I’VE just been led into the inner sanctum of the impossibly swanky London Edition hotel, ushered past the suavest of doormen and receptionist staff like models, for an audience with a young man who could outshine all comers in terms of star wattage should he wish to.
But perhaps, after all, he doesn’t. For this is Paolo Nutini, a pop sensation posted missing in action for the past few years, although now he’s poised to return with a new album. There’s so much to talk about. But given the immediate environment – the firelit hearth of a small private bar whose many bottles of exotic liquor are all empty; just for show – the first topic that springs to mind is drink.
“I used to drink Advocaat all the time when I was a kid,” says Nutini, remembering that gooey sweet staple of the 1970s drinks cabinet. “It was only a few years ago I found out it was alcoholic. My grandpa Jackie would say ‘Here’s a wee Advocaat’, and Eddie, who I grew up knowing as my grandfather on my mum’s side, he used to put Irn-Bru in my milk. It used to send me loopy and he just loved watching this crazy little kid. I think, between the two of them, it starts to explain a little bit more about where I’ve got to now…”
Right on cue, he takes a sip of his Mai Tai. “Slippery slope now,” he says. Actually, whisky is his poison these days, Talisker if you’re buying and want to prise open this private, unassuming musician. “Whisky is a different kind of drug – I start looking people in the eye a lot when I’m drinking whisky. It’s intense, everything starts veering round to politics, religion.” Bring it on, I say. “Nah, it’s too early for that,” he says, momentarily shy.
Despite some recent dabblings in mixology (the Groucho Club added one of his casual creations to the menu and called it a Pencil Full Of Lead, after one of his biggest hits), Nutini is not the boozehound that some assume him to be. “Everybody’s convinced I’m three sheets to the wind when I go on stage,” he says. “I’ve never been drunk once. I wouldn’t do that on somebody’s time. People have paid to see the show.”
But this is only one of a number of misapprehensions about Nutini, who is rarely credited with being as loquacious and eloquent as he is in person. Catch him being interviewed on radio or television and he can look and sound awkward. Probably because he isn’t that comfortable in the public eye and doesn’t speak in easy soundbites. But in relaxed conversation, he gives long, serpentine answers, which veer off on interesting tangents for minutes at a time before flowing back to his original point. He talks contentedly for an hour and still gives the impression that he has barely scratched the surface of his interests, his ambitions, his apprehensions.
And there is a lot of possible territory to cover. It has been five years since Nutini last released an album. Last month, he turned 27, a dangerous age for a musician, the age at which Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain died – his friends couldn’t resist sending him birthday cards with the taunt “nice knowing you mate”. So the precocious Paisley pop prodigy – discovered as a teenager when he sang at a David Sneddon concert, signed to Atlantic Records, mentored by the late, great label boss Ahmet Ertegun, and still only 19 when his debut album These Streets propelled him to stardom – is officially All Grown Up.
Right from the start of his career, with the girls screaming all around him, he still came across as an old head on young shoulders, keeping company with musicians three times his age, sharing stages with the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Ben E King and others of a musical vintage Nutini appreciated more than his peers did. His follow-up album, Sunny Side Up, released in 2009, reflected his old school tastes more explicitly, taking a chance with its eclectic diet of soul, ska and swing, and going on to sell as well as its predecessor. Cue extensive touring schedule.
But then Nutini took a break, for his own sanity as much as anything. Although charismatic, he has never been comfortable with stardom, and certainly not with celebrity. So he took time out to retreat from all the attention, reconnect with his family in Paisley and his extended family in Barga, Tuscany, reclaim a degree of domesticity, get back to nature, get fit, read a book or 50, all that kind of stuff. And gradually, removed from outside pressure, he began to work on what he really loves – writing and recording the music which, ironically, is going to pitch him back to artistic prominence and the public and media scrutiny of which he is so wary.
“I thought by now I’d be a bit more comfortable with the whole prospect of people looking at you,” he says. “All of a sudden my picture’s in the paper, or I’m making a music video, and it’s still the most surreal experience. I thought you could learn and you would acclimatise, but I really haven’t. When things get too grand or too big, I struggle to keep up with it all.
“The prospect of being up there in front of all those people again, it’s laying yourself bare again. Everybody’s got their opinion of what I should or shouldn’t be doing, what I should achieve – people saying ‘that’s not the real you’. Well, I’m glad you know who the hell I am, because I’m still finding out. Could you enlighten me some more, could you tell me a bit more about myself?”
