If you think you know Paolo Nutini, think again. His two million selling 2006 debut album, THESE STREETS, established the young Scotsman as a leading light amongst the new wave of singer-songwriters. Paolo’s extraordinary follow up, SUNNY SIDE UP, casts him in a whole other light.
Written by Paolo Nutini and produced by Paolo and Ethan Johns, SUNNY SIDE UP, is a richly idiosyncratic, passionate and uplifting musical journey that sounds so organic and timeless it could have been hewn from the hills. From the exuberant ragtime of “Pencil Full Of Lead” to the rolling soul of “Coming Up Easy,” the heart-tearing Stax balladeering of first single “Candy” to the joyous folky singalong “Simple Things,” it marks Paolo’s emergence as a truly individual artist, following his own wayward yet inspirationally musical path.
“Musically where I´m at, I don’t really have a genre or style that I feel a part of,” explains Paolo. “I skip from Djhango Reinhart to Cab Calloway to Canned Heat. Its a bit of a random mish mash. I honestly wanted it all to come out, and not harness it, not manipulate it. I just wanted it to be organic, and so immediate it’s in your face and you can’t help but take it all in.”
Paolo’s musical journey has been quite unique. He recalls hearing The Drifters “When My Little Girl Is Smiling” at age five: “I was just looking at the CD player, and I’m so happy. Nobody’s tickling me, nobody’s making me laugh, I’m just happy.” It was all downhill from there. “I latched onto singing as the one thing I could do.” He dropped out of school at 16, singing, roadieing and working as a studio engineer. He moved to London and signed to Atlantic Records in 2005, shortly after his 18th birthday.
“The first album there was a lot of angst. I was very naive. I thought I was on top of the whole thing but I really didnt know what I was getting into.” He had written songs “like a diary” about splitting up with his teenage sweetheart, Teri, but in the middle of recording he ran into her in a bar.
“It was two years on and we’ve been together ever since. I had to go and record these songs when she was back in the frame. It was bizarre. I had that relief, while singing about wanting relief. This album is a more positive record. Any of the conflict is now in me, looking at myself, deciding who I really am. Everything I thought I knew I was and where I thought I was going just seems to be opened up completely. It’s a whole new playground again. There’s a feeling of freedom.”
Paolo’s debut was recorded on the hoof. “We were overdubbing the last guitar part 20 minutes before we had the first gig of the tour. I felt privileged to be there but I didn’t really know what kind of album I was making.” After two years on the road, this time he really wanted to focus. So he started last year by moving into a residential studio with his band for two months of exploratory sessions, which then led onto another six months of recording. “The boys in the band, they’re all real players. It’s a wide range of characters and I wanted to really get to know these guys and find out whether or not we were in the same spot. One or two didn’t feel secure with this musical direction. That was fine. The ones who stayed were all part of the creative process.”
Paolo’s musical confidence had grown, particularly with the support of the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, who took Paolo under his wing. Paolo was invited to be a part of charity and tribute shows in honor of Ahmet, appearing at Carnegie Hall and The Montreaux Jazz Festival, and singing with many of his childhood idols.
“I found myself onstage with George Duke, Buddy Williams was playing the kit, Cornell Dupree on lead electric, singing Ray Charles ‘What’d I Say’ with Les McCann, Soloman Burke and Ben E King. To be welcomed into this circle, that was amazing. I was never made to feel like a kid who was getting into something but that I was part of what Atlantic was. I got to share a stage with Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock. I got to do “Strawberry Letter” and Lee Ritenour was playing the solo, just like he did on the Brothers Johnson version. It was bizarre. Nobody ever sat me down and gave me a lesson but I learned so much just watching these guys. They’re legends, who have made such a wealth of important music.You think you know who they are and you’ve got it all nailed but you meet them and they are all human. And you get to see there is no blueprint for anything.”
Paolo sang with The Rolling Stones at the Isle of Wight in 2007, duetting with Mick Jagger on the Robert Johnson classic “Love In Vain.” “At the rehearsal, Mick was like, ‘I hope we can remember it, its been years since we played that tune.’
