Friday 23 March 2018

Bell X1's Paul Noonan is singing from the heart

Bell X1's Paul talks duets and teenage dreams he shared with Damien Rice.

Paul Noonan
Paul Noonan
Bell X1
Damien Rice
Ed Power

Ed Power

The inevitable Damien Rice question elicits a surprising response. In a previous life, Rice was a bandmate of Bell X1's Paul Noonan. But the alliance, under the slightly twee moniker of Juniper, was short-lived and, by all accounts, unhappy, and they've since gone their own ways.

Does Noonan, who has just embarked on a sensitive songwriter project of his own, really want reminding of those difficult days?

"We had a very intense, formative time together," he says, quietly yet without irritation.

"Because we were teenagers, it was incredibly exciting. That's when you are most on fire in some ways – we shared that sense of clicking, of making a go of it for real. That is something we had in common: we were blank canvases and we coloured each other in."

The subject has come up in the context of Rice's recent unexpected re-emergence following eight years of self imposed exile.

He performed in Whelan's, Dublin, the other week, thrilling fans (however many have hung about) and intriguing everyone else.

Rice's last public appearance of note, after all, was a conversation with Hot Press in which he declared that he'd trade all his success in a heartbeat if it meant mending bridges with his ex-girlfriend, Lisa Hannigan.

Reading it back, the interview came across like a resignation letter – one final burst of communication with the world.

In a curious coincidence, Hannigan will be on stage with Noonan tonight as he performs material from his new undertaking, Printer Clips.

An album of a series of duets with female vocalists – friends and artists admired from afar – Printer Clips does not, he stresses, speak to a desire to wriggle free of Bell X1.

14 years on the go, the band remains the centre of his creative life, the mothership around which all else orbits (the group are planning a new LP before the end of 2014).

Hannigan is a friend, but some of his singing partners were complete strangers. He hooked up with Martha Wainwright, the throaty scion of the Wainwright clan, through mutual acquaintances and first encountered Joan Wasser (aka Joan as Policewoman) in a Brooklyn studio owned by a friend of a friend.

Noonan's modus operandi was to rock up with four mics, a laptop, and a song.

He'd lay out the bare bone structure of the tune, hit record and – wham bam, thank you ma'am – get the magic down on tape.

"It was a scary at times," he says. "I'd set up and hope it worked. There's nothing worse than fumbling with wires. It kills the ambiance. Of course you had an initial awkwardness – some of the songs are about my personal life. You feel exposed and vulnerable [dueting with a stranger].

"The person you are singing with understands. They've been in that position too.

"They were great in terms of giving their whole selves."

The working method was in contrast to the day job. While 2013's Chop Chop, was recorded on the fly in a big creaking mansion in rural Connecticut, by convention Bell X1 LPs are involved affairs, assembled in meticulous and – going by the picture Noonan paints at any rate – somewhat exhausting fashion.

"We find a groove that is about instinct," he says. "In Bell X1, we tend not to have to spell out where we are going. We can read things well musically.

"Apart from the last one, [the albums] are usually long, protracted affairs, intricate and layered, sort of plagued by indecision and self doubt.

"As an antidote to that, I sought out this concept of two guitars, two voices, in a room. I'd fly into Montreal and New York, get the vocals down and that was going to have to be it."

That Printer Clips is exclusively comprised of duets with female singers is not a coincidence.

Something about the male and female voice intertwined speaks to Noonan – and always has, since he attended a concert by the Americana artist Gillian Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings.

"This has been my 'potting shed' project – the delicate flower I turn to between recording and touring with Bell X1," Noonan says.


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