The Paul Buchanan Interview
Paul Buchanan has, at 56, just released his debut solo album, Mid Air. But if you're familiar with his band, The Blue Nile, you could argue either that Mid Air is simply part of a continuum or that Mid Air is at least his third solo album (the last two Blue Nile albums tend to sit away, apart, separate - if not from each other then certainly from the two albums that announced The Blue Nile to the small corners of the music world).
So, debut solo album perhaps, or fifth album in total, either way Buchanan has not rushed things, considering The Blue Nile formed in 1981 and released its beguiling and beautiful debut, A Walk Across the Rooftops, in 1983.
The music on Mid Air, or should I say the music of Mid Air sounds - in so many ways - like you would expect the solo album from the lead singer/songwriter of The Blue Nile to sound. It sounds like The Blue Nile. But stripped back. Further. Delicate to the point of being cautious in understatement. But listen to this heartbreakingly beautiful music. This is the music of the soul. And this is a song-cycle that is full of risks. What might, on the surface, feel refined, polished because of the constant feeling of understatement, is actually a raw - often rugged - album. It's so very close to harrowing, but saved at every step because of the gorgeousness of the sound; the commitment to the craft.
It is for every second of its short running time so utterly believable. That is its (not so secret) secret.
So early one morning last week Paul Buchanan gave me a call. And we chatted about his new album - and how he makes music (now and then). We chatted about his old band - yes, past tense. Past. And tense. And we chatted about hope - such a key word in the work (and world) of Buchanan.
He called me because he prefers to do interviews that way - not for him the 10-20-minute chat asking about the tour and some funny stories involving other celebrities.
But when he called it felt like an old friend was on the line. And not just because of that voice. Well, it was (still) partly that. You see Paul Buchanan phoned me recently on a Sunday morning (Saturday night his time). And he left a message that felt like one of his songs. He told me - over and over - how sorry he was for not calling me the day before. It was not like him, he was embarrassed and upset for not calling. He was disappointed in himself. I heard genuine regret.
He phoned back an hour later and left another message - halfway through he twigged that I might be having "a long lie-in" since it was Sunday morning. He was hopeful that we'd speak at some point and he offered his profuse apologies again.
So I had to call him straight back - I didn't want him thinking that I was avoiding his call or that I didn't want to set up a new interview.
He greeted me warmly - and there were more apologies. We arranged the new time; he asked if I would be okay with the early start. I told him I had a wee baby so any time was fine. There were no lie-ins. And then it was my turn to apologise. I called him straight back to point out I'd given him the wrong landline to call; a number for a place I hadn't lived at for nearly two years.
He laughed and I blamed having a wee baby for the slip-up. We then went about the first half of the week.
When Buchanan called a few days later he told me, "this is good - I feel like we broke the ice. This feels like calling up a friend. I don't know what is going on in your life or where you're at, Simon, but you told me you have a wee child, so I thought about that a wee bit this week, and I thought of you and hoped you were doing okay."
And so this is how you interview Paul Buchanan. It is not like other interviews. And I liked that thought straight away because Mid Air is not like other records.
But let's start right there - with this new record.
It arrives eight years after the last Blue Nile album; at this point fans are used to the wait. And the weight. High, the final Blue Nile album (at this stage), was eight years on from 1996's Peace at Last which arrived seven years after 1989's Hats. And that was the swift sophomore effort, arriving just half a decade after Rooftops.
"Well," and I can hear Buchanan draw a breath as he pauses, "when The Blue Nile toppled over as a consequence of being together a long time, I struggled for the longest time to do anything with music. We hadn't been ticking over for a long time, obviously. But we were still a band - there was still a relationship there, or even if there wasn't we were still invested in it, in each other. We fell apart as a consequence of that long time despite the music. And I realised I wasn't happy. And it's really no more complicated than that.
"It took a couple of years to get over it in any way - we just fell apart and things had not been right for the longest time, but slowly, you come around. I looked at some songs and I guess I did this, as I always do, to preserve one's sanity as much as anything." He stops here for a wee chuckle. It's only wee.
