Critical Questions: Paul BuchananBy Stewart Mason
Former Blue Nile frontman on his solo debut and more.
Thirty years after The Blue Nile debuted with a little-heard, still-rare single called "I Love This Life," and eight years after the Glaswegian trio quietly dissolved, singer-songwriter Paul Buchanan re-emerged earlier this year with his first solo album, Mid Air. Belatedly available in the United States in an expanded double-disc format, the album is one of 2012's most intimate, personal musical documents. We spoke with the reclusive Buchanan via email about his new album and more. (By the way, EMI just announced that The Blue Nile's first two albums, 1983's A Walk Across The Rooftops and 1989's Hats, will be reissued in expanded double-disc sets on January 22, 2013.)
CM: There's a remarkable intimacy to your performances on Mid Air. Did you record the vocals and piano together?
PB: On the sketches yes, probably; that's when the ideas come, but for the recordings in this instance no, separately.
On average, how many takes did you record of any given song? What were the moments that raised one specific performance above another?
Sometimes one, other times it eluded me and I'd start again another day. It's difficult to say: unself-consciousness, maybe?
I've always been able to think of artists that your music occasionally reminds me of -- touches of Nick Drake, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, maybe a little Erik Satie -- but I've never had a handle on who your direct influences are. When you were a teenager just getting deep into music, who was inspiring you?
I guess like everyone I listen to everything that passes before me, but my relationship with the instruments is very innocent, untutored, a way of expressing yourself.
When The Blue Nile were gaining attention in the 1980s, who did you think of as your contemporaries, musically? Other Glasgow bands, other bands who were doing roughly similar music? Or were you loners?
We liked other bands, but existed in hilarious isolation, just thru circumstance.
If I remember correctly, the first review I read of A Walk Across The Rooftops, in a very early issue of the US music magazine Spin, claimed that the three members of The Blue Nile were a journalist, a recording engineer and a PR person. Was that correct? If so, which were you? At what point were you able to quit your day job?
I very briefly worked in PR, but each job was temporary and eventually I just didn't take another one, so there was no auspicious sense of giving it all up.
My understanding is that Linn Hi-Fi [a Scottish turntable manufacturer unrelated to the company that popularized the drum machine] originally financed A Walk Across the Rooftops as a sort of demonstration record for their equipment, which is why that album has so much open space and silence. As a group, had The Blue Nile already been moving toward that kind of minimalism, or were you working strictly within the strictures of the corporate brief? Did you rework existing material to fit the new sound parameters, or did you start fresh and build the songs within that concept?
Linn didn't influence us or ask to. We had already made demos for the record and they heard them. We wouldn't have changed anyway.
Since then, how have you tended to approach each new record as a whole? Do you have particular lyrical themes or musical soundscapes in mind? Mid Air sounds to me as if it was written and recorded as a self-contained unit.
Everything is dictated by the songs, and it's a mystery where songs come from. I just try to obey them. Usually there is a group that belong together. Mid Air certainly fell into that category.
How different is Mid Air as it was eventually recorded from what you envisioned when you first started thinking of the album?
I followed the map of the initial notes, so it is very close.
Given your standard multi-year gap between recording projects, what is your songwriting process like? For example, do you write songs between albums and pick them out from the notebooks when it's time to start recording, or do you start fresh for each album?
I might have a song for a few years, but they don't seem interchangeable between records. Usually there is a thru line and songs belong together, even if they aren't all from the same year.
How many songs do you start for each one you finish? What happens to the others?
Lots. I forget them.
What does the rise of self-funded (or crowdsourced), self-released music and digital distribution mean to you as an artist, if anything?
I'm all for it, though I haven't done it. Any way that music can find its way out and reach people's hearts is good. Good for the listener who has found it and good for the person who recorded.
Finally, my friend Anna shared a memory from school when she found out I was interviewing you. As a teenager, she chose your song "Heatwave" as the music for her school gymnastics tumbling routine. This is her description of it:
"Understand that this wasn't the athletic, handsprings and flips type of tumbling. This was a slightly chubby, short-legged gal in sweat pants doing forward and backward somersaults with a cartwheel or two thrown in. Good stuff! And you can see why The Blue Nile was such a good soundtrack for it. If you weren't depressed after watching me struggle to tuck my chin to my chest, the music would push you over the edge."
When you were writing and recording that song, did it ever occur to you that a few years later, it would be put to that use?
No, not quite...but thank you, and my regards to Anna, I'm sure she is being very modest. And my thanks to you...I hope these answers are okay. Best regards, Paul.
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