was your plan, or goal, in making "Night Music" ?
I only had very general aims, rather than specific ones. I never write
according to some sort of blueprint, or manifesto; it's much more kind
of a natural evolution than that. But I knew what sort of record I DIDN'T
want to make. I didn't want to make something harsh and aggressive,
because there's just so much of that out there already. I tried to make
the kind of record I wanted to hear myself, which at that point was
something beautiful and lyrical. And I wanted to make something that
would stimulate your imagination, and reveal more and more layers the
more you listen to it.
Contrary to standard pop practice ...?
Yes, I suppose so. I wanted to seduce people, rather than bashing them
over the head. I wasn't trying to grab as many people as possible as
quickly as possible, you know? It seems like EVERYONE is doing that,
and I'm concerned that if everyone does that all the time, we end up
with a musical culture that's rather shallow and trivial. I mean, even
pop music needs to have SOME kind of depth. This isn't really pop, though.
And it's very different to what you've done before. I think it is and
it isn't. It's up to you, whether you want to emphasize the differences
or the similarities. I think it has a lot in common, for instance, with
"Night and Day". They're both very melodic records which are very sort
of un -rock'n'roll, with no guitars, and they're both built around my
keyboard playing. But in some ways "Night Music" feels like a big step
forward for me.
I think I'm finding my own style. That hasn't been so important to me
in the past; I've put the emphasis on melody, harmony, lyrics - on content
over style - sort of letting the style take care of itself. Now I feel
that I'm finding my own language and my own way of structuring things.
On this record, I think you hear the quieter, more introverted side
of it, but on future things I think you'll see the noisier, more extrovert
side . . .
Are you deliberately leaving rock'n'roll behind?
It's much more a case of following my instincts and doing what feels
right, than making conscious decisions. Obviously, "Night Music" isn't
a rock record, but I think it's also full of rock influences. I've grown
up with rock, I can't get away from it. But before I did "Look Sharp",
I was playing jazz gigs and studying Composition at the Royal Academy
of Music. All I can say is, it just doesn't feel natural or honest to
me to work within the limits of one clearly defined genre. I'm a bit
of a misfit, but it's not really intentional. It's just the way it comes
But to an observer, who doesn't know your whole life story, it looks
like you've come so far since your first album that they don't know
what to make of you any more. Your first records were clearly part of
the New Wave, and since then you've been through Jazz, Latin . . . .
Well, this is a simplification that has become a myth that just keeps
getting churned out now. "Look Sharp" is called New Wave because of
when it came out - 1979 - and because it's just guitar, bass and drums
and we kept it pretty raw and simple. "Body and Soul" gets called a
'jazz album' because I'm holding a saxophone on the cover, I think -
it's not a jazz album at all! "Jumpin Jive" was a cover album, a tribute
album, which I did as a bit of fun and a sort of vacation from writing
my own stuff. Otherwise, pretty much everything I've done has been eclectic,
it's not a case of writing in one specific style or genre and then changing
to another. "Night and Day" has Latin percussion on it, but it's not
a Latin album.' Most of my stuff has been fairly mainstream pop but
with different colors brought in from here and there, because I have
a very varied musical background. But you know, the Beatles were doing
Eclectic Pop 30 years ago! I don't see what all the fuss is about! From
"Night and Day" onwards, there are more colours and you could say it
gets more sophisticated, because I'm getting older, and feeling freer
to put more of myself into the music. I think if you don't hold onto
that sense of freedom, freedom to be creative, you start to become a
sort of caricature of yourself. Instead of being a real human being,
who happens to express yourself thru music, you become a one-dimensional
cartoon. A certain look, a certain sound, and that's it - you're stuck.
And that's no fun at all.
How is the record doing?
People keep asking that, and I don't know what to say! It all depends
on your point of reference. 'Commercially', I have absolutely no expectations.
In fact, I think that having commercial expectations is a dangerous
trap. I've done things that I thought were sure-fire hits that went
nowhere, and when I did have hits I was totally shocked. But, how is
this record doing . . . from a Pop point of view, hit singles and all
that, not very well. But when you consider the kind of record it is,
the fact that it doesn't fit into any obvious slot, the fact that there's
very little airplay or media support, it's actually doing rather well.
I think the only way to look at it is that if you're proud of your work,
then it's a success, and every time one person buys the album, it's
a further success.
play a lot of of the record yourself. Why was that, and how did you
go about it?
