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‘Ghost Stories’: How Chris Martin Bore His Soul On Coldplay’s Haunting Sixth Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Ghost Stories’: How Chris Martin Bore His Soul On Coldplay’s Haunting Sixth Album

Grieving the end of his marriage, Chris Martin moved beyond heartbreak to find hope on Coldplay’s sixth album, ‘Ghost Stories’.

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Marking a sombre departure from the bright, anthemic sounds of their previous releases, Coldplay’s sixth studio album, Ghost Stories showcased the group’s more introspective and understated side as they worked through a period of personal turmoil. Greatly informed by Chris Martin’s breakup from his wife Gwyneth Paltrow, the album saw the songwriter turn to Sufi mysticism as he navigated feelings of loss and heartbreak, adopting a fatalistic view over atmospheric, stripped-back forays into alt-pop and ambient electronica.

Here is the story of how Ghost Stories saw Martin bare his soul and embrace a melancholic yet hopeful perspective on life’s endings and beginnings.

Listen to ‘Ghost Stories’ here.

The backstory: “It was a challenging period, a journey from ultimate loneliness to ultimate togetherness”

After playing the final show of Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto Tour in December 2012, Chris Martin returned home and began facing the painful realisation that his marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow was coming to its end. “It was evident that things were very difficult for Chris and that he was unhappy,” Coldplay drummer Will Champion said in the documentary A Head Full Of Dreams. “We sort of felt helpless in a way, you know. Naturally it’s distressing when your friend is going through something so traumatic.”

For many years, music had been a source of therapy for the songwriter, with Martin frequently journaling his inner thoughts and turning them into Coldplay lyrics. So heavy was this cloud of despondency, however, it was clear to Martin’s bandmates that they would be called upon to help their friend shoulder his burden. “What we wanted to do was to provide the comfort that music has always given him,” Champion explained. “That’s the only way we could really help him.”

The band’s manager, Phil Harvey, also remembers being worried about Martin’s welfare around this time. “He was in a lot of pain,” Harvey acknowledged. “And almost when he was at his absolute lowest, that was when we started making Ghost Stories.”

Grateful for the kindness and support offered to him, Martin began writing songs that were disarmingly fragile and pensive, funnelling his feelings of heartbreak into home-recorded demos. “What we decided to do on Ghost Stories was to really be honest about it,” he later said. “I don’t want to bullshit, because I need to sing it, to get through the day.” Crediting his bandmates with helping him at a time of crisis, the songwriter poured his heart into what would become Coldplay’s most personal album yet. “It was a challenging period,” Martin later admitted. “It was a sort of journey from ultimate loneliness to ultimate togetherness.”

The recording: “I trusted that it would work”

Initial recordings for Ghost Stories were made at bassist Guy Berryman’s home, where the group set up a makeshift studio in a small room and played music together eye-to-eye. For a band who had gotten used to being in lavish recording facilities and writing huge anthems for stadium shows, this intimate setting immediately recalled the vulnerable and lo-fi surroundings within which they recorded their debut album, Parachutes. “We weren’t surrounded by familiar rooms or lots of equipment,” Berryman remembered. “It was very reminiscent of when we first started the band.”

With the sounds of heartrending acoustic ballads such as Oceans filling the room, Martin turned to the philosophy of Sufism for lyrical inspiration, taking solace in a poem called The Guest House, written by a 13th-century poet named Rumi. “The gist of the poem is: whatever comes to you, you welcome it,” he later said. Advice from a Sufi teacher also found Martin learning to “alchemise” his sadness in order to find acceptance. “I trusted that it would work,” he told Zane Lowe, “and the more that I was learning about that, the more music just started flowing through.”

Eventually, Coldplay felt ready to begin fleshing out these songs at their studio, The Bakery, in North London, with Martin being particularly open towards accepting his bandmates’ ideas. Built largely upon a bass loop Berryman came up with, the song Magic quickly took on a bewitching melody whose hit potential excited everyone. “Magic appeared in about five minutes and to me it represented them,” the singer said. “I needed them as friends at that time, and it delivered.” Released in March 2014 as the first single from Ghost Stories, Magic would go on to peak at No.14 in the US and No.10 in the UK.

Despite the lo-fi nature of this new material, Coldplay didn’t want to repeat the same indie-folk tricks they had pulled with Parachutes, choosing instead to lean into hip-hop production techniques. Featuring angelic synth vocals, the song Another’s Arms saw the group turn to Kanye West collaborator Mike Dean, who added some bass parts that gave the end result a chill-hop flavour. “We’re very, very lucky we get to work with people like that,” Martin said, adding that it felt good to be “dipping into more of the hip-hop world”.

