‘Behind every addict there’s trauma’: The Big Issue goes on a walk with Keane

After finding fame as the cherubic frontman of Keane, Tom Chaplin's life took a sinister turn. Peter Ross discovers how he came out the other side

Strolling around London’s South Bank with Tom Chaplin, the singer from Keane, discussing his appetites (former) for drugs and (present) for psychoanalysis, one feels not so much a journalist and pop star, but rather like two doctors collegiately discussing a patient.

Chaplin has a dispassionate way of considering his own life and struggles as if he were lying there etherised upon a table. Not that he’s stiff. He’s good company, laughs a lot, and knows where to find decent doughnuts. What more could one want in a walking companion?

We meet in a little cafe on Union Street. Rooftop tables, coffee spoons, up among the gables and chimney pots. You could almost pretend it was the London of 100 years ago, were it not for the great fang of The Shard biting the blue sky.

Our conversation begins with the new Keane album, Cause and Effect. Chaplin expresses a certain ambivalence and surprise at finding himself back fronting the band which he had effectively split in 2013; it was, he says, “unsettling”. He is doing it, he explains, for a “really compelling reason” – his bandmate Tim Rice-Oxley had written a deeply personal set of songs about the end of his marriage. “I’d never heard Tim so vulnerable,” he recalls. “I hadn’t been aware of how much his life had been in turmoil, and I wanted to help him express that. I was doing that out of love, I think. But I’m sure there was also a selfish part of me thinking, ‘These are amazing songs. I really want to sing them.’”

It is a strong record. Despite the sorrowful theme, there are a number of bangers of the sort which, starting with 2004’s Hopes and Fears, earned Keane four number one albums, 13 million sales, two Brit awards and an Ivor Novello songwriting award. Whether, after so long away, the band can replicate that success is an open question, and whether Chaplin even wants that kind of stardom is far from settled. “Shall we go for a walk?” I ask. He nods and off we go.

At 40, Chaplin is almost unrecognisable as the boyish, blushing figure of Keane’s first success; a twentysomething who carried a whiff of the cassock and choir stall. He is tall and slender with neat silver hair, the tight jeans of a slightly younger man, and the I-did-it-my-way reflectiveness of someone rather older.

“Do you know the Cross Bones Graveyard?” he asks, setting off down Redcross Way. As it happens, I do. It was the unconsecrated burial ground for medieval sex workers, became a paupers’ graveyard during the 19th century, and is now a shrine and pilgrimage site for those who feel themselves to be outcasts and oddballs. A long metal fence is covered with colourful ribbons bearing the names of the dead. “Slightly sinister, isn’t it?” says Chaplin. “There’s a Dickensian feel to this part of town.” He knows his Little Dorrit from his Little Nell.

Chaplin has had a flat in this part of town for 10 years, but most of the time he and his wife Nat – a psychotherapist – and their five-year-old daughter Freya live in a cottage in Kent. “I’m feeling the irony,” he says, “of talking to The Big Issue about my second home.” He is from East Sussex originally, the youngest of three children. His parents, Sally and David, ran Vinehall, a prep school between Battle and Robertsbridge. He, Rice-Oxley and Keane drummer Richard Hughes were pupils there. Chaplin went on to study history of art at Edinburgh University but dropped out after a year and moved to London in 1999, sharing a grotty flat with his bandmates. “I look back on those times with quite a lot of fondness,” he says. “We were full of hope and determination to try and make something of our dream. We felt that the world was at our feet.”

It was. Keane broke through in 2004 with Somewhere Only We Know, an elegiac piano ballad which has become one of those songs that no longer belong to the musicians who made it. Somewhere has come to soundtrack weddings, funerals, break-ups (and adverts), readily applicable to any of life’s tender spots. That singalong couplet – “Oh simple thing, where have you gone? I’m getting old, and I need something to rely on …” – better suits the Tom Chaplin of 2019: the man who has been knocked about a bit, not the angelic boy. You hear him sing that now and you can tell he feels it.

So much about being a ‘pop star’ or whatever is not really that authentic. It’s a kind of ludicrous existence

We pop into Borough Market where, at Christmas two years ago, Chaplin busked in aid of The Big Issue. Today, his motive is not quite as selfless: “Where’s the doughnuts? I feel like we’ve definitely got to get a doughnut.” We find the stall, buy a couple, and then head for the Thames.

Sitting on a bench, looking across the water to St Paul’s, talk turns to the way that Chaplin’s experience of cocaine addiction has made him better able to sing Rice-Oxley’s new songs in that he can relate to and articulate the pain. There is a lyric, “I’m a good man, just not good enough.” Would it be fair to say he has lived that line?

“Yes, definitely,” he replies. “I remember a friend of the band, when I was going through a particularly bad time, said, ‘You’re a good man who does bad things.’ I thought that was an accurate description of me and my behaviour. I’d find myself in situations where I would go on a two or three-day bender, switch my phone off, and be in a hotel room just taking loads of drugs. And I would think, ‘How did I end up in this position?’”

