The Observer profile: Chris Martin

His band's output may, said one critic, be music for bedwetters, yet the frontman for Coldplay need not be too worried. They've conquered America, they're headlining at Glastonbury, there's a new album out soon... and he's married to Gwyneth Paltrow

Chris Martin is worried when things seem to be going too well and he is worried when things seem not to be going quite well enough. Mostly, in the past year, it has been the former state that has plagued him. Since Apple, his daughter with Gwyneth Paltrow, was born last May, he has spent much of his time in the studio with Coldplay working on a long-anticipated third album, X&Y, which will be released in June.

The previews are uniformly ecstatic. The first single from that album, 'Speed of Sound', is the number one downloaded track in the world and on Monday entered the US Billboard chart at number eight (the first top 10 entry by a British band since 'Hey Jude' came in at number 10 in 1968).

The band's current American tour has also generated an obsessive kind of Martinmania. At last week's concert at the Fillmore Hall in San Francisco, $26 tickets were on offer for $1,000 or more. When money was not enough, Coldplay devotees were, on a fan website, offering precious iPods, recreational sex, and, in one case, a 1994 Honda Accord in the hope of seeing their heroes.

Some sought fully to exploit this desperation. 'My Buddy and I lucked out,' wrote one fan on the site, 'and got a couple of pairs of tickets to Coldplay. Unfortunately, we were both recently dumped by our girlfriends. We are not dirtbags and can actually take a couple of girls already, but we decided to hold out for a couple of girls that are prettier. Please no homosexual offers or reply's [sic].'

All of this made Martin, the band's singer and songwriter and driving force, more than usually fretful. 'Is this is a joke?' he wondered, a little alarmed at the interest. 'It doesn't even enter my mind that people are wanting to fight for tickets because I'm still in awe that anyone wants to come see us in the first place.'

Ever since the band's near-perfect, angst-pop debut, Parachutes, was released in 2000, Martin has been expressing a certain amount of incredulity about Coldplay's rise to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. Almost from the beginning, his pleas sounded a bit hollow. 'We are just a bunch of students,' Martin was fond of saying, about the three mates he met while studying (and taking a first) in ancient history at University College London.

For a long time, too, he was anxious that the four of them were not really rock'n'roll. He had been a boarder at Sherborne; his father was an accountant from Devon. 'I'd think, "Gosh, I'm just some public-school boy with my house colours... " I haven't got any experiences as valid as the Wu-Tang Clan.'

None of this, though, has hindered Coldplay's appeal. Their 2002 album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, had global sales of 9.8 million, and their record company, Parlophone, is confident that the new one will surpass that. Such is the level of expectation from parent company EMI that it was forced to offer a profits warning to shareholders when the release date of X&Y slipped out of the current financial year. The experience in San Francisco is an aspect of a worldwide phenomenon. Coldplay are to take the Saturday night headline spot at this year's Glastonbury festival on 25 June, by which time album and single will, if all goes to plan, be topping every chart around.

Rumours (and PR stunts) are rife about the album itself, which was three years in production. Much of its delay has, by all accounts, been down to Martin's perfectionism. Several songs have been written and recorded only to be ditched. It will, he said recently, be a 'mixture of Oldplay and Boldplay'. If 'Speed of Sound' is anything to go by, however, it will be mostly the former, with the band reworking the seam of emotional vulnerability that has served them so well so far.

There is a childlike absorption to Martin's writing and singing (Alan McGee, one-time Oasis manager once famously called it 'music for bedwetters' and beyond the sneer you could, in our neurotic era, not argue against the commercial power of that). In the past, Martin has cited Woody Allen as a big influence and there is often a ghost of that self-aware circularity in his lyrics.

Another model he is fond of admitting to is the Smiths. In his collaboration with guitarist Jonny Buckland, there is a lot of Morrissey and Marr but without, quite, the brilliance of wit and the sharpness of edge; a bit kinder, a lot straighter; much smoother.