Caustic Love was recorded over the past two years. Nutini and his band took over an old police training building in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, miking up cells and shooting ranges. This was followed by sessions in Valencia, London, Dublin and LA with a number of guests, including respected R&B drummer James Gadson, who has helmed the kit for Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Martha Reeves, Paul McCartney and Beck among many others, and veteran guitarist Chris Spedding, who had a hit in 1975 with Motorbikin’ and was Mike Batt’s right hand Womble during their run of furry hits – though one suspects Nutini probably arrived at his door via his work with Harry Nilsson, Roy Harper, Tom Waits and Sixto Rodriguez. In an age when most pop albums are groaning with big name guests, Nutini prefers to work with the unsung heroes of the recording industry, although he is understandably excited by a guest rap from his labelmate Janelle Monae on a track called Fashion: “My tongue was hanging out when I heard she was going to do it.”
Just as Sunny Side Up confounded the impression that Nutini was merely a pretty pop boy, so Caustic Love raises the bar again. It takes him further away from cheery singalongs and into moodier, slow-burning soul territory, where the influence of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and John Martyn looms large, and Nutini digs deep to deliver his most impressive set of vocals yet.
“I think this album retains one atmosphere,” he says. “The last one there were maybe two or three in there, but this one feels like you’re watching a film. I was intending to switch the film over at some point, but I was told to be careful not to do that too much because sometimes it’s nice to get lost in it.
“But it’s not the most bright and breezy album, which is why I don’t want there to be a misunderstanding where people think I’m tortured. That’s why I like the idea of people hearing the song Funk My Life Up.” Being one of the most overtly catchy of his new songs, this has been chosen as the comeback single. “That was a bit of fun. I liked the idea of this girl coming along and knocking you sideways. I kept envisaging rainbows and laser beams, just knocking you senseless out to this other dimension and you have this period of time where nobody else exists.”
Last year, Nutini split with his long-term girlfriend and childhood sweetheart, Teri Brogan. He doesn’t refer specifically to the break-up but it’s tempting to hear heartbreak in some of the cathartic vocal performances on the album.
“I try not to get too self-absorbed,” he says. “When you’re waking up every day and it’s all about you, I don’t consider that to be a way to live your life if you can help it. I think people who know me know that I find time to enjoy myself and not take life – or myself – too seriously at all. But sometimes the things that resonate musically and that I manage to feel most comfortable putting out there tend to be a bit deeper and more emotional.”
Nutini’s lyrics on tracks such as Iron Sky are ruminative and philosophical – the kind of matter he might ponder over a single malt – but they are not without hope. “That’s what you’ve got to shoot for, that sense of redemption or else you’re just wallowing in the mire. If you can’t find a smile even in that darkest time then you’re doomed.”
However, Caustic Love is only part of the picture. Nutini reportedly amassed around 100 songs or fragments of songs during the making of the album and is sitting on a trove of unreleased material which reveals “other parts of the puzzle”. Nutini is keen to get those pieces out there – no more five-year gaps between albums.
“I’ve got a lot more subtle, windy, pretty acoustic songs, and then there’s other stuff that’s quite dirty, with electric guitars and some growly sounds and more overt lyrics with my points of view on different things that might not sit well with everybody,” he says. “Not all of it is finished and good to go, but there’s a lot of threads there. Once we get on whatever journey this journey’s gonna be, we can start nurturing those ideas.”
Nutini talks about the set list for his comeback gig later that night, to be held in the 60s dancehall-meets-social-club setting of the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park. His band have talked him out of slipping in tasters of this alternative repertoire. He is supposed to be showcasing his new album after all. But he does play a kickass cover of an obscure punk track, Common Truth by Amazorblades, and suddenly those Buzzcocks influences he has mentioned make perfect sense.
The gig is an unqualified success. No more false accusations of drunkenness – Nutini is fully engaged with the crowd and in lusty voice. The expanded line-up of his backing band The Vipers sound like they have been playing these new songs for years and older songs are reworked to reflect the confident artist Nutini has become. But still not that confident, it seems.
“I should be a better musician than I am – f***, much better – given that it’s technically been my career,” he says with characteristic self-deprecation. “I’m as cynical about my abilities as anybody else. I’m just trying to marry my ambition and my ability as best as I possibly can. I’m not in a position to reinvent the wheel, I’m just trying to progress and make music that people enjoy. My favourite thing is to have an idea and realise it, to hear it back, to play it to people, for them to pick up on it, to appreciate it or even just to spark some kind of feeling in somebody and see that reaction. It’s all about giving people good memories, good times and letting your songs hopefully be a part of that.” A Talisker toast to that. n
• Scream (Funk My Life Up) is released by Atlantic Records on 30 March. The album Caustic Love is out on 14 April.
Paolo Nutini plays Barrowland, Glasgow, on 29 March (08444 999 990, www.gigsinscotland.com) and appears at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Glasgow Green, 24/25 May, ticket details to be announced in March