Interview: Tom Chaplin (Part 1)

By on Tuesday, 11th October 2016 at 11:00 am

“It’s good to talk about the darker stuff, the kind of stuff that some of us are too frightened to tackle”, says Tom Chaplin matter-of-factly. While he’s most famous for being the frontman of piano rock giants Keane, Chaplin’s recent struggles with drugs and depression have brought him back down to a place far relatable to most people. Relatable, yes. But as we all know, it’s not a state of mind without societal judgment: consider the ostracisation of Pete Doherty and the late Amy Winehouse. “Particularly in British society at least, that’s my frame of reference, there’s still a big stigma to mental health and to talking about shame, addiction and depression, the kind of things that can really roll over many people’s lives and can incapacitate people. In my humble opinion, the only antidote to that is for us to talk about it, to destigmatise these things. My intention and my hope by doing this record and by being so candid, this will encourage people to follow suit. That, in itself, I hope will be the biggest achievement that the record can make.”

As someone who has been in the public eye for over a decade, and with a self-described image as “a clean-living choirboy” with a million-watt smile that provided a convenient façade to his secret, Chaplin is exactly the right kind of person to use his celebrity to bring attention to an important social issue. His debut album ‘The Wave’ is a bold, courageous step to raise awareness and encourage those suffering alone and in silence from addiction to come forward and seek professional help. Out Friday on Island Records, the album as a whole can make for difficult listening at times. The honesty in Chaplin’s voice and lyrics are intensely palpable as he takes you through his darkest days. Conversely, there’s also an optimism that permeates these songs, that things will get better. The biggest takeaway from the LP, then, is one of hope.

Following Keane’s announcement of a hiatus in October 2013, Chaplin fell into his old, bad habits, relying on cocaine binges to get him through the day. It wasn’t until he reached the lowest of lows that he finally decided enough was enough and sought treatment. On the road to recovery, he admits there was a surprise result of this process. “The one benefit of my addiction, it forced me to start communicating. I wouldn’t wish addiction on anyone. In my case – and this is a bizarre chicken before the egg kind of thing – if I had never been a drug addict, I don’t think I ever have been in a position where I was forced to look at myself in a different way, taking down my haphazard defence system as a human being. I needed to find out what was underneath all of that and rebuild something stronger, something more adept for coping with life.

“My addiction took me to the point of death, it really was that bad. I knew at that point the only way out of it was to start talking and communicating, and I did a lot of that through therapy and through psychoanalysis. During that time, I really examined my actions and who I am as a human being and I talked about stuff I was so embarrassed about, so ashamed of for so many years and always kept to myself. I talked about that stuff to another human being, and I suddenly though, ‘hey, hang on. Life is much more bearable when I’m communicating this stuff.’”

Tom Chaplin Hardened Heart cover art

Chaplin acknowledges that the songs on ‘The Wave’ are an extension of the hard work he has been doing in therapy. One of the most moving moments on ‘The Wave’ is the song ‘Hardened Heart’, in which Chaplin sings the poignant line, “I know my hardened heart is beating still / I drove it to the point of madness just to feel / something real”. He explains that with the track, he wanted to articulate the feeling he had shortly after making the all-important choice to properly deal with his substance abuse problems. “When I made this resolution to get myself well again, there was this times a few months afterwards where I felt like I was in this no man’s land. It was a chemically-induced depression, the result of years and years of serious binging. So when I came out of it, I was aware that there was no way I can go back to drugs back again because I know it’s going to kill me. But also, I think I felt like I had no real desire to live. I looked at the world and thought, yeah, I can understand it’s a beautiful world, and I can see it, there’s good stuff to enjoy and things to take from it and I could see how it’s possible to engage in life, but somehow, I’m not there yet.

“The song really is about that particular time, and the song itself has a progression to it, it’s a transitional song, it’s about being stuck in that awful place. But as the song goes on, you get these green shoots of hope that start to appear. ‘Hang on, maybe I can start to believe there are signs that are telling me things can be okay again.’ I really like how it [‘Hardened Heart’] has the beginning of that transition. After a few months of being away from drugs and pushing myself in the studio, even if it was for 5 minutes to go and do some writing, or even if it was anything else, hanging out with my family, things that give normal people lots of pleasure, I began to slowly see that maybe these things can give me pleasure that they should. So the song is about that, yes, still being stuck and finding life very difficult and meaningless, but the song is also about looking to the future and beginning to feel hopeful.

“And I suppose, too, that line about driving myself to the point of madness, it felt like this kind of idea of taking myself to the brink of death that I was able to start to recognise that what was important and what, you know, I needed to focus on in my life. In the last few months of my addiction, I really had no concept of how I was destroying, for example, the relationships in my life. My wife kept saying to me, ‘you don’t have a relationship to your daughter. I can’t trust you as a human being. I don’t know you anymore’. But I was so far removed from the feelings attached to that stuff that I just couldn’t acknowledge it. But I drove myself so close to the edge, it wasn’t until I got there that I thought, ‘oh, hang on, those are the important things’. Being relational, being connected to these people in my life, really, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

The mental health treatment Chaplin has been receiving is Jungian psychoanalysis, which he describes as “quite sort of intellectualised therapy. Very philosophical, very in depth”. On ‘I Remember You’, he chose to profile how therapy helped him reach a place in his formative years and come to terms with its effects on him as an adult. “It’s one of the few places where you can talk about your dreams without the other person getting bored! A Jungian analyst is very interested in your unconscious and what dreams might say about your life. I really like the fact that the song is kind of framed in a dream-like way. For me, there’s a very lonely little boy who was trapped in my past and who needed to feel some love. Part of the process of my therapy was going back to that part of myself.

“I’m still not very good at it at crying, but it was actually one of the few times in my therapy where I had lost it and wept uncontrollably. When I really thought about that lost and lonely little boy, I felt like I didn’t have my emotional needs met by the world. In fact, I used to think, ‘I can deal with this on my own’, and I became very insular and kept my problems to myself. So the song is a dream-like reflection of what it’s like to go back, to make contact with that part of myself, to acknowledge it and give it a place. Lyrically, I think it’s one of my absolute favourites on the new record because of that.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Tom Chaplin, which will post at the same time tomorrow. My review of ‘The Wave’ will follow closely behind, at noon.

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