg of his ‘Mission Creep” UK tour last fall are FANTASTIC.  Damian has recently said in a radio interview that he hoped to release the second album this year. Besides, he and his NEW beard are going on the  second leg of “Mission Creep” UK Tour in March. Tickets are selling fast and you can find the gig dates, venues and ticket information here. Keep rocking on, Damian! And we will be there to cheer for you!

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

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