These moments of clarity often came as he was coming down. “Obviously, the fallout was terrible. People would be worried about me. I would be missing commitments. Just destroying myself.”

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

He thought he was going to die. His wife thought so too. His addiction was at its worst in the first year of their daughter’s life. Nat must be a very strong and compassionate person to have kept their marriage together? “Very much so. There have been an awful lot of acts of love on her part. And faith in me as a human being, to stick with me.

“Actually, it was when she said, ‘I’m going to move out. I love you but I can’t be with you anymore because your behaviour’s too destructive,’ – that was a key moment in making me realise that I had to get well. When she lost her faith in me, I realised that I was really fucked.”

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Tom Chaplin busked for The Big Issue around the UK two years ago

Come January, he will have been clean and sober for five years. Musician-becomes-addict is an old story, and not necessarily interesting in itself. What I find fascinating is not so much that Chaplin almost killed himself with coke, but rather why he did so. After all, it never seems to have been a pleasurable indulgence, a social thing; he would isolate himself with his drugs, intent on taking them unhindered and unobserved, the way a hawk mantles over a fresh kill.

This question of why is the only one I ask during our walk which Chaplin does not seem willing to answer in full. He’s neither hostile nor evasive; it’s simply that we have hit a boundary. “There are several layers to it,” he says, “some of which I don’t think I’ll ever talk about publicly. They’re between me and my wife and my therapist. Just that tiny circle.

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“But on a broader level, there was my upbringing which was classically middle-class English, and the public school approach: if you’ve got a problem, or if you feel pain and sadness, you don’t talk about it, you squirrel it away, and try stoically to march on.”

He has seen that work for many people he knows, but not for him. He thinks, perhaps, he was drawn to the life of a musician because it would allow him to express some of the darkness he felt. Unfortunately, fame and wealth – which can be pleasant things in themselves, especially the latter – exacerbated his problems. There is a particular way of thinking with which he is familiar: “If I make the dream a reality and become a success and I’m adored, that will numb the pain and make it go away.” He shakes his head. “The world of entertainment is littered with victims of that philosophy.”

We circle back to what might be the source of his pain. He offers a further glimpse. “The other layer, the bit that I don’t really talk about was to do with feeling incredibly self-conscious, particularly during my teenage years. I had problems with that which festered and were never really addressed. I lived alone with those feelings until my hand was forced to talk to someone. It was that or complete self-destruction. Behind pretty much every addict, there’s a trauma.”

In the credits to his 2016 solo album The Wave, Chaplin thanks a Martin Schmidt “for helping me to understand myself and finally deal with my demons”. This is his therapist. That his name appears immediately below that of Chaplin’s wife and daughter in the list of thanks is a sign of his significance. “He’s massively important,” Chaplin nods. “I still see him every week. I tried AA and NA and CA (Cocaine Anonymous) and went to rehab many, many times, but I couldn’t get on with those traditional recovery programmes. Having him as a person who keeps me grounded and knows everything is vital.”

Chaplin does not find therapy unremittingly painful. “Psychoanalysis can be quite poetic and creative almost, particularly if you explore dreams and symbolism. It can actually be very beautiful to make the journey.”

We get up. It’s too nice a day to just sit. As we are walking past the Globe Theatre, a man running a slush-drinks stall blasts out Keane’s Everybody’s Changing on his phone; he points and winks, and Chaplin gives a slightly embarrassed wave. Does that happen a lot? “Not really, no.”

I ask if he is happy. He begins to say he is, but then interrupts himself. “Mind you, I don’t know about happiness as a way of being. It’s a fleeting emotional state.” This sort of compulsive self-analysis, a need to niggle away at stuff, is very Tom Chaplin. He’s right, though. Happiness is an amuse-bouche; it’s not one’s main course in life. He allows, however, that he is content.

Not complacent, though. There’s a restlessness about him. Since turning 40 he has had a lot of uncertainty about what he should be doing with his life. This might explain his ambivalence about Keane. “So much about being a ‘pop star’ or whatever” – he does air quotes – “is not really that authentic. It’s a kind of ludicrous existence. And there’s certainly a part of me that questions whether it’s something I’m going to want to keep doing. There is a real and artistic side to it, but there’s something about the world of showbiz that is just artifice, isn’t it? It doesn’t sit that comfortably with me these days.”

But what might he do instead? “I love going fishing. It’s an experience where I can be solitary, in a healthy way. But I’m not sure it would be enough to sustain me for the rest of my days.”

We are back where we started, outside that cafe on Union Street. Time to have those doughnuts. Time, too, for Chaplin to go. He is due at band rehearsal. A good man who does bad things? Perhaps also a complicated man who yearns for simple things. It would be lovely to find him on a riverbank someday, casting his line, all his days of excess and success long in the past, all his psychological knots untangled. It could happen, right?

“You never know,” he laughs. “You never know.”

Cause and Effect is released on September 20. Keane’s UK tour begins on September 24 at Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Image: Orlando Gili