In this room are all the songs I’ve written! Up there is the entire “Earth: the Story so Far”; on the shelf below are parts of “Let’s Change the World With Music”. And here in the bottom drawer I’ve collected together the songs for my Michael Jackson song cycle… Paddy McAloon, Prefab Sprout’s cowboy from Langley Park invites POP’s Kjell Häglund home.
(Translation from the Swedish mostly by Bjorn Wahlberg. Original Swedish text and pictures here)
If you loved the softly rain-drenched romantic Newcastle pop of the 1980s, Hurrah!, The Daintees, the Kane Gang, and early Prefab Sprout, it’s a pretty big deal to step into the offices of Kitchenware Records. So it feels a little sad when it’s no more than this: a mug of steaming hot coffee on a plastic chair next to a stack of rock magazines on the floor, while the boss, Keith Armstrong, leafs through some papers. Keith has kept his little kitchen alive for half a decade now, with the only thing expanding being his waistline. Everything still fits into a small room, with a crappy hi-fi and some bad demo’s in a corner; transistor radio blaring and a leaking coffee maker on top of a small, puffing, refrigerator, a broken desk empty except for a photo of his wife, and enough Prefab Sprout gold records (three) and industry awards (ten) to fill the yellowing walls, supplemented with some tour posters and an eight year old framed NME cover.
Keith is squeezed in alongside a lady who might have been part of the new wave twenty years ago, a young female intern who seems to have ideas and dreams in a completely different direction, and singer Paul from the Lighthouse Family, whose album is actually in the Top 20 in the UK which has given Keith a little work. Paul throws his overcoat over a chair back, fixes his quiff, throws his legs up on the table, and takes a telephone interview. At the other end of the phone there seems to be a question about influences or what he’s listening to right now. Paul spells patiently and slowly:
Kitchenware is now purely a management company for Newcastle’s finest. For Cathal Coughlan and Fatima Mansions; the Lighthouse Family and Prefab Sprout. The office is dominated by a white board in the style of a TV police drama, on which police investigators write the victim’s name in red ink, and then black when the case is resolved. On Kitchenware’s whiteboard, the top columns have the acts’ names in red, and all the dates in March and April are written on a red axis to the left. Three of the four columns are completely empty, except for two dates for the Lighthouse Family where Keith entered a gig in Leeds in March with a black felt pen, and something difficult to read for a day in April – probably the interview Paul is doing right now.
However one column is thick with ink squiggles – Prefab Sprout. Although the new album will still not be released for a few weeks, they are already busy with daily promotional work. Fun for Keith. But you wonder what he did for the seven inactive years after Prefab’s last album, “Jordan: The Comeback”.
“Don’t worry,” he assures. “There’s always something to do. Like going to New York to help Paddy negotiate with Warner about the song he wrote for Cher’s latest Album. Everyone loved it except Cher. She hated it. But they did it anyway and conned Cher into doing some vocals, and so it came out on the record against her will. Six minutes long! Then when all the critics wrote that it was by far the best song, Cher hated it even more…”
Later on, Keith does admit that he is dependent on Paddy making new albums:
“I’ve actually been able to squeeze a verbal agreement out of him now so that he actually will record and release all the albums he’s written in recent years. One finished album per year, that’s the deal. But if I get something every other year, I’ll be happy.”
Before Keith takes me to Paddy’s house, he let’s me out at the shops. I need to find a new tape for the interview, and as I talk to people I remember why I’ve been scared of Newcastle for many years.
Not because of crime. If you believe the TV detective from the town, “Spender”, even the underworld here is cosy. But in contrast, Newcastle is linguistically scary. As far as language goes, being lost in Paris is all right, it’s OK not to know French, but it’s not OK to be in England and not understand the language. My terror of Newcastle began with the TV series “Auf Wiedersehn, Pet” (called “Beer, Women and Bricks” when it aired in Sweden in the Eighties), a hilarious sitcom about unemployed Newcastle construction workers working in Germany, of which I subsequently bought all the videos in the UK. But I was never able to watch more than half of the first episode because there were no Swedish subtitles. I could only make out a few words from the guttural porridge the English call “Geordie”. After an hour of forwarding and rewinding, I managed to decipher a word: “spirit level” (“vattenpass”). I couldn’t get any of the punchlines.
Fortunately I’ve already met Paddy McAloon a few times before and I know he speaks with a kind of Newcastle accent somewhat approaching the American, with a rock “r” and rolling “a”. He actually talks as he sings: cryptic but clear.
It’s not in the least surprising that Paddy, right in the middle of Prefab Sprout’s long silence, made an appearance supplying tracks for “Crocodile Shoes”. A brilliant TV series with Newcastle motifs, created by Jimmy Nail who played the aforementioned “Spender” and was also the leading actor in “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”. Both of these sons of Newcastle had an eye to the Wild West as small boys: Jimmy Nail permitted his factory worker to become a Nashville pop star, where Paddy’s unlikely Western symbolism passed from his early single “Don’t Sing”, via the “Jesse James” suite on “Jordan” to “Cowboy Dreams” in the soundtrack to “Crocodile Shoes” and the Cher song, “The Gunman”.