"There were demos to begin with - just little sketches, really - and I didn't know if there was a future in what I was doing, in terms of it being a record. I also didn't know whether I was going to re-record these and, er, 'upgrade' them, if you will, and then I realised, as I played them back, that it was best to just let the form dictate. So they became what they are, as they are."
We jump back and forth between the solo album and The Blue Nile, because it's clear to Buchanan that this is all one body of work. He believes so strongly in the work of his band members PJ Moore and Robert Bell ("they always knew what to do with my songs, always") and they are wrapped up in the songs that appear on Mid Air.
"I think, really, so much of Mid Air is about me grieving the band. That's what I'm doing, Simon, I'm grieving" - and here I start analysing the way Buchanan puts his sentences together. Why did he use my name just then? Is this a thought he's just had - just now? So he's addressing me to point out he's sharing it with me? Or is this just because we broke the ice the weekend before we spoke properly, back when he left sincere - almost painfully earnest - messages on my phone and I had to call him twice because the first time I gave him the wrong phone number?
Anyway, I'll let Buchanan carry on here.
"It took me a while to realise that if my energy is focused on work then I'm happier. It really did take me a long time to see that - and so that is where Mid Air has come from, that feeling of being happy by doing the work, of needing to do the work. And am I happy with this album; I'm pleased it's there. Hanging in Mid Air where it belongs."
Robert Bell was consulted when half of the songs for Mid Air were written.
"Robert is a friend - so it goes back to before the band. And he just knows what to do. So I called him up and got him to look at the songs, to listen. And he's good at that, so good at really listening, and just knowing what to add, how to help define the tune. Robert and I have worked together outside of the band as well as with the band so it was very easy for me to call him and I can't imagine not having him involved."
So what about Moore?
"Well we just haven't heard from PJ," Buchanan says. And here he sounds almost bewildered. "We haven't heard from him in a long time - it's been years. I can honestly say I don't know what happened there. Maybe it will all fall into place again, who really knows?"
It makes sense that the band with the impeccable songs across four albums - songs that just seem to exist in their own space, kites that fly high and yet you can barely ever see the strings that keep them in place - would die a slow death, removed from one another almost by mistake, a slow, sad, inevitable falling away, more than a falling out.
"You don't stay friends with everyone forever," Buchanan offers. And then he talks about a fondness for the band's swansong, High.
"It is such an act of stoicism, that record, really it is. Things had not been right for some time and really we probably shouldn't have made that record but if you listen to it it's the sound of the band after it's fallen apart. And, I mean, to finish with Stay Close, there's a sad inevitability about it, but you hold your head up if you can, in spite of it all."
Buchanan says that Mid Air, he hopes, will stand on its own away from The Blue Nile records. But he's realistic about his fan-base, he just wanted the album to be sparse, to feel as though it was one-third of the band - the lead singer out on his own, so just voice and piano in most cases, a flicker that reminds of the flame.
"That first record we made...there really was no point of reference beyond our own internal drive. And so I was reminded of that with Mid Air. In that sense the way I work hasn't changed. But I miss being in a band. I miss the band. I miss the chemistry of the band. It had been a constant in my life and so if there's a weariness and self-reflection in my new record then it comes from that, I think.
"Also," Buchanan continues, "I really feel that The Blue Nile was meant to make five albums. It didn't happen - or it hasn't happened. So whilst this is a solo record, it is the fifth record I've made. It's there."
Buchanan says he's driven by the need to "do something honest", and he knows that people "recognise the sincerity and authenticity" in his work. For Mid Air it was a case of "obeying what my conscience said", and here he breaks off to laugh, but again only briefly. "It took a leap of faith to not 'improve' these songs, I think - and I'm saying improve, using inverted commas if you follow me." I tell him I do. "But also I'm just so far removed from the industry - I felt like I was in mid-air myself, that's where the record comes from - so there really were no parameters. And that was very liberating".
The biggest battle in working on Mid Air then was "resisting the temptation to overwork the material, to change things dramatically. There are some lines I'm bothered about, there are some errors, and in a couple of instances I went back to the very first sketch of the song, the napkin that had two lines on it - and then I saw that that was the way it came out."
