If you’re like me, perhaps you take to Facebook a wee too often some evenings sharing music. And perhaps this shared music strikes a chord with a friend who is equally as effusive with the “like button.” And perhaps the invitation arises that affords an opportunity to put said friend—Chad Clark of Washington, DC band Beauty Pill—in contact with the musician inspiring the evening’s muse, Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, whose brand new US release, Mid Air is in stores now. Well, perhaps you’re reading that conversation at present. —Ed.
Chad Clark: One of the things that attracted me (and many others, I’m sure) to The Blue Nile was the band’s daring and imaginative use of sonic texture. There was always a delicate, elegant, painterly quality to the records that seemed deeply felt, deeply considered. Some of the early sounds were almost non-musical: the sound of bicycles wheels spinning and such. Always at the center of it was your voice and your imagistic words.
This is something that influenced me greatly as a musician to experiment and explore textures in the studio. This “texturalism” (for lack of a better word) leads me to a few different questions. It seems to me that The Blue Nile was sort of is its own impossible-to name genre. Would you agree?
Paul Buchanan: I suppose we pursued our own shared imagination. What was important was the sense of the song, so recognisable licks were out. We tried to create the world in which the person in the song belonged.
I can’t really think of “peers” who worked in a similar terrain. Did you regard yourselves as having peers or did you feel like you were working in a field of your own? If so, was that lonely? Or did you enjoy the feeling of making your own world?
Yes, we were in our own world, and just doing the best we could to capture the idea. We had no money, no phone.
The Blue Nile’s sonic adventurousness proved to be subtly groundbreaking. Did you have conscious ambitions to break ground, to innovate? Or, were you just following your instincts? Did you just innocently happen upon those ideas or was there a sense of deliberate design to the path you chose?
Circumstance and limitations shape what you do as much as your imagination, don’t they? Marrying the two is a step forward. You’re right—we stumbled on ideas and followed our instincts. We played the way we could play.
From a certain perspective, the minimalism of Mid Air seems like the most austere departure from The Blue Nile’s densely layered, appointed aesthetic. For the most part, Mid Air is just your voice and piano and there’s a strongly solitary, plaintive character to the record.
Yes, we talked a lot about depth, height, distance, etc. in the band. For Mid Air, the important overall picture was different, the frame of the imagination was solitude, separation from the city outside in that moment.
You’ve done spare song arrangements, but would you agree that Mid Air is the farthest you’ve gone in this direction? What inspired that? Sometimes artists react to their past; was the spareness of Mid Air a way of “shedding” the Blue Nile’s sound? Or was it purely about what suited these songs?
I didn’t plan it, it’s just what came out; I suppose it reflected how I was feeling. I don’t envisage doing this again – but you never know. For now, I want something more candy stripe, but for Mid Air, it was important the sound and the music were consistent with the title.
The brevity of the new songs seems like a deliberate choice. Most of these songs are just over two minutes long! The Blue Nile was known for its extended cinematic overtures, hypnotic, repeating songs. Many of them were two or three times the length of the songs on Mid Air.
When I listened back to the dictaphone, the ideas seemed compact and complete. I didn’t elaborate on them; I hoped all together there was a sense behind the record, and each chapter played it’s part.
Was it a conscious struggle to keep these songs lean in length? Was it to accompany the sparseness of the arrangements? It seems “humble” in a way. Or was the length just natural to this set of songs? Having previously worked with longer forms, did you find that it demanded discipline? Did the brevity take more work or less work?
I hoped that within the time of each song there was another geography, if you accepted the importance of each note, and the spaces, then time would change.
There’s a paradox in your work and it seems even more acute on this album. Your songs have great mystery, but the words are often very plain. You seem to mostly adhere to common spoken language. It is pretty rare that you will use an overtly intellectual or exotic word, but still there’s an enduring literary quality.
You seem to work in inference and suggestion. The unadorned simplicity seems honed and carved, hard-fought-for. This is in contrast to, for example, Elvis Costello—someone who frequently entangles the listener in dense wordplay. Your songs seem the opposite: perfectly distilled.
The opening line of “Buy A Motor Car” is this: “Buy a motor car and drive somewhere you believe…” It’s not fancy language, but there’s a lot of emotional information there. There’s the choice to use the somewhat antique word “motor car,” which suggests nostalgia. And then there’s the graceful abstraction of “drive somewhere you believe…” Does this stealthy simplicity come naturally to you or do you work to keep the language plain in your writing? Or is this just a gift?
Somehow the plainness works better—I don’t want to get in the way of someone listening, and prefer to find expressions we all use. Using “motor car” is to suggest a timelessness or location, or more precisely a sense that the memory is not absolutely in the present moment, which I try for at times. Mostly, I am trying to keep the ground open in the hope of suggesting shared or collective emotional experiences and feelings, so I don’t like to interrupt that with specifics.
Are there other songwriters you admire?
The list of songwriters I admire is endless—I don’t know how they do it. In some ways I am doing the same drawing over and over, trying to get it right.
Is it ever important to you to be “understood” in a linear, literal sense? Or would you consider yourself always an abstract impressionist?
At best, I would be hoping to invoke the unconscious, that life cannot be boiled down to straight lines.
