Paul Weller has never been an artist to stay still.
From The Jam's mercurial rise to their sudden disbandment; The Style Council's dalliance with pop, politics, and deep house; and on through his winding solo career, the iconic artist's work is perpetually changing.
Beautiful new album 'True Meanings' though, is the sound of him taking stock, looking inwards, evaluating what it all means.
Recently turning 60 - a milestone in anyone's life - he's also re-married, and started a new family, welcoming twin boys, and a baby daughter.
Constructed at his own studio, 'True Meanings' is a deft, pastoral, pensive return, a 14 strong song cycle that, somewhat curiously, opens and closes with lyrics penned by other artists - Erland Cooper and Villagers' Conor O'Brien.
Out now, it's a warm, humane document, with Hannah Peel's orchestrations wrapping themselves around Paul Weller's typically soulful songwriting.
Sitting somewhere between Nick Drake and Terry Callier, it's a gorgeous listen - Clash met up with the songwriting icon to find out a little bit more...
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This is by no means the first time you’ve dabbled in acoustic music, but it’s certainly the first full length project of its type. So, why now?
Probably because of one song – it’s on the album, it’s called ‘Gravity’. I’ve had it around for five or six years, and I couldn’t fit it on the records in-between that time. So I think I kind of built the album up around that. I’ve almost been collecting songs for five years. If there were certain songs I felt wouldn’t fit on the record I was working on at the time I would put them to one side. I’ve had my eye on doing it for some years, with this year being my 60th I thought it would be a good time to put it out.
There’s a temptation for fans to read it as a pensive, introverted statement…
It’s not really that, man… It’s just acoustic guitar and strings.
It’s a beautiful-sounding record, how do those arrangements impact on the type of songs you’re working with?
Well, I think you probably concentrate more on the actual writing of the song itself, I think, because there’s less stylings around it. It’s just really about the voice and the song and the guitar. Essentially, that’s it. The strings, brass, and other orchestrations are sweeteners on it. But essentially you hear the song. I suppose there’s more emphasis on that.
I also wrote it in a more traditional way, in that I sat down with a guitar – like I’ve always done – and I just wrote the song like that. It was definitely thought about, and I knew the sort of thing I wanted, what kind of sound. In some ways it was more planned, less spontaneous than previous records have been. Built up over a long period of time. I think it’s essentially about the songs. If there was no strings or orchestration you’d either like the songs or not – that’s kind of what I want people to get from it, really.
It’s actually got a real rhythm to it, as well – there are these moments that recall Terry Callier, or Gil Scott-Heron. It’s not a Laurel Canyon record, for example.
Yeah. I wanted it to sound like me, and to be an extension of what I do. I can think of numerous influences, really, on this record, but none that were particular to it. A lot of people have mentioned Nick Drake, but I think they just hear the acoustic and the strings, it’s too easy to put it into that bag, really. It’s just me and my songs, as it’s always been – it’s just got a different setting, that’s all.
Given you had put all these songs aside over a long period, did that make the actual studio process pretty smooth and painless?
The were really thought out. As I was writing them I was also kind of arranging them, as well. They were fairly set, in a way. Even though I was collecting the songs up we recorded most of the album in about three weeks before Christmas. But none of the songs really deviated too much from the original demos or the original arrangements I had. They only just got better, really, with the orchestrations.
Some of it is actually quite sparse.
Generally it’s quite sparse, yeah. One track - ‘May Love Travel With You’ - has a big orchestra sound on it, but otherwise we try to use them quite sparingly, really. Hannah Peel did the majority of the arrangements, and she did a brilliant job – she’s great.
The album is bookended by other lyricists, which is quite a brave thing to do.
A number of reasons, really. One was that I was conscious of writing about the same things, which is easy to do when you’re writing an album. I was conscious of repeating myself. And I also thought the fact that it’s called ‘True Meanings’ meant it would be nice to hear someone else’s take on that, not just my own words. And thirdly, probably an element of laziness as well on my part. I had so many songs at one time, I thought: I don’t know if I can finish all these songs! A little bit of that.
