Stepping Stones to the big time – the Paul Carrack interview

Sheffield Steel : Paul Carrack

Sheffield Steel : Paul Carrack

When I introduce myself to Paul Carrack on the phone, telling him I’m putting together something for a Lancashire publication, his gruff Northern response is, “You don’t sound very Lancastrian.”

I add more detail, explaining how I’ve got around a bit over the years, prompting a “Haven’t we all!” response.

There’s still my Surrey accent though, despite 20 years in the North-West, and I let on that I once lived barely a mile or so from his good mate, Mike Rutherford.

“Oh really? You must have had a lucky escape then!”

That little exchange seems to sum him up, with Paul outwardly a dour, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, but with an easy wit and plenty of warmth.

Others with a similar track record might have something of an ego after all these years. Not Paul though. Perhaps his upbringing wouldn’t allow that.

Talking of that track record, he now has 17 studio albums to his own name, and has featured on more than 60 others in five decades of music, working with lots of big names along the way.

So when was he first aware that this big old soulful voice might be something that could make him a living? That has him thinking.

“Mmm … Funnily enough, as a kid, people said I had a nice singing voice. But when I started playing in bands, we always had a designated singer and front guy, so I never got to sing.

“I started off on drums, then played the keyboards, and never even thought about singing.

“But when we formed Ace there were three songwriters in the band, and whoever wrote the song would sing it. So that’s when I first started.

 “And the first recording I did as a singer was on that first Ace album, that big old hit.

“That was my first inclination that there might be something there, the first step on the way to try and discover the voice and develop it.”

I might have asked ‘so How Long ago was that?’ at that point. But I didn’t dare.

You know the song. Terry Comer’s memorable bass-line, then that keyboard, a key change, and that unmistakable soulful voice.

How Long, later covered by everyone from Aswad and Bobby Womack to Rod Stewart and Yazz, featured on the 1974 album Five-a-Side.

And while it only reached No. 20 in the UK, it was top three in the US and Canada.

Here’s the thing though. While you might think it was about dalliance in a personal relationship, it was penned about afore-mentioned band-mate Terry secretly working with other groups.

As it was, Sheffield-born Paul and Burnley-born Terry featured with Ace – originally known as Ace Flash and the Dynamos – from 1972 until 1977.

They became pub rock scene regulars and saw moderate success, and it was at least a step-up from their previous roles in Warm Dust.

I put it to Paul that it clearly hasn’t just happened overnight. There must have been times with Warm Dust, Ace or even after his first solo album, when he wondered if it was every really going to happen.

113955709“Of course, with many ups and downs and periods when I thought, ‘well, that’s it – it’s over’. But fortunately in a way I can’t do anything else!”

Did he ever think he might have to give it all up and get a proper job?

“I did think about that, but there’s not much more I can do. I’ve no other talents and I’m absolutely useless with my hands.

“I can’t think my way out of a paper bag, with no qualifications. And when I was reaching 30 and my hair was falling out, I was very worried.”

It’s been a while since I saw that great BBC 4 documentary about Paul. Am I right in thinking there was a family business involved?

“Yeah, painting and decorating. That’s where I grew up. We lived at the back of the shop. My dad was the opposite of me, totally handy, and my mum ran the shop.

“Unfortunately, my dad had an accident at work from which he never recovered, my mum carried on running the shop, and my elder brother, 15 at the time, took over. And he’s still there – bless him.”

Even as a solo artist, it’s taken a while for Paul to become established. I suggest there must have been occasions when he’s had to introduce himself as the guy who did How Long, Tempted, or The Living Years. But that won’t be the case now, surely.

“Well, if you say Mike + the Mechanics, they’ll know that name, but not necessarily my name. But that’s the way it is, and it is a whole lot better.

“I wouldn’t say those days are behind me, but I’ve made a lot of progress and friends and fans.”

I mentioned Warm Dust before. Were those interesting days? Prog jazz was the handle, wasn’t it?

M-and-M-Press-Photo-6“Well, only because we didn’t really know what we were doing!”

From the songs I’ve heard, I can hear a Cream, Small Faces and Traffic influence in there, the sort of sound that later helped re-launch Paul Weller’s career. Was it ever going to happen for the band?

“No! We were pretty rubbish. We were very committed, and certainly believed in it though.

“We lived hand-to-mouth, and I can’t even believe it myself when I think back to how we were sleeping on floors and in vans …”

A bit of character-building?

“Oh, definitely! But funnily enough half of that band were from Sheffield and the other half from Lancashire – Burnley, in fact, including the lead singer, Les Walker.

“Sadly, Les died a couple of years ago after a very sudden illness, and passed away very quickly.

“When we played Preston, Les always got up and played a song with us. So we really miss him.

“There was a lot of space in between, but whenever we’d play in the area with my own band he’d always join us.

“He was a really good singer actually, that’s one of the reasons why I never sang. And I’m hoping his wife Angela will be coming along to the show this time.”

