Coldplay’s Chris Martin finds renewal in the City of Angels

Determined to stay relevant, the British band turn to Rihanna’s production team and record a duet with Beyoncé on latest album A Head Full of Dreams

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2015, 6:01pm

Chris Martin has lived in Los Angeles long enough to speak enthusiastically about his spiritual teachers and about the benefits of cutting sugar and dairy from his diet. But the Coldplay frontman hasn’t been there long enough to know that the guys handing out DVDs on the Venice boardwalk want you to pay for them.

“Thanks, brother,” Martin says as one such man presses a compilation of basketball clips into his hands on a recent morning. The British singer keeps moving, but comes to a sudden halt when the guy touches Martin’s arm and explains that he isn’t giving away his product for free.

“Oh, you want a donation,” Martin says, quickly grasping the situation. “All right, man.” And with that he cheerfully forks over US$20 and asks for two.

A simple case of a rock star using money to smooth his path through life? Maybe. Yet the gesture – one of several donations over the course of a lengthy stroll that eventually requires a visit to a beachside ATM – also seems in keeping with the proudly magnanimous vibe of Coldplay’s new album, A Head Full of Dreams. Released on December 4, it marks a return to the kind of earnest emotional uplift that made Coldplay famous but that the band largely abandoned for their previous studio album, Ghost Stories.

That record, full of hushed, small-scale tunes, documented what the 38-year-old Martin described as the “traumatic” break-up of his marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow, with whom he has two children. Coldplay didn’t do much to promote the album, avoiding interviews and playing only a handful of concerts. “A bit of a retreat into the turtle shell,” the singer calls it.

If you go back to a Jane Austen novel, they’re always sending people to get sea air when they’re going through something. It’s restorative
Chris Martin

Eighteen months later, though, Martin and his bandmates – guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – have emerged to talk up an imaginative disc that reflects the frontman’s renewed optimism as well as Coldplay’s determination to stay musically relevant at a moment when traditional guitar bands are more or less out of style.

“Isn’t it amazing, the colour and craziness down here?” Martin says with a grin as he drops a few bills into a bucket atop a street performer’s grand piano. “You’ve always got to reward a busker. I’m a busker too, and people reward me.”

They certainly have. After forming at college in London and scoring a global smash with Yellow, the strummy power ballad from their 2000 debut, Coldplay spent the next decade racking up hits (including the Grammy-winning Clocks and Viva la Vida, which topped Billboard’s Hot 100) and becoming one of the world’s biggest touring acts. In between, there were Martin’s profile-raising collaborations with Jay Z and Kanye West, along with a duet with Rihanna on Coldplay’s 2011 album, Mylo Xyloto.

Yet by 2013, the singer found himself looking for “a soft place to land” as his relationship with Paltrow came undone, he says. Los Angeles was the obvious choice, because his son and daughter were there, and “wherever they live is my home”. What began as a practical arrangement, though, soon turned into a creative boon, with Martin feeling reinvigorated by southern California’s climate and landscape.

“If you go back to a Jane Austen novel, they’re always sending people to get sea air when they’re going through something,” he says with a laugh. “It’s restorative.”

Moving to LA also put Martin closer to the busy pop music industry, with its songwriters and producers responsible for creating the hits that rule the charts. That world has long fascinated him, he says, so last year, he tried writing a few tracks for Rihanna, whose manager connected Martin with Stargate, one of the singer’s go-to production teams.

They got on well enough that Martin asked the rest of Coldplay to work with Stargate for Miracles, the band’s song from Angelina Jolie’s 2014 film Unbroken. And that in turn led to Stargate’s co-producing A Head Full of Dreams, which Martin says he knew from the beginning would represent a dramatic shift from Ghost Stories. The goal, he added, was “something big and colourful and fun”, an album that’s “not rock and not pop. It’s just whatever we dream it up to be.”

That dreamed-up sound has Stargate’s fingerprints all over it, from the layered keyboards in the title track to the pulsing disco groove that drives Adventure of a Lifetime, which Coldplay debuted at the recent American Music Awards. The plaintive Army of One even sports a sleek R&B coda that could pass for a Chris Brown demo.

But if the band resisted that kind of outside influence in their early days, as Champion has admitted, they have now happily embraced collaborators.

“When you’ve been a band for nearly 20 years, finding fresh inspiration isn’t always that easy,” Coldplay’s drummer says. “So when someone new comes in, you grab the chance.”

Indeed, beyond Stargate, A Head Full of Dreams features appearances by an expansive cast of guests, including Beyoncé and Swedish pop singer Tove Lo, who duets with Martin on Fun.

Yet A Head Full of Dreams also reflects more idiosyncratic choices. Merry Clayton, the veteran backup singer known for her apocalyptic wail on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, is in the mix, as is poet Coleman Barks, who reads a translation of The Guest House by Rumi, which Martin says “completely changed my life”. Paltrow appears too, in Everglow, a delicate ballad about “the light that you left me”.

That track isn’t the only one that invites speculation as to whom these songs are about. An upbeat ode to someone who’s made Martin “feel like I’m alive again”, Adventure of a Lifetime, for instance, is widely thought to describe the singer’s on-again/off-again relationship with actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Asked if the theorising bothers him, Martin replies, “I don’t mind, because I’ll never say.” Then he goes further, insisting that songs didn’t come from him so much as they came through him.

“I never sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna write a song about this person and this event’,” he says. “If I did do that, it would never make it, because that would be a song that you crafted rather than received.”

I tell him that I find it hard to believe that specific names and faces don’t attach themselves to his songs, especially once they’ve become part of Coldplay concerts and he’s singing them every night. Martin, the very picture of cordiality until then, bristles a bit.

“I don’t expect people to understand where songs come from, because I don’t understand either,” he says. As an example, he mentions A Sky Full of Stars from Ghost Stories.

“Someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s about Gwyneth’,” he says. “‘It’s about this person’, ‘It’s about your kids’, ‘It’s about everyone in the world’.” He had the title for a long time, he says; there were “seven other songs called A Sky Full of Stars, and none of them were right”. Then one day, he goes on, “this song just came through in one go”. So he doesn’t know which person inspired the song. “And I don’t want to really question it.”

That isn’t to say that becoming a tabloid target has been easy. “I’m aware that every so often a gentleman with a camera will be hidden somewhere and turn whatever normal thing that I might be doing into a news story,” he says. At first, he added, that made him angry, depressed and unsure of what to do with his feelings.

“That’s why I had to go and find some teachers” – including a favourite Sufi scholar – “and say, ‘Hey, how do you navigate this kind of thing?’” He found solace in Rumi’s words about accepting everything as a blessing. Music helped too, of course, just as it’s improved the mood of Coldplay fans craving the surge of serotonin the band’s songs can deliver.

After mostly staying off the road behind Ghost Stories, Coldplay will tour arenas and stadiums next year, and Martin is already looking forward to witnessing that emotional boost. But these days he seems equally attuned to smaller wonders, which may be the real key to happiness.

Tribune News Service