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Felt legend Lawrence: ‘I want to just see what fame’s like’

The cult indie legend returns with new band Mozart Estate – and though times are hard, he still believes he’ll make it really big

“I’m living on a tenner a day, goodness gracious, a tenner a day,” sings Lawrence in the opening couplet of Mozart Estate’s Relative Poverty – a bleak bop about life on the financial precipice and truly a song for our times. 

Cited as a major influence by indie’s finest, from Jarvis Cocker to The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess and Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, the Birmingham-born cult hero singer and songwriter – no surname necessary, just Lawrence – is far from the first down-on-his-uppers pop star to have found himself living off benefits, nor to sing about the experience. But never before has anyone done it with such an intoxicating and unlikely blend of brutal frankness and tongue-in-cheek cheer. 

Sounding like a cross between a Chas & Dave song and the theme tune from Grange Hill, Relative
Poverty
is a retro rock’n’roll cry-laugh into the void which can’t help but resonate when the cost-of-living
crisis is pushing more and more people into the red. Every word of its lyrics – about seeing ex-soldiers sleeping in shop doorways, about a British top brass which “won’t do bugger all” – is rooted in things which really happened to him.

“I wrote it at a time when I really was living in poverty, and I really was living on that kind of money,”
Lawrence tells The Big Issue. “The weird thing is, I had a letter from the government telling me that I was in relative poverty. 

I thought ‘wow, what an incredible phrase’. You get, I think, £69 a week. So, you are living on
a tenner a day.”

As the enigmatic frontman of Felt, who between 1981 and 1989 released a perfect 10 albums and 10 singles on the iconic independent labels Cherry Red and Creation, Lawrence was responsible for some of the most supernaturally beautiful music from the dawn of indie, including crystalline janglers such as Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow and Primitive Painters (the latter a duet with Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser). With his 1990s bubblegum rock project Denim, he signed to a major label and enjoyed his one-and-only sniff of chart success (#79 in April 1996, for the single It Fell Off the Back of a Lorry). 

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Lawrence might have been as big as Morrissey, were it not for his penchant for eccentric self-destruction (taking LSD for the first time an hour before a Felt gig packed with major label talent scouts, then insisting that they perform with all the lights turned off) and plain bad luck (Denim’s 1997 sure thing of a single Summer Smash was cancelled because of sensitivities surrounding the death of Princess Diana). Instead, he fell into money troubles and heroin addiction, and slipped through society’s cracks. “I didn’t have family, I wasn’t married,” Lawrence says. “There was no safety net whatsoever. I really was on my own.”

At his lowest ebb Lawrence was homeless, scraping for change on London’s King’s Road. “On a Sunday, I would be completely broke, not a penny. There was a certain bench I sat on, and I would try and get a cigarette. That was my main objective, to try and see if anyone sat next to me and offered me a cigarette. Maybe a bit of money. That’s how bad it got.” 

In the 2000s, filmmaker Paul Kelly spent eight painstaking years making an intimate documentary portrait of Lawrence, titled Lawrence of Belgravia (released in 2012). In it, we see him being evicted from his flat, amid glimpses of methadone bottles, court summonses and bail receipts. We also see Lawrence continuing to work hard at music with his self-styled “novelty rock” band Go-Kart Mozart, and refusing to bend on his cast-iron, if somewhat outsized, belief that he’ll still one day ride in limousines and date supermodels. It’s a tough watch at times, but ultimately inspiring and uplifting. “My story really is that guy who never gave up,” says Lawrence. 

Lawrence of Belgravia made one of indie’s great enigmas suddenly, achingly human, and it gave Lawrence renewed exposure, purpose and self-belief. “No one really knew who I was, you know, they didn’t recognise me really. And then when the film came out, it was a huge leap.”

Lawrence is in a much better place now, living in a flat in Hackney, making records and gigging. His new album with his current band Mozart Estate – an evolution of Go-Kart Mozart – arrives in January, titled Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping. Alongside Relative Poverty, it features more unreasonably fun and tuneful postcards from the edge, with titles like I Wanna Murder You and And Now the Darkest Times Are Here

A songwriter once famed for poetic lyrics – like “primitive painters are ships floating on an empty sea, gathering in galleries were stallions of imagery” now revels in lines such as “everyone is shopping in Poundland!” What changed? 

“Real life stepped into the equation,” Lawrence reflects. “I find that poetic stuff very easy to put down. As I learned more about songwriting, I was better able to put my real life into songs.”

Suffice to say, he’d like to start making a bit more money from music, although it’s not his main motivator (Lawrence regularly turns down well-paid offers to reform Felt because he can’t imagine going back on the past). Rather, it’s about finally gaining that recognition which has always tragically eluded him. “I want to taste fame,” he says, perhaps joking, perhaps not. “I want to just see what it’s like. Just have a little peek at it. That’s all I’m after.”

What will fame look like for Lawrence if it ever comes? “For me,” he muses, “it’s kind of like, you’ve got a driver downstairs waiting for you, so you don’t have to run for the tube or jump on a bus.”

Pop-Up! Ker-Ching! And The Possibilities of Modern Shopping is released on January 27; Lawrence of Belgravia is available to watch now on the BFI Player.

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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