It takes Keith about thirty minutes to drive me to Paddy’s home. With Michael Franks and Maxwell on the car stereo, it’s a lovely feeling when it begins to rain just as we’re passing Langley Park. Keith just laughs at the idea Newcastle might be home to some cowboys of its own:
“Monaco just beat us 3-0 in Europe yesterday. So much for the cowboys…”
Soon, we see real cowboys outside the window driving tractors. Newcastle is surprisingly small, after a few minutes’ drive you see nothing but cows and sheep, grazing lands and power lines.
Paddy McAloon lives behind a large and beautiful Catholic church. There is no fence, no hedge and no wall to define the yard. A few old trees bow gently in their windy location. The gravel road has patches of asphalt which continue well into the lawn, where the wind batters an open trailer door. The house is high as a tower, worn and stone-gray. The windows are padded with old curtains. Actually, it looks like the house in Psycho.
Paddy is spinning around in his studio, excited by the book “U & I “by Nicholson Baker which he’s just read. I think of something Keith mentioned in the car: Paddy is always changing his physical appearance, and these past years he’s gone from slickly clean-shaven to pure “Hey Jude” beards. The last time I saw him he had a long ponytail and wore contact lenses. Now he’s wearing large glasses and has his hair parted in the middle in a magnificent way not seen since my 1981 class photo. He’s wearing a completely shapeless suit, which makes him look much more amiable than if he had worn something more elegant.
But the boots he’s wearing do make him a little more of a cowboy anyway. I ask him about the connection between the Wild West and Newcastle, about Paddy’s ‘Cowboy Dreams’, and why he sings about outlaws and Mexico, guns and horses.
“But that’s not what I’m singing about”, he says, lighting up his afternoon cigar.
“You’re always looking for new, dramatic ways to describe everyday things. My cowboy dreams have nothing to do with the Wild West. Sometimes it’s a good metaphor for the vast prairies of pop music. But mostly it’s just a method, an imagery I feel comfortable with.”
You simply like the words?
“Yes! They have an irresistible atmosphere. I can’t find a better parallel to the wildness and the extremes explored in romantic relationships. But it’s really not the words themselves that work, but that they create a particular atmosphere at the crossroads between American archetypes and the fact that I’m sitting at a grand piano in the North-east of England, borrowing them. If I was an American, people would just have said, ‘Oh, you’re into country & western.’ But, had I been an American, I would rather have written about Newcastle.”
When it became clear that Thomas Dolby wouldn’t produce this time around, did you take the opportunity to make the album a little more acoustic and organic? I find it hard to believe that he would be able to produce something as Spector-retro like ‘A Prisoner of the Past’?
“That’s probably true, it wouldn’t be interesting to Thomas at all. He’s actually not all that much into music any more, he’s running a software company in California.”
But did you decide to arrange the music in a different way?
“Well, both Steve McQueen and Langley Park were very much Thomas’ arrangements, but on Jordan the arrangements were completely based on my demo’s. What he did was to take them and make them much better. But since then both Thomas and myself have move on, the difference is that he went into a different industry where I contented myself by developing my craft to arrange music differently.
Technology in arranging pop music is usually applied to make bad songs sound better. But I imagine that it’s somewhat to the contrary for you, that your songs can never sound better than they do inside your head, between your fingers on the piano and in your eyes on the lyric sheet…
“That’s an existential problem. As soon as you start to arrange a song, you suddenly notice a lot of holes in it, where the doubts start rushing in. From the very first vision of a complete song there’s only one way – and it’s downhill. Because, even if the result is good, I still keep all the alternative variations, the ones I deleted, in the back of my head. When you interviewed me last time, about Langley Park, I was going on about re-recording the whole Swoon album, wasn’t I? You got mad about it, but that’s just the way I am. And if you promise not to tell Keith, I can reveal to you I still haven’t given up my plans to record the whole of Swoon again!”
Is this why it’s taken you so long to record this time? You’ve been changing and revising the material?
“Oh no, shut down the tape recorder and I’ll show you something!”
Paddy gets on his feet and clears the way of wires and cables so that I can follow him through the studio and through a door in the corner. We enter an austere office space.
