When asked about my all-time favourite lyricists, my answer for close to a decade has been Charlie Fink of Noah and the Whale, Blaine Harrison of Mystery Jets, and Paul Smith of Maxïmo Park (and I don’t see this changing anytime soon). Growing up with the music and lyrics of Smith was a massive inspiration on my work, so when I was given the recent opportunity to give him a call one morning, I was absolutely thrilled. On his forthcoming solo record Contradictions, Smith showcases his ability of writing contagious “lyrical pop” songs and sensibility of crafting modern love gems with new wave and fifties twists. Dive into our exclusive interview as we discuss the influence of pop music, being a contradictory person, his favourite lyricists, and documenting the world.
AMBY: Hi Paul. It’s Alicia from AMBY. How are you doing today?
Paul Smith: I’m very well, thanks. The sun is shining in Newcastle so all is well.
AMBY: That’s great to hear. Before getting to our questions, I have to say how I’ve been a Maxïmo fan for years, loved what you and Peter did with Frozen By Sight, and this new solo record is my summer soundtrack. Thank you so much for taking the time today. You’re a big inspiration to me, so I really appreciate it.
Paul Smith: Wow, thanks very much! Not many people mention my record with Peter, I don’t think many heard about it.
AMBY and Paul Smith: [laughs]
AMBY: It’s such a great album. Speaking of great records, you will release your new solo album Contradictions. You worked on this album for about four years. How excited are you to finally share the new material?
Paul Smith: You wouldn’t believe it! Maxïmo Park started making The National Health and we were writing it right after I came off tour with my last solo record Margins. On that solo tour I started writing and working with Andy and Claire who were the backing band, The Imitations, on that tour. It’s been a a labour of love because we started it in Maxïmo Park and we’ve been on a roll. I’ve put in so much of my time and it was great that the people wanted to hear more music from us. It was great to tour around the world and do more festivals. But it meant that initiating Contradictions would be a longer term thing and I wanted to make sure it was right. So that also takes time. I was travelling from Newcastle to Manchester on a train and whenever there was time for me and Andy — the guy who helped me produce it and drummed on the record — we would go and work on stuff.
It was pieced together over a certain amount of time but in terms of the actual hours I spent making it, it was still quite a quick record, even though it took four years for us to finish it. As time goes by you think, “Will anybody ever hear this? Will I ever get it finished?” For it to be coming out is pretty exciting for me and I’m really happy with it. Having the extra time allowed us to write a few more songs for it and time to add to what we’ve already done. There was probably about thirty songs floating around. There are quite a few songs that I think would make another really good record so hopefully the next one won’t be this long to come out. Luckily Claire and Andy are boxed up with me and are both going to be out playing live with me in the UK and Europe. I’m pretty excited.
AMBY: There are a lot of songs about reflecting on the album. When reflecting on the actual creative process of the record, what were some of the highlights you had making it? I read you enjoyed working with Wendy from Prefab Sprout.
Paul Smith: Yea, that’s true. I think that’s definitely one of the highlights. It was done over the past four or five years, things kind of drift along and the odd thing sticks out. Wendy coming to my house to record was amazing. Andy came across from Manchester, picked up his laptop, his speakers, and made a little recording studio in my front room. The night before we recorded lots of guitar stuff, like solos on Fill In The Blanks, which is one of my favourites on the record. Having that longer sort of song which you can allow the guitar spin out of control a little bit instead.
Most of the songs on the record are tight and concise pop songs which can have traditional scriptures and dynamics. Wendy came along and her singing was great — I don’t think she’s been on a Prefab Sprout record in a long time, not for quite a few years now. I was like “What’s it going to be like? Is she going to be nervous? I’m quite nervous.” She just sang really well and it was just a pleasure to see things coming together after all this time.
It was last year when this little recording session happened and it felt like the record was almost there. Everybody worked kind of part time on the record, as supposed to Maximo Park is my kind of full time job in some ways, but in other ways I treat everything equally. So for me, the record is as good a record as I’ve made with anybody in my opinion. This new record is up there as well, it feels like back to when we first started in a hotel room in a small English town where we were staying for a few days in between gigs to save money because rather than staying in London we would stay on the outskirts in this town. We were just stuck in a hotel and I still remember the hotel room, I’ve still got the scraps of lyrics I was writing down for some of those songs. I’ve got visions of the start and the end, but not so much the middle.
AMBY and Paul Smith: [laughs]
AMBY: When I first heard Coney Island, back when the record was announced, I loved all of the new wave nuances from the dreamy atmosphere to Bowie-esque vocals. Were you at all inspired by that, new wave artists, on this album?