I didn't want it to sound like 'a band'. I wanted to create a kind of
Imaginary Orchestra, that you might hear in your dreams. I didn't want
guitar, bass, and drums, doing the usual things that guitars and basses
and drums tend to do. Playing a lot of the parts myself gave me a lot
of freedom to experiment with different sounds. Also, it's a combination
of electronic elements - synthesizers and samples - with acoustic elements
- the piano,viola, oboe and so on. I think that as you listen, you're
never quite sure which is which, or what's going to come next. Hopefully,
it catches you off guard, and makes you listen more closely and use
your imagination. I programmed the basic 'map' of each piece at home
using the Opcode Vision sequencing software, then went in the studio
to overdub the acoustic elements and build it up from there. I'm not
into home recording, I want my home to be a place to relax and get away
from music! I know a lot of people with home studios and they end up
like rats in a trap!
There's a lot of debate about new technology in music these days.
What's your attitude to it?
I just think of it as an expanding, and at this point rapidly expanding,
palette or tool-kit. It's ALL technology. A violin is a very sophisticated
piece of technology of a certain kind. A computer is a different kind.
Of the two, I'd say the computer is easier to use. But it doesn't matter
what technology you use, what matters is whether you have something
to say, an original idea.
did you come to use 3 other singers?
I don't think I have to sing everything I write any more. And I don't
want to be limited as a composer by my limitations as a singer. Also
there are logical musical reasons for the other voices. In "Ever After"
I used the young boy's voice (11-year-old Taylor Carpenter) because
I thought it had a very vulnerable, fragile feeling, which I think is
quite poignant, in a song that's basically about feeling lost and abandoned.
In the case of "The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy", I'm telling a story which
is mostly from a man's point of view, but toward the end it shifts to
a woman's point of view. So obviously a woman's voice comes in. And
the voice I heard in my head was Maire Brennan's (from Clannad), so
I got in touch with her and she said "Sure, OK." It was as simple as
that! Sometimes you do get what you want! You know, it makes me laugh
sometimes, how puzzled people get when I do things which seem quite
logical to me, and not even unusual, or particularly original! I'm hardly
the first person to write music for someone other than myself to sing.
And I'm hardly the first person to write instrumental pieces, or to
alternate them with vocal ones, and so on. I mean, maybe I'm an oddball
from a conventional pop/rock point of view, but I don't see myself as
writing Pop Music for the Pop World, I think I'm writing Music for the
World, you know?
you say a little bit about some of the songs, starting with "The Man
Who Wrote Danny Boy?"
It's a variation on the "Faust" theme; a man being tempted to sell his
soul to the Devil in exchange for immortality. In this case, musical
immortality. He wants to write a song that people will still be singing
in pubs in 200 years. This one has a lot of words, more than all the
other songs put together, and it's about a lot of things - creativity,
mortality, and certain differences between men and women.
as . . ?
Well . . . I don't like to generalise too much, but I think that men
are more likely to be dreamers and idealists, and women are more realistic!
So in this scenario, the man may or may not be on the verge of selling
his soul - it may all be a dream - but the earth is opening up beneath
him and bells are tolling and there's fire and brimstone and meanwhile
his wife is in the next room saying, "Why don't you for God's sake get
over yourself, and just come to bed?!"
you say, there aren't a lot of words on this album - four of the tracks
don't have any at all. Do you not feel you can express yourself so much
in words any more?
I'm still interested in combining words and music. I'm interested in
setting other peoples' words to music, too. I think I've always been
better at music than words, though. In the past, writing songs, I often
put in a lot of words that were sort of superfluous; I'd said all I
had to say in the first verse, but then I'd have to fill another verse
with words just because the form demanded it, the convention demanded
it. More recently, I've been thinking: why not just say exactly what
I want to say, and find the structure that fits it best? So I'm letting
the music take the shape that it wants to take. It's structured, but
it isn't necessarily verse-chorus-verse-chorus. And at the same time,
I'm losing any inhibitions I might have had about putting my instrumental
compositions out there. As it turns out, quite a lot of people have
said that the "Nocturnes" are their favourite things on the album.
After" seems to be the closest thing to a pop-song format ...