“In this room are all the songs I’ve written!” Paddy exclaims, while I hear somebody fiddling around behind the next door which must lead into the actual dwelling house. When I realize that Paddy has lived here all his life, I feel the return of the vision I had of the house from Psycho – especially since the room itself is quite weird, like a laboratory store room. Instead of a desk there are benches at which to stand; along the walls there are shelves full of DAT and cassette tapes, floppy disc cases and paper folders; asymmetrically deployed on the floor are several drawers of file boxes. Paddy begins to point at various places in the room, which serves as a summary of everything he’s been doing these past seven years – a large number of more or less finished, but unrecorded, albums:
“Up there is the entire “Earth: the Story so Far”; on the shelf below are parts of “Let’s Change the World With Music”. And here in the bottom drawer I’ve collected together the songs for my Michael Jackson song cycle…”
Paddy pulls out the heavy metal drawer. On the front of the folders there’s a colour photo of Michael Jackson; behind that there are many drafts of songs on paper, floppy discs and tapes. He holds up a sheet of paper with song titles on it, but I can’t help but look at the photo of Wacko Jacko from the 70’s, where he’s smiling ear to ear, which he always did back then.
It feels like I’m participating in a search at the home of a criminal suspect. No matter which drawer you pull out, there are always crazy surprises. Paddy is more at home. He pulls out the next drawer with great eagerness. Even before I can see the content of the box, he exclaims: “Total Snow!” Fortunately, I see no Santa Claus mask inside, just another layer of song drafts for what I realize is Paddy McAloon’s notorious Christmas album.
Then Paddy shouts “Zorro the Fox!” and points to a shelf on the next wall, explaining that it’s “a whole soundtrack to a musical”. I ask Paddy, “What kind of musical?” wanting to know who made if it had been put on somewhere, but Paddy just replies, “it’s an animated musical”, and hurries along to another file box in another drawer where he keeps The Atomic Hymnbook, his gospel project.
Then he looks at me, as if awoken from a dream, and says, “Oh, sorry, we must go back and continue the interview.” He leads me back to the studio again. The last thing I hear from Paddy’s boyhood room is the noise from the other side of the kitchen door. Is it Paddy’s wife? Or Norman Bates’s mother?
“I just wanted to show you that I haven’t been fixed that long on just ‘Andromeda Heights‘”, Paddy says while we settle in the small sofa and armchairs next to the front door and I turn on the tape recorder again.
“‘Earth: The Story So Far‘ is probably the album I’ve been working on more than anything else”, he says.
“But I realized that Sony wouldn’t be interested in it; it’s got too many songs and it would be too expensive, so I abandoned it. For the moment, not forever. I will record it. But I took a song from another record and developed it as the theme of a completely different album, and it continued from there. Paradoxically, I have never been more creative or productive than during these seven years. I have never ever been happier either, in myself or my songs.
But why did you distract yourself with all these side projects? Weren’t you more attracted to the idea of finishing these Sprout records, if they’re so good?
“I get frustrated doing the arrangements. They take a long time to do and they keep me from song-writing, so what happens is I stop arranging and go back to the studio to write a few more songs, and then I go back to complete the arrangements, and…”
One step forward – and two steps back into the studio?
“Yes, but I never feel that my pile of songs has becomes unmanageable. I don’t write that way. Most people wait until they got together ten songs and then they record them, and then they take a holiday for a year. But I always write in the context of various prospective projects, a Christmas album, one about Michael Jackson, a record about religion, a romantic project… so I’ll never be finished. I’m always thinking about the future, about stuff that’s not possible now, but in two–three years… I live constantly three years in the future.”
So, which record is occupying your thoughts the most right now?
“None at all. I mostly think about writing more for TV. I’ve just written a theme song for a hospital series which will come this autumn, ‘Where the Heart Is’. I have a strong desire to be truly established in those circles, in film music. It takes such a long time to get them to believe in me, but that’s what I aspire to – that the people in the film and television industry should trust me as much as people in the pop business trust my ability to make pop records, so that they would invite me to write for the best films.”
Have you got any offers after Crocodile Shoes?
But then you’re already in the position you say you’re striving for?
“True in a sense, but there’s a big difference between being offered stuff and being offered the stuff you really want to do. I’m still getting asked in the role of ‘the guy from Prefab Sprout’, I want the moguls to hire me completely independent of that. Do you know 14th century poet Chaucer? The Canterbury Tales? There was a musical made of it in the sixties. It’s going to be put up again, and the Chaucer Society, which owns the rights, asked me to write new music. That’s the kind of offer I get.”
Forgive me, but I‘d have loved to hear your music to The Canterbury Tales! Could you possibly get closer to the Wild West in England?
“Yes, but I can’t think like that, because otherwise I’d never get any peace. I mean, there was already music written for it, and now they would throw away that music and use the new stuff by me… I want to have more control over my music than that. I want to initiate projects, I want to sit in meetings with the moguls and get my stuff through in a way they might not originally have planned. Do you see? I want to be certain, above all I have to get better at presenting my ideas. That’s what I’m still not mastering in the film industry, the ability to act as if people don’t have any imagination at all. That’s how it is with Prefab Sprout as well.”
