Chris Martin has lived in Los Angeles long enough to speak enthusiastically about his spiritual teachers and about the benefits of cutting sugar and dairy from his diet. But the Coldplay frontman hasn’t been here long enough to know that the guys handing out DVDs on the Venice boardwalk want you to pay for them.
“Thanks, brother,” Martin said as just such a man pressed a compilation of basketball clips into his hands on a recent morning. Dressed in a bright-blue hoodie and matching baseball cap, the British singer kept moving but came to a sudden halt when the guy touched Martin’s arm and explained that he wasn’t giving away his product for free.
“Oh, you want a donation,” Martin said, quickly grasping the situation. “All right, man!” And with that he cheerfully forked over 20 bucks and asked for two.
A simple case of a rock star using money to smooth his path through life? Well, sure. Yet the gesture — one of several donations over the course of a lengthy stroll that eventually required a visit to a beachside ATM — also seemed in keeping with the proudly magnanimous vibe of Coldplay’s new album, “A Head Full of Dreams.” Due Dec. 4, it marks a return to the kind of earnest emotional uplift that made Coldplay famous but that the band largely abandoned for its last studio album, “Ghost Stories.”
Eighteen months later, though, Martin and his bandmates — guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion — have emerged to talk up an imaginative disc that reflects the frontman’s renewed optimism as well as Coldplay’s determination to stay musically relevant at a moment when traditional guitar bands are more or less out of style.
“Isn’t it amazing, the color and craziness down here?” Martin said with a grin as he dropped a few bills into a bucket atop a street performer’s grand piano. “You’ve always got to reward a busker. I’m a busker too, and people reward me.”
They certainly have. After forming at college in London and scoring a global smash with “Yellow,” the strummy power ballad from its 2000 debut, Coldplay spent the next decade racking up hits (including the Grammy-winning “Clocks” and “Viva la Vida,” which topped Billboard’s Hot 100) and becoming one of the world’s biggest touring acts. In between, there were Martin’s profile-raising collaborations with Jay Z and Kanye West, along with a duet with Rihanna on Coldplay’s 2011 album, “Mylo Xyloto.”
Yet by 2013, the singer found himself looking for “a soft place to land” as his relationship with Paltrow came undone, he said. L.A. was the obvious choice, because his son and daughter were here, and “wherever they live is my home.” What began as a practical arrangement, though, soon turned into a creative boon, with Martin feeling reinvigorated by Southern California’s climate and landscape.
“If you go back to a Jane Austen novel, they’re always sending people to get sea air when they’re going through something,” he said with a laugh. “It’s restorative.”
Moving to L.A. also put Martin closer to the busy pop-music industry, with its songwriters and producers responsible for creating the hits that rule Top 40 radio. That world has long fascinated him, he said, so last year, he tried writing a few tracks for Rihanna, whose manager connected Martin with Stargate, one of the singer’s go-to production teams.
They got on well enough that Martin asked the rest of Coldplay to work with Stargate for “Miracles,” the band’s song from Angelina Jolie’s 2014 movie “Unbroken.” And that in turn led to Stargate’s co-producing “A Head Full of Dreams,” which Martin said he knew from the beginning would represent a dramatic shift from “Ghost Stories.” The goal, he added, was “something big and colorful and fun,” an album that’s “not rock and not pop. It’s just whatever we dream it up to be.”
When you’ve been a band for nearly 20 years, finding fresh inspiration isn’t always that easy.
That dreamed-up sound has Stargate’s fingerprints all over it, from the layered keyboards in the title track to the pulsing disco groove that drives “Adventure of a Lifetime,” which Coldplay debuted on last weekend’s American Music Awards. The plaintive “Army of One” even sports a sleek R&B coda that could pass for a Chris Brown demo.
But if the band resisted that kind of outside influence in its early days, as Champion has admitted, it has now happily opened itself to collaborators.
“When you’ve been a band for nearly 20 years, finding fresh inspiration isn’t always that easy,” Coldplay’s drummer said as he sat in a dressing room with Buckland and Berryman after taping a performance on James Corden’s late-night show. “So when someone new comes in, you grab the chance.”
Indeed, beyond Stargate, “A Head Full of Dreams” features appearances by an expansive cast of guests, including Beyoncé and Swedish pop singer Tove Lo, who duets with Martin on “Fun.”
Lisa Worden, music director at L.A.'s influential radio station KROQ-FM (106.7), said cameos like those — as well as the decision to release “Adventure of a Lifetime” as the album’s lead single — were smart moves after the more cerebral “Ghost Stories.”
