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PAOLO NUTINI

paolo-cover1He shared stages with The Rolling Stones, opened for a reunited Led Zeppelin and has smoked Willie Nelson’s weed. He sold millions of records, played everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Montreux Jazz Festival and was given a ceremonial key to an Italian village. They are credentials of a Rock n’ Roll Hall-of-Famer that instead belong to a 22 year-old soulful Scot named Paolo Nutini. Talent and pressure are stuck to his vocal chords like an industrial magnet sporting the message: High Hopes. Standing on the cusp of greatness, however, can be a tricky proposition without a comfortable pair of shoes. So Nutini chose to lace up the sound on his sophomore album, Sunnyside Up, for a journey into completely new territory. The formula of carefully crafted pop rock that worked before has been shaken and spiked with strong influences of down home country and reggae rhythm mixed with ragtime swagger. Nutini has graduated from hunched-over crooner to a chest-out leader of the band – less Joe Cocker, more Cab Calloway. This disc is different, way different, than These Streets. The question now is will the new direction lead to stumble or stardom? Either way, it’s a risk he feels he has to take.

paolo-1I caught up with Paolo Nutini in San Francisco fresh off his headlining performance at Coachella alongside Paul McCartney, Morrissey and The Cure. Before we talk music, Nutini has tattoos on his mind. He’s been thinking about getting some new ink to accompany the three Texas stars that have dotted his right arm since South By Southwest in 2006. “Too much Moonshine,” he admits with a Brogue accent thicker than a pitcher of Guinness. “Actually it could be the start of a really nice half-sleeve.” He says a couple of body art shops caught his eye during a stroll through the Haight earlier in the day, and he may go back. But first, Nutini is preparing for a show later tonight at Slims on 11th Street. I ask him if touring for the new album is taking its toll and if he’s been getting any sleep. “No, no man,” he shrugs. “But last night was a good night, about six hours.” I had a hunch that sauce-sipping might be the real root of his slumber problems, so I went with it. “Yeah, yeah – we’ll you’ve got to, right?” he responds rhetorically. “If you’re going to go around the world doing gigs – I don’t see why you wouldn’t party.”

And on that note, he’s got some stories to tell. In fact, I first saw Nutini in concert back in 2006 at the Austin City Limits Festival. His live EP had just been released in the U.S., and the media tent was buzzing about his unique sound. I made a point of checking out the young singing sensation, and what I heard that day on the main stage at Zilker Park made me a fan for life. I was quite certain that his voice mined its gravel from rock’s deepest quarry near the same area where Chris Martin, Van Morrison and Otis Redding have dug. As I snapped photos during his performance, I couldn’t help but notice the malted beverages he kept tossing back. He wasn’t the only one to be sure, but at 19 years-old and in the 95 degree summer sun at noon on a Friday, it appeared to be a recipe for an early nap. Instead, it ended with a ride to the hospital in a speeding ambulance. So my obvious question: “What the hell happened in Austin?”

paolo-3“Why do you ask?” he begins. But after realizing that I already know too much, he goes ahead and gives me the dirt. “We had a radio performance at eight in the morning and I had a Texas tea before that. It went downhill from there,” he says. As it turned out, one of the acts performing that night was the mayor of marijuana, Willie Nelson. “And Crazy enough – someone came through with that Willie weed,” Paolo continues. Then, some beers during the show, three hours of interviews in the sun and finally a seat in Manu Chao’s Winnebago in the middle of the festival grounds. That’s when things started to get real fuzzy for the young singer. “Manu was cooking up some paella, but we ended up passin’ the good ole bottle of Patrón around, and I didn’t wake up until the next mornin’.”

“Any lessons learned, Paolo?” I ask.

“Yeah, don’t do three hours of interviews. It can fuck with your mind” he jests. “Actually, I would say, ‘Don’t be an idiot, especially in the swelterin’ Texas heat.’”

Turns out Paolo Nutini has figured out quite a bit about the industry since he was first discovered at the age of 15. Back then, he knew the answer to a music trivia question and won the chance to sing at a local concert. His current manager, Brendan Moon, happened to be in the audience that night and heard the platinum rattling around in Nutini’s voice. At the time, Paolo was one of only two males in his 40-piece high school choir. The good-looking songster also wrote poetry, and his piano instructor later helped him add chords to those writings. So with an album full of tunes on pen and paper, Nutini quit school and toured with a band called Speedway for a year. After setting up the drum kit each night, selling T-shirts and doing the group’s PR, Nutini decided to take the plunge and move to the big city on his own. He shaped his singing style under London’s light and taught himself to play acoustic guitar by strumming Damien Rice songs. The budding musician was now ripe for the picking, and Atlantic slapped a five record/seven figure deal on the table just after his 18th birthday.