“They had a Travel Lodge onsight as their rehearsal space, the Stones were all there in this little room and I get given a mike. Keith plays the E when he was supposed to go to the A and Ronnie goes, ‘For fuck’s sake, not in front of Paolo!’ It was good vibes.”
Paolo also supported Led Zepplin in the O2 Arena as part of a tribute to Ahmet. “He was a very dapper man, he dressed like my grandfather, and he had all this wisdom. His advice was really ‘F*** all the people who work for my company, they’re there cause they’re good at their jobs but it means nothing if you don’t give them something to work with, and the only way you can do that is by being you.’”
Paolo’s deep love of music is reflected in an album that is almost unfashionably eclectic, reaching deep into the roots of modern music. It is strange to hear a 22 year old 21st century pop star raving about Cab Calloway, Wynonie Harris and Louis Armstrong. “If I could lay it down and give you my favorite vocalists, its those old ragtime swing crazy mad cats. These old songs are nice and sweet but scratch them and you get a different perspective. That’s what I wanted.”
There was a lot of improvisation in the studio, musically and lyrically. “There was really some random, mad train of consciousness stuff, you just open your mouth and let it all come out. I approach a song almost like a letter, whether it be to my girlfriend or to the public. I find it easier to communicate emotions while singing, cause I feel I go out of myself, I’ve not got a guard up. I feel music is a great vehicle for any man, whether he’s making it or just listening to it, to portray his vulnerable side. I found an honesty in me, that I like cause i feel like I owe it to myself a little bit to say what I feel. It’s OK to be wrong. In the end it’s just a song.”
The first single will be heart tugging ballad “Candy” which was written after an argument with his girlfriend, when it suddenly occurred to him that the fault lay with him. “That doesn’t necessarily portray the state our relationship is in, or anything more than just one evening of defeat. But that’s all a song has to be.” Paolo has sought a quality of duality in his songwriting, so that he can deal with tough subject matter without sinking into minor chord melancholy.
Another stand out track is “Coming Up Easy,” which he suggests can be listened to from different perspectives. “Its about my own conflict I had about marijuana but you can hear it as a song about relationships, compromising, having to deal with someone else’s emotions. It’s about bad habits and breaking up, but I wanted to keep it positive.”
One song particularly close to his heart is “Simple Things,” a cheery paean to his father that sounds like it could have been written and recorded anytime in the last hundred years. “My dad lives a pretty simple life. Since he was sixteen, he’s worked in a chip shop, all day, everyday, 41 years in front of the same mirror, the same fryer. But then to see the joy he gets out of coming home to see us, of just sitting on the couch with my mum on a Sunday afternoon, after he gets to go and ride his motorbike. He’s helped me really appreciate what can be perceived as happiness, just out of sheer consistency. He’s never changed. You grow up and everybody’s trying to be cool and to me that word cool is totally misconstrued. My dad is the coolest guy I know, simply because its the last thing he reckons himself to be. Its a big time ode to my father, and owed in both senses of the word. The feeling I get knowing that he listens to it, and loves it, to me that’s what the whole idea of making music in the first place starts spiralling from.”
Having begun the sessions producing himself, Paolo finished with Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne and more). When he talks about the process, Paolo always says “we” and is keen to give credit to his band, featuring Donny Little (guitars), Michael McDaid (bass), Dave Nelson (guitars and keyboards), Gavin Fitzjohn (sax/trumpet/keys) and Thomas ´Seamus´ Simon (drums). Fraser Speirs guested on harmonica and Rico Rodriguez from The Specials contributed trombone. “This is really the start of something,” insists Paolo. “We want to keep this fresh, keep the ideas coming. You spend a long time touring and I want to go into that process with a feeling that we are still creating.”
He says the songs of ‘Sunny Side Up’ are already changing the way he performs. “I can’t sing a song like ‘High Hopes’ all hunched up. I have to stand with my chest out. Different things are coming out. It’s like, ‘get it going, you’re at the front of those guys for a reason!’ Get the band feeling what you’re feeling, and then the audience will all feel it, and that’s where I’m getting. This record’s called ‘Sunny Side Up’ for a reason. I want to keep it positive. Cause for me music is more than just music. It’s a power!”