- 21 August 2006
He has some beautiful tunes and cheekbones to match but Mark Robertson reckons Paolo Nutini has what it takes to make the successful transition from aspirant roadie to international superstar.
Reclining in the June sunshine on the verdant grass of Brodie Park, one of the few dear green places that remains unspoilt by commerce or neglect in his home town Paisley, Paolo Nutini lights up another cigarette, takes a swig from his beer and recounts some of his more recent adventures.
‘The South by South West Festival was tremendous,’ he says. ‘I’m just doing these wee acoustic shows between the bigger acts, which is cool, but then these huge bands like the Beastie Boys show up and just do an impromptu show. That was amazing. And then there’s turning up at Carnegie Hall in New York and hanging out with Kid Rock. He was such a nice guy. I was pretty shocked to be honest but he was so sweet.’
Today, Nutini has all the time in the world, well, enough time to spend an afternoon chatting and getting his photograph taken for The List, in between club shows in Dundee and Glasgow and a brief visit to see his girlfriend. We should really have suspected something was kicking off in a big way here. His mobile phone buzzes like an angry wasp all day, delivering messages from press people, record company bods, even the odd impromptu interview within an interview. It is obvious that this is going to be the closest to down time he’ll see for some time.
Proof of that comes just seven weeks later. It takes over a week to get him on the phone again for a catch up chat. He’s in Chicago. No, he’s in Miami. No, he’s in Denver. No, he’s in Germany. No, Holland.
‘I’ve just read in Cosmo Girl in Holland that I’m the Hunk of the Month’, he cackles over a popping, humming, crackling mobile phone line. The phone goes dead (again) and when we finally reconnect Nutini confesses that this was in fact, just a joke. ‘I can imagine being asked to do it though, done up in my Wham “Club Tropicana” surf shorts. Nice.’
He’s right. It isn’t such a stretch of the imagination to find the 19 year-old plastered on the bedroom walls of hormonal teenagers. He does after all have the qualities to make women swoon. He also enjoys an androgynous quality that means he won’t instantly offend your holier-than-thou-indie-hipster-in-the-street. That said, I’m sure they’re trying really hard not to like him seeing that he is that most terrible of things, a non-ironic, non-manufactured, natural pop singer.
Nutini follows in a long lineage of soul(ful) singers; sharp of cheekbone, quick of wit and supremely equipped in the lung department. What is also notable about him, unlike some of his predecessors - which arguably could be anyone from the righteous, if genial Al Green to the bumptious, arrogant Jay Kay - he is extremely charming and affable. His songs are straight from the classic pop sketchbook: big swooning choruses that make best use of his sandpapery croon - a croon tempered by the sharp edges of his choppy Paisley accent. He references the likes of Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder and Rodriguez in our conversation, all of which are audible in their own way in his songs. This isn’t reinventing the musical wheel, it’s just giving it a fresh spin. Soul music in Britain seems to have been the property of men in loon pants and unwieldy tammy hats, so we can be thankful for Nutini’s floppy fringe and scuffed jeans.
A quick catch up for those who might have missed the hype: Nutini was born in Paisley in 1987, progeny of a Glaswegian mother and second generation Italian immigrant father who just happen to own one of the best chippys in the town. He jacked in school at 15 to head out roadie-ing and selling T-Shirts for short-lived Paisley indie pop sensations Speedway and working as a tape op in Glasgow’s Park Lane studios. An impromptu performance at a gig at Paisley Town Hall, when the headline act David Sneddon (remember him?) was delayed, brought him to the attention of his now management, and it wasn’t long before he had inked a deal with Atlantic Records - ‘The home of Led Zeppelin of course! You’ve got to haven’t ye!’ he exclaims - who released his debut album These Streets in June this year.
To say things have been moving pretty fast is an understatement. The Artic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand went from demo disc to cover stars in a matter of months. For Paolo Nutini this momentum was a long time coming. He was signed up at 15 and has been honing his songs ever since, working with various collaborators and ultimately letting his voice develop. He went through a variety of songwriting collaborators - some extremely big names who turned out to be less than pleasant - but stayed grounded, stuck to his guns and remained with Jim Duguid, his long-time collaborator.
‘They suggested loads of people to work with,’ Nutini says. ‘ Even Linda Perry at one point,’ he says. ‘I mean she’s worked with everyone from Robbie Williams to Pink to Courtney Love, but you get in with her it stops being a Paolo Nutini record and starts being a Linda Perry record, which is cool for some folk, but it was easier for me to just work with the guys I had already been writing with.’
The resulting album, produced by Ken Nelson, who worked his unassuming magic on Coldplay’s Parachutes among others, has now sold over 100,000 copies in its first two months of release. In January he was just another face in a very crowded market; by the time he takes the stage for this sold out T on the Fringe show he’ll be on the verge of becoming indecently huge.
The most significant indicator of Nutini’s transience into the public conscience was when he was splashed across the front of the The Sun on the Saturday morning of T in the Park declaring how he liked to indulge in marijuana when living it up at festivals. While the initial sensation was anger, Nutini’s response has mellowed in retrospect.
‘I didn’t even say that shit. She [the Sun journalist] was just trying to get me to say all sorts - cocaine, ecstasy, everything - and thank God I said no. It just felt like a really cheap shot. It was funny though, didn’t do any harm. The only thing that annoyed me about it was that my mum got upset. That was the only thing that sort of bugged me. That’s it, done. Chip paper now really isn’t it?’
The incident in all truth did him nothing but good for his profile. His visit to T in the Park was a success. With a headlining T Break stage appearance and a couple of songs on the main stage, he left after making indelible impression and will inevitably return.
Speaking to Nutini, you get the feeling he will be able to handle the rock’n’roll life. Despite his youth he has an understanding of what he’s getting himself into - witnessing the untidy dissolution of Speedway, a bunch of indie kids on a label with Atomic Kitten and Blue, may have been a valuable lesson. He is, like few at his age, prepared for the ride.
‘When it comes to the business side of it, as much as you might hate it, the reality is that you give the record compan a sort of ownership of your songs, so you’ve got to make sure you’re getting everything you can out of it now because if you’re not, then who is?’
We can only hope his west coast drawl will not be affected into some mid-Atlantic pretence on his return to Scotland for his biggest show yet, at the Barrowland in December, and that he resists believing too much of the hyperbole and plaudits fed to musicians that so often twists their heads and artificially inflates their egos. Nutini tries to convey his thoughts on this with another story.
‘One of the German record company execs came to the gig at the Garage, and thanked me for the on-stage dedication, which I never even gave them! They just can’t understand the accent!’
Success may not be a walk in the park for him at first, but you get the feeling Paolo Nutini will be able to handle it.
T on the Fringe, Liquid Room, 08780 169 0100, SOLD OUT; Barrowland, Glasgow, 14 Dec.