paolo-finalNot a bad present for a lad from Paisley, Scotland, whose fate seemed to be etched in the scars on his forearms from the family fish fryer. Nutini’s ancestors opened Castelvecchi’s Fish-and-Chips shop after emigrating from Tuscany during WWI. Three generations later, Paolo’s mother and father still hock halibut each and every day. Paolo’s parents are his heroes. He remembers listening to his dad’s Drifters albums when he was five, and as Paolo grew, the soulful sounds of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers gave him his smile. The burns he received as a teen at the fish shop gave him perspective about a hard day’s work, something he’d need as he embarked on recording his first album. “We were overdubbing the last guitar part twenty minutes before we had the first gig of the tour,” he says about the crazy schedule he kept to promote These Streets. “I felt privileged to be there but I didn’t really know what kind of album I was making.” The record ended up being a diary of sorts about adjusting to life in London, begging his high school sweetheart for one last hug and paying tribute to his late grandfather who sang and played piano for Paolo when he was a boy.

His sandpaper smooth voice, honest lyrics and innocent delivery earned him quite a following. I saw Nutini a couple months after the ACL show at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and again in Austin in the fall of 2007. During that one year stretch his confidence grew tenfold, as he went from osteoporosis boy to stage commander. His audiences grew, too, from hundreds of experimentalists to thousands of loyal listeners. Nutini leaned on plenty of the industry’s pillars for support. His biggest highlight during those first two years on the road was a tribute concert for the late founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, who took Nutini under his wing before he passed away. At that show, Paolo shared a stage with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and one of his all-time heroes, Ben E. King. “They’re legends, who have made such a wealth of important music,” Nutini says about the experience. “You think you know who they are, and you’ve got it all nailed. But you meet them, and they are all human, and you get to see there is no blueprint for anything.”

These Streets went double platinum and coming up with an encore would not be an easy task. Nutini spent nearly all of 2008 in the studio with his band The Vipers. He produced much of the new album himself, brining in Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon/Ray LaMontagne/Ryan Adams producer) to tighten things up at the end. A couple of his band mates dropped out during the exhaustive creative process because they weren’t commercially secure with the musical direction. So what are these big changes? Well, I needed to look no further than the overstuffed bag Nutini had been carrying around during our interview. It had the familiar Amoeba Records logo on it, so I asked him what was inside. His face lit up. “I got a couple of ole records,” he says shuffling through them quickly. “Some Little Milton, Curtis Mayfield and Louis Prima” He pauses briefly to pay proper respect to the Jheri curled Rick James Cold Blooded LP he bought. He then continues… “I’m really into music from the 30’s and ‘40’s – big band stuff like Fats Waller, Wynonie Harris and Cab Calloway.” He dropped $300 on records at San Francisco’s music oasis, and gives me a history on all these musicians. I remind him that he’s talking about music that, in many cases, was recorded nearly a half-century before he was born. “What is it that you love so much about that kind of music?” I ask.

paolo-2“Just the energy, man! It was all about entertainment. They had 25 to 30 musicians on a stage all being led by greats like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. You listen to the songs these guys performed, and they could sing about anythin’ and make it fun. Most of ‘em are also full of sly, sexual connotations. The other thing that gets me about those guys was that they were so tongue and cheek. They always managed to get humor through in their music. It really was the perfect mix.”

And there, locked in that response, is the difference between These Streets and Sunnyside Up. Nutini’s music has lost its virginity to the sultriest cougars the industry has known. The record is organic, timeless and eclectic. There is nothing naïve about it. In fact, Sunnyside Up is a scientific study about the energy that can be harnessed through musical fusion. The first single “Candy” sounds like a lost country classic from the late 1960’s. With a longing twinge Nutini beckons, “Oh darling I’ll kiss your eyes and lay you down on your rug, just give me some candy after my hug.” While there’s an overtly sexual undertone, it’s actually a warm song about admitting when you’re wrong in a relationship.

Throughout the album, Nutini skips around from the ska-sounding opening track “10/10” to the Rhodes piano, Memphis horns and bongos swing of “Coming Up Easy,” where he sings, “It was in love that I was created, and in love is how I hope I die.” The ragtime exuberance of “Lead in My Pencil” features muted trumpet and trombone, while “Simple Things” is a folksy, down home ditty. A ukulele does a delicate dance with a tin whistle in “High Hopes,” as Nutini croons, “My hopes are high, but my eyes can’t believe what they see. Oh’ give me something to believe. Give me something to believe.”

While Patrón, funky cigarettes and lack of sleep have helped age Nutini’s voice, wisdom and the courage to walk his own way have shaped his sound. “Musically where I’m at, I don’t really have a genre or style that I feel a part of,” he explains. “I honestly wanted it all to come out, and not harness it, not manipulate it.” Van Morrison told Rolling Stone that nothing inspires him about today’s music because it’s all been done. I ask Paolo for his take. “Music’s been around forever, so perhaps it all has been done,” he says. “But if you’re not too set in your ways, if you soak up all music and jumble all your experiences along with it in a blender, you never know what will come out – hopefully something original. I feel like I owe it to myself a little bit to say what I feel. It’s OK to be wrong. In the end it’s just a song.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

Photography by: Harper Smith

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