Thomas Cohen is considering what Peaches Geldof, his wife of 18 months when she died of a heroin overdose in April 2014, would have made of his new music.
“I did actually play her a few of the songs that were written before [she died],” he says, before rolling his eyes, and laughing affectionately, “but it was hard to get her to listen because she was always playing Elliott Smith.”
Smith was one of Peaches’ greatest musical obsessions – a singer-songwriter whose bleak songs about heartache and addiction were so searingly painful that it almost seemed grimly inevitable when he took his own life in 2003 at the age of just 34. But the idea of her being so wrapped up in his music that she didn’t have time to listen to her husband’s output? Come on, I say, that can’t be true.
“It is true! But would she have liked it? Probably … if someone else had told her it was good.”
This time we both burst out laughing. I’m not exactly sure what I expected Cohen to be like, but it wasn’t this. He’s funny, cheeky, charming, a little camp and theatrical – gently teasing Peaches like you imagine he did while she was alive. Two years ago, Cohen had to deal with what must have been unbearable trauma at the age of just 23 when Peaches died, leaving him with an uncertain future and their two children, Astala and Phaedra, to look after. Peaches had lived her entire life in the spotlight – at first as the celebrity child of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, then as a media name in her own right. To most people who viewed her life through the media or her Instagram feed, Peaches seemed to have settled down after a rebellious teenage period – she had seemingly embraced a world of domestic bliss and was a vocal advocate of attachment parenting. But she also had her own tragic story – her mother died of an overdose aged 41 when Peaches was just 11 – and it emerged after her death that she had been struggling with addiction problems for much of her adult life.
Other signs indicated this would be a testing encounter. Cohen recently gave his first interview since Peaches’ death, in which he appeared unprepared for questions about his wife. He stared into the distance, rattled his bloody mary around and was understandably taciturn save for one impassioned speech about the nature of grief (“I got to a stage where I thought ‘I don’t want to stay in this place any more’ … I refused to lose myself and become a traumatised, grief-stricken single father who everyone’s going to look at and think and feel all of these things about”).
Then there’s his new album, Bloom Forever, in which he tackles his loss head on. The song Country Home describes returning to the home they shared together, “Longing I know, to find you alone/At the top of the stairs in your wedding dress”. It’s as unflinching and as stark as anything you might hear on, say, Lou Reed’s Berlin.
Yet, he says, that’s only half the picture of the record. “It’s quite silly, really,” he says.
“The lyric about drinking cold tap water, followed by a flute solo? That’s kind of silly! Having a song about a newborn baby with a minute-long guitar solo in it?”
It’s also rather beautiful. Inspired by “classic” 70s singer-songwriters such as Judee Sill or Townes Van Zandt, it takes a very simple approach to storytelling, documenting the last few years of his life in chronological order.
“When it comes to music, I found it impossible to not be really, really honest,” he says. “That started long before Peaches passed away – even just having children or living in the countryside.
“I’d had so little to write about before with my other band,” he says, referring to SCUM, the doomy, experimental rock band he fronted for four years from the age of 17. “Nothing, nothing to write about! So, back then I was happy – like, great, I’ve got a subject!”
Four of the songs on Bloom Forever were written before Peaches’ death, yet still exude an unsettling atmosphere. Honeymoon is a queasy, surf-guitar number that documents the first holiday Cohen and Peaches took together, six months after they married in 2012. “We went to … I guess what you would call an idea of what a holiday should be like. One of those places in the Maldives – man-made, you know, with huts in the sea and a beach someone has created. I kept thinking: ‘This is really wrong and weird.’”
The “trouble in paradise” theme seemed to chime with how exposed and terrified Cohen felt by falling helplessly in love with someone so troubled.
“I think any time you love someone, you’re slightly scared of it,” he says. “But when they have addiction issues and the border of life and death is so constant and close and intertwined throughout the whole thing, it’s heightened. But that doesn’t take away from any of the experience or relationship.”
Does the same terror of loving someone occur with his kids? His face melts into a big soft grin: “Nooooooo, they’re not scary! I think with kids, I just knew that I was very ready to love something the way you love a child.”
Cohen writes about the birth of his second child, Phaedra, on the album’s title track. Bloom and Forever are Phaedra’s middle names, chosen by Peaches, and Cohen wrote the lyrics in hospital two days after he was born. It was, he says, inspired by the lullabies the Beatles used to write – Golden Slumbers, Good Night – and the realisation when you’re handed a newborn baby that “this isn’t going away, it’s for a very, very long time”.
After starting a family and settling down in his early 20s, was it not strange to change lifestyle so dramatically? SCUM were an abrasive, uncompromising listen – a bit of a scene band, not to mention intimidatingly young and cool. Yet here was the frontman suddenly appearing in glossy Hello! shoots, posing with his wife and kids in someone else’s faux-glamorous home.
Cohen nods: “But I did them because I had a child, and I barely had enough money to get on the bus,” he says. “I don’t come from a privileged background,” – Cohen’s father is a social worker, his mother an artist – “I’d always worked, then I stopped to do the band, and then that fell apart. Besides,” he adds with a grin, “you can always disassociate enough to smile through it. It’s like when you go to [your partner’s] family event and you’re like: ‘Hello! Oh, it’s Uncle Geoff, I’ve heard so much about you!’” When in reality you’re there and smiling and being nice but … it’s not your family, you’re just there. So, that’s my analogy. So, no, I didn’t feel any guilt about it. But it won’t happen again.”