I have, for example, no precise understanding of what exactly transpires or has transpired in “The Wedding Party.” I don’t know whether it’s confessional/ personal or whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. The words are almost as elliptical as a haiku and the picture is slightly out of focus. There’s no way for me to precisely understand what happens in that song, but I do get a strong feeling of sadness from it.
Are you comfortable with this mystery? Are you okay if people only leave a song with a general sense of tone and not specific story or text?
Yes, that is what I want…for someone to apply the general colours to their own life and experience. To their own love story.
“Two Children” has a rosy, sweet hopefulness to it. It took me by surprise until I gave it further thought and realized that you have many songs that are brightly optimistic and grateful in The Blue Nile canon. There is even ecstasy there.
When people characterize you as a melancholic/anguished singer, do you feel that this is fair? Or do you feel that it is overly narrow? Have people have overlooked the happier aspects of your work?
I understand and can see that it is true. I don’t think there is anything wrong with admitting the things that advertising misses out, but in the end I hope there is a belief in our spirit, and our capacity to love and imagine love. Ecstasy is a perfect word for unconditional love, or liberation from what oppresses.
There seems to be a faintly devotional character to some of your lyrics, but it is very rarely made explicit. My sense as a fan is that you’re a person of faith—I could be wrong about this, of course! I only know you through your music—but this is usually only very faintly insinuated in your songs.
Do you consciously limit or craft the presence of spirituality in your songs? Or do you just write what you feel and not worry about whether it pushes the songs closer to or farther from that kind of expression?
I believe in the way people used to believe we could land on the moon. I don’t know the physics, but I suppose there is evidence of humanity yearning. Describing God causes so much trouble—the hope for better, and an awareness that some things lift you out beyond yourself is as much as I can express.
The Blue Nile had a song called “Sentimental Man” and I kind of regard you as being defiantly proud of that characterization. Would you agree? Do you think that the modern world undervalues or disparages the word “sentiment?”
I think commerce often shifts sentiment off to the side, except a very base kind to elicit reaction. People are more complex and refined in their empathies and feelings for others I think. Watching TV with the sound down is an example; you still react, because you are getting the information you need without the distraction of words. I find it sad music is sometimes played beneath the news. People’s sentiments are far more advanced than that.
Because of time between releases, many fans perceive you as a perfectionist, but I don’t. I feel that the value of so much of your work—and certainly this is the case for Mid Air—is in the vulnerability. I feel like there has always been a vulnerability in your voice and you don’t try to sing “perfectly.” If you did sing “perfectly,” your singing would be boring. And it’s not, it’s compelling!
So, speaking for myself, I regard you as someone who pursues truth more than perfection. How do you feel about being regarded as a perfectionist? Have you struggled with perfectionism?
I struggle with my own inabilities, but have come to regard work as a learning process; simplicity and keeping the mind clear is good. When I’m an old man I’ll remember all the trials and failures and that’ll save time! At times I’ve got mixed up, but always in pursuit of the shape that is already in the stone of the idea. I wouldn’t know what perfect is really, except in terms of how much any song manages to be true to its self. Besides…it almost always eludes me.
You have one of the world’s most beloved singing voices. Do you have influences on your singing? Were you always aware of the power of your voice? Did you sing as a child? Do you sing often? Or just when you’re writing or recording?
I am blushing. I could never seem to fit in the key in school, and I guess at home now I sing, sitting around in the kitchen playing the guitar or in the living room with a piano, and of course sing hopelessly along with records.
I can’t sing the way singers I love do, so I just try to make sure there is no affectation, and sing like I was talking to someone. It also depends on the person I’m seeing saying the things. I suppose the most important things are the meaning of the words and the tone of how they are being said. People register honesty, so to gain that trust you have to make sure the singing is not about you singing.
You have very boldly built Mid Air on just two chief elements; your voice and piano. It seems to me this takes confidence to be so exposed. Would you self-regard as a confident singer?
No, I hope for the best ! Plus, I’ve heard some of the outtakes…
The Blue Nile’s music seems to be dating very well—time has been kind to those records and they still sound fresh and classic. Is this something that’s important to you? Are you conscious of building a body of work that will last? Walk Across The Rooftops and Hats are being reissued and your bandmates oversaw the remastering process. Have you heard those albums recently? What are your thoughts on those albums now?
We tried to make something that wasn’t obviously of a certain time. When I heard those records recently, I was struck by the love and hard work that had gone into them. The best of it, somehow, happens when you forget yourself, and almost go beyond the thoughts that have got you there.
Do you expect you will continue in the stark, plaintive direction suggested by Mid Air or do you feel that this is a “one-off” project?
I’m glad I recorded Mid Air. It must have been how I was feeling because I didn’t set out to write or make a record, it came out pretty direct and directly out of circumstances. I didn’t add to the structures or arrangements because it came from somewhere true, and I just followed it.
Is there a possibility of another lushly designed Blue Nile album? What do you think the future holds?
I keep saying the next record will be a comedy, and it will. I am following the songs I have, which seem to me joyful and affirmative, and tender but with strength in them. I would love to reaffirm some ideals that were lost and challenged along the way. I would like it to have some golden light in it, and good feeling.