Paul Smith: Yea, I think there are so many different eras that I love of pop history. There were these fifties influences on there along with harmonies, and yet, those were probably some of the same things that influenced David Bowie on his stuff but then he put his own slant on it. Pop music has this lineage that runs through it that you can tap into and try to make your own. For Coney Island, it reminds me of stuff like The Dirty Projectors or something with the way the chord changes go. I wanted to try to do something that had that kind of journey of a song structure but also had these big eighties drums which were very Let’s Dance.
Again, there are so many amazing things you can combine. You can take the drums from an eighties period and also do a vocal that’s a bit more Berlin period, kind of breathy style. I think there are a lot of indie-pop influences on the record. Growing up, I’d listen to It’s A Shame About Ray by The Lemonheads and the way Evan Dando’s voice clashes with Juliana Hatfield’s…
AMBY: It’s one of my favourites, the contrast between the two.
Paul Smith: It was just this beautiful marriage made in heaven. A lot of the stuff I grew up with is late eighties and early nineties. In the late eighties, I was too young to know what was going on from a critical standpoint. When I first starting getting into it, grunge was big and The Lemonheads stood out because of the acoustic guitars on it and the nice harmonies. Stuff like that has definitely had an influence and is one of the things we were going for.
AMBY: And this is a record riddled in contradictions and juxtapositions. Where did that whole concept of writing about these contradictions actually come from?
Paul Smith: Well, I’m quite a contradictory person [laughs] as those close to me will affirm. I like lots of different things and some people I know see me in one light while others see me in another. I suppose, the title Contradictions is putting that in the public. People who might have just got into Frozen By Sight are also now going down a more experimental or quieter route, but I still love pop songs and I guess I’m not going to stop at this stage in the game. You know? I’m going to love that kind of thing forever. This record might have people confused; people who might know me as doing kicks on stage from the photographs you see to now grimacing in these emotional songs.
AMBY and Paul Smith: [laughs]
Paul Smith: This record might be a new twist on the classic frontman. They might hear this record and think, “What’s this? What’s going on?” I’d like to think that people could like it as much as I do and like the different things. Contradictions is a good way of allowing people to recognize that there will be an acoustic song like The Golden Glint right next to Break Me Down which is me singing at the top of my voice [laughs]. There are lots of things on the record which hopefully bound together by my own particular take on the world.
AMBY: Poetry has always been an influence of yours when it comes to writing lyrics. With that said, who are some of your all-time favourite lyricists?
Paul Smith: I’ve got so many. A couple of Canadians come to mind like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. I absolutely adore Joni Mitchell. I think something like The Hissing of Summer Lawns is the perfect record. I think it’s the pinnacle of personal yet storytelling lyrics; the work is kind of pure poetry. It’s the marriage between the way she sings and the melodies with the words, it’s kind of perfect and really evocative of an emotional life. I’m still getting something front it, and I’m just a guy from the North East of England. You can still feel what she’s feeling. I’m allowed into her world and I truly don’t mind if I don’t understand it all.
AMBY: What about Leonard Cohen?
Paul Smith: Someone like Leonard Cohen is mysterious. There’s a lot of religious imagery and I’m not a particularly religious person. Again, that would put a lot of people off, but it’s interesting because it’s something I’ve got to try to get into. Then the next line would be something where he’s spilling his guts and talking about things only he can understand but I’m still getting something from it. I think you can get into anything that someone’s talking about if they’re good enough, as long as it’s not like a diary entry or isn’t too self-indigent. That’s the balancing act you’ve got to have when writing your own songs. That’s why one of the Maxïmo Park records was called Too Much Information; we live in a world with too much information, but also my lyrics are probably too much for some people. There are a lot of love songs and it’s an endearing topic. I could probably talk to you all day about my favourite lyricists.
AMBY: I have time [laughs].
Paul Smith: When growing up, people like Morrissey were really important because it was everyday life but it was witty. That was definitely an influence. People like David Byrne of The Talking Heads, kind of reflecting on normality but also doing it in a way that highlights contradictions, that’s obviously a great lyricist.
AMBY: Thanks for sharing those, Paul. So once this record is released, you’re taking the album out on the road for a full UK Tour where you’re playing some of the same venues you played when touring Margins. Which places do you look forward to performing in? What do you look forward to the most once Contradictions is out?
Paul Smith: So many things. Sometimes a town might have a great record shop tucked away or it might be a place to take really cool photographs and go about your business. I like to try to document the world as I go along and maybe I’ll end up somewhere along the way. It’s a quest, really. You’re always trying to stay engaged with the world around you. This actual tour, we’re going to be in a van a lot I suspect as we can’t afford a tour bus for this particular record [laughs]. There’s a lot of history in these places. I look forward to just being on tour. It’s a nice chance to wear yourself out in a productive fashion.
AMBY: Well that wraps everything up for today. Once again, thank you so much for your time. It was a real pleasure.
Paul Smith: Great. Thanks very much!
Thank you Paul Smith, for giving us your answers!
Interview by Alicia Atout | @AliciaAtout