Paolo Nutini: When Words Don't Work, The Music Steps In
This Reporter Finds That Braving The Thick Scottish Accent of Paolo Nutini Is Well Worth It!
Paolo Nutini orders a green tea as we sit down in the noisy hotel pub. Not as “rock and roll” as I would have expected from a guy who was once a roadie. I study his features while he talks to the waitress. His face is starting to lose the boyishness and get craggy like a younger Davy Jones or Rod Stewart. At his feet, he has a bottle of Listerine mouthwash.
I glance at the Listerine. He reads my mind and makes a joke. His accent takes some getting used to. He says the line again, a little bit slower: “A little bit of Benylin and a shot of Listerine. It’s a whole new trip altogether.” He laughs. I am not sure whether or not to believe him, so he corrects himself: “No, I am joking. It’s only for mouth-freshening purposes.”
Scottish rocker Paolo Nutini won his way into the hearts of young women (and a few guys) everywhere with his single “Jenny Don’t Be Hasty” from his 2006 debut These Streets. The song is a tale of a sweet but doomed romance between a doe-eyed teenager (Paolo) and an older woman.
Wikipedia says that Nutini’s single from that release, “Last Request” was his most successful. But ask any indie chick in 2006 who their music boy-crush was, and it would be Paolo on the strength of “Jenny.”
That night at the show, I gazed about his audience and noticed the bulk of Nutini’s fans were female British expats. It was one of those nights, where if the guy took his girl to the show, bought her drinks and let her moon over Nutini—well then, that guy was getting laid after the show. “Jenny” was the last song and, by then, most of those couples were swinging their hips together in surefire unison.
Paolo Nutini was back in Canada to promote his second release Sunny Side Up, when I talked to him before the show in that noisy pub—with so much background noise (which made airing this interview impossible). Nutini has a THICK Scottish accent, so even if the happy hour pub dwellers were not boisterous in the background, it would have been a challenge for listeners to decipher Nutini’s banter. Those Scots! Mandatory translators should accompany them everywhere.
Sunny Side Up is a bit of a change for Nutini. After his debut, Nutini was thoroughly embraced by the old school establishment of rock. And he has done tons of interviews, telling stories about him meeting and hanging out with old school rock and blues legends. The record shows these “hard rock” influences, and for some it was a surprising move away from the shiny indie pop of the debut record.
Scott Wood: Your accent is quite thick. When was the last time you had a hilarious misunderstanding with it?
Paolo Nutini: Oh God. I remember being at a show in Montreaux, Switzerland. I was lucky enough to find myself on the bill with Stevie Nicks. And I went up to Stevie Nicks and said, ‘Stevie, it’s an honour to be on the bill with yeh. I’m a big fan of Fleetwood Mac. Rumours was one of perhaps my favourite records ever.’ She said—and her response will go with me to the grave—she says, ‘I’m very sorry, I don’t speak German.’ And that was that. ...Some people think it’s the loveliest thing they’ve ever heard and some people think it sounds like cement mixing.
Scott Wood: I just hope I can make sense of it! Now “Jenny Don’t Be Hasty” has become your signature song. You’ve been in a solid relationship with your high school sweetheart for the past couple of years. Does she bug you to write a great song like that about her?
Paolo Nutini: No, I think, in the back of her mind, she’s pretty happy I’m writing around her on purpose. She’s an obvious source of inspiration.
Scott Wood: Is harder to write about someone that is a constant in your life?
Paolo Nutini: Not really. I think if I was to stop having something to write about, then that might indicate the feeling’s gone. As I said, for better or worse, there’s a constant stream of inspiration.
Scott Wood: The big story about this record, Sunny Side Up, is that you changed up your sound. And some fans and critics are a little uncertain and upset about it. Why did you decide to change things up a little?
Paolo Nutini: There wasn’t such a decision. I’ve listened to the album. I am certain the dynamic’s grown. There seems to be a bit more of a gut to it. It’s got more balls to the whole thing, in general. Seems to be a bit more certain. It’s not like I’ve made a crazy departure left. A lot of people see the decision to make a decision as being a commendable thing. If you don’t, you’re just gonna suffer. That’s for me what this album was. I can’t imagine the next album beating itself up for that. I think with this next album, I kinda have to stake a claim on this next album, really to step out. I don’t know if I’ll have the money to do it, but I’m looking forward to whatever comes out succeeding.
Scott Wood: It’s weird to hear you being so uncertain about the future—yet, the songs on this record seem so solid, crafted and polished.
