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Wanderlust brings home inspiration

Writing songs for his first solo album, Ray Davies left his native shores and found his muse on Yankee turf.

July 16, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

RAY DAVIES' music is grounded in the streets of London in the way that Woody Allen films live on the Manhattan grid. Davies writes songs that are more than travelogue or local booster tunes -- his wry and sophisticated observations on his native land's culture go well beyond the usual pop in classic Kinks songs such as "Waterloo Sunset" and "A Well Respected Man."

So it is an intriguing declaration from the lifelong Londoner when he says he fled the homeland because he felt it had soured and shrunk as a muse landscape.

"I started to write some songs about England so I wasn't exactly written out, but I really needed to leave," he says now of his series of American journeys that began in 1999 and stretched into 2002. The result of that odyssey is his new album, "Other People's Lives," the rock veteran's first solo studio release.

Davies (pronounced English style as "Davis") spent time with friends and strangers, observed the lives of the rich and painfully poor and found in New Orleans, Las Vegas and other American cities a cast of characters who weren't British but seemed familiar to him.

"I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and there are a great many similarities but enough differences that it gave me a jolt," Davies said. In New Orleans, tree-lined avenues in one blue-collar community reminded Davies of streets he ran on as a child. The city's mix of poverty, partying and singular music culture (he was there pre-Katrina) left Davies a bit dazed.

"I used to go to a Dixieland club when I was young. I've always loved jazz, and the blues and New Orleans had the great impact on me," he said. "That's not to say I made a jazz album or anything, it's just the idea of putting my eyes on new things."

The album's music is hardly a major departure for Davies -- his new band has a different feel than his old mates in the Kinks, but the song structures and Davies' voice would lead a casual fan to assume that the old band is back.

Davies and his brother, Dave, had a history of creative tussles, and it's not clear what the future holds for the British Invasion heroes. Davies said of his solo work on "Other People's Stories" that it "seemed to be the direction everything was heading."

Davies said the change of scenery renewed his empathy, a key to the storytelling style of his songs, but then, with Sept. 11, came madness.

Ground-bound like so many others in the States, Davies began driving and found that the time was well worth it for the street-level view.

The songs that emerged range from the sentimental ode to family called "Thanksgiving Day" to the snarky commentary of "The Tourist," which paints a picture of the cheesy mind-set of many Americans on holiday.

Davies said his worry was sliding into treacle territory with the gentle songs and snideness with his sharper songwriting pen. Even after all these years, he said he can't describe his songwriting process, but he still grins broadly when he comes up with a turn of phrase or a melody that catches some magic.

He said he doesn't expect to pull up stakes in London and relocate to the States -- as a songwriter, he needed fresh scenery, but as a Brit, he's content at home.

"My contemporaries all moved on, you know. Rod Stewart picked up and left, nobody stays," Davies said. "But I like it."

His next album may find his fascination with London revived.

"I like to drift into places and write songs about the unheralded," the itinerant Englishman said. "The songs are where you find them and that's where I look."

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