The result is, in the spirit of the times, perfect music to feel sorry for yourself by. If Coldplay offer their fans an invitation to drown these sorrows, however, it will never be in the company of their lead singer. Chris Martin rarely drinks and doesn't smoke or take drugs. He was, he is just about happy to admit, still a virgin at 22, when the band were recording their first album. 'Basically, we set out with two goals - to either make it big in America or sleep with the sisters from the Corrs,' he said, at the beginning. The former was always more likely.

If much of the original fragile falsetto came from a lack of luck with girls - 'I'm a complete loser and failure in all things romantically' - since marrying his Hollywood A-list wife, that frustration no longer seems to apply, though it remains the emotional centre of the music. It's a shame, in this respect, that Martin did not have the inclination or the nerve to include on the new album the little pre-natal rap he wrote for Gwynnie that appeared as a camp video on the Coldplay website: 'Your cup size has gone from an A to a D/ That's bad for you but fun for me,' Martin sang, before speedily establishing his new dad credentials - 'I've been there with you through thin and thick/ I'll help clean up the poo and sick' - and adding an understanding coda: 'I know you'll be grumpy/ That's what everyone says/ You aren't going to hump me for 43 days.'

Though telling you perhaps more than you wanted quite to know, there was something in this that ran nicely at odds to Coldplay's prevailing earnestness. The same kind of sense of fun also informs Martin's stage presence: unpredictable and quick. This sense has not really done much to shake a public image of high seriousness, however. To the Daily Mail , Chris and Gwyneth are 'the Glums', the most miserable couple in showbusiness, munching macrobiotic sandwiches, desperately hoping to find solace in each other and be 'normal'.

Such ambitions were not assisted by, say, the news that Paltrow sometimes eats naked to keep herself in a state of anxiety about her body image. In a recent interview, where he admitted to also writing some of the songs on the new album in the buff, Martin laughed about this habit - 'I always talk about tariff barriers of Ghanaian rice with no clothes on' - without quite denying it.

In the face of the paparazzi, Martin and Paltrow are fierce about privacy. Early on in their relationship, he was apt to say that: 'This is very weird because she's a big star and I'm just the bloke from Coldplay.' Slowly, though, those tectonic plates of celebrity are shifting. Give it a few years and in Hello! world, it may well be that Chris Martin is married to that woman who once lost it at the Oscars.

If he is growing into his role as superstar, Martin is also expanding into his mission as an ambassador for Fair Trade in Africa. 'I felt like a fourth-rate Bono,' he declared, of his first Oxfam tour of duty. 'Later on, I felt like a third-rate Bono and hopefully it'll escalate until I feel like a full-on Bono.'

Recently, he narrowly escaped martyrdom to his chosen cause when he was flying to Ghana, to publicise Fair Trade, and the pilot briefly lost control of the plane. 'My mind was racing and I thought, "My daughter will have to get a stepdad." I also thought, "The band haven't finished the album but they know how I want to finish certain songs." I then thought, "I'll be dying on a Fair Trade trip so at least people will always link me with that."' In the event, the pilot landed the plane safely, but not, it seems, before Martin had got his priorities strictly in order: family, Coldplay, saving the world.

Bobby Gillespie, singer of Ur-rock band Primal Scream, once labelled Coldplay's approach 'careerist rock'n'roll'. The description captures some of the calculation in the band's rise, but it misses Martin's feral commitment, at a time when the bland are leading the bland, to stretching himself by making the most thoughtful pop music he possibly can. 'Who cares where the bus has come from, it's where it's going that matters,' he has said, of more working-class heroes. It is the music, ultimately, that he puts his faith in; he dreams about writing songs that will last like those of Brian Wilson or the Beatles.

He has already written at least one or two - the captivating 'Yellow' and 'Clocks' - and he worries about writing more with characteristic urgency, always sharply aware of his allotted span. What do you think happens when you die? Martin is asked in the current issue of Q magazine.

'Well,' he says, 'obviously a " Best of... ".'

Chris Martin

DoB: 2 March 1977 (East Sussex)

Education: Sherborne School, Devon; University College London (studied ancient history)

Family: Married to actress Gwyneth Paltrow (one daughter, Apple)

Job: The frontman and lyricist for band Coldplay


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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