“In essays I write about my son, but not so much in stories. The change for me is that I tend to think I want to live longer. Before, I was just in a hurry to live.”
I’ve relished this particular project, I really have.
This year Sproutology has mostly revolved around Japan, and in particular the ripples spread by Paddy’s visit in December 1999 as recounted in the material I found online over the Christmas holiday. There were structural and specific effects of that.
Structurally, energised by the discovery that there was a whole new world to explore, I revisited a pile of Japanese articles and found a way to translate them, a task that had hitherto defeated me. It’s a laborious process of scanning, correcting and translating using automatic and human help, quite fascinating, like brushing ancient dust from a lustrous mosaic in a ruinous mansion and watching as figures and scenes emerge. Sometimes all you reveal is a handful of tiles to somehow fit together, but that’s fun too. So now I’m finding as many interviews and articles as I can and working through them.
And specifically, the 1999 visit itself threw up a cluster of fascinating detail. I don’t think it was more than 3 or 4 days if that, but it was packed with activity, and Paddy seems to have responded to the warmth shown to him by the Japanese public and press by opening out to them. The interviews are exceptionally interesting – Toru Watanabe’s is exemplary in particular, and there’s another from Japanese “Record Collector” which has about the best account of the early Prefab Sprout I’ve ever read, and which will be posted soon.
But amongst all of these, one piece stood out as unique and magical, at least in my own imagination. During the Shibuya event, Toru Watanabe explained that Paddy had met Banana Yoshimoto the previous day, returning with armfuls of books, and shortly afterwards it was announced that an account of this was to be published in Japanese GQ magazine in March 2000. I found a copy in January 2017 and I’ve been working on a translation off and on since then.
So who is Banana Yoshimoto, and why did she meet Paddy? Well she’s a Japanese novelist – extremely popular domestically and also I understand in Italy for some reason, though not so much in the UK. Her connection with Prefab Sprout is simply that she loves the music and name checks the band in her books, so her characters admit to crushes on Paddy McAloon, and she includes quotes from “Andromeda Heights” as a preface to a book. How this came to be is best left to her to explain herself, but this was the pretext that led her to be introduced to Paddy.
Her writing is captivating. It has a slightly detached air – I was reminded of Camus’ “L’Etranger” – and typically follows a pattern where following a traumatic event a person looks to rebuild or understand via an essentially self-centred (not in a pejorative sense) internalised narrative, almost like a stream of consciousness. Feelings and certainties ebb and flow and change as the story proceeds and characters and events come into the field of vision. You sit, unblinkingly, behind the eyes of the central character. It feels sweet and decorous, despite often grim events, usually discreetly out of shot – murders, suicides, personal loss. In that sense there’s an intriguing incongruity about it, but always grace and balance. Humour too. Caprice.
In short, it’s exactly like “I Trawl the Megahertz”. Paddy had completed that when he met her, but I wonder if he felt the parallels too as he flicked through the books on the long flight home.
The quote at the top, by the way, isn’t really to do with any of this. It comes from another interview with Banana Yoshimoto, and I loved it, because it very much sums up how I feel about my own sons, particularly the last, latecomer as he is in my life.
But I think that’s enough background. Suffice to say that it’s worth reading her work – I recommend “Moshi Moshi” as a good starting point. And that here is the article, very carefully translated with much more human help than usual, from an army of anonymous translators at Gengo who received odd paragraphs I was stuck on and did a sterling job. I hope the result does them, and the original article, justice.
Two great artists discussing the creative process and their relative prowess at Karaoke. Doesn’t get better than that.
[Paddy] How long ago was it that you started to write?
[Yoshimoto] I was very young, about 5 years old.
[Paddy] What did you write when you were five years old?
[Yoshimoto] The stories of a five year old.
[Paddy] I also started playing music when I was quite young, and looking back I wasn’t very good. I was really only copying other people. But when you’re learning it’s maybe important to imitate.
[Yoshimoto] In the same way, I’ve been heavily influenced by Prefab Sprout. If I can tell the story in a very romanticised way, when I went to Bali, as I was boarding the plane, for some reason the song “Cruel” kept playing in my head. And during that entire trip, I spent the whole time with that song, and by the time I came back, it felt like I had come to have a deep understanding of it. I had become captivated by your music. This happened quite a long time ago though.
[Paddy] How did you first happen to hear “Cruel”?
[Yoshimoto] I had it at my house (laughs). Just before leaving, I had been listening to the “Swoon” CD. And during the entire trip I kept thinking about that song, and all the words in that song, what the song was trying to say – I felt as if I truly and deeply understood it.
[Paddy] “Cruel” is an early song, and it was also the case at that time that I was cramming too many words in, especially for people abroad… I was a bit worried that people listening in Japan wouldn’t understand it. But it’s interesting to hear your perspective.
