Friday 22 September 2017

Paul Buchanan: Not sinking, but soaring. . .

Flying high: Paul Buchanan
Flying high: Paul Buchanan

NICK KELLY

As comebacks go, Paul Buchanan's is as quietly spectacular as one might have hoped for. It's now eight years since the fourth and, alas, final Blue Nile album, and we hadn't seen their frontman above ground since a show in Galway's Radisson Hotel in July 2008.

But if the 56-year-old Glaswegian habitually tends to keep us waiting, it's always well worth it. Buchanan's first album under his own name, Mid Air, released on Friday, is sublime.

Its sustained sense of hushed intimacy, of a confidence whispered in your ear, makes you lean into the speaker to drink in every word. Blue Nile devotees are going to fall in love all over again with the river man on this record.

Meeting him over morning tea in a Dublin hotel, I ask him what's it like now being a solo artist after such a long time in The Blue Nile?

"To be honest, it's a default setting," says Paul in his soft-spoken Glasgow burr. "It just became apparent that the band wasn't really functioning the way it had been. I hadn't seen or heard from one of the guys (PJ Moore) in years. Neither has Robert (Bell). After so long together, it was a bit confusing emotionally.

"And then various other things happened as they do in life. It was the first time I really just paused and hadn't got up and gone to some little rehearsal room to meet the others. I'd been doing that since after university.

"So I spent a lot of time getting up in the morning thinking 'what do I do?' I didn't at any point think I'm going to make a solo record.

"To be honest, I was still slightly in mourning -- amongst other things, I was in mourning about the group. The band were my best friends; it was my whole life, really."

Recorded using little more than a piano and vocal with some subtle keyboard effects, Mid Air places his voice and songwriting front and centre, with few of the trademark cinematic flourishes of old on display. So he wanted to strip it all right back to basics?

"The National Theatre of Scotland asked me to write a song for them and I was working away on the piano fruitlessly trying to do that for a few months. I couldn't get started at all,"

"While I was failing to do that," he says, "I kept a little Dictaphone by the piano. When I scrolled back through those I realised quite a few of these songs were on it. I made appropriate notes. So it just sort of occurred. A pal said to me 'maybe that's a record'.

"In the best sense, it was un-self-conscious. I wasn't thinking I have to write songs for the group or for the record company. I had no deadline. I had absolutely no motive. So it wasn't a case of having to put another chorus in there; it was just what came out. To be free of expectation was liberating."

I mention his tendency to write songs in the third person, observing the comings and goings of circus performers or astronauts. How do such characters work their way into his songs?

"You know that way if you go out and buy a blue car, you seem to notice blue cars? I think you project on to people you see on the street or you relate to things you see on TV -- but it's because of the way you're feeling; of the experiences you're having."

The feeling of intimacy on Mid Air is palpable. Was it hard trying to capture that in a studio full of cables and wires?

"I recorded most of it where I live," he answers. "I kept it absolutely minimal. There was a tiny, tiny amount of equipment -- one mic, one piano, one tiny little recording thing stuck behind the door ... and that was it.

"I went into the studio twice towards the end. We mixed the record but I came out and I just didn't like it. I thought we'd done too much to it in the studio. We took it back to how it sounded before we went in."

Last year, Allan Brown's unofficial biography of The Blue Nile, Nileism, gave a warts-and-all account of the career of Buchanan and his band mates, some of which must have made for uncomfortable reading?

"I haven't read it," he winces. He says a friend did email him a review of the book, which recounted anecdotes in it whose veracity he disputes. "There were one or two business people who were just settling scores when they spoke."

Mid Air (Newsroom records) is out on May 18. Irish tour dates will be announced on www.paulbuchanan.com nkelly@independent.ie

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