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2004-02-11 - 9:38 a.m.

I got this out of a cracker: "The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man." Actually thats a fib - I wrote a book on the subject. Anyway here's a jape:


IAIN: A first question in the area of the linkage between the Seachages' core image and Redblues - how much the blue is sea related – and whether there is a follow on to the strong blue theme in the earlier CD?

Which songs most obviously take the themes through?

PAUL: The core images of Seachanges are the Blue Bird and the Blue Water. And the Blue cover. The notion of water as a fluent (as distinct from a fixed) element - so images of metamorphosis.

The red in redblues comes as much from earth as from fire. From the start, I wanted "Redblues" to be more down to earth, different from the floating world of 'Seachanges'. A landing. Chris Matthews commented that where 'Seachanges' was a painting, 'Redblues' is a photograph.

IAIN: Are the elements an important source for Redblues?

PAUL: I don't see 'red' as necessarily anger or fire - it can also be red as in the desert I flew over on my way to Shanghai. We still have the notion of the Orient being one half of a taoist circle with the Occident as the other, interrelated one. When I visited China, I was conscious of the way that 'blues' represented a Western club for popular ideas about shared pain and resilience whereas Chinese red suggests resilience, but also celebration and pride. A landbased, self-sufficient culture rather than an ocean based, trading culture? The Chinese refer to daily routine as 'Red Dust', for example. I would suggest that there may be a popular tradition of songs in oriental culture which could be grouped together as 'reds' rather than 'blues', although I have no evidence for this actually being the case!

It was a question of widening the scope of 'Blues' which seems, in the end, to be something in which to drown one's sorrows, to include the ("red") sense of 'taking one's stand' as in the lyrics of 'Western Sun'.

IAIN: So Red and Blue are large scale metaphors?

As Chris Matthews, who I worked with on the collection, put it:' Red is also warmth, comfort, sunset, roses.' Another aspect which Chris mentioned was the notion of red blood/blue blood when we first brainstormed the project: a reference which consequently found its way into the title track.

I was aware of my own and many other white musicians growing up in the 1960s borrowing idioms from Black American culture in order to express what was coded in the 'blues' - a guilty denial of white middle class roots, but also the colonisation and exploitation of black culture. Whatever one says about White Boys singing the blues, I can't get away from the fact that the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton etc. became young millionaires while the seminal blues singers mostly died in misery.

WHY does Elton John adopt black American musical idioms and a cod-southern-American accent when he sings?

I also wanted to increase the scope of the stereotypical blues political agenda: suffering and rebellion and acceptance all start with the notion of enslavement. I wanted to try to include psychological and spiritual paramaters - if there is enslavement, it can also be to internal forces - passion, for example - the lover's enslavement epitomised in a lot of the poetry canon.

IAIN: In the early 60s we mistakenly took “the blues” to be an unmediated natural category – nowadays we can see how much it had been constructed in the previous decade.

PAUL: I wanted to be able to acknowledge my own cultural heritage when dealing with condensed lyrical contemplation. I guess Nick Drake had the same notion: I'm interested that Nick has been likened to Robert Johnson, despite superficially different cultural contexts.

IAIN: So how did you start in practice?

Paul: The first song I specifically wrote for the Redblues collection was 'Rich and Strange' - following on the Shakespeare quote I used for the previous collection (...suffer a seachange into something rich and strange) into a fusion of non-standard multilayered imagery over a blues base (a form of personalised pizza!).

"Your love weaves a thread around me, a tapestry so rich and strange...like a dolphin's song swimming in and out of range" is not a line which Robert Johnson would come up with, I think.

Not that blues lyrics can't be metaphysical and witty: e.g.s 'Put your arms around me like a circle round the sun' or 'I've been down so long it looks like up to me'.

At the same time, in 'Rich and Strange' I wanted to use superficial punning which is a form of deliberately bland defence against deep emotional turmoil: a stoical, irritating way of confronting 'serious' issues -like a cartoon. So there was a whole play on words: "Your sun rose red and blew (blue) the clouds away..." - still retaining emotion, but mocking at the same time.

This is also in the Shakespearean tradition: Hamlet's speech "What a piece of work is man..." is simultaneously satirical and noble,for example.

I wanted an unholy alliance between notions of 'high' and 'low' culture: Shakespeare meets the Marx Brothers!

IAIN: Zeppo not Karl?

PAUL: Of course, there is the notion of red being associated with socialism and blue with conservatism. Terms which used to be simple to distinguish, but are now significantly blurred. When I put 'Redblues' into a search engine, I was unsurprised to find Eastern European jazz musicians who had identified with the title.

But then the internet also offered advice to carpet makers about how to separate their dyes.

Then there is the idea that you can have different shades of primary colours. My house in Cambridge was decorated with what I thought were predominantly blue colours, but my son and a friend of his, both of whom work in film and are orientated to colour, pointed out that the blues were red-based.

Joni Mitchell moved on from "Blue" to "Indigo"...Indigo tends towards purple, hence toward red... For those interested in psychological colour theories, my house in Brighton is more red based, tending towards yellow: maybe the next album will be about bananas.

Blue and red are not mutually exclusive like black and white.

IAIN: I know there’s a technique for arranging music that involves colouring in. These metaphors must go through to instrumental colours – and the ones or on the CD eg synth and guitar tones are not always the one you might expect given the nature of the songs.