[Yoshimoto] When I first heard it, I couldn’t understand what it was about, but as I sang it in my head I gradually became aware of the lyrics. What I thought was the most wonderful was that even without understanding what a particular part of the lyric was expressing, the music itself had already represented the lyrical content.
[Paddy] During the 80s, when I wrote this song, it was a period when male attitudes towards women were a bit of an issue. And in reality, there was on the one hand what men actually thought about women, versus on the other what they should think in principle. I’d thought that this song was inspired with a modern viewpoint, but now that I look back on it, I’m a bit embarrassed.
Generally, it’s when you finish writing a song when you really find out what kind of song it is, but looking at the lyrical content in this one it seems that these were words I’d wanted to write for a while. So for me this is a unique song. I usually write music first, and the lyrics are written after that. Because I write the lyrics later, I already know what kind of music will be accompanying them as I write. So it’s quite strange to see just the words. But when you write a novel it’s just words.
[Yoshimoto] I agree. But when I listen to Prefab Sprout, I get quite a similar feeling to when I’m reading a book. I think that’s true, especially when I compare it to other music.
[Paddy] When I create an album, I want to make it a complete universe, that’s to say a single world. Like a book, where there’s a beginning, as well as a middle and an end. Altogether it makes a single world.
[Yoshimoto] I understand that very well.
[Paddy] For some reason, when I talk about music, I find it easy to think of it like a movie or a novel. I don’t know why.
[Paddy] When you’re writing, I suppose the direction is usually very clear from the beginning. But the route a songwriter takes often seems less definite. Thankfully lyrics are a lot shorter than novels, and the song titles – which are usually determined from the start – seem to give you a basis you can often fall back on. I’m very interested in knowing how a novelist works, and specifically what distinguishes a novelist from other occupations that work with language.
[Yoshimoto] For me, I begin with a massive general image in my head. For example, if it were about love, it would be a giant space called love. If it were about the sadness of losing someone precious, that would also exist as its own space in my imagination. What I try the hardest to do, is to convey the atmosphere of that space, while I am in it.
[Paddy] It sounds like an incredibly abstract process.
[Yoshimoto] Just by living in reality, we experience a massive jumble of things. What I do is pay close attention to getting rid of all of them, except the space that is filled with only one particular emotion.
[Paddy] So you are blocking out all the unnecessary elements?
[Yoshimoto] Pretty much. It might seem a little clinical.
[Paddy] That’s very interesting. But do you ever think that you enter a musical state of mind while writing, that somehow manifests in the flow of your words and in the expressions that you use? I am wondering whether novelists often want to express something that transcends the words that they use. The reason I believe musicians are so fortunate is because their lyrics are coupled with music; their sweet and delightful lyrics can always be further sweetened with charming melody. I felt there was something rather musical about your description of space.
[Yoshimoto] The space I really want to express is something that actually cannot be articulated with music, film, or words. Since nothing can completely capture it, I resort to using whatever is closest to describing it. This may be a bit hard to understand, but I always try my hardest to express a new word by combining a few different words. For example, in Japan, saying the words, flower, pink, and rain, will make a person imagine cherry blossoms. And just like that, I try hard to make the reader imagine a new word from a combination of words, just like what I did there with three words.
[Paddy] As a British person, reading the words, flower, pink, and rain, doesn’t really bring anything specific to my mind. It might be that there are no words for us that bring something so specific yet uniform to the minds of the general public.
[Yoshimoto] As long as the words make you think of a certain image, they are sufficient. It really is about making others imagine something different from what is being said that they can somehow connect to other images, no matter how hard it is to describe it.
[Yoshimoto] When you write lyrics, is there any influence from novels or poetry?
[Paddy] I’m very envious of writers. Because they can write what they want without being limited in terms of space. Lyrics are a form of writing that’s very condensed. If it doesn’t fit in a certain frame, it won’t fit in a song.
I love reading. I recently read Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”. It’s a novel that starts telling the story of 20th Century American culture starting with a baseball game and picking up a few things on the way. And the writing is vibrant. I’m dynamic, I want to put similar elements in my lyrics. In the case of a songwriter, even if you quite write simple lyrics, the music supports it and adds depth. This might be similar to what you were saying about writing three words and recalling a fourth, the role of music and lyrics in the same sense.
[Yoshimoto] In your world, I think there are some truly magical songs, strange in a good way. “Swans” for example. I don’t really know how to express what I mean, I felt a perspective that other people really don’t see things from. I really like that aspect of what you do.
[Paddy] That song was written for a musical. If “Andromeda Heights” uses architecture as a metaphor, here we can see that this one was written about a fox’s instinct to hunt. There’s a side of a fox that will try to kill swans instinctively, which is why it is sending a warning signal to not come too close. This is similar to the messages that men send to women. Often it seems as if there’s nothing you can do about men, because that’s just the way they are. However, there might be some parts in this song which are written slightly more from a romantic than realistic perspective. In the moment that you’re writing, you wonder, “Which kind am I?”, and, “How would other people identify with this song?”, but it’s fairly difficult to figure out. It’s only after several years that you might realize, “this is a little bit strange, isn’t it?”.