[Paddy says that he “will show” me – he moves over to the grand piano and starts playing the chorus to ‘Steal Your Thunder’. When he plays the chords in the verse he stops singing, but continues to play as he speaks:]
“Do you hear that? This is me at the meeting with Sony. I’m trying to present my new album, and you’re my A&R man. You’re just staring at my piano.”
Because I believe you will make a “crooning album”?
“Yeah, you’re thinking, ‘Aha, Paddy’s going to make it with a piano!’”
Has your working style changed, having been a professional songwriter for so many years?
“Very much. I get faster to the point now. I have a better idea of what the core is and how to reach it. In the past, it was more a matter of inspiration.”
“Yes, I allowed myself to take more chances, to not be so focused. I had less control over what I was doing. Some of my old songs no-one talks about or even listens to, I guess they were examples of this: they didn’t hold up because I wasn’t clear enough, they were too cryptic and lacked a focus. Now I want to be concise. That’s my motto, ‘get to the point with music’! Of course it’s got to do with age and experience. But rather that I dare to make simple things now, as well as complex. When I was young, I didn’t understand the value of contrast in music, how you make it breathe by switching between light and heavy approaches. And that ever song must have an absolute core.
I didn’t realize the value of that range in music, how you got it to breathe by switching between light and heavy approaches. And that every song must have an absolute core.”
So why did this become your profession and life? Is composing music your way to deal with life?
“Yes, oh, I’ll just let the cat out [runs up, meowing to his kitty which runs out as soon as the glass door opens], okay, go on! [to the cat.]
“Oops, sorry… uh, that’s not something people say to me every day, to deal with life, people just assume you’re a songwriter because you happen to be a little good at it, but it’s so awfully true that I’m writing songs to cope with life. My God! Is that it? Yes! Oh, yeah. That’s it. This room is my bunker, my defence mechanism. I’ve been writing every day since I was 13. A day without songwriting is a wasted day. But it’s not something I’m proud of, you’re not supposed to feel this way, it’s not healthy.”
Do songwriters not think too much about love? I guess no normal human being is walking around constantly, like you do, thinking about different ways to express their love?
“Honestly, I don’t write much about my own love life. Almost nothing at all, in concrete terms. I wrote extremely romantic songs to ‘Andromeda Heights’ because I like that kind of song, not because I had a lot of romance inside me I needed to express. The music is not a means for me but a goal, an end in itself.”
Still, it has to originate from romantic feelings you’ve experienced yourself, even in private? Or are you more of a Nick Drake-type of songwriter?
“Absolutely not. I’m happy, I told you. Music isn’t my lifebelt, on the contrary, it’s my celebration of life. If I was living a miserable life there would be nothing worth celebrating. What I want to express with my romantic songs is the intrinsic emotionalism. Not all the actual things the songs are saying, but the more general romantic longing you feel for life itself rather than to any particular woman. So the narrative within each song is just something to hang the more general sense onto.”
Andromeda Heights is not only your most romantic album, but also the most universal?
“Yes, that’s exactly why it’s so romantic. Because that’s where pop music has always operated – the man–woman situation, romantic love. Not just between me and my woman. I wanted to make a simple and idealized album, without any room for lamentations about the wretchedness of life. At the same time, when I sing ‘life is short, and life’s a miracle’, then it’s completely from the heart. To write so purely, and without any irony, feels fresh. If you write too autobiographically, it quickly becomes a substitute for genuine quality. You will excuse a mediocre song if it’s ‘pure’. Of course, that applies to any forms of culture you can designate as “self disclosure”.
So, your song-writing is a therapy – but not a therapy specifically about yourself?
“It’s therapy in the way that it’s therapeutic to write. A good song makes me feel pretty damn good. Then the story itself can be something that I haven’t experienced. Like when a lover says to his ex-lover in ‘Prisoner of the Past’, just like Sting in ‘Every Breath You Take’, that ‘I’ll be watching you’, that ‘whatever you do you won’t get rid of me’… this I’ve never felt! But once it gets into a song, I can identify with it.”
It’s an eerie song. This guy has completely given up, he has decided to cling to the lost love.
“Yes, isn’t it a fascinating subject? Most songs and movies are about the opposite, ‘the thing that got away’.”
At the same time, it’s not just the guy who is the ‘prisoner of the past’, he also takes a prisoner of the past… isn’t that the joke in the song?
“Sure, she has left him and he comes back for revenge. He sings that they will both become ghosts. What a pathetic dream of revenge!”
You have always used stars as symbols in your lyrics, but here you’ve systemised it. You extend your concept of being happy ‘above the clouds, next to the sky’… almost like the romantic poets, whose quest for artistic ecstasy drove them toward more divine metaphors?
“It’s true! I just wanted to let it loose, once and for all. I know I’ve done it to death, but this time I wanted to wallow in it. Grovelling to the heavens!”
