“I’m more of a visual person than a music person.” It’s a bit late for that, Fran Healy of Travis! The songwriter joined his band in 1991, at the same time as he began a degree at Glasgow School of Art. But he dropped out of art school in his second year, and 14 platinum discs later, he’s wondering if he might have been a touch hasty.
“At first the music and the drawing and painting went along in tandem, but soon the band felt like it was making more progress, so that’s where I put all my eggs,” he tells me. “When I told everyone I was leaving they thought I was crazy, because I was one of the best in the year. But the funny thing is that the visual stuff has always come to me much more easily. Writing a song is fucking hard.”
This year, at last, that itch is being thoroughly scratched. Instead of spending lockdown perfecting his banana bread, Healy, 47, used his extra time to take control of every element of the release of the ninth Travis album. The Ronseal title can’t have taken him long – it’s simply called 10 Songs – but he also wrote the music alone, co-produced it, designed and photographed the cover and directed the videos. Most impressive is the animation for the rollicking single, A Ghost, which he created by drawing on an iPad for 17 hours a day for a month, then mixed with live footage shot by his teenage son’s drone.
“Usually you record your album and then you hand over the reins to the record company. This time I’ve kept the reins,” he says. “Making the art and the videos was so much fun, so creative, because you have a brief: ‘Here’s a song, make the video.’ Writing a song, you’re just in a black hole. There’s nothing. All but about five per cent of songwriting is manual. You’re just digging, pulling out clumps and looking at them saying, ‘No, no.’ After this process of rejection, eventually you might find the little diamond that you’re looking for, but I really don’t enjoy the process.”
While Healy wrote every song solo on the biggest-selling Travis albums – The Man Who in 1999 and The Invisble Band in 2001 – in recent years he had turned to other members of the quartet as co-writers. Now that he’s all-in again the jump in quality is plainly audible. The new album contains some real beauties, including The Only Thing, a lilting duet with Susannah Hoffs of The Bangles, and Nina’s Song, a powerful piano anthem about absent fathers.
He admits that he didn’t give the group his complete attention after his son with German photographer Nora Kryst was born. “Travis was the main thing until I became a dad. For the past 14 years I’ve put my laser focus on this guy. Then about a year and a half ago I was sitting at the piano and he came up to me and said, ‘Papa, I think you should go and do the band now. I’m good. You’ve done me.’ It was almost like Pinocchio getting off the table.”
After a decade in Berlin, the family has been living in LA for the past three years because they found the ideal school there for the boy. Living in the city where Travis recorded much of The Invisible Band doesn’t sound like it’s made him any more fond of the place. When I catch up with Healy on video call in Glasgow, where he’s visiting his mother once he gets out of quarantine, he’s grateful for the small coronavirus mercy of less traffic for his school run on the notorious 405 freeway, but don’t get him started on US politics.
“We’re in LA for my son’s education. We wanted him to witness first-hand the destruction of a massive country,” he jokes. “Everyone’s freaking out about Covid, of course, but there’s a bigger pandemic going on and it started with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Rampant capitalism and rampant greed wormed its way into all the pillars of daily life and the whole of society is crumbling under it. Trump’s a symptom but he’s not the cause. They’ve all let it happen. People think, ‘The Democrats and Joe Biden are going to save us!’ The answer is absolutely not. America’s fucked.”
Bill Clinton was still the President when Travis made their breakthrough with their second album. The Man Who was by no means a sure thing. It received poor reviews for its softening of the band’s early, rockier sound, and first reached number one in the UK 13 weeks after its release. If their subsequent huge success can be traced back to a single moment, it was when they played their song Why Does It Always Rain on Me? on the Other Stage at Glastonbury in 1999, just as the weather turned wet. A year after that clip was televised they were headlining alongside David Bowie and The Chemical Brothers.
“In one sense, it’s like an eye-blink, and in another, it feels like a hundred years ago that happened,” he says. “I was a different person. We were coming out of Britpop, we had no clue what we were doing, and we felt like an irrelevant band.”
Did he enjoy Travis being that big? “No. Of course not,” he says without a pause. He credits the songs with the success rather than any star quality on his part. “If you’ve got a song that needs to be given to the world, it’s unstoppable. I’m like the humble postman.”
That sense of self-deprecation remains. In 2018 he directed a documentary about Travis called Almost Fashionable, the premise of which was the band going on tour in Mexico with a journalist who didn’t like them. He tells me a funny but sad story about the critic Paul Morley looking like he might throw up on his chips when Healy was asked to play an impromptu song at a dinner party.
But while he may not have the hunger to fill stadiums of, say, Chris Martin (who has said that Travis “invented” Coldplay), you can tell that, underneath the diffidence, he knows how good his writing is. He’s agrees with no small delight when I observe that, unlike so much of the Britpop music that came just before them, the best Travis songs don’t sound dated today.
“No, they don’t!” he says, and claps his hands. “And the reason they don’t is that Travis have never been fashionable. If you’re never fashionable, you can be timeless.”
10 Songs is released today on BMG.
May 11, Roundhouse, NW1. roundhouse.org.uk