PAUL: To start with "Rich & Strange" again, the musical textures on this song are EXACTLY what one would expect from an acoustic blues - I think you mentioned that it was the sort of area 'Pentangle' was in. And yet there is the hint already there, in the solo instrumental, that a virtual world surrounds the acoustic one: what EXACTLY is the instrument being played?

The tone is familiar, a reassuring, folk sound of a harmonica or even kazoo, but in fact it's electronic.

IAIN: Yes I wondered exactly how that had been done, especially as the phrasing is so authentic

PAUL: The other conventional blues tracks: 'Western Sun' and the title track have similarly predictable instrumentation, with a leaning towards the French/Orleans Cajun (from 'Arcadian', incidentally) sound - a reference to the non-African, non-English ingredients. 'Loop the Loop' also has a deliberate square-dance, slightly scary moonshine madness, like 'Duelling Banjos'.

IAIN: Yes Loop the Loop was always in that area even the first recorded version a long time ago.

PAUL: Other songs can be grouped according to hymns/spirituals: 'Palm Sunday', 'Govinda', which refer respectively to Christian and Hindu images, and gave rise to different soundscapes accordingly. Then there are more personal soul-searching songs: 'Easy Time' with its emotional wash, and 'Far Outsider', although the latter is still based around a twelve bar/country feel. And then, well, quirky songs: 'Aquarian Home'and 'Recipe' where the soundscape is at its most experimental.

IAIN: Very experimental I’d say – but experimenting in ways that play with the more conventional meanings. Chris did an amazing job particularly on the Aquarian one. And Recipe is both hilarious and intermittently funky.

PAUL: Working with Chris gave me the chance to paint with sound, which used to be the preserve of the few before technology became so accessible. "Aquarian Home" was designed around sound textures being more important than the skeletal chord structure: particularly the building of the 'walls made of water';

'Recipe' went through many colours before arriving where it did, including one version in which only voices were used - something like what Brian Wilson was experimenting with at the time of 'Smile'.

'Rebel Heaven', for me, is the least easy to pigeon-hole, and probably represents my most personal style, and also the most intricate collaboration with Chris to evolve the soundcolours.

CHRIS: Paul writes a song to say something rather than to make a particular sort of sound. This makes for good songs but it doesn't make my life easy.

If he said "this is a boogie-woogie shuffle in 6/8" I could dial in the appropriate sounds and off we'd go. But he says "this is a song which deals with the whole global-commerce thing in a slightly sarcastic way" so I have to approach instrumentation and production in a different way too.

IAIN: Sometimes Brian Eno comes at production from the very abstract point of view.

CHRIS: Songwriters who use the acoustic guitar as their main compositional instrument often give clues in the way they have constructed the guitar part to demo the song. This is one of the great things about the acoustic guitar - it can, in the hands of a good player, sound like a harpsichord, an accordion, a rock band, a jazz quartet, anything. So I listen to what Paul is doing with the guitar when I first hear a new song. Almost subconsciously he'll be telling me what the backing should sound like.

IAIN: I think it always helps to watch their fingers.

CHRIS: Of course, this can only get you so far so we have long conversations about what the song is doing and I'm always looking for keywords in the conversation; "edgy", "sharp", "silly", "pushy", "drunk", "apologetic" are the sort of words that lead to the first "sound palette" being constructed.

IAIN: That’s almost like Neuro Linguistic Programming

Only rarely do we talk about actual instruments but if Paul has some definite sound in his head that's one fewer things for me to worry about.

When I find what I think is the "way in" to the song I'll send Paul a real rough with a proposed set of instruments and the process becomes fairly predictable from that point.

IAIN: That’s the bit I hate.

CHRIS: Emails and refined versions fly back and forth - rejecting, suggesting, rejoicing, and finally approving (time for a large beer for me!)

Paul keeps his eye on the big picture all the time. The overall balance of the project forms in his mind from quite an early stage and this can lead us to completely overhaul a previous arrangement of a song if it doesn't work in the context of the other tracks. His songs are strong enough to withstand a variety of arrangements imposed upon them.

IAIN: No question about that. And yet there are powerful governing metaphors too.

CHRIS: Red and Blue instrumentation in Red Blues? No, there is no deliberate attempt to create "red" or "blue" sounds. Red and blue are adjectives and it's what they are describing that needed instrumentation.

We talked so much about these songs before recording them (including their redness and blueness) that we became instinctively aware of what was right for each track. Interestingly though, I can assign shades of red and blue to most instruments used in the project much more easily than shades of green or yellow.

That's probably because yellow and green (in our society at least) stand for external things like grass and sun whereas red and blue are often used for internal things like anger and sadness.

I'd like to do a lime-green album next.

IAIN: I sometimes think that the structuralists are 100% right and that all meaning depends on the order in which units are arranged. I said to you earlier that there seems to be a caesura betweeen the first 7 and last 5 tracks. You seemed to agree?

PAUL: Yes, indeed. This was prompted by Chris who said that from a musical point of view, there was an interesting joint between the end of 'Rebel Heaven' and the beginning of 'Aquarian Home' - I immediately realised that from a thematic point of view, this was essential to the vision of the whole collection. The shift of the rebel from solidarity to solitude (to quote Simon Sharma) suddenly made sense of the collection.

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