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Another hopeless romantic

With no record company hoopla, Irish singer and songwriter Damien Rice hooks U.S. listeners on his poetic, emotionally fragile, yearning songs.

June 22, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

For true music fans, the most rewarding discoveries are the ones that come with no hype, no preconceptions, no expectations. Someone sends you a CD, someone tells you to see a show, just because they think you'll like it as much as they do.

And when you do listen to the album or see the show, you walk away believing you've seen something astounding, an artist with a vision, a gift and a chance to reach many people.

That's the case with Damien Rice, a young Irish singer-songwriter who comes off as nothing short of a complete package of art, personality and presence on a level with Jeff Buckley or Thom Yorke, and whose following has been building inexorably over the last two years.

It started in Dublin, where Rice, singer Lisa Hannigan and a few other musicians made and released an album last year with no record company involvement and watched it quickly become a hit in Ireland.

"O" is a collection of subtleties marked by surprise. The songs are romantic, poetic, emotionally fragile, yearning, Rice's elastic voice blending with Hannigan's heavenly tones and cello-and-guitars accompaniment.

Then the guitars go into overdrive and the singers turn lusty and sly. Next Rice extends his hopeless romantic persona into character as a spurned barfly. And even that doesn't prepare you for the knockout punch halfway through the flight-of-fancy "Eskimo," when an operatic soprano turns up for a fantasy sequence.

On stage, the twists and turns are even sharper. Rice and Hannigan's L.A. club shows in February were marked by spontaneity and humor as much as by their lack of guile and artifice. A recent return engagement at the El Rey with their full band added dynamic group power to the mix.

The singer, 29, is at a loss to explain the sources of his art. His childhood was not filled with music. He has little interest in or affinity for poetry or literature. He loves Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone but rarely listens to music.

"Things just keep coming into me and I just have to let them out," he says. "That's all I do, all the time. I think it's the things that happen in my life are my food, and when I go through certain experiences that spark off something inside that eventually explodes, I have to let that out somehow."

He wasn't even looking for a record deal after a disenchanting tenure with a band in the mid-'90s. He lived in Tuscany for six months and busked around Europe for another year and a half to reconnect with his music. It worked, and he headed back to Dublin, where he met Hannigan and started work on what became "O."

Through the London management team behind David Gray, a copy of the album made its way to Nic Harcourt, music director at Santa Monica public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9). Harcourt played it last October, and listeners quickly made Rice the most-requested artist on the station. The album wasn't even on sale in the U.S., and Rice had no idea this new fan base was forming until messages from L.A. started appearing on his Web site.

Uninterested in a standard record deal here, Rice licensed "O" for U.S. release through the new Vector label, which recently closed a distribution deal with Time Warner AOL's WEA division. Now the real test begins. Can his growth continue in the same natural way? Rice says he wouldn't be doing what he is if he felt otherwise.

"We just made an accidental album that turned out really nice, and we're glad it turned out well and we put as much into it as we could," he says. "And eventually it got to the point where people liked it. And that's all we care about."

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