(photo: Derek Hudson)
The last time Tom Chaplin performed in San Francisco, he was singing lead vocals for British alt-rock band Keane. It was at The Warfield in January 2013, and Keane’s Strangeland album was at its height.
The show garnered rave reviews for the band’s extensive catalog of songs with “brilliant lyrics and gorgeous melodies.” Chaplin amassed praise as “a masterful performer.” “His voice is simply stunning,” a reviewer wrote. “He hits the most incredible notes with ease every single time.”
But song and stage can be a veil. As Chaplin puts it, he would stay in good health when touring. It is when he returned home to England that he would slip back into addiction.
“There have been lots of fantastic tours and records with Keane over the years and for the most part, when it came to recording and taking the songs out on the road, I would actually get myself in a pretty healthy place,” Chaplin said. “I wouldn’t drink and I wouldn’t use drugs whilst on the road. The problem times for me were when I got off the road and when I was at home. That was when I really was at my most self-destructive.”
His battle with addiction reached its darkest depth in 2015 when “one endless set of drug binges” nearly killed him. That critical moment changed his path. Faced with losing family, marriage, and career, he held strong to intense therapy and worked through despair to resolution.
“The hardest part is when you realize that you can no longer cope on your own and you need to seek help. That, for me, was the turning point,” Chaplin said. “I revealed to another human being stuff I thought I would never talk about and I put those dark thoughts and feelings into a safer space, not to contend with them on my own but by sharing them. I am a much more open person and much more willing to break down and be vulnerable.”
Now 37, Chaplin is a healthier and happier family man living in England with wife Natalie and daughter Freya, born in 2014. He speaks candidly of his fight with addiction. He sings openly of it as well in his debut solo album, The Wave.
In fact, one song directly addresses the day he thought he was going to die.
“’Worthless Words’ tells the story of the last crazy binge that I went on before I got clean and sober,” Chaplin said. “I wanted the song to reflect how I would so often believe that I would be OK but, before I knew it, be sucked back into this self-destructive behavior. On this particular occasion I was staying alone at a friend’s house and had been up for three days solid. I got to the point where I thought I was going to keel over with a heart attack. In that moment I felt this sense of clarity; a voice telling me to step back from the edge. So while the song is mostly very bleak, it also marks the beginning of my road to recovery.”
The voice at that moment inspired the lyric, “A soft, sweet whisper says, ‘Careful where you tread.’” It is among Chaplin’s many touching, poignant lyrics in “Worthless Words,” and in song after song on The Wave.
The record marks Chaplin’s songwriting debut and is striking in its extreme emotion and complete honesty. While he did not set out to write a concept album, he wrote songs as a reflection. The album’s song placement intentionally follows his journey from dark to light.
“’Still Waiting,’ ‘Worthless Words,’ ‘Hardened Heart,’ that is where the record begins,” he said. “It begins in a place of imprisonment and fear.”
“’Hardened Heart’ is a song about trying to escape a sense of crippling depression. After I got sober, there were a few months where I lived with this chemically-induced low mood as the drugs left my system and I tried to get my life back on track. I looked around and found it very hard to connect with the things that I knew were important to me. However, as the song progresses, it becomes about hope and looking to a brighter future.”
Chaplin notes that among the damage caused by addiction is drifting from loved ones which he worked to mend during his recovery process.
“I kind of repaired the relationship to myself and the various, and many, broken relationships in my life,” Chaplin said. “Again, I documented that in songs like ‘Hold On To Our Love’ and ‘Solid Gold’ and ‘Quicksand.’ Those are obviously songs about my wife and my daughter.
“My daughter was very little at the time of my worst problems and I couldn’t be trusted to look after her. ‘Quicksand’ is a statement of intent to be there for her from the perspective of having gotten well. Also, in writing a song for her, I didn’t want to write something too saccharine, so the song describes the many highs and lows that life will inevitably bring.”
The title track, “The Wave,” features a military brass band with an uplifting chorus of horns as a grand finale for the record.
“‘The Wave’ is very much a song about finally realizing that the way to navigate life is to kind of go with the flow and not always being in opposition to it, and not always fighting but accepting who I am and accepting the things that come along.” Chaplin said.
In 1997, Chaplin joined three schoolmates in their cover band The Lotus Eaters. Soon after, the band’s name was changed to Keane. The group played its first live show with original material at a pub in 1998.
Keane rose to stardom, ultimately producing five No. 1 albums in the UK over about 10 years. It began in 2004 with the debut album Hopes and Fears, which contained the hit “Somewhere Only We Know.”
Under the Iron Sea, released in 2006, had the Grammy-nominated song “Is It Any Wonder?” In late August that year, Chaplin entered The Priory Clinic in London seeking treatment for alcohol and drugs and Keane’s North American tour was cancelled. He left the clinic in early October, continued to receive treatment, and went on with the South American part of the tour.
The 2008 release of third album Perfect Symmetry marked the band’s third world tour. It was followed by the EP Night Train in 2010, then Strangeland in 2012 which featured the lead single “Silenced By The Night.”
“There were definitely times in 2011, before the Strangeland tour, where things were a real mess and I was in a rehab center during that year and there were (times) when I threw myself back into it, as it were, in 2014,” Chaplin said. “Then it was really truly, very self-destructive. It was just one endless set of drug binges where I would go away for days and days at a time.”
In late 2013, Keane announced the band was taking a break. Chaplin went to work on a solo album to explore his creative voice. Up until that point bandmate Tim Rice-Oxley, who played piano and keyboards, had been Keane’s main notable songwriter.
“No matter how much I loved the songs, I was still always articulating someone else’s world, and so I really just wanted to give a voice to my own experience,” Chaplin said. “Initially I was really worried whether it was going to work, but having found my voice and having made a record that is out there and to me seems a success, that is a great validation for my creative parts. That for me is the most exciting and positive thing that has come out of this stepping away from Keane.”
In 2015 Chaplin reportedly suffered panic attacks and anxiety from the pressure of making a solo record. He turned to drugs in “a continuous series of these binges” to the point he nearly died on that pivotal night that changed his life. His music changed, too.
“I wrote quite a few songs at the end of 2013, but they were a different kind of song. They were more outward-looking, more of a kind of world view, more observational about other people’s lives as opposed to my own,” Chaplin said. “I wasn’t really writing about the kind of stuff that then made it on to The Wave, which is all stuff that I wrote from springtime of 2015 and after.
“Once I got myself well and started to be creative it just built an incredible momentum and I went from being a man who couldn’t even sit at a piano to just being completely immersed in it and writing 30 or 40 songs in the space of four or five months. It was very a rich time creatively for me then.”
As for Keane, regrouping the band is “on the back burner,” Chaplin said. “I guess Keane is not going to happen, but, that said, it is part of the fabric of who I am and who the other guys are and it seems unlikely to me that it won’t be something that we go back to doing at some point. I don’t really know when that is.”
But, first thing’s first. “I am really enjoying this little journey that I am taking at the moment and I want to see it through,” he said. “I want to give it my best shot before thinking about going back to doing Keane stuff.”
The last show of his North American tour will be Feb. 3 in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall.
Great American Music Hall
February 3, 2017