Yes to Popcaan, Carly Simon and Grace Jones, No to Rick Ross: Inside the Collaborations on New Gorillaz Album 'Humanz'

Yes to Popcaan, Carly Simon and Grace Jones, No to Rick Ross: Inside the Collaborations on New Gorillaz Album 'Humanz'
Photo: J.C. Hewlett
Since the dawn of Gorillaz, Damon Albarn — the musical mind behind the group — has consistently honed his networking skills and amassed an impressive list of guest appearances. His ability to think outside the box has seen him work with musical legends (Lou Reed, Ike Turner, Bobby Womack), famous rappers (Mos Def, Andre 3000, MF Doom), rising stars (Phi Life Cypher, Little Dragon), big name producers (James Murphy, Danger Mouse, Dan the Automator) and Hollywood heroes (Dennis Hopper, Bruce Willis) over the first four albums. But it's the names on the fifth Gorillaz LP, Humanz (out April 28 on Parlophone), that have cemented Albarn as pop music's greatest curator.
The list of contributors to Humanz is no small feat: Popcaan, Grace Jones, D.R.A.M., Kelela, Pusha T, Mavis Staples, Jehnny Beth (Savages), Vince Staples, Anthony Hamilton, Benjamin Clementine, and of course, De La Soul, among others. He's even roped in '70s songstress Carly Simon for a song on the deluxe edition. Exclaim! spoke to Albarn about his process and learned a few things.
1. Damon Albarn is not discriminatory when it comes to his collaborators.
"I'm prepared to have a go with anybody," he says. "I feel that my tastes are open to just about anything really. I keep an open mind. I will try anything. Believe it or not, 'Hallelujah Money' was originally going to have Rick Ross on it, but he just didn't come through in the end. That was one that got away. But you never know. He might still do a version of it."
2. Sometimes what seems good in Albarn's head doesn't always translate in the studio.
"A lot of the collaborations don't work. And there are some songs that work that aren't as magnificent, and by that I don't mean they're not as good, they just weren't part of the narrative of what I was trying to tell. They just weren't as successful that moment. Some people didn't make it but are on other tunes that I'll be putting out there. Like Jamie Principle is on another version of 'Ascension.' I've got a full D.R.A.M. version of 'Andromeda.' I've got lots of good cuts."
3. It's not always easy trying to make a collaboration happen.
"I wouldn't say it's easy, but I like to get the whole family in there," he says. "I don't think I'd get a lot done if I was waiting for people to come through town. I have to go and find them sometimes. Like, I don't think I would have got Popcaan if I hadn't been down in Jamaica for quite a while. Which is not that much of a burden [laughs]."
4. One of the most significant collaborators on the album is a non-musical one: Emmy-winning actor Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline, Rogue One), who serves as the album's narrator.
"That was brilliant, and I've got so much stuff with him," he says. "I've got a whole movie's worth with Ben. I'm going to use it when we play live. I'm going to get him to do more stuff. He's the perfect voice for this thing we're exploring."
5. Albarn's teenage daughter Missy helps him choose which artists to work with.
"She's one of the main, major curators of this record and I wanted to make a record that she would listen to. She's quite vocal about that stuff, so I do listen to her. She tells me if something is too slow. I think she's cool with it, and I think her friends like it as well. Or they seem to."