Los Angeles Times photographers document 2015 in music. Read the accompanying reviews by clicking links in captions.(Los Angeles Times)
Madonna performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 27, 2015. Read the review.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Don Henley performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 9, 2015. Read the review.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Los Lobos perform at El Gallo Plaza in East Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 2015. Read the review.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Silversun Pickups perform at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Masonic Lodge on Sept. 28, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
R. Kelly, cigar and mike in hand, performs at the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 10. Read the Times review.(Axel Koester / For the Los Angeles Times)
Grace Jones in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Sep. 27.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Lauryn Hill performs at the Greek Theatre on Sept. 14, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Little Big Town band member Phillip Sweet performs at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 10.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel performs at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Sept. 4, 2015. Read the review.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
D’Angelo and the Vanguard performs at FYF Fest at Exposition Park on Aug. 23, 2015. Read the review.(Christina House / For The Times)
Morrissey takes the stage at FYF Fest on Aug. 23, 2015. Read the review.(Christina House / For The Times)
Solange onstage at FYF Fest on Aug. 23, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
FKA Twigs performs at FYF Fest at Exposition Park on Aug. 23, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
Kanye West performs during FYF Fest on Aug. 22.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Jehnny Beth performs with Savages at FYF Fest on Aug. 22, 2015.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Taylor Swift performs at Staples Center in August.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Aretha Franklin at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles on Aug. 2.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The Weeknd performs during Hard Summer at the Fairplex in Pomona on Aug. 1, 2015. Read the review.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Mötley Crüe celebrates the end of another concert, at the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore., on July 22.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
John Famiglietti, left, front man Jake Duzsik, and Jupiter Keyes of the L.A. experimental band Health performing at the Echo in Los Angeles on July 22, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie performing at the Hollywood Bowl on July 12.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Kendrick Lamar performing at the BET Experience at Staples Center on June 27.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Underworld performs at the Hollywood Bowl on June 21. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Brian Wilson at the Greek Theater on Saturday, June 20. It was also his 73rd birthday.(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
D’Angelo performs at Club Nokia on June 8, 2015. Read the review.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Sufjan Stevens and his band on the first night of a two-night run in Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 3, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Ciara performs at Club Nokia on May 30, 2015.(Michael Robinson Chávez / Los Angeles Times)
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Neil Diamond performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, May 23, 2015.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Steve Aoki, EDM DJ, producer and recording artist, performs on Broadway between 4th and 6th streets in downtown Los Angeles, May 16, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Rapper Big Sean performs at
Sia performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Justin Bieber performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kanye West performs in shadowy lights during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Ne-Yo performs in front of a full house during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105, in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Nick Jonas performs during the Wango Tango concert at the StubHub Center on May 9, 2105 in Carson.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
James Hatfield fronts Metallica at the Rock in Rio Festival in Las Vegas on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Chester Bennington and Linkin Park play the Rock in Rio fest in Las Vegas on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Tim McIlrath, lead singer for the Chicago-based, melodic hardcore band Rise Against, wades into the crowd at Rock in Rio on May 9.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Gwen Stefani fronts No Doubt at Rock in Rio in Las Vegas on May 8.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Ariana Grande performs at the Forum in Inglewood, April 8, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Rivers Cuomo of Weezer performs with his band at Burgerama on March 28. Weezer was one of the headliners for the two-day festival at Santa Ana’s Observatory.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Lead singer Zac Carper of FIDLAR performs with his band at Burgerama, the two-day Santa Ana festival thrown by OC DIY impresarios Burger Records.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
Experimental artist Lustmord makes his Los Angeles debut on March 21 at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever.(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)
R&B singer Chris Brown performs at the Forum in Inglewood. The March 8 show was a stop on his tour with Trey Songz and Tyga.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Kendrick Lamar performs at the Air + Style concert and snowboarding event at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Feb. 21.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
“It keeps them in touch with a younger audience, which hears ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’ and says, ‘Coldplay is still speaking to us,’” Worden said.
Yet “A Head Full of Dreams” also reflects more idiosyncratic choices. Merry Clayton, the veteran backup singer known for her apocalyptic wail in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” is in the mix, as is poet Coleman Barks, who reads a translation of “The Guest House” by Rumi, which Martin said “completely changed my life.” Paltrow appears too, in “Everglow,” a delicate ballad about “the light that you left me.”
That track isn’t the only one that invites speculation as to whom these songs are about. An upbeat ode to someone who’s made Martin “feel like I’m alive again,” “Adventure of a Lifetime,” for instance, is widely thought to describe the singer’s on-again/off-again relationship with actress Jennifer Lawrence.
Asked if the theorizing bothered him, Martin replied, “I don’t mind, because I’ll never say.” Then he went further, insisting that songs didn’t come from him so much as they came through him.
“I never sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna write a song about this person and this event,’” he said as we passed the Venice skate park. “If I did do that, it would never make it, because that would be a song that you crafted rather than received.”
I told him that I found it hard to believe that specific names and faces didn’t attach themselves to his songs, especially once they’ve become part of Coldplay’s concerts and he’s singing them every night. Martin, the very picture of cordiality until then, bristled a bit.
“I don’t expect people to understand where songs come from, because I don’t understand either,” he said. As an example, he mentioned “A Sky Full of Stars” from “Ghost Stories.”
“Someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s about Gwyneth,’” he said. “‘It’s about this person,’ ‘It’s about your kids,’ ‘It’s about everyone in the world.’” He had the title for a long time, he said; there were “seven other songs called ‘A Sky Full of Stars,’ and none of them were right.” Then one day, he went on, “this song just came through in one go.” So he doesn’t know which person inspired the song. “And I don’t want to really question it.”
That isn’t to say that becoming a tabloid target has been easy. “I’m aware that every so often a gentleman with a camera will be hidden somewhere and turn whatever normal thing that I might be doing into a news story,” he said. At first, he added, that made him angry, depressed and unsure of what to do with his feelings.
“That’s why I had to go and find some teachers” — including a favorite Sufi scholar — “and say, ‘Hey, how do you navigate this kind of thing?’” He found solace in Rumi’s words about accepting everything as a blessing. Music helped too, of course, just as it’s improved the mood of Coldplay fans craving the surge of serotonin the band’s songs can deliver.
After mostly staying off the road behind “Ghost Stories,” Coldplay will tour arenas and stadiums next year, and Martin is already looking forward to witnessing that emotional boost. But these days he seems equally attuned to smaller wonders, which may be the real key to happiness.
“Look at that!” he said, pointing with clear excitement at another sight on the boardwalk. “A dog skiing!”