Quiet Man With Faith In His Songs
Alan Jackson talks to one of pop’s most surprising stars, Paddy McAloon, the singer-songwriter at the helm of Prefab Sprout.
Half a lifetime ago Paddy McAloon disappointed staff at his County Durham seminary by deciding not to take up a vocation in the priesthood, leaving instead to pursue a degree in English literature. The Church’s loss turned out to be pop songwriting’s gain, and the 35-year-old leader of the band Prefab Sprout is now hailed as one of the most accomplished exponents of this altogether more temporal profession.
The legacy of a Catholic upbringing is notoriously hard to shake off, however, as McAloon’s new album proves amply. A Life of Surprises: The Best of Prefab Sprout distils ten years and five albums down to an impressive 16-track package in which one can trace not only an admiration for such pop classicists as Bacharach and David or Goffin and King, but also an on-going struggle with the implications of the faith he held as an adolescent.
This spiritual dimension makes McAloon an odd fish in a secular pond. Pop gives short shrift to the sacred or sanctimonious, requiring most Christian artists to run separate pop-gospel careers in parallel to their chart output. By contrast, Prefab Sprout’s most recent hit single used a lush production and glorious melody as a decoy to sneak one of the oldest debates in Christendom if there is a God, why does he permit human suffering before millions of Radio1 listeners.
”Theologically, I know the argument against ‘The Sound Of Crying’,” says McAloon. ”If you believe in free will, you take God out of the equation and Man is left to get on with things. Intellectually, I see the sense in that, yet it’s impossible to pick up a newspaper each day and not ponder the question. At the same time, I feel that deliberately Christian writing loses its teeth through its proselytising stance.
”I don’t see myself as a writer who believes. In fact, the existence of doubt is central to what I do. It’s much more important to me to question the existence of a God, than to be 101 per cent sure. What’s worse than to be blinded by the light of someone who is living in a radiant certainty? The older I get, the more confused I am about the whole issue of religion, and I’m not at all unhappy about that.”
Rather than any prohibitive creed, a natural disinclination to rock’n’roll excess has made McAloon one of British pop’s quietest leading men. Prefab Sprout (his guitarist brother Martin, harmonising vocalist Wendy Smith and drummer Neil Conti complete the lineup) seldom play live and maintain a low media profile. Each new release has attracted enviable reviews but, all too often, limited sales a fact that has only recently come to trouble McAloon.
”Looking back, I’ve not only done things to shoot myself in the foot; I’ve been in danger of blowing both legs off,” he says. ”I’ve wasted years chasing silly notions, using working methods that were structurally complex but needlessly so. Now I see the whole writing process as something much more simple. I know some people would prefer me to have remained radical, but the best advances have always been made by commercial people anyway, your Jimmy Webbs and your John Lennons.”
The evidence is that Prefab Sprout are about to translate their critical clout into significant mainstream sales. Their Best Of entered the British album charts at No 3 this week and looks set to outsell all the group’s previous releases. While looking embarrassed at the prospect of becoming a bona fide if belated pop star, McAloon cannot hide his ambition to win widespread recognition as a composer.
”I want to be anonymous, yet famous as a songwriter,” he admits. ”Hal David is the perfect example. He’s so self-effacing, yet has written so many essential lyrics. With Burt Bacharach, his work is often intensely personal, yet works on a completely separate level when played as Muzak in elevators.”
To follow in such footsteps, McAloon knows he must learn to write universally-applicable material which can be covered by other artists. His ideal client list is shamelessly ambitious: Sinatra, Streisand, Ray Charles and Whitney Houston are among the great voices he imagines singing his songs.
But as a maturing if doubting Catholic, coming to terms with the recent death of his father and constantly assessing his own place in the grander scheme of things, he tempers such aspirations with a generous helping of humility. ”It’s a question of perspective, isn’t it?
”I no longer want to lead the most famous band in the world. I’d settle for being known to write good and lasting songs. And while I’ve no interest in blandness and am totally attached to the notions of heart and invention, I’ve realised that there’s something to be said for that old-fashioned ideal of coming up with something that people can whistle on the street.”