The most interesting thing with songs is that the lyrics and the melody can go in completely opposite directions. For example the music can be very sweet, but what you are talking about is terribly painful. But if you don’t listen closely you might not notice that what’s being said is so harrowing.
[Yoshimoto] I’m a woman and I’ve been working from a young age, and the cover designs of my books have a very soft feeling, so people often think “what a gentle person” or “she must write gentle novels,” but the content is sometimes really very biting, so I think I sympathize with that aspect too.
[Paddy] I’m really disappointed when people say that kind of thing about me. However, when there are so many people saying it, I start wondering whether that’s what I’m really like, and I start to doubt myself, and start wondering if its simply just that I’m actually soft.
[Yoshimoto] I think there are probably many people who listen to “Life of Surprises” and think it’s singing directly about some of the pleasures of life. But actually when I listen to it I always feel a bit of a sense of incongruity, something different from what I feel from the title or the music and the vocals, and I think it’s that complexity that attracts me the most.
[Yoshimoto] The CD “Andromeda Heights” was a really important album for me. Of course I’d been waiting for a new work to come out. When it was released I ran out and went to buy it (laughs). I listened to it over and over again, like I was quenching my thirst with fresh cool water.
[Paddy] The title song is one I’m extremely proud of, and even though I often say that I don’t have a particular favourite when people ask which song I like most, I actually like that one best of all. It’s because the song metaphorically compares love to the work on a building site, and through the comparison of the respective images that we have of those two things, something like construction work that we imagine to be everyday, mundane, and not very interesting is transformed through the power of imagination into something new, even though words like “mortar”, “stone”, and “wood” appear in the lyrics. I think the lyrics turned it into a pretty interesting song.
[Yoshimoto] I was very moved by the stripped back simplicity and directness of the lyrics on “Andromeda Heights”
[Paddy] I guess the CD dares to be simple. For example even though there’s a song called “Life’s a Miracle”, the lyrics themselves are very clear. It’s very straightforward, I think it’s the opposite of “Cruel”. In the case of “Cruel” there’s an invented word, so it may be difficult for other people to sing, but when it comes to “Andromeda Heights” I think the lyrics are ones that can be sung without discomfort, whoever the singer. It’s very expressive. When I was young there was a period where I was determined to complicate things, but when I think back to those times I sometimes feel a little embarrassed.
[Yoshimoto] Well, in the album Andromeda Heights, with the stars in that are in all of the songs, it feels like they’ve scattered and fallen cleanly into one CD, and that also felt sort of star-like, and I thought that was really wonderful.
[Paddy] Earlier you mentioned that when you’re writing you imagine a single space. When I’m making an album, it’s a similar kind of feeling. I’m looking for something original for those songs, some world of sound that exists for those songs only. In the case of Andromeda Heights, I didn’t add drums or any kind of elements to add weight, and with the lyrics and the image, stars and such are scattered about, and its a really light sort of feeling, so I used a glockenspiel as well. For example, the work you do in using words to create something, I make sounds in a similar way. I talk concretely about stars in the lyrics, try to somehow put these sorts of elements in all of the songs, and I didn’t put anything into them that would break that image. For example I didn’t add the sound of guitar. That sort of sound world, it’s like a painter using a variety of colours on her palette, I think it’s similar to that.
[Yoshimoto] It might be too personal a question, but in your day to day life, do your family ever ask you “how did you come up with such or such a thing?”. Because I think you must have a different perspective from what you get from an ordinary life to be able to come up with such lyrics.
[Paddy] When I’m with my wife, she’ll say, “You’re here now, but you’re still thinking about the studio”. Or “Oh, he knows very well that he’s not completely here right now”. And she’ll put my CDs on, but I don’t like to hear them, I get a bit embarrassed. It would be a bit embarrassing if someone came to visit or the postman came and Prefab Sprout songs were playing in my own house. I often see buskers on the street, but it’s very rare to hear Prefab songs. But I heard two buskers playing my songs, both times “Cowboy Dreams”, and I put a lot of coins into their hat. They knew who I was, “Oh, that’s Paddy!”, it was fantastic.
[Yoshimoto] Did you know you’re in karaoke?
[Paddy] At home, maybe, but if I were to sing even my own songs in karaoke, I’d feel really awful and that the people around me were going to start booing and say “Stop it, stop it!”.
[Yoshimoto] I was brave enough to sing once.
[Paddy] What did you sing?
[Yoshimoto] “King of rock and roll”. I was surprised to find it in the karaoke catalogue. I thought “there’s a song, this is something!”