Interview: Paul Buchanan, late of The Blue Nile

Sometimes you see a chance and take it. In this case, I couldn’t resist reaching out to see if I might be able to score an interview with Paul Buchanan, the former lead singer of The Blue Nile who’s finally gotten around to releasing his solo debut, Mid Air. For better or worse, the interview opportunity that was available to me was one via email, which, if I’m to be perfectly honest, is not exactly my preferred method. I appreciate the concept, of course, and I can’t claim that I don’t enjoy not having to transcribe the resulting “conversation,” but it’s a rare case when I feel as though I’ve succeeded in getting the subject of my interview to open up via email. Still, I’ve been such a fan of Buchanan’s work over the years that I was never going to reject any opportunity to chat with him, even if it was going to be in a virtual capacity.

Sorry to start with a boring back-story question, but better to get it out of the way early: how did you find your way into singing and songwriting in the first place? Did you come by it honestly, i.e. you were born into a musical family, or was music just something that grabbed you more or less out of nowhere and wouldn’t let go?

I learned a few guitar chords from friends, and there was a piano at home, but I think music represented a break for freedom.

You, Robert Bell, and PJ Moore founded The Blue Nile after the three of you graduated from the University of Glasgow. I know that you and Robert were in the band Night by Night together, but when did you actually first cross paths with him and PJ? Was it pre-college, during school, or did you all just meet up on the Glasgow music scene post-college and realize, “Hey, wow, I went to U of G, too”? 

I met Robert in my last year of studying, he’d already left. PJ I knew from my own neighbourhood, but we were re-introduced by a mutual friend after I finished University.

Speaking of Night by Night, I know that the band at least recorded a handful of demos. Many artists look back on their earliest musical efforts and cringe, while others say, “Even then, I can hear where I was trying to go.” Where you stand on that material?

I don’t cringe, though I may wince. Largely we were always pretty tough on ourselves and each other though.

Lord only knows how many comparisons your voice has received over the years – Bryan Ferry and Scott Walker are two that leap to mind – but were you actively thinking of any other singers when you first stepped in front of the microphone? Or perhaps fearful that someone would say, “Oh, lord, listen to him, he’s trying to sound like such-and-such”?

I always try to sound like the person in the song. We didn’t want singing to come in the way of that.

I’ve read that The Blue Nile embraced the absence of a drummer in their lineup from the get-go, but is that 100% true? By which I mean, did you really never toy at all with the idea of adding a non-mechanical percussionist?

Yes, we’ve worked with drummers at every stage , including on the records. For long rehearsal periods, though, not having a drummer, we used machines.

A Walk Across the Rooftops very recently received a 2-disc reissue from EMI, which you and Robert helped to pull together. What was the experience like of revisiting “I Love This Life”? Were you surprised at the time that it didn’t make much of a dent on the charts? And was there any consideration given to tacking it onto the original release of A Walk Across the Rooftops, or would it simply not have fit into the feel of the album?

The company who released the first single went bankrupt three days after it made a low and unexpected entry into the charts. We were just delirious to hear it on the radio!

Not that it wouldn’t become relatively commonplace for a bit to time to pass between the band’s releases, but what was The Blue Nile doing between “I Love This Life” and A Walk Across the Rooftops? Was the excitement of releasing a single enough to spur you to write more songs, or were you stricken by its disappointing commercial reception and finding yourself less creatively inspired?

No, the single had been a little triumph of sorts. We just got on with our work, really. We were in love with music and devoted, and were just finding out what we could do.

Was there any particular point of inspiration for the sound of A Walk Across the Rooftops? Musically, it stands rather far apart from much of what was being released at the time.

We followed our imagination and believed in people. Most of all, we were true to our ideas and principles. We laughed a great deal and enjoyed the adrenalin. For A Walk Across The Rooftops the point of inspiration was the conversations we had and the shared image we saw for each song.

How did your label(s) react to a five-year wait between albums? Surely you received at least a few lectures about your failure to maintain career momentum…

It’s not about career momentum.

I’ve read that the band actually set aside an entire album’s worth of work on the follow-up to Rooftops before Hats eventually materialized. I don’t know the story behind it, but I’ve wondered if it was coincidental that Rooftops featured songs co-written by you and Bell, while Hats was written entirely by you. Can you speak a bit about that situation? Has any of that initially-recorded material ever emerged?

No, we just weren’t convinced by what we’d done, so we erased it!

The go-to song by The Blue Nile for mainstream audiences is “The Downtown Lights,” but are there any other songs by the band that you felt should’ve been hits?

I don’t think of the songs like that.

The band worked with Annie Lennox on her solo debut, Diva. How did you first cross paths with her?

We met Annie after a show.

On a related note, the aforementioned Ms. Lennox covered “The Downtown Lights,” and she’s far from the only one. Do you have a favorite rendition of one of your songs? Or one that surprised you a bit, perhaps in the sense that you never imagined that person was a fan?

Every time is a great compliment, and I’m always grateful and excited.

Was the change of the band’s instrumentation on Peace at Last a conscious effort to sonically switch things up a bit? If so, how do you think it worked out in the end?

We bought a guitar we liked and went from there. It’s important to re-invent yourself and challenge the things for which you’re known. It’s the right thing to do.

 “Soul Boy” floated around a bit before The Blue Nile’s version finally emerged, recorded first by Edyta Gorniak, then by Melanie C. Did you write the song specifically for Ms. Gorniak?

No, it was just a song I had. We were kicking it around one day and it kind of changed beneath our feet.

Were High to prove to be the swan song of The Blue Nile, would you be okay with that? How do you feel about the record as a whole?

I’m proud of it. It’s a stoic record, a man’s record in some ways, and about loyalty and commitment.

The Blue Nile was known for its deliberate nature, taking years in between records. Why was that the case? Is it just the nature of your work habits, or was it the group as a whole?

Circumstances and conditions can make the truth very elusive. We wouldn’t let go until we’d reached our truth of that particular moment.

When recording your solo debut, Mid Air, was there any active attempt to keep the material sounding too Blue-Nile-y, or did you consider that an inevitability just because, well, you did write and sing the band’s material, after all?

The sound of the record is correct for the nature of the record; I followed my unconscious.

How did the idea of remixing the material for the expanded version of Mid Air come about?

Over a beer, probably.

Was the dynamic of working with Robert Bell any different in this capacity?

No, Robert is Robert; fabulous and inimitable

You’ve worked with other artists on occasion, including Peter Gabriel and Aqualung. Do you have any additional musical collaborations in the works?

I’m going to collaborate with myself.

I’ve got to ask: how did it come to pass that you wrote a song with Julian Lennon and worked with Michael McDonald, and how were those respective experiences?

Julian and I are friends, I absolutely love him, writing or just drinking tea. Michael is a true gentleman and his voice gives you goosebumps.

Lastly, with all due respect to Mid Air, of course, it still must be asked, if only as the closing question: while you’re obviously closer to – or at least more consistently in contact with – Mr. Bell than Mr. Moore, would you consider the possibility of a reunion of The Blue Nile at some future juncture?

If we bump into each other in the street, it’ll happen.

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