Songs For Anyone, the new album by singer-songwriter Paul McClure – the self-styled Rutland Troubadour – is a step on from his stripped-down 2014 debut, Smiling From The Floor Up, and sees him playing with a band.
With an Americana sound and nods to late ‘60s Dylan, it’s an honest, personal record, and, as Paul points out, there are no guitar solos…
You’ve said that this album isn’t the record that you set out to make. What do you mean by that?
Paul McClure: I was trying to think about it too much. I could’ve done the same album again – people would say, ‘that’s him – that’s what he does’ – but I wanted to think about new stuff to do and how I could develop and change my sound and move on.
I went in with the idea of making a record like John Wesley Harding [by Bob Dylan] – me singing and playing guitar and harmonica, with a drummer and a bass player. I wanted my playing and singing to be the pillar in the middle and then to enhance it with layers, but it went further than that…
Your first album was largely a solo affair, but for the new record, you worked with a band – multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett from The Dreaming Spires, who also produced the album, drummer Michael Monaghan and vocalist Hannah Elton-Wall (The Redlands Palomino Company). Why did you decide to do that?
PM: I definitely wanted to get other people in – by the time this album comes out, I will have been playing and touring on my own for two years.
I wanted to revisit some of the venues I’ve played solo – and visit some new ones – with a little band. It’s nice for people who’ve seen me play two or three times before [on my own] to see me with a band. They can experience something new.
So, let’s talk about the band and the sound of the new album…
PM: Hannah sang on nine songs in a day and we wouldn’t let her do more than two takes – I didn’t want it to be too polished. I didn’t want it to be Steely Dan.
I like the ramshackle feel of the Felice Brothers’ first three albums – a load of people together, having fun and all bringing something to a song. Like The Beachboys doing Barbara Ann.
Joe played a lot of instruments [bass, lap steel, piano, organ, violin, banjo, trumpet and percussion] and he brought the drummer, Mike, in. Mike did all his drum parts in a day, playing to my guitar and vocals. There were six one-day sessions over a period of a couple of months.
Some of the songs – Yesterday’s Lies and Every Day Is Mine To Spend – are still quite stripped-down, with acoustic guitar and vocals, but there are several songs with drums, bass and slide guitar.
You can definitely hear that it’s a singer-songwriter playing the guitar and singing at the front, with a band. The basis of most of the songs is still guitar, bass and drums. I didn’t want to lose my identity as a guy standing there with a guitar, singing songs at you. That will never go away. There are no guitar solos.
You’ve said that during the making of this record, it was the first time you’d loosened your grip and let someone else ‘drive’. How was that?
PM: I had a really strong idea of what I wanted the first album to sound like and I think I got that. It was good to get a brave, vulnerable and exposed album out first – just to say, ‘I’m not scared of anything – I’m quite happy to stand and sing on my own’.
With his album, Joe said that he had some ideas – there had to be a progression. On this record, he knew that there was a boat that needed steering. I was excited by it. I’m primarily a songwriter – I’m not a producer. Once I’ve written a song and it’s out in the world, I’m kind of done.
Joe did a lot of work on the songs, but there were still times when he put something on that I took off. It’s still my album, but Joe and I have shared how it sounds. I’ve given him sole production rights, but I was present during the whole thing.
He’s a fantastic musician – if you can’t trust someone of his calibre, then you’re a bit of an idiot, or you’re arrogant. I’m not precious about my songs… it’s not like watching someone kiss your wife!
Some of the songs on the new record seem to be about some of your more recent experiences, while some hark back to older events… Did you have a lot of the songs written before you went in to record the album?
PM: I’m quite prolific – I write all the time. When Smiling From The Floor Up came out, I picked the first 10 songs that were ready. It didn’t matter which songs I used – they were all about me and they could all sit together. The cohesion of the first album was with the arrangements – not the topics of the songs.