Also, the people in question – Erland and Connor – I’m a big, big fan of both them people, and their work. I think they’re both great poets, apart from being great songwriters. They’re both great lyricists, and great artists, so it was a chance for me to work with them on that level. Conor did a great remix on the last album, and I thought it would be great for me and him to work on something. It’s a chance to meet and work with other people, as well. It’s all those things.
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The past five years have brought significant changes to your personal life – you got married again, had twin boys, and then a daughter just last year. Do those shifts impact on your songwriting? Does it make you analyse life from a slightly different angle?
I’m sure it feeds into it, man. I can’t say I was conscious of it, but everything in life feeds into what you do, whether you’re conscious of it or not. There’s that, and there’s also… well, mortality. You realise your own mortality.
Not in any way trying to be morbid but there’s an element of thinking, well, how much longer have I got? And how much life and work can I cram into it? So there’s an element of that in it. And just to see our position in life – to take stock and see our position. What is our role? What have we achieved? What has it all meant? I guess there’s an element of that in the record, a reflective side to the record.
‘Bowie’ is a very reflective song – it’s a real poignant moment.
It’s one of Erland’s lyrics. I don’t think it was intentional that it was about my son, Bowie. My wife chose the name. It was about David Bowie, but it’s also about life and death as well. I see myself in that song because it could be about me and my kids. I suppose it’s talking about acceptance really, of loss or death… accepting it as part of the life cycle.
Were the arrangements done as the songs were being recorded?
Hannah came down towards the end. We had most of the backing tracks down. She came down towards the end of that session and we talked through some ideas, and I gave her a couple of indications here and there of what I was thinking. By and large, really, she just kind of did what she did… and it worked.
We have a very, very strict work ethic at our studio. So we will always get something finished and get something done. The fact it was well thought out – we knew what we wanted, and where we wanted the strings or whatever it may be – meant that it was pretty sort of… effortless is probably too big a word to use, but it wasn’t a hardship at all; it was easy and fun and nice.
And everyday there were different guests coming down, so everyday was exciting with different people coming in and doing their parts. There was a lot going on but in an exciting way – it had a good energy to it, as well.
Noel Gallagher is on the record, playing a very un-Noel instrument. So how did he react when you plonked it down in front of him?
Ah, he was fine, man! He was good. He’s a great musician, y’see… whether people get that or not, I don’t know, but he’s a great all-rounder. I’ve heard him play drums and bass, and he’s great on both. And obviously guitar. As he says himself, he’s not really a keyboard player but he’s a good musician, and that means you’ll always get a tune out of something.
Did you hit any snags in that three weeks?
Nah man. Every day was a joy. I’ve got to say. Different people came down every day, so that kept it interesting and exciting, and to see this thing unravel in front of you – within a matter of three weeks – was something else, really.
That drive is something that’s defined your solo career over the past decade – you re-worked the line up of your band and kept making each album in a very different way.
Well, I couldn’t do what some of my so-called peers are doing, I couldn’t do that nostalgia trip thing. Within my own set live I play old songs, from all over the decades, but I also play my new stuff as well. I don’t think I could physically do it, I couldn’t do that thing of doing the same set every night, the same old songs. It would do my fucking head in, man. I would sooner go off and do something else.
I’m mindful that my audience want to hear certain songs – songs they really love – but I’m also extremely mindful of the fact that I need to put across what I’m doing now, as well. Which is difficult in this day and age because in the last 10 years or so people – and I’m generalising here – want to hear what they are familiar with. The hits… or whatever. That’s the way it all seems to have gone. You can see it with tribute bands, bands getting back together. There’s a big boom in nostalgia and I’ve no idea why that is.
Is it because we live in uncertain times, and we need something re-assuring… I don’t know. I guess if I go and see someone I might want to hear some songs that I know but I’m equally happy to hear the new stuff as well.
We certainly live in uncertain times – it’s been non-stop political crisis for a decade. On this record, though, it feels as though you’re almost turning inwards from that. Is that something that crossed your mind while making it, at all?
No. Not at all. But I think it’s at all reflective it’s standing at that brow, of that hill… being 60 and not knowing if you’ve got another 10 years, five years, 20 years… or whatever. Nevertheless you’re not over that hill but you are at that brow, and you can just about peak over the top of it. So there’s no way round that – you’re bound to think about it. Not for too long but you’re bound to get that. And where it goes on from here, who knows? You just have to live your life day by day, really. Enjoy it… seize the day.