You almost create some sort of quasi science fiction. It would be obvious to compare Andromeda Heights with Donald Fagen’s latest album, because he’s dear to your heart and he’s using the same kind of imagery, but he does it seriously, like a real Philip K. Dick junkie…
“… while I’m just playing with space words?”
Yes, like when you let Wendy whisper ‘Gagarin’ at the end of ‘Weightless’.
“And like Sun Ra! Even though he seemed serious with his cosmic forces, he made it so easy and playful. It’s really a kind of extract from those images that’s useful to me, something true. As in the title track ‘Andromeda Heights’, where the guy sings that they’re going to build their dream home – they haven’t even started building yet, but once they’ve done that, imagine how much the people will love it…! In this case it’s only natural to use cosmic exaggerations, they become perfect metaphors for a rather sad and yet terribly beautiful daydreaming.”
You could interpret the song as hoping sometime in the future you might make the perfect music?
“Yes, and it’s just as likely that these house builders will be able to reach space with their house. ‘Andromeda Heights’ is actually my favourite song of all those I’ve written, I can’t get over my delight for it. It’s so touching how people always dream of the perfect life, which is just waiting for them somewhere up ahead.”
Is ‘Electric Guitars’ mostly about the Beatles, or mostly about the phenomenon of pop? I mean, could you have written a song about pop music but with some of today’s bands as metaphor instead?
“No thanks, the Beatles are enough. I’m fascinated by the eternal viability of an electric guitar, how it makes people who are starting out in pop music to believe that there’s something special about them. All this is of course still going on, with Oasis or Spice Girls or whatever, but I only care about it on a private level, that is with the Beatles. I’m too old to appreciate the new. It’s for the kids.”
Pop music is a way to get through puberty.
“True. Looking at it sociologically, when you’re writing pop music and getting older, you end up in a terrible dilemma when you need to find something to write about which is no longer driven by the development of sex hormones. Sure, pop music is there to help you through adolescence, but pop music can say other things as well, as we know.”
But when the driving force of an artist no longer is sexual development, when the driving force and the artistry somehow takes the step into adulthood, there is a problem: you can no longer belong to a scene. When we talk about Sixties pop music, we mean the Beatles and the Byrds. Not Sammy Davis Jr., for example, despite the fact that he made his most mature and strongest albums in the Sixties. Sammy Davis Jr. is more the Fifties for us. And when an artist is always associated with the youth phase, the school years, it goes without saying that the breeding ground for a more adult pop music is not the best.
“You mean that the older pop music is doomed to fail? Because it’s not rewarding to develop a true artistry in pop music?”
Yes. Adult Oriented Rock is used as a term of abuse, and if you listen to things that are characterized AOR, then you understand why. But shouldn’t AOR be the opposite? Shouldn’t AOR be Prefab Sprout?
“I know! That should be where the adventure is! I will soon turn forty, and everyone of my age knows what I’m talking about when I make the claim that life is so much bigger and richer when you can finally detach yourself from the hang-ups of your teenage years. But it doesn’t work like that in pop music, and that’s because people don’t really care that much about music the way you and I do. We know they’re wrong and that they’re missing something. And they know that you and I are weirdos.”
‘Mystery of Love’ is like the adult version of one of your earliest songs, ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’. Then you were somehow sad because your girlfriend worshipped you and made you into something you couldn’t live up to, but here you take the opposite stance, you just realize that you and she can never truly understand each other, but that that is sufficiently beautiful all the same?
“I think rather it’s a young guy and an old guy who are saying the same thing. And neither of the guys are really me. Because all this evaporates when people talk about it, it’s so fragile. ‘What you see in me I will never know…’, it’s not poetry, it’s just how we think of ourselves and those we are together with, it’s how we handle it. I’m just describing something that works, even though we don’t understand how. In fact, I wrote this song a few years ago, when I was going through a phase where I was trying to write for other artists. Before Jimmy Nail. So the idea was not to exclude any one person through language, but to be completely clear and universal. That’s where this entire album was born.”
What makes the song so special is the key change between verse and chorus. Any song could consist of just the theme of the verse, or just the chords in the chorus, but the breach between them is what I identify as typically Prefab Sprout.
“True, for me the verse demands such a chorus, and vice versa. I’ll have to show you!”
[Paddy moves to the piano again, and while he plays the sentimental chords in the chorus he says:]
“I always have the title first… ‘Mystery of Love’… the simplest thought. Then I write the words just as easily, there’s no way to put in more in the chorus than this, simple… and so! Here comes the change!”
[Paddy transitions dramatically to the verse, leaning towards the piano, clearly fond of his own chord changes.]
“Here there’s immediately time for more ‘talk’, here I must elaborate on the argument to make the song interesting, to add more impressions. I shouldn’t say this, because it reveals how terrible my stuff is before I get it right… but the fact is that the verse originally went like this [Paddy starts singing]: ‘Should I live to see, whoever killed Kennedy’… Yep, that’s how it went! I put in a lot of these historical things in the lyric, ‘I might get to experience this and maybe that… but one thing they will never explain to me is the mystery of love’. But all this just lay itself as dead meat around the core of the song. Then I realized that the chord change was enough, it was the pitch change that did the trick.”