Yes, although I tried to tell part of the story purely musically. There's
a verse and a chorus, which are sort of tortured, anxious - it's about
trying to come to terms with loss, either because someone left or someone
died - that's open to interpretation. But then it goes through an explosion
of anger which is cathartic - with no words - and it ends in a more
peaceful, resigned sort of acceptance.
writing great 3-minute pop songs just as much an art as writing operas
Of course a great pop song is, well, a great thing, and so is a great
symphony, or a great book, or a great meal, for that matter. I appreciate
greatness, because so much in life is mediocre. But I don't demand that
it always come packaged in one specific format. I like a good snappy
3-minute pop song as much as the next guy, but I don't think it's the
bloody Holy Grail. It's not the only way you can express yourself in
music. I have the inclination and hopefully the ability to do other
things, so I think I have to go with that. If everyone was scared to
depart from the forms that most people are used to, for fear of not
being understood, there'd be no progress. Being an artist isn't about
trying to give people what you think they want. It's about trying to
give the best of yourself, according to your own unique abilities.
said in the past that people take you too seriously, and miss the humor
in your work. But "Night Music" is a pretty serious, introspective record.
I suppose it is rather serious, more so than some of my other stuff.
Usually there's more humour, and there probably will be on the next
album. But this one isn't solemn, I'm not saying it has to be approached
with great reverence, like you're going to church or something. The
point is you can have generally serious intentions, like the pursuit
of excellence and some sort of meaning, and that's not at all incompatible
with a sense of humour. The thing is, I'm quite serious about my approach
to music, in the sense that I care about doing it as well as I can,
but I don't take myself very seriously at all. If you watch MTV for
an hour, you'll see so much posing and posturing which is incredibly
pretentious in its own way, people who take themselves much more seriously
than I do! Anyway, I hate this attitude that some people have, especially
in America, that being serious about anything, being an adult, is somehow
desperately un cool. It's only a very immature person, if you ask me,
that sees 'serious' as being synonymous with 'boring' or 'depressing'.
first line on the album, in "Flying", is "The older I get, the more
stupid I feel . . ." Is that how you feel?!
Sometimes, yes! But later in the song, there's the line: "The older
I get, the more lucid I feel," which sounds almost the same, like a
slip of the tongue, and it's a deliberate contradiction, or paradox.
My songs are full of paradoxes. I think life is full of paradoxes. BOTH
are true, (stupid and lucid) because I think as you get older, you realise
just how complicated life can be, and how dumb you were when you were
19 and you thought you were so clever. But at the same time, hopefully,
you're gaining wisdom. And a certain humility.
don't have a problem with getting older?
No. It bothers me sometimes that our culture is so youth-obsessed, though,
and that I'm somehow expected to feel old now I'm turning 40. Christ,
if I'm old at 40, how am I supposed to feel at 50 or 60? And I might
live to be 95, like my Grandad! There are good things about all stages
of life, there have to be, or else why not kill yourself? I think you
feel freer to be yourself as you get older. When you're young, it's
very important to fit in and to be loved. Later, you realise that it's
more important to be yourself, and be loved for who you are . . . even
if it's by less people. And that's actually very liberating. So this
is a happy song. The other obviously happy song is "Only The Future",
where I just tried to capture a feeling, a moment - a moment where pessimism
suddenly turns to optimism. You're brooding about all these terrible
things that might happen, and then you think, wait a minute: there's
always a chance - if only because of the law of averages or whatever
- that it might turn out OK!
Quite a lot of the album is rather melancholy, though. Are you in
a particularly melancholy mood these days?
No, not at all. Something that a lot of people don't realise is that
it's quite possible to write happy music when you're sad and vice versa.
Sometimes it even works better that way, because you're more objective.
But I like melancholy - a lot of people do, actually! I suppose this
record has a generally quiet and thoughtful tone to it, but there are
a lot of different moods within that. The "Nocturnes" are all totally
different - the 3rd one is very eerie, like a disturbing dream, whereas
the 4th is comforting and peaceful. I think I was going for a sense
of mystery and wonder, as much as melancholy. Especially on "Nocturne
No. 3" and "Lullaby", which is probably my favourite track. I mean,
if you tied me down and tortured me and I HAD to pick a favourite, it
would be "Lullaby". Renee Fleming's vocal on that is just amazing. It's
like an altered state, I think, like an Opium dream or something.
What is "Sea of Secrets" about? It's also very mysterious. It seems
to be about going into the world of dreams, or the Unconscious.
Yes, and finding strange and wonderful things there, and also learning,
getting insights - getting 'under the skin of the world'. Like a deep-sea
diver, going down and down into this mysterious world, but bringing
treasure back to the surface. I think that through the whole album,
you're sort of in and out of dreams and nocturnal reflections. And in
"Sea of Secrets", at the end, there's a final surrender, gladly drifting
away. So that's a happy song, too.