While it didn’t quite achieve the infamy of, say, Chinese Democracy, U.K. sophistipop act Prefab Sprout’s long-lost Let’s Change the World With Music — originally started in 1993 as a follow-up to Jordan: The Comeback — is finally out, and band mastermind Paddy McAloon is quick to point out why.
It’s simple, really; someone at McAloon’s record label, Kitchenware Records, just asked him to dig out the old tapes and give them a listen. And now the album, polished off and released in the U.K. in fall 2009, has received a belated U.S. release via Tompkins Square Records (oh, and we’re giving away 10 copies if you haven’t picked it up yet).
McAloon recently agreed to answer some questions from Slicing Up Eyeballs via e-mail. He discussed finishing the Let’s Change the World tracks, offered his thoughts on songwriting and whether he cares about pleasing his audience, and speculated as to whether the world can, in fact, be changed with music (“It’s a nice idea, isn’t it?”).
Read the full Q&A with Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon after the jump…
SLICING UP EYEBALLS: How much, if any, work was done to complete those original ‘Let’s Change the World With Music’ recordings? Because if these songs were released pretty much as they were, they certainly sound contemporary. How do you account for that?
PADDY McALOON: I made a few adjustments because these songs were recorded as demos, albeit quite detailed demos in most cases. I fleshed out the arrangement of “Meet the New Mozart,” but kept the original vocal. I did something similar with “Music is a Princess,” again keeping the old vocals. (Old as in dating from ’93. Nice paradox – old, but youthful sounding.) In terms of tampering with what was already there, that was about it. In addition, I left out three songs. Why? Well, one of the songs was destroyed by what you might call a topicality asteroid; the lyric reflected yesterday’s news. I also left out two songs called “Let’s Change the World with Music.”
Why demote the title track(s)? Do you really want to know? Well, again, one of them was outrun by events. (It was a Gulf War song. The first Gulf War. So you can see why it struggled to make the final lineup, right? The other one – which I still like – had an in-built conceptual defect. It was a proposed duet with Barbra Streisand. (Long pause…) She is mentioned in the lyric… she is central to the song’s tone… Anyway, when I revisited the song, I decided to re-record the music from scratch. It took me weeks, and then – I’m not kidding – I got such a heavy cold that I couldn’t sing it. Fifteen years of waiting, plus a re-recorded backing track, and I still didn’t get round to finishing it… So I couldn’t send it to Babs. But hey, that’s showbiz, as Lou Reed would probably say.
Look, I know what you are thinking. Was this duet business ever likely to happen? Who cares. I made a vow a long time ago never to let reality ruin a good premise for a song. And, it has to be said, the album is long enough as it is.
I have spent so long answering this question that you may have changed channels. But as you ask how the songs still manage to sound contemporary, I should at this point pay tribute to my friend and colleague Calum Malcolm who mixed the record, and worked hard to de-dinosaur the project.
EYEBALLS: Listening back at these songs you wrote so many years ago then presumably boxed up and forgot about, do you recognize the place they came from? Do they actually transport you back to the time you wrote them?
McALOON: Yes, yes, yes. I hadn’t listened to any of the songs for well over a decade, and couldn’t remember much about some of them. So it was extremely strange to listen to something I’d invested so much time and energy in. You know, I really don’t want to come over as some girly man, and Axl Rose will probably stop sending me Christmas cards if I say this, but I found the experience moving. Am I allowed to say that about my own stuff? Heck, I’ll just have to get by without Axl’s seasonal greetings.
EYEBALLS: The title’s pretty ambitious: ‘Let’s Change the World With Music.’ But deep down, I sense you believe that’s possible with the right song. Is that, when all is said and done, the goal?
McALOON: It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? But there’s a good early Steely Dan song which mocks the very idea. I’m not sure if I’ve got the title right, but I think it’s “Only a Fool Would Say That.” I suspect Walter and Donald got it right. But I like to write in a willfully naïve tone of voice. It’s what I call the San Andreas school of songwriting. (You see, irony is cool, but it’s not the only hep cat in bohemia.)
EYEBALLS: In 2003, you released your first album under your own name – but in subsequent years, you’ve spent time reivisitng the ‘Steve McQueen’ album and releasing ‘Let’s Change the World With Music.’ Are you just working to preserve that legacy, or do you see using the Prefab Sprout name moving forward?
McALOON: Hearing problems have made the live/traditional band career path pretty much impossible. But I still have some ambitions…
EYEBALLS: You’ve said that you don’t get too personal when writing songs, that you’re not drawing for personal experience but, rather, are more like a screenwriter. What is it about the medium of song – rather than, say, writing a novel of film – that you prefer in terms of telling those stories?
McALOON: What I meant was that I don’t use songs as a journal, or a diary. I’m not a confessional songwriter. That’s not my style at all. However… I’m sure my songs contain all manner of personal information as all writing does by implication. Similarly, experiences must colour my outlook. But the reason I write songs is that I want to make something that has a life of its own; something that can stand apart from me, which doesn’t derive its power from the listener knowing about me. If you think of a song like Gershwin’s “Summertime,” that’s a good example of a great song that doesn’t rely on autobiography. There are, of course, zillions of songs that work the same trick.
I’m always trying to pull away from the gravity of my own predictable middle-aged opinions. Unfortunately, they tend to creep into a lyric unless you’re hyper-vigilant. So when I write, I look for something mysterious, something I don’t yet know; a phrase, or a melodic line that grabs me even if I’m not sure why. I suppose I want to be surprised by a song. But this gets harder and harder as you get older and start to have a catalogue behind you. Habits, traits, obsessions and – saddest of all – repetitions creep in with those boring opinions. But this is something that effects all writers, I think.
As for the medium of song as opposed to film or a novel, it’s where I started as a boy. And I know my limitations. Novels and screenplays require a great sense of architecture and design, and an ability to animate a number of interlocking characters. With a song you’ve just got to find the right tone of voice, and keep it up for three-and-a-half minutes. See, the hours are better! So I stay with a “smaller” form, where a miracle is more likely to happen because a song needs very few words to be effective. And where a pretty tune can almost make poetry out of a simple statement. (“What’s it all about Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?”… or “Summertime, and the living is easy.” Or how about “I threw it all away” by Dylan?)
EYEBALLS: Has your songwriting changed in more recent years as you’re unable to perform because of your hearing issues? Are you approaching the craft differently knowing you won’t be putting the material out in front of an audience for immediate feedback?
McALOON: Can I tell you a secret? I’ve never thought too much about an audience. I’m too insecure to really warm to “feedback.” In fact, I’m too busy worrying that I’ll like what I do to worry about anyone else’s enjoyment. Is that a terrible thing to say? Does this mean I’m not touched if people like or dislike something I’ve written? No, I’m always moved by someone’s response. And even if someone really hates what I do… I don’t want to sound like a masochist but visceral dislike is kind of interesting, too, don’t you think?
Tinnitus cramped my style for quite a while, but I’m still able to work, thank you for asking. I don’t know if my style has changed; when I sit down to write, I’m still hoping to write a song that might change the game, even if the odds are against that happening. It’s an honest point of departure to think that if I like something I’ve written, then there’s a chance someone else will, too. Maybe that’s the only way I can imagine an audience: as individuals who might go along with me.
EYEBALLS: Looking back, what do you see as Prefab Sprout’s legacy within British pop music?
McALOON: Legacy? We’re all just paper on the wind, Grasshopper.
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