As you can see from the fact that the new Prefab Sprout album, “A Life of Surprises”, released this summer, is subtitled “The Best of Prefab Sprout”, it’s a compilation collecting songs representative of the past five albums. However it’s not only previously released songs, but also includes “The Sound of Crying” and “If You Don’t Love Me” as bonus tracks for new and old fans. These songs are unexpected gifts for those of us who have been desperate to hear new material for more than one and a half years, since the previous work, “Jordan: the Comeback”.
These days, even when the biggest albums are announced, it seems that artists are not pursuing promotional activities much, but this time Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon seems to be receptive to the idea of interviews. To coincide with the release of “A Life of Surprises”, numerous interviews have appeared in British Music magazines and newspapers.
In these articles, Paddy explains that the two new songs and fourteen older songs were chosen to form the best selection. And in every interview he refers to his own prolific writing during the past one or two years and says “I have one album about Michael Jackson, an album about the Gulf War, an album about Zorro, and I’ve written enough Christmas songs to make an album.” With five to six albums, he has enough in stock for at least another ten years.
I actively pursued an interview with Paddy McAloon, and was able to interview him at the Kitchenware Records office in Newcastle.
I wondered how it was that so many songs could be written one after the other, and how he could keep songs indefinitely without recording them:
– I’ve heard that you just spend your time writing songs lately. Why do you write so many one after another?
Paddy McAloon: (P): I think it’s because it’s the only thing I do (laughs). Or rather I would say it’s my daily routine to sit down at the piano. Because it’s been 22 years since I started song-writing at the age of 13. I feel that song-writing is my life.
– So as soon as you wake up you head for the piano?
P: I’m try to, yes. Even when you’re in the bath or asleep in bed, songs may suddenly appear. That’s why I put a keyboard in every room.
– I guess that’s a problem with living in a very large house?
P: (Laughing) No, when I get up I need to have a keyboard right away. Besides, when I’m not writing songs I feel like I’m not myself somehow… I become uneasy. There are times when I’ll force myself to do something for self-confirmation. It might be that I have writer’s block. When I can’t write easily, I try to play one of my previous songs that I like. “There, I guess I can write a good song after all.” I encourage myself. Then it will work again.
– Even if you have nothing to sing, you will head to the piano?
P: Yes, I try to write even when I have nothing. It’s my job. It’s not a romantic thing to say, but I make a living singing songs. I have to earn money. But sometimes I have nothing, but then a famous song is born.
– If for example you find one subject, can you write songs in a sort of chain reaction? One song after another with Michael Jackson as the theme or a number of songs on the theme of Gulf War?
P: Rather than doing that deliberately I guess I keep it in mind. There are times when you’re anxious about what to do if there is nothing to sing. When I started writing songs about Michael Jackson, I felt the world opened up. I could continue into writing nine songs, ten songs. It worked really well. I was lucky. In the case of Michael, I started with the titles. For example there was “Disturbed”, “The Flimsy World of Film”, “Beautiful Russian Spy”, and “I Weep at Rainbows”. I was thinking of the titles Michael would be likely to write. Anyway, his personality — he is so intense and so unique that it’s like Disneyland, his personality. And, it can be very interesting and fun to attempt to tie together gospel and Hollywood musicals.
– So is there any possibility that the next Prefab Sprout album will be on the subject of Michael Jackson?
P: I don’t think so. For two reasons. One was that I sang about Elvis Presley in “Jordan: the Comeback” and it seems to me we would be doing two pieces dealing with the portrait of a pop star. And secondly Michael and us are label mates at the same record company, so it might be a difficult thing to do.
– When listening to your stories you get the impression you’re a songwriter of the type who observes others and writes songs about that, rather than basing songs on your own experiences.
P: In a sense you can say that. I don’t like singing songs like a diary, as is frequently done by singer-songwriters. It feels too egotistical, and it’s fun to create a character when you try it. I think it’s much more interesting to create a person who has nothing to do with you and sing about yourself through that person. To start singing a song about Michael Jackson, I start with him at the beginning, but before I get to the place where the theme is going to be I put myself in his position, I consider how I would think, I sing my own feelings. It allows you to insert your own imagination into Michael.
– Are your songs more influenced by movies and novels rather than music?
P: Everything influences you. I’m not unmoved by other peoples’ music. Beside there are things that unconsciously recreate the music I listened to and which made a big impression on me. When I was younger than I am now, I was tenacious about the supremacy of originality. Anyway I wanted to be different from everyone else. I was careful not to push out originality. But lately I’ve come to think that I don’t have to make things that are so desperately different from other people. If I could make simple and nice things, that would be fine. Then, everyone told me that I had originality…
– What kind of books do you read?
P: I read everything from good books to bad books. Recently Lee Harvey Oswald as written in Dom Delillo’s novel “Libra” was good. He’s entering the inner world of what Oswald was thinking, and I think I’m trying to do something similar by writing songs about Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. I also like Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Martin Amis. And William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”. I read science things, biography, whatever. I like to read cheap detective novels. It’s useful to see how many people can paint a picture without many words. Come to think of it, I also read a thin book called “The Abba Story”. It’s the story of how they succeeded in Eurovision.
– To return to the previous subject, it seems you aren’t very keen to record, despite writing many songs one after the other.
P: Sure. If I can write good songs I would be satisfied with that. Also it’s funny, I can write a good song and I’ll think about keeping it for when a time may come when I can’t write songs any more. I save up the songs. So the unreleased songs accumulate more and more. But when you hoard songs, sometimes something similar will turn up. Yesterday I was surprised to read a newspaper story about a song called “Winona” by Matthew Sweet. I’ve also written a nice song about Winona Ryder. I’d been thinking about putting it on the next album.