December/January 2001

by Mark Bell

Paul McLaney: Of Permanence And Peregrination

by Mark Bell

Paul McLaney: Of Permanence And Peregrination

For the release of his third album ‘Permanence’, Paul McLaney has adopted digital recording and the identity of Gramsci. Mark Bell captured him with the first analogue take.

There’s always been a certain amount of stereotyping thrown in with the territory of being a singer-songwriter. We can probably point the finger of blame at a muslin-bedecked Joan Baez, a poncho-smothered Donovan or ankle-braceleted Jewel, but it’s all too easy, too flip, this pigeon-holing lark. After all, if not a singer-songwriter, then what the hell is Beck? Prince? PJ Harvey?

To adroitly sidestep the image he describes as “…the lonely guy standing on the beach staring wistfully out to sea,” the footloose but currently Napier-based singer-songwriter Paul McLaney is trading under the name Gramsci for his third and latest album ‘Permanence’.

The Gramsci handle also allows him the freedom to collaborate with other musicians without the inference that he is taking all the credit. It’s a mark of the character of this down-to-earth, well-spoken and like-able young man that such a thing even qualifies as a consideration. I caught up with Paul, in Auckland for the APRA Silver Scroll Awards, at a popular Dominion Rd eatery, he quietly nursing a beer, me a post-Scroll hangover via a restorative tomato juice.

A potted history reveals Paul was born in England, emigrated to NZ with his family at the age of eight, returned to England only to emigrate again, this time for keeps, at the age of 12. It was while attending Whangarei Boys High that the acoustic guitar bug bit hard.

“I think with all that moving around, I just sort of retreated into my bedroom for about five years with a guitar,” he says.

“l’d wake up in the morning, play the guitar, go to school, take it with me and play it at lunchtime in the art room or whatever. I started teaching [guitar], and I’d teach and then I’d go home and play guitar until I went to bed. I’d fall asleep with it, l just loved it, still do.”

A four-year stint in Dunedin completing a law degree followed, then a further nine months gigging around Auckland, until the wanderlust kicked in once again and it was back to southern climes. This time based in Queenstown, Paul was by now regularly commuting to Dunedin to rehearse and perform with The Avalanche Trio, the rhythm section and violin that lends so much colour to his 1998 live-to-eight-track release ‘The Prayer Engine’. Somehow during this time he managed to squeeze in a summer honing his craft in a rented house in Nelson.

“I find it hard to stay in the one place,” the now 25-year-old muses, risking stating the obvious.

“Actually, every time I go down the South Island this big, huge sigh comes out of me – all the pressure and all that just lifts. There’s something really different about the South Island, it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”

His reasons for living in Napier were initially more personal than practical, in that his partner lives and works there. The practical justification arrived within two weeks of moving there, when he made a pivotal contact in the form of one David Holmes and his digital recording studio Venn Productions, a contact that was to greatly influence the direction he would take with his new album. “Massively exhilarating” is how he describes his first venture into the world of digital recording.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to really use some of the production ideas that I’ve always had. The first album [1997’s ‘Pedestrian’] was just a guitar and a voice. I mean the production there is basically in the songwriting, and then the second album [‘The Prayer Engine’] was the band and an 8-track reel to reel, so there’s not really much scope – just the arrangements there. This time, like the track Easy on the album, at the end of it there are 18 voices layered. That’s David too, he’s very open to those sorts of things.”

It obviously appealed. Easy has received extensive radio airplay on the Channel Z network and the video directed by Ed Davis was on high rotation on TV4s ‘Most Wanted’. Possessed of a rich, deep voice sitting somewhere between Bryan Ferry, Chris Isaac and John Martyn, it’s a little staggering to learn that ‘Permanence’ marks the first time that McLaney has sung harmonies. He has another revelation for me later.

“All the vocals on the album are my first takes. Initially, when I did the vocal for Easy it was just going to be the scratch [guide] vocal, but it was really good so I didn’t think there was much point in re-doing it. I’m not of that whole Brian Wilson philosophy where you’ve got to get the perfect version. I think every song is just a performance, and if you get a good performance then that’s all you want.”

