One of a number of, shall we say, veteran artists to make our forthcoming albums of 2012 so far poll, Paul Buchanan has taken his time arriving at his debut solo album. It was well worth the wait, however, and certainly impressed our team of writers – Johnnie Craig included.
In April this year, those in the right place at the right time experienced one of those rare and beautiful moments when the mediums of music and television aligned to create something rather memorable. It was an edition of Later With Jools Holland, one which should, by rights, have belonged to Paul Weller, promoting his new LP with customary buzz and bluster. However, in a matter of two-and-a-half hushed, velvety minutes, another seasoned musical veteran quietly stole the show.
Paul Buchanan’s performance of perfectly crafted mini-drama ‘Mid Air’, made for stunning viewing and listening; a simple, chiming melody, a tender, troubled vocal, a lyric weeping with delicate, tragic imagery, and a suitably subtle piano accompaniment from Mr Holland himself, it was like a devastating, grown-up lullaby for doomed romantics and the optimistically lovelorn. As a performance, it was unforgettable.
It was also the perfect introduction to Buchanan’s solo debut, also entitled Mid Air, a record that showcases a true master at work. As long-term fans of his erstwhile band, Glasgow’s The Blue Nile, know only too well, good things come to those who wait – with only four albums in 20 years, they always made you wait – and the eight intervening years have been well worth it. Unlike his band’s lush epics of yore, it comprises 14 minimalist, hushed treasures, only one of which creeps over three minutes. Sparing piano and subtle synths reverentially bow to his heart-rendingly soulful voice, singing bittersweet tales of love, loss and other fragments of daily humanity, without a misplaced note anywhere. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
But tell that to the 56-year-old Edinburgh-born songwriter, and he becomes almost deflective and bashful. “I just can’t hear it anymore”, he chuckles, before he collects himself and pieces together an explanation of how Mid Air came about. “I was working away on something else and wasn’t getting anywhere, and when I looked at work I had put to one side, I realised I had to use those songs on Mid Air. So, they came in – I don’t know what the collective noun for songs is – a herd, maybe? In terms of recording, there’s not that much to them, so it was really more of a case of staying true to the wee sketches.”
Sketches, fragments – describing these tiny compositions isn’t easy, so detached are they from traditional, symmetrical, verse/chorus songs. Was he deliberately writing outside of conventional song structures? Another pause, before he explains: “it’s a wee bit like doing a sculpture, I think. You’re using some sense that maybe isn’t absolutely rational – actually, I’d better not offend anybody who sculpts. But that was my only guideline – when it felt right, it was right. And then you have a moment at the end where you think – what is it? I wasn’t even convinced it was a record – but I realised it did make sense, even though it was done more by instinct than thought.”
Buchanan’s well-honed instincts wrote the songs by aid of “a wee recording device in the kitchen, at the piano”, but he swears it was only afterwards that he realised the songs were so short. “I was aware of the fact that some of them were asymmetrical or that I wasn’t repeating the chorus,” he says. “To be honest, it was a surprise to me when I listened back to what I had played when I first got the idea – and that was how I left it. I didn’t think, right that’s nice but I’m going to make it longer, and the reward at the end is that it makes some kind of sense.”
Buchanan recorded this minimalist masterpiece alone (“well, I used a engineer, I’m hopeless at technology”), but I wonder if, for a man known for being in a band and involved in bigger productions, he found not having another musician to bounce ideas off difficult. “Obviously I’m used to being able to ask somebody ‘what do you think?’ or to tell you that’s good or not so good. But Robert (Bell, of The Blue Nile) came in at the very end and helped me balance a couple of things.”
Ah, his old band mate – is it slightly too early to go all fanboy on him, and ask tricky questions about a reformation? A little; so I ask instead about his lyrical themes, the origins of these fragments of narrative that elevate the songs into the realms of the extraordinary. Much like his sculpture analogy, he’s afraid to wade into the mysteries of poetry, but he explains himself thus: “in the course of life, you’ll be walking down the street and suddenly realise you’re thinking something, and you wonder – how did I not know that yesterday? It was a wee bit like that. There was no effort on my part to write about a particular subject. It’s as much of a surprise to me as the listener. When I look back at the first [song] outlines, they were already called ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Newsroom’ or ‘Half the World’ – your mind has already processed various sources, from the ridiculous to the sublime, huge events in your own life get mixed in with something you hear on television or in the street, and you’re more alert to it because it’s in your own mind anyway. And it’s often about the tone, and how you can sing the thing.”
Which is exactly what came across in that Jools Holland performance – his innate ability to transmit a tone, an idea, and a mood. I ask him if he’ll take the whole album on the road and he seems reticent. When I tell him, as any responsible person would, that it could be magical, he’s sincerely grateful. “That’s kind of you… but I don’t honestly know. My only concern would be that the audience were coming to see that kind of evening rather than thinking that I was suddenly going to produce a huge band from behind a curtain! I’ve discussed it with a couple of people and I thought that, if the record seems valid to people, then I’ll go and more or less perform the record. I’ll need to consider what else to do to make that a presentable night to people.”
With the clock ticking on our chat, I ask for his permission for the fanboy question – will there be another Blue Nile record, even if we’re still waiting a decade from now? He is gracious enough to chuckle again. “It’s nice of you to leave it to the end…. obviously, I’ve been asked the question! The straight answer is, I just don’t know. If the stars aligned, and we all bumped into each other in the street and burst out laughing, we’d do it. But at the moment, I’ve got my fingers crossed behind my back.’
Great, I say, because a lot of people who are now in their 40s grew up on these records – is The Blue Nile a legacy he’s still proud of? ‘I’m happy people still love the records but I think I just look back and feel I was lucky to be involved in it. Your concern is always, I could have done better, I should have done better, I will do better – and if there is another record, then I’ll probably feel the same way then.”