Interview: Paul Thomas Saunders on Descartes Highlands

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Paul Thomas Saunders; a sum of many parts. Following the release of his Descartes Highlands EP late last year, the Leeds based singer-songwriter has gone from impressing a modest though captivated crowd at Green Man Festival to performing under the dazzling lights of a Burberry music session. He’s been tipped as cream of the crop by the Guardian and Amazing Radio but still remains allusive to the press, hiding behind half baked descriptions that simultaneously compare him to Radiohead and Leonard Cohen.

So far, so mysterious. Now set to release his debut full length on RT60 Records, and having previously worked with ground setters Dance to the Radio and Communion, there’s a big slice of hope the world will pick up their ears and actually listen to Saunders in the coming year. With a talent as obvious as his, that’s all it will take for us to fall in love with his music.

To anticipate things a little and pick up the pace, DrunkenWerewolf fortuitously recommended Saunders as part of our Tips for 2013 countdown. Coming in a mean ninth behind some equally worthy acts, we follow up here with an interview about surviving Leeds, prefer the studio and getting compared to the flavour of the month.

At what point did you realise you wanted to become a musician? Was there a particular instance or influence that provoked you?

I think my desire to become a musician was spawn out of my hopelessness at any other trade. I was surrounded by classical musicians from a very young age, but my technical abilities in that arena were pretty limited too, so naturally, pop music appealed to me greatly.

Since then, what about you musical direction has changed? Have you always known what direction you wanted to go in?

For me it's constantly changing. It’s the wonderful thing about being a solo artist. There aren't many walks of life that allow you to constantly re-invent yourself and unremittingly question the boundaries within which you work. You have to take advantage of that, you don't have to call it “art”, but I think it's the only way you can attempt to create something honest in an ever more disposable industry.

Lots of people have mentioned artists as diverse as Radiohead and Leonard Cohen when describing your music. Which genres and eras of music do you relate to the most?

I think you have to take comparisons like that with a pinch of salt. When people write about comparisons often they have a simple Venn diagram in mind, one circle contains the music “the common man” might have heard of, and the other contains the music the writer has heard of. The acts that are left in the intersection, (your Radioheads, The Smiths, new “flavour of the month” act) no matter how vaguely you compare to them, are who you're filled next too.

I generally gravitate towards quite wordy, lyrical music, but for the album I think I've drawn most of my inspiration from Joe Meek recordings and Vangelis.

You’re based up in Leeds which, a few years ago, became renowned for its indie pop and harder rock scene. Do you have a hard time fitting in locally, or have you found a group of musicians with whom you’ve formed a community?

I do get the impression that Leeds has been tainted with the indie pop brush, but I think that whole movement, if you can call it that, is something that musicians here resent. All that happened was a couple of guitar bands got big, but there's so much interesting music in Leeds too. One of my favourite Leeds acts, Napoleon 111rd, released one of the most forward thinking albums I've heard, if anything, I think bands riding off the back of Brit pop have a harder time gathering a following here than any other genre now.

Descartes Highland came out last year and gained you attention from The Guardian and Amazing Radio. Do you feel like its release marked the start of your career proper, or was it a more gradual process?

It's been very gradual. It's been three years since I released my first tracks though two local independent labels Dead Young Records and Dance to the Radio in Leeds, and I think I've needed that time to prepare for the first album. Not to write the songs as such, but to come to terms with a suitable soundscape of my own that can tie all the songs together. People seem to over look that these days. I haven't heard many acts recently who offer anything new or interesting sonically. Anyone can write a song, and I think an album should be more than just hard proof of that inane fact.

You have a tenuous connection with Communion Records. Can we consider you a fully fledged signee, now, or will you continue to self release music as per “Let the Carousel Display You & I”?

The folks at Communion have been really good to us, I'm sure we'll play many more of their nights in the future but we're more affiliated with their promoter side than the label. The next release will be on Atlantic Records.

Some reviewers comment that you seem very shy on stage. Is performing to a larger audience an intimidating prospect to you? Do you prefer to record music than play it to a crowd?

It’s an intimidating prospect, it feels like an instinctively un-natural thing to me, to be on stage. It's not stage fright, I do get very nervous, but it's more an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness as soon as I step out. I don't think the lack of spectacle is really an issue though, I don't think anyone who comes to our shows expects Barnum and Bailey's circus. I've always thought it was a strange skill set, to be both a great songwriter and a natural performer, and I certainly don't have the capacity to work at both, so the studio is definitely where I try to excel. I think it’s the longevity of what can potentially be created there that informs me it’s a much more worthwhile investment of my time.

You got to play Green Man last summer. How did that come about? What other festivals were you pleased to play?

I'm not sure, I suppose a promoter heard us elsewhere and got in touch somehow, but it was a great festival to play. We played on The Wall stage to a lovely crowd. We played quite a few memorable festivals over last summer, but I think my favourite shows were Latitude Festival and Transmusicales in France, I think we felt pretty unworthy of the reception at both those shows.

Burberry have endorsed your music by giving you some session time on their infamous YouTube channel. Was performing for the fashion label a weird concept for you? I spoke to Marika Hackman about the same thing and she said the invitation came out of the blue.

It was a bit bizarre, and very out of the blue, but other than putting on a few fancy rags it was no different to the set up for other acoustic videos we've done. I think we were super lucky with the shoot though as the time of year and weather was just right for it to start raining leaves during the song. It was a really beautiful location.

What does 2013 hold for Paul Thomas Saunders?

I'll be releasing my album Beautiful Desolation later this year and then playing far and wide across Europe.

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