When Isaac Holman returned with new music last summer, it was a surprise for many fans who knew him largely as one-half of the British punk outfit Slaves.
But beyond the quirky, off-kilter sound of "Too Shy for Tennis," his first single as Baby Dave, there was the revelation of the singer-drummer's very serious mental health struggles, so much so that Holman revealed he had experienced a serious mental breakdown and moved back in with his parents while feeling suicidal. He wasn't when or if he would live on his own again, much less if he'd ever make music again, but he began writing as a means of carrying on, all of this, of course, before 2020 ever arrived.
Now, his debut solo endeavor, Monkey Brain, is out for all the world to hear, released independently late last month, with half the record co-produced by none other than Blur and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn, who also played various instruments throughout.
"It's bizarre how this has come together, to be honest," says Holman, speaking with Variance from London over Zoom. "There were a lot of points where I thought it wasn't going to happen."
He says: "I was really unwell, to the point where I really couldn't do anything. There were a good few months where I was literally being looked after, and me and my parents were both sleeping with our doors open so they could hear everything. It was scary."
Holman is keenly aware this new music is perhaps not what a lot of fans would expect him to make, but to be clear, he didn't start making this record with the idea of even making a record at all.
"I don't know if I even had any expectations," he admits. "This is just the music that happened when I started. I didn't really have a plan."
That includes the idea of collaborating with Albarn, something Holman confesses he could have never imagined would happen, until it actually did.
"When I took that leap and messaged his manager, I really wasn't expecting anything," he says. "I thought, this is totally going to be a no. But I figured it was worth a shot. And it's a big deal. Because, on one hand, he's just a nice, normal dude, and it was nice hanging out with him, but there were literally points when we were recording that I would just snap out of that and go, 'What the fuck is going on? How am I here?'"
Holman says had it not been for Albarn and his encouragement, it's unclear if this album would have been released or what it might have sounded like.
"He said he liked the sound of what I thought were my demos, and had it not been for that, I probably wouldn't have carried on in the same way," he explains of Albarn's influence on his direction. "I think if I had gone to a different producer, they might have re-recorded them, and they would have just been demos. He played a massive part in the project being what it is now."
While the future of Slaves remains unclear, Holman says he and bandmate Laurie Vincent are "still good mates" and he believes, "never say never." But for now, he is focused on something new if not completely different.
"With Slaves, the intention was always positive," Holman recalls. "We always wanted to make people feel good. And that's definitely the same with this project. But I just want to empower people. It's hard to explain. It feels like I'm on the right path now."
Part of staying the course and keeping focused means knowing who to listen to and tuning out the noise, which is partly why he says he avoids some social media channels.
"I think Twitter can be quite an unkind place, and I don't think I really want to be there right now," he says, noting he prefers to communicate on Instagram. "And Instagram can be like that, too, but there's something about Twitter. Instagram has been my favorite one for connecting with people."
He says that with this new project, he has tried to connect with as many fans as he can, but he has to be aware of where to draw the line, for his own health, especially as he has been so open about his struggles, which has prompted outreach from strangers.
"I like talking to people personally," he says. "If someone says they like my album, I like to be able to message back and say, 'Thank you.' It's a hard one because you have to find a balance. I want to talk to people and I want to empower people, but I have to look after myself as well."
Of course, he's also keeping busy. He says he wants to release a video for every one of the 12 songs on the album. In fact, he intends to soon share a set of visuals for his song "Robert," one of the LP's standout tracks.
"I got a 'Robert' tattoo on my back, which I got done when we made the video," he says, revealing the tattoo carefully. "It's a very personal song. Robert was someone who really helped me when I wasn't doing very well. It's probably the most sincere love song I've ever written," he notes, teasing the video will reveal more.
In the meantime, he says he has already moved on to what comes next. He plans to play live, and he is already making more music.
"I've been busy," he says. "I've already got half another record written. I'd love to bang another album in the next year. I'm going to do a little U.K. tour this summer, and then I'd love to come to the States and Europe, especially now that we're getting back to normal again. It's weird seeing faces again, but I love it. And we're just back to it. I'm excited."■