If the album was constructed piecemeal over six years, have you been working on other projects concurrently with this one?
There’s a few but I’m storing them away for the next record. Which I’ll probably start on later on this year. I don’t know when it will be out – maybe 2020, I don’t know.
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The studio is used by other artists – Magnus Carlson and Stone Foundation recently – so does that inspire you as well?
We never run it as a commercial business as such, right? Most of the time those bands haven’t got money to pay for it anyway, so that’s not the major concern. It’s more important that a studio works because that’s the only way you keep the soul or spirit in it – as opposed to it standing empty. I think whenever there is any kind of creativity going on it’s pretty infectious to everyone. That in itself inspires other creations, I think.
The Royal Festival Hall show is set to be a real challenge – are you in rehearsals already?
We’ll have the strings and the orchestra, yeah. We start on the 1 st of October. We start rehearsals and then me and the band are going out to play two or three gigs in Europe just to get our chops together. Then we come back, rehearse with the orchestra, and then we’re straight into those gigs. We’re only going to do those two shows – we won’t tour it at all. And that’ll be it – we’ll film it, record it, hopefully get it shown in some cinemas if it turns out well.
Does a challenge like that scare you as a vocalist? Or is that something you thrive on?
I don’t think I’m scared of doing it – it’s a challenge, more than anything. It’s a challenge for me, and also for my band because it’s a different kind of discipline. You can’t deviate from the script, you’ve got to stick with the arrangement and what your parts are or the song won’t come together properly. We’ve all got to be very focussed, very disciplined to work with an orchestra. It’s a different challenge, and I think it’s important to do as much as you can… keep challenging yourself in big ways or small degree – whatever – it’s the only way you learn, the only way you go forward.
Are you in competition with yourself, then? Or do you have a sense of competition with other songwriters?
Nah, it’s more about meself. It’s more selfish than that, man. I can’t look at it any other way. I haven’t got any peers any more, I haven’t got any contemporaries. Sadly. Because they’ve either fallen by the wayside, or some have passed on.
The only people I’m close to musically – often, anyway – will be people who are 10 years younger than me, because most of my contemporaries have gone. I only look to challenge myself, I’m not thinking beyond that. If I look at most of my contemporaries… they don’t challenge anything, really. So they certainly wouldn’t be of any inspiration to me at all.
We touched briefly on the political climate – you’ve been involved politically in a formal way in the past, is that something you would return to, do you think?
No. Absolutely not. No. I did a benefit concert in Brighton a couple of years ago for Jeremy Corbyn, which a good friend of mine asked me to do. I was happy to do it, as well, because I like what he says. But I’m not one to join any sort of party – not at all. I don’t feel the need to. I can agree with some things he says, but I wouldn’t want to get too involved with it. I don’t really trust politicians. I think Corbyn is a good fella, I think he’s sincere… whoever he’s got around him is another matter, of course, because I’ve no idea. But I’m very wary of getting too trapped into that, which I kind of did in the 80s. I didn’t have good experiences with that, which has put me off.
You can get burned.
You get used and exploited easily in that situation. I’m not saying that’s Corbyn’s thing but certainly that’s what I felt at the time in the 80s, anyway.
The past 18 months has seen the issue of class once again move to the heart of British politics… in spite of your success, do you still see yourself as working class in culture and identity?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Well, my thing is – the fact that I’ve done well, and I’ve been very lucky, and live comfortably doesn’t mean that I’ve joined your club. I haven’t joined your middle class club, I’m just someone who’s slipped through the net and done alright. So I entirely identify with my working class roots – what it means in today’s world I don’t know. Like a lot of things, it’s changed. I mean, in the 60s and 70s there were less options for people of a certain class.
But culturally, yeah… absolutely. I certainly don’t identify with middle class fucking culture, that’s for sure. Money or not – whatever it is, I don’t fucking want it.
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'True Meanings' is out now. Catch Paul Weller at London's Royal Festival Hall on October 11th and 12th.
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