For this album, when I started the demo process I had about 25 songs and out of the top 10 or 12 I’d earmarked, I only used half. I deliberately revisited four songs from a previous album that I did with my previous band The Hi and Lo.
The title of the album comes from the track A Song For Anyone. Why did you choose that?
PM: It’s essentially a song about the friendships made through shared enjoyment of music. I had a friend who was 20 years older than me and after every gig, we used to go back to his house – he had a big record collection from the ‘60s and ‘70s – music I didn’t know about.
It’s the idea that every song that’s ever been written, once it’s out in the world, is there for anyone to listen to and it can be used for help and to provide solace or entertainment.
Once you’ve written a song and you’ve put it out there on a record, you can’t control how people use it. If people want to use it to get through something or to dance to, that’s fine – it doesn’t matter.
Once you’ve made a song, it’s there for anyone… I’ve got thousands of songs that I’ve used to help me get me through different times in my life.
The lyrics on the new album deal with themes such as friendship, music, love and childhood. It’s a very autobiographical record…
PM: Everything I do is autobiographical. I only ever write about what I know. Every song I’ve ever written I can trace to specific events.
Let’s talk about some of the songs. Holding A Ten Ton Load is my favourite track on the record. What’s the background to that song? It has a ‘60s electric Dylan feel to it…
PM: It’s about the very moment of being dumped and reeling from it. I ‘stole’ the harmonica from a Steve Earle song called Jerusalem.
The opening song, Gentleman’s Agreement, has a full country sound…
PM: It’s the song that’s most representative of me not being in charge – it was completely led by Joe. I came up with the song – the chords and words – but I was doing it at a half tempo, like Let It Be. Joe said that we were missing a trick and we sped it up.
Unremarkable Me is possibly the only song to mention the domestic chore of ‘doing the big shop’…
PM: That’s a line I got from Pete Gow [singer-songwriter from Case Hardin]. My wife and me do the big shop – we just never call it that.
It’s a song about finding beauty in the domestic rituals of everyday life with your partner…
PM: It dispels the myth that someone is going out with you because you’re a musician who’s cool. Most of what I do is the same as what all of us do – sleep on the sofa and go to the supermarket – but she still wants to go out with me and do unremarkable stuff with me, which is amazing.
The track My Big Head Hat of Dreams is a playful song about being a daydreamer as a child, but it also sticks two fingers up to your enemies: ‘hit those fuckers right between the eyes’.
PM: I got a lot of stick at school – I didn’t fit in and I was a dreamer. I really like doing that song. It’s about the idea that your hat is like an external hard drive that you keep all your ideas and thoughts in. Otherwise, I’d have no filter and they’d all spew out of my head…
Yesterday’s Lies is a big McClure tear-jerker ballad. In a parallel universe, it could be a big hit…
PM: Wouldn’t that be nice? I love that song – I’m slightly surprised that I wrote it, but I think it sounds like one of my songs. There’s a lot of imagery and ideas in it that I’ve used to try and explain a mood or a feeling.
This album is more positive than your first record, isn’t it?
PM: I think it’s easier to listen to. With the first album, I didn’t give the listener much help. I barely put enough music together to float the words to the songs. On this album, I’ve worked more on the melodies and the arrangements.
When you’re listening to an album with nice-sounding instruments and nice melodies and well-played tunes, it cushions the fall when you’re singing a song about having your heart ripped out.
Are you pleased with the new record?
PM: I love it – I love the way it sounds and how it looks.
So what’s next for Paul McClure. Are you already thinking about your next record?
PM: The next album is ready to go – it’s all in my head. There are four songs that I didn’t use on this album, as the arrangements weren’t compatible, and, for the next album, I’m going to deliberately write some songs for the band in my head. The next one will be a simpler version for a three-piece – drums, bass and guitar. It might have a Tonight’s The Night [Neil Young] feel – no frills and slightly angular.
Songs For Anyone by Paul McClure is released by Clubhouse Records on January 27.