You mentioned earlier that ‘Life’s a Miracle’ was completely direct, completely free of irony. Paul McCartney sometimes writes the same kind of songs, they should be pathetic but they just feel really moving. I actually come to think of ‘Ebony & Ivory’, a song which everyone you know hates for some reason. Because it’s lame. But I’ve always felt that that particular song is a perfect watershed; anyone who really appreciates ‘Ebony & Ivory’ has a full understanding of pop music.
“Incredible, I have to tell Keith! He’s the only one I know who also loves ‘Ebony & Ivory’, just like me! The silly thing is that if someone had declared from the beginning that the song actually was very ironic and made fun of all cheesy pop music, then people would have taken it to heart. Rock dudes are insanely scared of being sentimental and emotional in an uncool way. That’s why it gives me so much pleasure to write such a sincere and naive song as ‘Life’s a Miracle’.”
Just because of that? In that casae it’s even meta-ironic, and that’s almost worse! Almost like the Rutles?
“No, no, now you’re provoking me. The fact is that it’s written as tiny messages to myself, because I find it so hard to really enjoy the present, I’m always busy in getting things ready for next week. ‘Life’s a Miracle’ is my enjoyment for the moment.”
A journalist at Mojo who interviewed me yesterday, he [Chris Ingham] is by the way a jazz pianist, too, had written down the lyric on paper to try to understand how such clichéd words could move him so much. I explained that the song is like a list of all those simple things people say when they encourage each other, things parents say to their young children, things they say to a colleague who is in hospital. And it’s of course phrases everyone can identify with, just as long as they come with the right music. I don’t just write the words, I’ve never been interested in poetry. The words come with the chords, then the music polishes the words, makes them shine.”
Have you heard the new Babyface album? There’s a song there, a similar piano ballad, in which he pays tribute to his wife and newborn child, the simplest of simple words, but it’s not working at all. It just gets annoying. Yet he must have had just the same sincere intentions. And he has a well-documented pop sensibility.
“I haven’t heard it, but I know the kind of song you mean. A well-meaning ballad that doesn’t really stick together, because it relies too much to that honest feeling and can’t find enough points of interest in the composition itself. Babyface is good at finding hooks…”
…But then he suddenly wants to hang not just a nice ballad, but a gorgeous ballad about the miracle of life, on the hook?
“Exactly, and it won’t carry it. The problem is often that they write a line of lyric and aim for a rhyme, and they’re not so careful with the words on the way to that rhyme. The music glides on and then we get… wife…. life… knife…”
For some reason I also think of Elvis Costello when I hear ‘Life’s a Miracle’, and also ‘Anne Marie’.
“Yes, I think I can hear his voice there as well, not least because he’s close to Paul McCartney… but I don’t think he would be satisfied with the lyrics, he would squeeze in in five extra words to each line!”
He’s too wordy?
“Oh God, this is horrible, he was so kind to us in the beginning, he always talked about us and he played Prefab Sprout songs live… I have an old concert tape where he plays ‘Cruel’ from Swoon. And I can say that I love what he says about pop music. But not what he says with pop music. He is unmusical in two ways: I don’t like his voice at all, and he tries to put in too many words.”
I’m sure people have said the last thing about you too?
“Of course I’ve been guilty of that before, too. Pop music is not a good means of expression if you want to say something with lots of long words. I know that I’m usually called a ‘literary English songwriter’, just like Costello, but I hope people don’t perceive me as I perceive him. He can construct songs, but they don’t sound natural.”
I like both of you, but one difference is that Costello’s records are more difficult to return to, whereas I have to play yours over and over again.
“To understand them?”
Well, I really meant that as a compliment, but okay – to perceive the subtleties and the nuances of your music, one really has to go back to it many times.
“I like the way you turn my criticism of Costello and redirect it back at me. But do you think everybody feels that way? The fact that my music is not sufficiently direct?”
Your music works on both levels. But take ‘Anne Marie’ as an example. It works great as an infectious direct pop song, but it has a rather subtle, ghostly subtext as well. On the surface, the theme is the Sinatra classic ‘The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else’. But you’re not really singing about her, Anne Marie, but rather about your – or this fictional guy’s – social defects?
“Or moral defects? I love the idea of feinting a lyric about the girl, but then the lyric goes straight through the girl and reaches deep down into the narrator instead. This guy thinks it’s about love, or rather, he suspects that it’s about something else entirely.”
He’s obviously been through this before, falling for someone else’s woman. And he’s even aware of it. I like that line, ‘I have a history of wanting what I can’t have’.