Paolo Nutini: I know it comes in certain things. I was giving the songs one by one to the guys on the label. For instance the “Candy” song there’s a verse, there’s a bridge, there’s a chorus, there’s a verse, a bridge, a chorus, there’s a medley, there’s a breakdown of a solo, there’s an outro—pretty! I was like, ‘That’s palatable.’ There’s at least three or four songs that don’t have a chorus or a medley or a bridge—it’s in a stream of expression. That’s what this was for me—expression—not let’s try and... The more clever I thought I was getting, the more transparent the track was getting as well, hand in hand.
I think some people just want to hear something to sum up what they feel in a way they couldn’t. I think a lot of people find it hard to talk to somebody and say—and particularly describe how they feel—express themselves and find it a lot easier to bong their song onto a CD and slyly leave it, you know? I dunno whether you are in high school and you leave it on the desk or what have you. And that can say what you wanted to say—a million ways more poetically and romantically—in the place of you.
The things I’m trying to explain to somebody and the place I’m at is so kind of you know strange to me and alien and then the songs came a long and I though, ‘Fuck that’s was it! All I need to do is play them that song and hopefully they’ll get it.’ I don’t related to someone that says, “Oh yeah, very good.” You have to take the moment to listen, it has an effect. There can be a conversation as well. Sometimes you can just nail someone’s situation on the head.
Scott Wood: I read that you think that there are songs from These Streets, your debut, that are “too naive” for you to play now. So I was hoping you could pick a track off the old record that is “too naive” and then a song on the new record, Sunny Side Up, that shows the “more mature” Paolo.
Paolo Nutini: There’s one song that I can’t particularly bring myself to play. There’s a song called “Rewind” on the first album. [Note: This is interesting because “Rewind” was a single.] And it’s just you know—it seems like a whine. And I don’t want to whine on record like that. It just sounds a bit petulant and I don’t like that for me. So, I don’t play it at all—and sometime that’s a pain in the ass, because people will be like, ‘Play ‘Rewind!’’ And I’ll be like, ‘You don’t really wanna to hear me sing this song. It’s not gonna sound that great.’
And for now, the album [Sunny Side Up]—as an album, I think it sums me up. It’s hard, you know? That first track, I heard it no other way than with that trumpet line and that Jamaican style. And I knew the implications of starting the record off with a Jamaican, and that being the only reason, bar the other song that’s more Calypso. A real sorta nod to African music in the record. But, I think people will get over it and it will eventually be either a good song or a bad song. So I am hoping it comes out the other end as a good song that sticks around rather than “the strange opener” or whatever, you know? As you said, people always have their opinions. I honestly don’t have a crystal ball working. I should join a carnival, if you ask me.
Scott Wood: I read that you used to be a roadie, can you share a story from that time?
Paolo Nutini [before he will tell me the story he goes into a long spiel about his many grunt tasks and boring roadie duties, mostly so that this next part won’t make him look so bad]: I was on the t-shirt stand after the show and it wouldn’t take a lot to drive me away from that t-shirt stand. I was totally unprofessional. I would find myself there and it would only take one girl to come up and bat her eyelashes. And the next minute, that’s it—the t-shirts were a free-for-all.
Scott Wood: You got into the industry very young. Did you have anyone to keep you from indulging in the club life too much?
Paolo Nutini: A lot of people were eager to buy me a shot after the show. You know some people, their bodies are bottomless—they have very strong constitutions—you know, and some people just try to keep up. Just find out what works for you and what makes you happy and stick with it. For me, especially when you are talking about drinking and certain drugs and things you get exposed to...
Especially in music, people think when you write a song about Bob Marley that you smoke 25 spliffs a day, and in order to be like a lot of these 60s artists, you need to be on psychedelics—it’s not always the case. You know, you have to have something to say. For me, I just found there was a lot of people you would look at and go, ‘How the hell are they still standing?’ And the worst thing you could do was try and keep up, try and go drink for drink, stay up as late as they do. The moment I found out it wasn’t a competition—which probably was about... three years ago now—I’d say I’ve been a lot easier on myself.
Scott Wood: I read that you got talked into doing a Vogue magazine photo shoot when the editors caught you a bit drunk. What was the last bad decision you made while inebriated?
Paolo Nutini: On the tour bus, I think I proceeded to do the, ah—It’s not something I do a lot. I’ll get carried away. Mainly saki—I think the saki brings it out. And for some reason, I find it very amusing to do the tuck.
Scott Wood gives him a blank stare.
Paolo Nutini: You know when... You know? [He grabs his crotch and mimes “the tuck,” pushing his cock and balls back and behind to make it look like he... doesn’t have them.]
Scott Wood [bursts out laughing]: You are gonna have to explain that one in more detail! This interview is for the radio.
Paolo Nutini: Well, you know, you hide the bits, and, you know, all of a sudden you are looking at something very different.
Scott Wood tries to talk, but can’t. Too much laughing.
Paolo Nutini: Don’t tell me you’ve never done that!
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