Interview: Paul Thomas Saunders on Beautiful Desolation

Paul Thomas SaundersSo far, Paul Thomas Saunders has two EPs to his name. Listening to them, you’d be forgiven for presuming the owner of the voice to be a timid sort, with an impenetrable outer shell and endearing tendency to speak quietly. This along with the fact that he is often swept into the pigeon-hole of folk artists who utilize their middle names means that Saunders has some baggage to offload before you listen to him with unbiased ears. However consider how he’s rubbish at playing the acoustic guitar (his words not ours) and the disarming Northern charm which eases our conversation, and you realise that Mr Saunders doesn't quite fit the usual singer-songwriter mould.

When DrunkenWerewolf spoke to PTS this time last year, he described how being great at both performing live and writing songs was a skillset he lacked the capacity to master. Fast forward a few months and add supporting Frightened Rabbit, headline shows around the country and the release of a top notch new single to his résumé, and it appears that the twenty-something is well on the way to proving himself wrong.

Enter 2014: the year of the debut album release and a chance for Paul to show us more of what he can really do. The album has been in the pipeline for what feels like an eternity, and as our not-so-patient waiting draws closer to its reward; we thought it was about time for a little catch up.

Following the release of “Good Women” and right before he (probably) blows everyone’s socks off with Beautiful Desolation, the man in question found five minutes to tell us tales of fluky song writing, silver linings and the album he can't wait to share with the world.

Hey Paul, Happy New Year and all that stuff! How did 2013 treat you?

It treated me well! I was just holed up in my house where I was recording the album for most of it. I didn’t see many people – it was a kind of a hermit year. But it was good fun, thank you!

Beautiful Desolation is set for release in a few months. How does it feel to have your debut album finished and ready to go?

It feels real, you know. It feels like one of those landmarks – like when they get to the point in recording a movie when there are shots of people nodding their heads at the end. I’m a lot more confident about this and I can’t wait to have it out. I just want to have a hard copy CD and put it in a drawer so I know I’ve got it and then start on the next one, I think!

You said recently that if you were going to introduce someone to your music you’d play them “Good Women”. Why – is it representative of your music as a whole?

Yeah, I think so. The reason why I thought that one is because it’s the first song I recorded that went how we planned from the outset – from conception to the delivery of it. It was the first time we knew exactly what we wanted to channel and achieved it. A lot of the time I’ve started out recording with a very rough blueprint of a song and thrown stuff at it to see what stuck. But with that song, over a few days we had all the parts and it was there.

When I show it to people it feels like a true representation of something I’ve done rather than sometimes when it’s a fluke!

Do you think song writing is something that comes naturally to you? Do you have to be in a certain mind-set or a certain place?

Yes, I definitely have to. I have to be quite desperate to write a song if I want to – I can’t just sit down. I haven’t got the master touch! But I think it’s one of those things; I can’t imagine anyone at any time sitting down and writing a song and nailing it in half an hour.

I feel like good songs are quite a personal thing. Any of the songs I really love must mean a lot to the person that wrote them. It’s about giving yourself the time to write something honest; anyone could do it, really.

Last time you spoke to us you said the same thing – that anyone could write a song and that you think an album should be “more than just hard proof of that inane fact.”  So what music blew you away in 2013? I saw you posted a link to a Phosphorescent track.

Last year, I really liked the King Krule album - I think it was really brave and just great. And Phosphorescent - I haven’t listened to the album so much but when I first heard that song, as everyone did, I just stopped in my tracks. “Song For Zula” was incredible, really.

I don’t see music live as much as I used to. I love seeing bands live but in the last year or two I haven’t had much time to. I remember seeing Animal Collective at Glastonbury a couple of years ago and that’s a moment that stands out in my mind and always will. And seeing The Flaming Lips live! They’re pretty mind-blowing.

In older interviews you’ve described playing live as intimidating and not necessarily something that comes naturally to you. Is that different now you’re playing more headline shows?

I hope so, especially with headline shows. But I think no matter how many headline shows you do that when you go back to playing support slots, which you inevitably always will, it’s bizarre because it’s a completely different thing. It’s like having a conversation with your best friend and then talking to a stranger on the phone! It’s a very different experience.

Especially to start with, I never thought of my music as something I could play live. The first EP was purely to record for the joy of recording music, so it was really hard figuring out how to play those songs with three or four people. Now,  because we’re more aware we’ll have to play live, I think about it more during the recording process.

What was it like playing alongside Frightened Rabbit? Did you get a good reception from their fans?

It was weird because we were first on out of three bands and we literally came on at doors. I felt like we had to work really hard to get people to listen to start with because there were loads of people going in and out. But I think we picked up some loyal fans for the future! That’s what it’s about really - stealing other people’s fans. I’m fine with that!

Your newest artwork is more colourful than we’re used to and “Good Women” is strangely uplifting! Is this something we can expect more of with Beautiful Desolation?

Yeah, I hope so. I always thought that that there was an element of hope in the music and maybe a lot of people didn’t pick up on that but it was always meant to be there. I was a bit of a mess in my teens and that came through a lot in the music when I started. But I don’t want it to just be a sob fest! I don’t think the album needs to come with a pack of tissues. It’s definitely something I’m conscious of but I think there’s more to music than the lyrics.

That said, there are no three minute pop songs on there yet!

In an interview you’re quoted as saying that you abhor acoustic guitars! Why?

For me, it’s purely because I hate playing it! I can’t stand it. I never played acoustic guitar until I was 16 and was really getting into traditional folk music. It’s nothing to do with the whole folk thing that’s happened now that I started to dislike them but I’m terrible at playing them and they’re the hardest things to record. They have a mind of their own and you can’t blag playing acoustic guitar well on record – you’ve just got to be good!

I don’t practise and often the first time I play a song all the way through will be when we’re recording it. I don’t have the chance to do that and hence why I ditched them; the album was taking long enough anyway so it was necessary in order to get it out in a year. I needed to make some sacrifices - it was a painful process!

Last time you spoke to us you were thinking of releasing the album last year but you had trouble with your voice. Do you think it was a blessing in disguise of sorts?

Yeah, I had quite a lot of trouble with my throat towards the end of a 2012 tour and it took about 6 months for my voice to come back. In that time we couldn’t record any vocals so as a result I wrote different songs and we decided to record those instead.

I definitely wouldn’t have been happy with the album had it been released with the older songs. So yeah, it was a blessing in disguise. Silver lining and all that!

It certainly seems like 2014 is going to be a big year for Paul Thomas Saunders! Any dreams that you hope come true or any resolutions to make them happen?

I don’t know, I have quite a lot of ridiculous dreams really! I want Jim Jarmusch to direct a music video for us but that’s just a ridiculous thing! I might have to delay that one for a bit. Or I could get my people to call his people…

Paul Thomas Saunders will release his debut album on 7th April 2014 through Atlantic Records. New single “Good Women” is available to buy now. Find out more here.


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