Sea Of Heartbreak
Former Marillion frontman Fish talks candidly to Keith Clark about how his relationship breakdown resulted in his most critically acclaimed album to date.
It has often been said that some of the best work, whether in music, literature or art, comes from dark periods of heartache or depression. That is certainly the case with the latest album, 13th Star, from former Marillion singer and songwriter Fish.
Halfway through writing the album last year he acrimoniously split up with his girlfriend (Heather Findlay of the band Mostly Autumn) just a few weeks before their wedding. The album, which was already something of a personal document, had to be rewritten and reworked to accommodate the change in circumstances.
What was a very unhappy time for Fish (born Derek William Dick in 1958) resulted in an album that has drawn ecstatic reviews, with most critics agreeing that it is the best album he has ever produced, maybe even better than anything from his days with rockers Marillion, whom he left in 1988.
"Yes, it's been declared as being the best solo album I have ever made and even the best album I've ever made. And I do think it is," he told me.
13th Star is something of a concept album, about a man searching for escape from his dull routine life and which he thinks he may have found through his "dream relationship".
"The start of the album is about being trapped in a kind of mundane lifestyle and how he breaks out of that shell, moves forward, finds a new love and tries to make that new love work and find some direction in his life."
He began writing the album after his relationship had floundered the first time but had resumed and seemed to be going well, as he explained with typical candour.
"When I started the album I'd been going out with the girl in question for a year. We'd split up in November 2006 because we had different goals in life and there was an age difference. She wanted a family and I felt I couldn't deal with a new family.
"I've already got a 16-year-old daughter, who is being a very typical 16-year-old at the moment, and looking forward I thought I really don't think I could handle a 16-year-old when I'm in my 60s.
"We were very much in love with each other but I said we could no longer go on, we were never going to be able to sort our differences out so we ought to split now, and we did."
At this point he began writing the album because, he says, at that time he was involved in a period of self-examination and introspection about where he was with relationships in his life.
"I'd already gone through a divorce in 2001 and was wondering if I was ever going to find someone who was capable of dealing with my life.
"Being a musician, being a singer, is by its very nature a very selfish occupation, and you need someone who is very strong, very independent and understands what you are doing."
However, the relationship was rekindled and things started to move forward for Fish and his girlfriend.
"I got engaged on Valentine's Day last year and in the April she moved in, which was right in the middle of the album.
"So I was in the middle of writing the album, getting back together, organising a tour, dealing with a 16-year-old and all the associated business activities, and she was the sort of person who demanded a lot of attention that I couldn't provide.
"We were getting married in the August and I was also putting together a wedding for 250 guests. So it moved into the May and two days after the invites were sent out and 10 weeks before the wedding, with everything in place, she decided she didn't want to get married and walked out."
Obviously that meant that the album no longer represented how he felt, so it went through a period of rewriting.
"When she walked out, it was the very first week of recording. It couldn't have happened at a worse time, but I had to make sure I pulled it all together and made it. It took immense concentration and it was a very powerful time, but out of it has come the best album I've ever made.
"There were a lot of dark times and the album was born among all that trauma. I was in the position last May that I could have fallen to the floor and grabbed the whiskey bottle and looked at the beams. But if I'd done that I would have lost the album, because we only had Calum (producer Calum Malcolm) for six weeks.
"If I'd have lost the album I'd have lost the tour and lost the band, so I had to get up on my feet and fight back.
"I had to use the emotions that were flying about and garner them and manipulate them onto an album which I could use as a catharsis for everything that was going on in my life at the time.
"A lot of the format was there, the chords and the like, but a lot of the lyrics hadn't been sculpted, they weren't honed yet, so when she left there were a lot of changes to be made, changes in attitudes."
While the emotion and passion is obvious in his lyrics (the music was co-written with long-time bass player Steve Vantsis) there is little sign on the album of the writer being overwhelmed by bitterness or anger, nor does he wallow in self-pity. Indeed, there are signs of genuine optimism, especially in the closing title track.
"I think I found a balance in it, but the writing was hard and there were many moments when I felt I wasn't being honest with myself and I had to screw those bits of paper up to make sure that I was putting forward an emotional honesty."
Some of the songs are especially personal, like Arc Of The Curve, which reflects how he felt when they became engaged, "when we believed everything was certain".
And in Where In The World, he asks how she could have shattered the dream and wonders where his life goes from here.
"When I'm singing Arc Of The Curve I can distinctly remember writing it, sitting there looking up at the 12 red roses I'd given her on Valentine's Day which she'd left when she walked out, so singing it was particularly tough.
"But now it is something that's in the past, I've come to realise that perhaps what I'd been trying to do was fill a space in my life with someone who was not meant to be in my life."
Fish has, however, always been a writer who puts a lot of himself into his songs, and like so many other songwriters seems to do some of his best work when he is in a dark place.
This goes back to his Marillion days and their biggest hit, Kayleigh, the song taken from the mega-selling 1985 album, Misplaced Childhood, that told of his painful break-up with his girlfriend of the time.
"When we did Kayleigh it was difficult to sing at the start. It was really strange when we did the Misplaced Childhood anniversary tour in 2005, I found myself emotionally attached to that album again, remembering the emotions that were flying about during that album.
"There's a couple of throat moments, if you know what I mean. And I think that will keep on going on with this album, too."
He will have lots of opportunity to see if that indeed is the case, because Fish is embarking on a lengthy tour with his band, and naturally the songs from the new album will be heavily featured.
"We were playing the material last year and it sounded amazing. It takes on a different life on stage, it is a different experience for both the audience and the band.
"I love the stage, I love the immediacy of the stage, I love the communion that exists between the audience and the stage.
"I still love it, they'll be dragging me off stage screaming when I'm 65.
"I'm not looking forward to when I can't do it but I can't see a time when I give it up, even if it is only five performances a year.
"I'm lucky, I'm nearly 50, but I don't feel old and I think that having an album that is picking up the kind of reviews that 13th Star is getting really does energise you."