Songs, Buchanan tells me, "are like buses: they all arrive at once".
It is always mentioned that he works slowly - but time takes time. Most of the songs that make up Mid Air arrived within one six-week period.
"The shaping of the record took time; I wanted it to hang as a song-cycle, and there was a process of chipping away, of making the songs about the essence. That's where Robert came in too. He has a skill for choosing running orders."
So with Bell involved was there a thought, no matter the acrimony, of contacting Moore?
"I did think about it. A part of me was thinking it could be good to have the band back together but to manufacture it would be wrong. And we really don't know what PJ is doing. So it was best to leave it."
There will be a tour behind this very personal record. Buchanan says he'll do some shows around Europe later in the year ("a small tour") and then he'll leave it to chance. "Look, we would love to play if there is a place to play - I'd love to come to New Zealand, and if we made it to Australia I would definitely come there but at this stage nothing is planned."
And so there could still be a fifth Blue Nile album - or a reunion tour?
"I like to think that one day we'll all just turn up in the same store at the same time. You know, all of a sudden we'd just be like, 'oh hi-ya!' and we'd go from there." Every time Buchanan talks about The Blue Nile it feels as though a sigh is implied.
"I realised with the Peace at Last album that that was where the band started to fall away," Buchanan then announces.
"There was just so much going on with us personally - changing houses, moving and we just weren't communicating. I know that people think of that as the weakest album and it probably is - but I still think there are some songs on that record that work. There are songs on that album that I'm proud of."
Buchanan believes that Peace at Last informed High, just as Rooftops had informed Hats. "I went into High thinking 'I can't stumble' and that's why I think that - sad as it probably seems - that is a record about friendship, about stoicism."
Buchanan gets "a sense of reassurance" from putting his soul on the line, in the lines, in his performance, his writing.
"You know, I'll be sitting there at night at some point watching television and there'll be an ad for some kind of alcoholic drink and everyone is on a beach pouring, I dunno, rum all over themselves I guess. And I'll just be thinking 'who are they talking to?' - do you know what I mean?"
That might be the reason right there - the notion that such a TV ad exists - that sends Buchanan back to the piano, that has him reaching for his guitar in the wee small hours.
Mid Air carries the sound of its invention as well as its inventor. That is to say that as you hear these song snippets, fragments that hover, voice, piano, just a hint of strings at times, it is right to think of the man that is singing about loss and regret sitting up in the early hours of the morning pouring his experience down into each song. Staring out into the world that sits outside his window as he offers a glimpse or two from within.
Just as it is so often about what is not said when Paul Buchanan sings, here it is also about what is not sung. Notes are not always held, they fall away - or sit just out of reach (in mid-air of course) and it adds to the hypnotics, enhances the power of this record.
"My sense is that I've done what I can with this album," Buchanan says wistfully. "I have to leave it to exist without me now. You want people to hear it, yes, of course. And in the end - as I've always felt - if one song says something to one person then that means the world to me. It really does. It means the world."
Here's where I tell Paul Buchanan about how special the album High is to me, about my time spent with The Blue Nile records (all of them) and about how Mid Air has indeed hovered in our home, the record barely leaving the turntable for most of the last month.
"Well that means a lot, it really does, it really does, I know so little about your life, Simon, but you've given me some of your time. And that means so much. You told me you have a young son, that's obviously had a profound effect on your life. For you to even give my record the time of day - well..."
He trails off. And then he comes back.
"I won't forget this call, Simon. I won't. I won't forget this."
And of course I won't either. I couldn't have forgotten it even if I hadn't written it down.
Just as crucial, I can't forget Mid Air. It seems to exist - every time it is played - in its own space. It is the perfect imperfect record. For this year. And for so many years to come.
This interview might not have meant a lot to you - but if you're still reading at this point then hopefully that means it has meant something.
Some days something really special happens. I returned home one day and put on the Paul Buchanan album. That was special. It continued to mean more with each and every listen.
And then one day Paul Buchanan rang me at home and we talked for an hour.
He told me it meant a lot to him.
So, Blue Nile fans, have you heard Mid Air? What do you think? Will you check it out? It's my favourite record