ED O’Brien cannot hide his passion for the planet.

The Radiohead guitarist is a member of one of the world’s biggest bands, has toured the globe and earned huge critical acclaim over the course of nine studio albums – many going multi-platinum and regarded as the most important records ever made.

But Ed is the antithesis of the cartoon rock star. Rugged but cheery, he is quiet, thoughtful and down to earth. In every respect.

A fierce advocate of environmental issues, he is a climate emergency campaigner and a defender of our own beleaguered native wildlife.

So it seems only appropriate that his first solo album, released this spring, should be called Earth.

“How we look after this planet is close to my heart,” he says. “We have to sort it out, otherwise we’ll be extinct. We have to say ‘enough is enough!’”

Ed is talking from his home in Wales, where he now lives with his wife, Susan and children Salvador and Oona.

He is still suffering the effects of what he believes was a bout of coronavirus. He decided not to get tested as he didn’t want to put pressure on the NHS at what was a critical time in the lockdown.

“Well, I’ve had it, but I wasn’t worried,” he says. “I was more worried about my wife. You know intuitively when it’s heavy and I never felt threatened. I think people had it back in January and it’s been going around.

“I still feel it in my throat and nose,” he says. “It hangs around a long time.”

And while the lockdown was an anxious time, he relishes the positive side effects on the natural world. We talk of clean air, quiet skies and roads, of bird song and opportunities for rewilding, of wildlife reclaiming territory – and the conversation turns to his native Oxford with talk of foxes, deer and red kites.

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“They are amazing birds,” he says with genuine excitement.

“They went extinct because they were hunted by farmers who blamed them for killing livestock but were then reintroduced in the Chilterns and are now all over Oxfordshire. I have even seen them near Faringdon.”

He sees the pause caused by the lockdown as an opportunity to reassess our relationship with the natural world.

“There is no doubt nature has benefitted,” he says. “What’s so clear is we’ve got to take something away from all this about nature.

“There can be no going back. We can’t go back to how the virus happened: whether it be manmade or from a wet market.”

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Ed is a ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ – admired for his use of texture and mastery of delay and sustain techniques which can give his guitar playing a synth-like quality.

His solo effort follows individual projects by his bandmates Thom Yorke, Philip Selway and Jonny Greenwood.

“I had to do it!” he says. “We have these moments in life and I had to do it. I am happy being in Radiohead but knew I had to do this and if I didn’t a part of me would die.”

But while some would regard the timing of the release, in the midst of a pandemic, of the release as unfortunate, with no chance of live appearances and only limited opportunities for promotion,

“There’s never been a better time,” he laughs gently.

“It felt important to get the message out there. Some people were looking forward to it and it was nice to be of assistance to them. It’s been good.

“A lot of people have been saying how it resonates with these times and feels right. We were never going to delay it.”

The result is an uplifting symphony which veers from acoustic folk to electro-pop, gutsy rock, dreamy chill-wave and soaring muscular dance, with Latin rhythms overlaid with his distinctive vocals. It features a wish list of collaborators and vocal contributions from Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Laura Marling.

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And there are literary influences: Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Walt Whitman and William Blake.

It sweeps from fragile to epic – sometimes, as on the deliciously rhythmic Brasil, in the same song.

The album is influenced by a year spent living in the South American country, a house with a recording studio in Ubatuba, between Rio and Sao Paulo, and his visit to Rio’s iconic carnival.

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“I was really influenced by the polyrhythms and the way Brazilian music makes you want to get up and dance and has such an energetic nature.

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“A lot of Brazilians live such poor lives, but when carnival comes around there is such joy!” he says.

Ed, who met his Radiohead band mates while a pupil at Abingdon School (he was in a drama production which Thom was scoring) says Earth was a welcome departure from Radiohead.

“It’s not like the usual music I was trying to write,” he says. “The record is about being in a state of darkness but looking towards the light and looking to those things in our lives where there is hope.

“It was important to make a record that feels hopeful.”

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When there’s a crisis, like the refugee crisis – those epic journeys of people from the Middle east and Afghanistan – what does it come down to? Family and love! I was trying to get to that place.

“So maybe it does resonate more at the moment and taps into the emotions people are feeling.”

While deeply at home in the Welsh countryside, he misses Oxford, and while he no longer drinks, he chats affectionately about his favourite watering holes: the Rose and Crown, Lamb and Flag, Eagle & Child, Turf, Magdalen Arms, White Hart and Trout in Wolvercote, and the Blue Boar in Longworth.

Conversation inevitably comes round to Radiohead’s legendary 2001 homecoming show in South Park. They haven’t played here as a band since.

“That’s really poor!” he laughs. “Radiohead should definitely do something. It would e great to do another one or do something like that at Blenheim. But only when it’s responsible to do so!”

  • Ed O'Brien's Earth is out now. Watch this space for gig details