Going Places: Paul Carrack

Going Places: Paul Carrack

Did you get to rub shoulders during that period with some of those you got to work with later, like Mike Rutherford, Eric Clapton and Roger Waters?

“I don’t think we got that chance. They were way ahead of us.”

There’s a ‘who’s who’ of names Paul has featured with down the years – from BB King to Elton John, Nick Lowe and Ringo Starr. Could he ever have imagined it would come to all that?

Only Paul strikes me as the kind of bloke who’d be pinching himself sometimes that he was getting to play with his heroes.

“I still can’t believe it now, to be honest. If you’re having a conversation and it comes up ‘when I was on the Ringo tour …” It’s quite amazing really.

“But it’s been the best part of 50 years. No, I could never have imagined all that. I’m self-taught and could hardly play back in those early days.

“I wouldn’t change a thing though. It’s been absolutely amazing.”

Then there was the session work, like that he did with The Pretenders, The Smiths and The Undertones (*see feature footnote). Did he find that frustrating, not being out front?

“It was just part of the learning process. That’s the way I looked at it. I was very insecure and never considered myself to be a session man.

“Sometimes I’d get there and think, ‘Where’s the back door? I’m never going to pull this off’. I was still just a guy in bands. I was never doing that all day, every day.”

It’s been a mighty CV, music-wise. Can he tell us something we might not have realised he featured on?

download“How about the Sheffield Wednesday 1991 FA Cup-winning song?”

Wow. That was another lifetime’s ambition fulfilled for this Owls fan, wasn’t it?

“It was indeed. Everyone thought I’d gone mad. I’d just refurbished my studio, and that was the first thing I’d come out with.”

When I caught up with Paul, he’d just released his latest single from the album Rain or Shine, the ultra-soulful Stepping Stone.

As it is, there’s been an element of stepping stones about his career over the years, including work with Frankie Miller and Roxy Music en route to where he is now.

“Yeah … but it’s not meant to be particularly significant. It’s just a song. But the album’s done very well. And we’ve also got a compilation out at the moment.”

Indeed. The Best of Paul Carrack is pretty good indicator or what this Yorkshireman is all about, a 19-track package including many of those hits and near misses over the years.

There’s also been work with Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Michael McDonald, Elton John and Jools Holland among others.

And all this from a performer fresh from playing keyboards in Europe and North America in Eric Clapton’s band.

paul-carrack-best-ofNow there’s his 60-date UK theatre tour, which started last weekend in Harrogate and includes visits to the London Palladium on Sunday, November 2 and Preston Guild Hall – my excuse for speaking to Paul – on Wednesday, November 19.

It doesn’t stop there either, with a return to the region for dates at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Saturday, January 17, and Salford The Lowry on Friday, February 6.

In fact, the tour runs right through to Saturday, March 28 at London’s Cadogan Hall and the following night at Milton Keynes Theatre.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 1980. Did Paul have time to be disappointed about that lack of commercial success with his first solo LP, Nightbird?

“I wasn’t disappointed. I was more pleased I’d been able to have a crack at it. But it’s not a great album, and I don’t bring that one up very often!”

All just part of the learning curve?

“It is, yeah. In that respect, I’m a slow burner or a slow-burner – whatever way you want to put it.

“But people from where I come from don’t like those who get above themselves.”

Ah yes – those Yorkshire roots coming to the fore again.

“I haven’t lived in Sheffield for many years, having moved to London in my early 20s, because that’s what you had to do back then.

“But I think it’s more about the upbringing and the way people are in Sheffield, how people are down to earth.”

Well, you’ve certainly never come over as flash.

“I’d soon get slapped down if I did, believe me!”

Costello Music: Squeeze's East Side Story LP was a revelation

Costello Music: Squeeze’s East Side Story LP was a revelation

Jools Holland was a hard act to follow in Squeeze, yet when Paul took his place in 1981, recruited by Glenn Tilbrook, he was straight away part of the critical and commercial success of East Side Story.

That included his lead vocal on Tempted, the band’s biggest US hit at the time. Not a bad way to start his association with a band.

“As you say, big shoes to fill, in many ways. But I think I was accepted by the band, and it was a very exciting time.

“The band were red hot at that time, they were happening and it was nice to be involved. But I kind of felt I was along for the ride really.

“I knew it wasn’t my home as a musician. My stuff was a bit more simple, basic, emotional, while theirs was … not quirky, but from a different angle.

“I loved being involved with it, but as an artist myself and regarding myself as a singer-songwriter, I knew it wouldn’t fit.”

By then he’d pretty much set himself up as a solo artist who guests with other bands, hadn’t he?

“A lot of these things I haven’t really thought about. I’ve just got on with it. It was just a chance to play with the band, and that’s as far as it went. I was excited to be part of it, and loved the songs.”

High Point: Some Fantastic Place was a winner all-round

High Point: Some Fantastic Place was a winner all-round

Either way, while only staying a year initially, he was back with Squeeze for the critically-acclaimed Some Fantastic Place in 1993.

Squeeze haven’t had many off moments as far as I’m concerned, but he was certainly there for two of the most revered albums.

