"The thing about making music is . . ." Gough starts, then stops for an uncharacteristic pause. "The thing is, that you spend a lot of your time locked up with your own feelings. I mean, if you're a sensitive person, that's where the music comes from -- you put the feelings into the music. But, I guess, you know, I understand it. It's unbelievably tragic, and I understand. However much anyone can understand it, I think, I mean . . ."
Gough often seems to be fumbling for words, though in his case it only makes them tumble out faster. It's a bit like talking to a falling house, one that's collapsing in on itself and shooting out shrapnel as it comes down. The subject of Smith's suicide, one suspects, is only intensifying Gough's difficulty in articulating his thoughts -- not only because, yes, it's unbelievably tragic, a loss felt deeply not only by those who knew the singer, but by the legions of fans who felt as if they did, but also because, in Gough's case, it hits so close to home.
A long, low sigh echoes across the phone line, all the way from Gough's home in England.
"What I mean is that I've felt that -- that thing, I don't know how to explain it, really, but that sense of becoming disconnected from any reality outside the one in your own head. There's something about -- you know, like I said -- being a sensitive person and, at the same time, being in an industry where you do spend so much of your life away from 'real life,' either because you're making the songs or you're touring or what have you. It's easy to lose control of yourself -- your life -- if you don't have something in it to ground you. Something constant."
The constant thing Gough has found is his family. It's a theme he sounds again and again, not only in talking about Smith's death and its relevance to his own struggles with fame following the release of his Mercury Prize-winning debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, but also in discussing his most recent record, Have You Fed the Fish? Although that album touches frequently on Gough's struggles, at its heart the record is an ode to the simple domestic sanity and joy provided by his wife and two small children.
Both the struggle and the salvation are summed up on "You Were Right," the track on Fish Gough cites as his favorite. On its way to celebrating the sanctuary of family, the song --typically eclectic in its folk-pop arrangements and typically fanciful in its lyrics about meeting the Queen and rejecting Madonna's come-ons -- also reflects on the cautionary tales to be found in the lives of fallen rock idols such as Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley.
"I don't want to become a casualty of music," says Gough. "To sacrifice myself to my demons. I hope I'm too sensible for that. But sometimes I think the only reason I am -- if I am -- is that there's nothing like having a child to make you realize that you're not just living for yourself. You feel crazy and confused and just -- fragile. But kids, my kids, they make me be strong.
"Like even the title of the record," he says, the words barely keeping pace with his train of thought. "I'm halfway around the world, and I'm wondering if the fish are fed. That's reality. These past couple of years have been overwhelming for me -- Bewilderbeast, the birth of my first child, September 11th -- and I'm someone who can't help but ask questions about those things, questions of myself. I'm not one to just sit back and let it all happen without wondering. I could probably spend hours thinking about my own mortality. But at the end of the day, there are fish to be fed."
Though Gough is only directly addressing the lyrical and thematic content of his songs, his stream-of-consciousness conversational style offers some clues to the sound of his music. On The Hour of Bewilderbeast, for example, Gough seemed to gobble up musical ideas with a voracity worthy of Pac-Man. Without ever mimicking his influences, his songs suggested everything from Beck and the Stone Roses to Nick Drake and George Harrison, as well as Gough's avowed hero, Bruce Springsteen. The album's genius was in its breezy juxtaposition of those references -- not only between tracks, but often within them.
His concerts, too, splashed out in various spontaneous directions; Gough would frequently interrupt himself mid-song to wander into the audience and serenade some comely female with a campy version of some R&B classic, before returning to the stage to pick up right where he'd left off. Or he'd play two bars of a tune, back off, and decide to cover Bruce instead -- much to the surprise of his band. Naysayers brayed that Gough was, well, fucking ridiculous. But if you rolled with the punches, somehow, it worked -- partly because Gough was utterly sincere and partly because the songs were so damn good when he did play them.
Have You Fed the Fish? also makes its own kind of sense. Heavier in guitars than Bewilderbeast, the album again showcases Gough grabbing every musical idea he can get his hands on. As approaches go, this one doesn't seem as if it should amount to much more than gibberish. Yet Gough keeps on pulling the rabbit out of his stripy wool hat.
"I tend to work pretty much intuitively," Gough says. "I just play around and see how it goes. And now, I'm pretty well into working on my fourth record, and I could write a novel about what's been going on with that. But it's probably better if I don't."
He stops for breath. Which is good, because it was getting a bit worrying. (Death by talking -- that would be an ignominious end indeed.)
"I say things in music I wouldn't otherwise be able to say," says Gough. "It's how music works for me -- it's why I put every second of every day that I'm not with my kids into doing it. That's why it's there for me, you know? Whatever all that noise is in my head -- I just put it into the music; the pain, the confusion. And then, hopefully, you go back to your real life and try to live it in a positive way."