As a maker of self-financed albums it is clearly in his best interest to keep costs to a minimum, and one of the ways McLaney has achieved this on ‘Permanence’ is through utilising a software programme called Fruity Loops. Both he and Holmes have the sequencing programme, so information could be sent via email as a Word File rather than as a wav file, with Holmes able to assemble the structures as instructed using identical banks of sounds at his end.

Give Me Strength was recorded in about an hour because I’d done all the work at home. You just import the word files, it’s like 64 little dots, the keyboards come out underneath and you can write parts. Everything on Give Me Strength, apart from the guitar and my voice, was done on Fruity Loops, and the same with Stay, and the same with… pretty much everything on the album!”

The nine-track album, while beautifully clean and uncluttered as it rides on spacious and unobtrusively looped grooves, has a deceptive amount of subtle, almost subterranean, texture added in the form of background samples.

“That was a conscious thing,” Paul explains. “Because the thing with digital that I didn’t like before l started it was that sometimes it’s too clear and too perfectly quiet. With records you also have that other noise anyway, the sound of the needle in the groove, and that sort of lends an ambience to the recordings. So we were really conscious of adding those sort of ambient touches to most of the songs. We use a lot of atmospheres and loop them underneath.”

Some clever-clogs once came up with the aphorism that songwriting is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, so l ask Paul if that is true of his songwriting process?

“I definitely agree with the 10%-90% thing, but the perspiration is not necessarily in the songwriting itself, its in getting to the point where you want to write the song, and then it will pop out in the 10% of inspiration. I don’t slave over writing. I never re-write my lyrics, once it’s done, it’s done.

“I used to sit down and regularly devote time to it, but I’ve got too many songs building up now. I’ve got the next album and a half written, just sitting there! But I think, more so these days, I like to write when I’ve got a reason, because that way you’re going to have better lyrics.”

On the surface of it, a collective of dance music movers and shakers and an acoustic-toting songwriter might appear to be strange bedfellows, yet it is Auckland’s highly regarded Kog collective who are behind the nuts and bolts aspects of getting ‘Permanence’ into our shopping baskets. I ask how this came about?

“They’re setting up a label called Midium, separate from Kog, for their guitar bands. Gary Fortune from Zomba Records had a copy of the album and was helping with a few things on that, and he passed it on to them and they were interested in putting it out. So what’s happened is I’ve got my own label – Mach(i)ne Recordings – and l use Kog’s infrastructure and Zomba’s distribution.”

It appears that the non-conventional settings of many of the songs – the looped and sampled backdrops and ambient undertows – worked in his favour with Kog, but there was another aspect to Paul’s successful pitch that would work in any songwriter’s favour – his work ethic. “They’re very much of the mindset of ‘get in there and do it’ I think, so they could see I was going to do it anyway and they thought, ‘We like your attitude, we’ll give you a hand’”

As for that law degree, you’re possibly wondering what it was all about if he had no intention of joining the Beemer and chardonnay set. Paul’s answer tells a great deal about the level of commitment he invests in his music.

“Publishing is something that I’m really interested in. I did a law degree at university because I wanted to know how to look after the songs. I knew I wanted to be a songwriter, knew I wanted to be a performer. You see so many people getting ripped off or just ignorant of what it is that they’ve got. I know of songwriters who aren’t even members of APRA, and that’s just silly – it’s free money.”

Rather than staring wistfully out to sea from the Napier pier, Paul McLaney is currently gearing up for a bout of touring with his new Gramsci band. Featuring Anthony Flack on bass and new writing partner Jaylan Boyle on Korg Trinity keyboards (with grooves supplied courtesy of a Roland GrooveSampler), the shows promise to be anything but carbon copies of the recorded versions.

“There’s one song on the album, Give Me Strength, and the last time we rehearsed it was 20 minutes long and it’s gone quite dub. It’s way more exciting for me to do that, just make it different every time. So it’s going to be unique every night, rather than just going through the motions. Which is what I liked about being a soloist for such a long time – you know, if you want the verse to go a bit longer you don’t have to madly nod at the drummer, you just keep going. You’ve got that freedom to go wherever you want as a soloist, which I don’t want to relinquish in the band.”

Exercising that freedom to go whenever he wants may well see Paul McLaney and Gramsci turning up in your neck of the woods, and should that happen you’d be well advised to get along and check out this genuine singer-songwriter talent.