“There’s a battle between guilt and impulse. In fact, this song contradicts what I said before about arranging – the arrangement and the sound is an important part of the reason why the song works. In the demo I had persistent Motown drums, and when the song reached that sixteen bars long middle section, the whole thing just got wrecked. My friend Paul Smith, who is a drummer, helped me rearrange it completely. We let different details slip in and out through the various sections, small rhythmic figures that pop up and replaced by something else the next time the song reaches the same moment. Stomping strings instead of drums. Old Broadway tricks of the trade.”
And then you reinforced the guy’s unstable emotional state by a really spooky intro and outro? Do you think we would get the more sickly parts of the song without those markings?
[Paddy hums, scratches his head and sits down at the grand piano again. To my surprise, he plays all those spooky tones as part of the composition.]
Wow, did you write the song just like that? I thought all that scary stuff was overdubbed?
“No, the song is written like this… pretty creepy, huh? Still, you’re right, the reason why I amplified those parts with ghostly synthesizers was because it otherwise felt too vague, that the madness had to be reinforced.”
[Paddy ends abruptly and begins to connect the computer and more keyboards, saying “I’m with you, wait…”, whereupon a lot of ghostly sounds comes out of the computer’s loudspeakers and a sequencer. Paddy plays for a while and it sounds just like on the record. The same theme over and over again, but there seems to be some little error in the melody, perhaps a tone which Paddy has almost forgotten, forcing him to repeat the music until he finds out what’s missing. I begin to think about Brian Wilson’s state of mind on Friends, before something seems to snap back inside Paddy’s head – he looks at me and shuts down.]
“Sorry Kjell, I don’t know how I got into that. Well, you asked if the song would work without the spooky arrangement. The answer is probably no.”
When I listen to ‘Whoever You Are’ I think about Sinatra again, especially an album he made in 1957, ‘Where Are You’. You know, he always made two or three real swing records in a row and then a really slow, moody album. ‘Where Are You’ is full of songs on the same theme as your ‘Whoever You Are’.
“Sinatra is almost always present, somewhere, when I write. In a world where his voice was young and strong, I could have sent him this song. All the time I wrote it, I could hear Sinatra’s voice singing to the melody, and the idea was to try to get away from my usual personality as a songwriter, to really erase my fingerprints and write just as directly and openly as they did then, like Irving Berlin.”
Yes, one can really hear it already at the start, when the guy goes from street to street, from bar to bar, where you place the song in a very nostalgic Fifties mood – these days one is expecting a little anxiety, a little desperation in such a description of the search for love, but this guy is truly confident, he finds absolutely nobody but sings to her anyway…
“Because he’s ridiculously certain she’s out there. Sure, it’s a little fifties caricature. But I don’t really agree with you, it sounds like this when it comes out of this happy guy’s mouth, but do you really think he’s as happy as he sounds?”
No, but what I mean is that this was exactly how Berlin and Sinatra worked, this was how the songs would sound like, but between the lines, especially in Sinatra’s voice, there was a crack, or a gap, where the listener could interpret…
“… yeah exactly, the composer says one thing but the singer adds a subtext, which the composer usually had already foreseen, because at that time they usually wrote songs with a particular singer in mind.”
Did you think like this when you wrote ‘Whoever You Are’? Did you reach out towards the fifties?
“Yes, ‘stars’ and ‘bars’… that kind of standard form which sounds so delightfully corny today. On one hand I’m training myself to write like Berlin because he was so smart without writing smart, the words never stood in the way of the music, and it was always just as much the melody itself as the singer who sang the words. On the other hand I think it’s so much more fun to write for a fantasy Sinatra than the Spice Girls. That tone of his voice, I wish I could tap it in a bottle and drip some of it in every song! I really have those kind of fantasies. I dream of software which allows you to make demo’s of your songs with Sinatra’s voice rather than your own.”
I’m also fascinated by the craftsmanship, by the standard form as you say, it was the same thing with the orchestra in those days. They just did their job. There’s great ensemble playing on Sinatra’s fifties albums, but many members of the orchestra probably just sat thinking about baseball during the recordings!
“Yeah! That’s absolutely true about most things recorded today as well. People buying records have probably a completely warped idea of where the feeling in pop music is. When they think a guitarist is playing his heart out, he’s probably both hungover and nervous and happy to even get through the song without too many mistakes. This touches upon what I was saying before about the myth that everything has to be ‘autobiographical’ to be any good. Lots of bands and artists romanticize the notion that ‘the feeling has to be right’, that they have to capture ‘the vibe’ just in that recording moment, so they get dimmers for the studio lighting…”
Costello drank half a bottle of whisky in the studio before each take of Almost Blue… The Chocolate Watchband couldn’t record anything without bringing a special Chinese drug box to the studio…
“When I record my songs, I hate the sound of my voice. It’s always a hell of an ordeal. And no one can help me through it by lighting candles in the studio or flying me to the Caribbean. So I just see it as a job. Like the guys in Sinatra’s or Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. Or like Sinatra himself, for that matter! I think that he, to a very large extent, just did his job. But then again the word ‘just’ is a bad word, because it was a huge job.”
