Interview with Paul Steel
Paul Steel, sonic troubadour, purveyor of songs that lift your very soul with their athletic ambition, is in upbeat mood. So he should be. Released back in March, his ten piece song psyche-l, ‘April and I’, brought more summery escapist beauty into the world than just about any other record released this year. In a year already brimming with unexpected delights, its 29 minutes were a rare treat. We speak just as he takes his next step towards your love with the September 3rd release of ‘Your Loss’, a brilliant, buzzing trailer for next year’s major label debut ‘Moon Rock’.
I tell him how much I like the album and confess to getting somewhat spluttery when reviewing it back in March. Turns out he knows. “Yeah – I saw that. It was really very generous, thank you.” Well, one says as one finds. As, ostensibly, a singer-songwriter, you seem to eschew most of the methodologies of that particular vocation. Your approach – emphasis on arrangement, instrumentation, upbeat bonhomie – is hardly typical. “No, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so I just did it. I never try and over-complicate. If anything, I try to simplify things. It’s a symptom of writing on the piano. You can dig yourself into harmonic holes, really. It’s hard to bring the whole thing back round to the verse again and the whole thing ends up sounding a lot more bombastic than it really needs to.”
One stand-out aspect of ‘April and I’ is that it doesn’t sound like ten songs willfully tacked together – more of an organic whole. Unless I’m mistaken there appears to be repetition of key refrains, themes appear to dip in and out and reappear later on. Or have I just imagined that ? “No ! I think you’re the first person to bring that up. I’m glad you have. The intro theme comes in a few times and bits reappear towards the end. I’m glad someone noticed ! Gerswhin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ has been a big influence. It’s mad that it hasn’t come up in more pop music, really.” Isn’t it just ! I don’t whether to admire Steel’s ambition more than his good-natured naiveté. But, as a measure of someone setting their own artistic yardstick and drive a bit higher than, say, wanting to be like Oasis, it speaks volumes and then some.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about artists who have influenced you. Obviously Brian Wilson gets mentioned by default (flattering but fair) but who else excites you ? “There’s a lot of music coming out now but none of it’s really engaged me, personally. I always end up being quite disappointed if I buy new music but the Super Furry Animals are a favourite – they’re still pushing boundaries. I love their whole genre clash – how they fuse some Bacharach with techno. They do everything and they do it so well. They’re definitely an ideas band.”
In tandem with the musical ambition, lyrically, too, there’s fresh air. You avoid the de rigueur singer-songwriter earnest reflection or self-important opinionating. Is that just due to your age ? “Well, the traditional view is that singer-songwriters are there just to have a good whinge. And even though it’s obviously a valuable instrument I’m not a huge guitar person. Also, yes, I’m 20. So I haven’t had enough tragic life experience to whinge ! I do like cold music, where lyrics aren’t so important - bands like the High llamas and Steely Dan, where the lyrics have this cool, cold, witty thing about them. I think especially with middle class songwriters, a lot of people have comfortable upbringings – there’s nothing to cry about ! I like to celebrate things, I’m into more fantastical things. I’m sure a few years down the line I’ll try and write more personal stuff … if anything happens !”
The songs sound so unforced, so loose and un-mechanical, I wonder if onstage they have the ability to surprise, change shape maybe or take on different shades depending on the mood of the evening ? “Yeah, maybe. I’ve got a really cool band. I think, basically, it kind of sounds like we’ve just been drinking Red Bull all day. We just look like ADHD kids on stage. My bass player, Mak, is just brilliant. He’s Japanese and he just really drives our groove.”
With ‘April and I’ behind you, you must be excited about your first full length album. “Very excited, yeah. I can’t wait to get it out, because you know these songs have been hanging around a little while. I’m eager to see what people think of it.” Do you buy into the view that once it’s out there a record is almost no longer yours, that what the songs might become is down to the listener ? “I know what you mean. It’s more of a load off the shoulders, to be honest. There’s only a certain amount of room for songs in my head !”
Thank heavens for that. We should treasure unreal talents like Paul Steel. Not content to navigate a path where merely plodding gets you half a dozen houses, this young marvel is gambling on reaching an audience not necessarily geared up for his challenge. As we finish up, unfashionably polite and enthusiastic, he demonstrates the unwitting charm he’ll no doubt need to navigate an ugly business. In the week that saw the death of Lee Hazlewood I ask him who he’d choose for his Nancy Sinatra. “God, that’s a question, isn’t it ? Mmm … Who’s yours ?”