On 7 April 2014, any resemblance Cohen’s life had to the blissful photos in Hello! was blown apart. He had been staying at his parents’ house in south-east London – the home he lives in now – for the weekend with his sons. At some point, Cohen’s father had dropped Phaedra back off with Peaches, but when she failed to answer her phone, Cohen had gone to the house to see if she was OK. He discovered her body in the spare room – Phaedra had been playing by himself in another room, possibly for as long as 17 hours.
On Country Home, Cohen sings about that fateful trip to their house. I can only imagine it must have been agonising to write.
“I just wanted …” he begins, before changing tack. “God, no, it was the last thing I wanted to do, but I needed to somehow transform that pain.
“There’s not much poetry to it,” he continues. “It’s just brutally honest. But once I’d finished the song, it was mixed and we rehearsed it a few times, it just felt like a song. I’m not really reliving something every time I hear it.”
Did he consider he might frequently be required to play it live?
“Yeah, but it feels good to do every time. It comes from a place of hurt, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to sing it. That’s the joyful thing about music, a lot of music, even certain famous huge pop songs that are quite bad, come from that place.”
Indeed, it was music that first showed Cohen a way out of the darkness. Around two weeks after Peaches died, he found himself in a record shop in Soho when David Bowie’s Word on a Wing came on the stereo.
“It just felt like somebody had smacked me around the head,” he says. “That was the first time I had been that emotionally affected by a song, ever, and it was just by chance. And I guess that led up to me writing lots of lyrics and lots of music.”
He began writing so soon after her death, he says, because he had to. It was cathartic.
“And it gave me a purpose,” he says. “Aside from parenthood, obviously, it was my only real personal belonging. I could create something new, rather than just be a single father, which is also what I am, but a musician, too.”
He says you can’t put a time limit on grief, that it can take some people their whole life, and that it’s something that needs to be worked through fully.
“Although it is obviously a very painful process, it is a process,” he says. “If I’d given myself a time limit, then I wouldn’t be able to do interviews now or even talk about it. And I do want to talk about it, in a very loving, kind way. Because that’s the only way of doing it. It has to come from you. It has to be you that drags yourself out of it and faces that pain, which is so terrifying. It’s not a case of saying: ‘Right I’m done with that,’ because it will come and bite you, basically.”
Is the realisation that he needed to face up to things be why he uses such simple, direct language on Bloom Forever? Perhaps the most shocking moment on Country Home comes when he sings: “Why weren’t her eyes covered and closed,” which is so direct I find it hard to ask him about it.
“Have a guess?” he says, while I nervously skirt around the subject of what he’s saying.
Well … it’s about seeing her body for the first time?
“Yes. Almost every lyric is brutal. So, there’s no guessing. If you die in your sleep you probably have your eyes shut, if not then they’re probably open. I’m not a doctor. I don’t really … have expectations of what a dead body should be.” He goes quiet for a second. “I guess my images of it are tampered with.”
In many ways, Bloom Forever is as positive an album as it is a tragic one – it ends on Mother Mary, a song that again deals with Peaches’ death, but this time from a place of acceptance. I ask him what he would like it to achieve. Does he want it to be a hit?
“Er, have you heard it?” he says, giggling once more.
I’m not saying Zayn Malik is about to hire you … but it’s far more commercial than, say, SCUM ever were.
“I’d like people to buy it and listen to it, but I’m mostly interested in being able to make more records.”
I hope he can. Even casting aside the sheer bravery of his lyrical approach on Bloom Forever, Cohen reveals himself to be a surprisingly sophisticated songwriter. The likes of Hazy Shades unfurl their melodies with an effortless grace that recalls On the Beach-era Neil Young. It’s remarkable how together he seems, how impressively he has dealt with everything, and how he seems to have managed to move on with his life – newspapers have reported that he is in an on-off relationship with the model Daisy Lowe – without blocking out his past. I ask him what his lasting memory of Peaches is; he considers the question, seriously this time.
“I guess I will write a song about it in the future at some point,” he says. “I think it’s just important to not lose context of what someone meant to you when you lose them. You just have to remain in contact with that love. And I definitely do … when it’s right to. So, that’s my lasting memory.”
I mention that I met Peaches a couple of times myself while working at the NME.
“I can imagine,” he says, smiling. “Let me guess … at Koko?”
He’s referring to the north London indie venue where she would often be spotted, hanging backstage with bands. Yeah, I say, laughing, that kind of place. I say that she could seem confident at times, vulnerable at others. Sometimes charming, sometimes … well, less so.
“Well, there you go.”
Is that how he saw her?
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Does he think their relationship – despite the addictions and the glossy magazine shoots and the celebrity families – was just like any other couple in love when you boil it down?
“I think every relationship is, when you really boil it down. Unless it’s, like, an S&M relationship or something … now that’s a different kind of love. But when you’re just two people who sit around and watch TV together, then it’s the same, isn’t it?”
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