Sinatra just did it?
“Yes. I have a video of a concert in the Dominican Republic from the eighties [August 1982], where Sinatra lowers the microphone after ‘Strangers in the Night’ and turns to the drummer and says, ‘That’s the worst fucking song I’ve ever heard!’ Turn up the sound of the TV so you can hear it, it must have gone through the overhead microphones! And there were hundreds of couples in the audience with tears in their eyes when Sinatra sang ‘their song’… But my point is that it still was a great version of a great song.”
‘Avenue of Stars’ is also very fifties-like. I like that you don’t just prolong it because you’ve found a beautiful melody, which you always did before, like with ‘When Love Breaks Down’.
“Well, it was a totally different kind of song. ‘Avenue of Stars’, and even ‘Swans’, are so short precisely because they would sound crap if they were longer.”
Just as ‘Strangers in the Night’ would be incomprehensible if it went on for seven minutes.
“Yes. Previously I’ve taken too much time. And a nice result of writing more concentrated and effective songs, is that I also get room for more instrumental passages and quite long intros instead. It’s also a result of the fact that I’ve worked on a hard drive for the first time, and being able to move entire sections of music around without having to tire out a lot of musicians while I change the arrangements.”
“This is how I imagine ‘Earth: The Story So Far’. It will resemble the most orchestrated and cinematic passages on ‘Andromeda Heights’.”
Through the glass wall over at Paddy’s old office, I see the door to the rest of the house slowly opening. I actually freeze. Keith is out in the caravan. Paddy and I are sitting in the couch. The person moving around over there is really Paddy’s wife. If he’s married to Norman Bates’s mother, that is. Because the figure who glides weightlessly through the room like a grey ghost is a very old lady. She doesn’t look younger than 80.
“Answer the phone, Paddy!” she hisses.
“My mum”, Paddy says whisking her away by saying that he “must take the interviews in order”. I ask him if she wants to “steal his thunder”, alluding to the English proverb which is the title of another of his new songs, ‘Steal Your Thunder’. Paddy gratefully accepts the pass and returns the conversation to his music:
“I use that metaphor as a declaration of love, but the guy uses it first after he’s left the girl. It gives the song a very special, bittersweet taste. ‘Whatever happens to me, whoever I get along with, no one will steal your thunder.’”
That’s right, and no one will steal her thunder even though he may feel that lightning strikes twice. A very meteorological pop song.
“Hahaha, plenty of weather maps. A brand new pop genre. ‘The meteorological variety!’ Mmm…”
Another detail I love is the campfire harmonica that you haven’t used since ‘Don’t Sing’.
“Despite my taste for the Wild West, I’d never thought of that harmonica like a cowboy thing. When we did ‘Don’t Sing’, it was just a very good instrument to use to spice things up, because it was so cheap. And now when I arranged this overture, the old harmonica sound of Swoon just popped up in my head. It was like a whole movie falling into place because of it. Guess who I thought of when I arranged it?”
No idea… a film composer?
“Yes, partly. Quincy Jones! He was never afraid to take something that shouldn’t be there, and highlight it.”
You mean how he typically used to take white elements and tucked them into his black music?
“Exactly. That came about because he was the very first black composer in Hollywood. Henry Mancini helped him out, but after that he got nothing for free. He had such a helluva time to get a foot in the business, that he had to learn the white tricks in the beginning.”
I think you mix the black elements in your music the same way he and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder mixed white elements into their music.
“Yes, it would be too bad if I just did pure white entertainment music. The pain points in pop music, the most important cornerstones, are sex and religion. Which has always been the centre of black music but is pathetically absent in white pop.”
You’ve always used Biblical references, but on this record only ‘The Fifth Horseman’ has such a theme?
“Yes, and it’s a pure joke. I’m taking the Apocalypse down to Earth. All truly religious songs are in other boxes inside the office. Keith thinks that one of them, ‘God Watch Over You’, is the best thing I’ve done, but it didn’t fit on Andromeda Heights.”
Paddy’s mum comes in again, now with Keith in tow. The cat slinks in, too. A Finnish journalist has been waiting on the phone for forty-five minutes. Paddy’s mum is shaking her head in anger, and Paddy apologizes and says hello to the Finn. As I leave he waves with his thumb up, like an inexperienced hitchhiker.
As Keith drives me back to the airport, I ask if Paddy is really living with his mother. “Yes”, he replies, “she was a bit jittery today because she was baking a cake. Paddy lives there for her sake, so she doesn’t live on her own. But he has a girlfriend, too. They’ve been together for many years.” I refer to what Paddy said that he never writes about his own love life. Keith smiles and says:
“Paddy and his girlfriend’s love is as beautiful as love can be. Obviously, it’s what he writes about. All the time.”