However, perhaps the biggest musical departure for Coldplay during the making of Ghost Stories came when electronic-music producer Jon Hopkins offered the group a haunting ambient instrumental. Taking the band into pulsing folktronica, Midnight allowed Martin’s Rumi-inspired lyrics to bob and float, his voice lathered in strange effects. “I like anything where you’re singing then you can make it sound weird,” he later confessed. “I was looking for new ways of changing voices, and that’s really the only one where we’ve tried that’s actually worked.”

As Coldplay began to put the finishing touches on Ghost Stories, it was clear that, despite facing incredibly tough difficulties in his personal life, Martin had emerged with a collection of songs that was both poignant and emotionally meaningful. “I remember it as being a healing time for him,” manager Phil Harvey later said. “I think he started to smile a bit more around then.”

The release: “‘Ghost Stories’ is the journey of going through a challenge… to come out a little bit stronger”

Released on 16 May 2014, Ghost Stories peaked at No.1 in both the US and the UK, selling more than 168,000 copies in Coldplay’s homeland within its first week of release. “The way I would describe Ghost Stories,” Chris Martin said in an interview with Beats, “is the journey of going through a challenge or an ordeal to come out a little bit stronger and happier at the end.”

The album’s second single, A Sky Full Of Stars, was released that same month and quickly became a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The last Ghost Stories song to be finished, it had a very different origin story from the other songs on the album. Initially recorded by Chris Martin alone at The Village studios, in Los Angeles, it later became a collaboration between the singer and Swedish EDM producer Avicii, whose hopeful and upbeat dance-pop touches gave Ghost Stories a sense of catharsis in its closing moments. As Martin later put it: “It has to end on a, ‘Well, OK, something got broken, but hey, what are you gonna do? You’re not gonna give up, you’re never gonna give up.’ That’s the best thing my Dad ever taught me.”

Compared to Coldplay’s previous two albums, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends and Mylo Xyloto, Ghost Stories was a far more thought-provoking, sparser affair, albeit one on which the group explored new sounds, experimenting with everything from eerie ambient synths to lush downtempo beats. Upon first listen, the icy chill of opening song Always In My Head evoked shivers among fans who instantly recognised it as a heartfelt and introspective start to a breakup album. “I think Chris needed to get it out of his system,” Guy Berryman said. “And he needed to express those things, and those songs.”

As the third single to be released from Ghost Stories, in August 2014, True Love was a tear-jerking love ballad with a beat co-composed by hip-hop super-producer and Missy Elliott collaborator Timbaland, who helped the group find the bass-drum sound they wanted. “The rest of the beat was already there from Will,” Martin said, “but [Timbaland] brought this bounce in.” Boasting an anguished falsetto and a truly haunting set of lyrics, True Love found Martin at his most devastatingly vulnerable, begging his ex-lover to say anything to drag him out of the gloom (“Tell me you love me/If you don’t then lie, oh lie to me”).

Throughout all the lyrics he wrote for Ghost Stories, it was clear Martin had put himself painfully on display, desperately trying to exorcise the spectre of lost love. “The idea of Ghost Stories, for me, was how do you let the things that happen to you in the past – your ghosts – how do you let them affect your present and your future?” he later said. “Because there was a time when I was feeling like they were going to drag me down and ruin my life.” It was only through taking comfort from Sufi philosophy and re-emerging with this album that Martin could finally summon the fortitude to accept what came before and move on with his life.

The legacy: “I like it for its bravery and its honesty”

Recognised as the fastest-selling album of 2014, Ghost Stories has gone on to sell over 3.7 million copies worldwide and has earned its place among the best Coldplay albums for recapturing the earnest melancholy that characterised the group’s debut, Parachutes. As the band’s songwriter, Chris Martin had rarely sounded as pained or as disconsolate as he did here, with an emotional rawness capable of cutting every listener to the quick. “Of course, it was a very personal album,” said Guy Berryman, “and I like it for that reason. I like it for its bravery and its honesty.”

Following its release, Coldplay supported Ghost Stories on a short but highly successful tour of Europe, America, Asia and Oceania. The band played at small venues in various cities and started using innovative 360-degree light projections to illuminate aquatic imagery created by award-winning Czech artist Mila Fürstová, who had designed Ghost Stories’ album cover. The intimate nature of this new material, and its associated tour, gave the band both time and space to reconnect with Chris Martin’s gift for introspective songwriting.

Perhaps more importantly, the Coldplay frontman’s embrace of Sufi philosophy seemed to not only encourage him to overcome his past sorrows, but also strengthen a spiritual outlook that would blossom further on the band’s next album, A Head Full Of Dreams. “Everyone in their life goes through challenges, whether it’s love or money, kids or illness,” Martin later concluded in the book Life in Technicolor: A Celebration Of Coldplay. “You have to really not run away from that stuff.”

By choosing to stay put, Martin had courageously tackled his personal difficulties head-on with Ghost Stories. Coldplay would forever remain on a more meaningful and philosophical path because of it.

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