“Thank you. And East Side Story in particular was a magic moment for me. But I always fancied myself as a songwriter and didn’t want to impose myself on the band, because the band’s identity was through their songs.

“Mine were more simple, and I was in awe of them for their songs, to be honest.”

Thinking of Squeeze songs like Tempted and Loving You Tonight, then Over My Shoulder with Mike and The Mechanics – there’s so much soul or even gospel in that voice.

Was that natural to Paul? And who influenced him on that front?

“Loads! That’s my favourite kind of music, and in my teens it was all about soul music. They were my heroes and the guys I set out to emulate.

“Hopefully you learn something and develop your own style over the years, but I don’t even try to analyse all that.’

Stepping Stone also brings to mind The Miracles or The Temptations in places. Is that pretty indicative of where he’s at today?

“It’s been a funny old road, with a lot of side tracks. Back in those Squeeze days and early Mike + the Mechanics days we were very white, and I’d often get told off for over-souling!

“They wanted it more straight. In some ways I had to sort of consciously not do what came naturally to me. My natural inclination is towards that stuff.

“As soon as I started making my own albums for my own label – with the first album Satisfy my Soul –  that was when I started doing things my own way.”

LoveWillKeepUsAliveThat was in 2000, by which time he had been recognised in his own right as a songwriter on a far wider scale through his 1994 writing duties on The Eagles’ Love Will Keep You Alive and 1995’s Over My Shoulder for Mike + the Mechanics.

Is that a nice feeling, to think ‘I wrote that!’?

“Yes, it is. With Love will Keep You Alive, three of us were involved, but it’s a real accolade when someone like The Eagles do your songs.

“They don’t do many outside songs, so I’m an honorary member of the club really.”

Was working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Britten Theatre back in 2011 another big defining moment for this lad from Sheffield?

“It was another moment for sure, it was quite something. I tried not to think of it being this lad from Sheffield at the time. I was trying not to let the side down.

“It’s quite amazing to work with people like that. It does make you feel like an old cowboy, with such an amazingly proficient group of musicians.”

What is it about Sheffield, with all these great bands in such a big variety of genres over the years? Can you put your finger on that?

“It’s certainly picked up again recently, with artists like Richard Hawley and Arctic Monkeys. Then there were those bands in the ‘80s like The Human League.

“But back in the day it was only Joe Cocker really. He was the only one who got through the net.”

Paul’s big tour resumes again in the New Year, running right up to March. That’s quite an undertaking. I guess he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t enjoy playing live though.

“Definitely not. I couldn’t be doing with any politics or aggravation. We’ve got a great band, there’s no drama, and we like what we do.”

Has his current band been with him for a while?

“Over 10 years for sure, with very few changes, and that’s the way we like it.”

Live Presence: From the left - Paul Copley, Jack Carrack, Paul Carrack,  Jeremy Meek, Steve Beighton

Live Presence: From the left – Paul Copley, Jack Carrack, Paul Carrack, Jeremy Meek, Steve Beighton

Will it largely be a greatest hits show to help publicise the new compilation?

“There are a lot of songs to draw from. We couldn’t be playing the same set every night. We’d get fed up with them.

“The backbone of the set remains the same though. We couldn’t get away without playing those songs.

“We like to mix and match a bit, freshen it up. In fact, I’d emphatically say it’s not a greatest hits show. There’s always a few off the beaten track too.”

So what advice might the 63-year-old Paul Carrack offer his 13-year-old self – a drummer at that stage – if he got to nip back 50 years?

“I would say, ‘Go for it, son – it’s gonna be fantastic!’ Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected all this.

“I did think that when I was on tour with Ringo Starr, having seen him at Sheffield City Hall, way back.

“If I’d have known then I was going to end up there myself, it would have saved me an awful lot of worry!”

Footnote: A few weeks after publishing this I re-read Michael Bradley’s sleeve-notes on the repackaged Salvo CD of The Undertones’ Positive Touch and recalled his high praise for PC, who played piano on LP opener Fascination and third track Life’s Too Easy.

As Mickey put it: “The piano playing on the original Life’s Too Easy was by Paul Carrack. At the time he came in to us he was with Squeeze, had been in Ace, and was yet to be a Mechanic. I remember the general air of amazement when he left. At that time we were never impressed by musicianship – we had experienced too many guitar show-offs in Derry – but we were impressed by Paul Carrack.”

For full tour details and the latest from Paul Carrack, head to his website here

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on October 30, 2014. For the online version, head here.

For a writewyattuk appreciation of Squeeze from 2012, head here. And for further links to an interview with Glenn Tilbrook and links to a live review, head here

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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6 Responses to Stepping Stones to the big time – the Paul Carrack interview

  1. Terry Pearce says:

    A very informative piece on a very gifted artist, one who gets better with age it appears. One association we both seem to have missed is Paul singing with Paul Young on ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’ when just a year ago I recognised the Carrack voice on it! It has been in my favourites collection for more years than I can remember. Classic British soul.

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