Edinburgh's Hogmanay Interview: Paolo Nutini 'I want to earn my stripes'
This year, Nutini has been set an even greater challenge – to kick off the Concert in the Gardens in Edinburgh and then to bring in the bells onstage at George Square in Glasgow, following a Phil Collins-at-Live-Aid-style mad dash between the two gigs. Where Collins had Concorde, Nutini will have a police escort along the M8, which tickles his sense of irony.
"Being on first in Edinburgh appeals to me anyway in festival/street party-type situations because it's nice being the stepping stone to the culmination of somebody's night, and hopefully you'll send people on their way. They'll maybe hear something they like and it'll get them in the mood.
"And then in Glasgow I've been handed the other responsibility of going on 20 minutes before and after the bells. That has to have some raucous element to it or else it's not going to capture a Scottish New Year party. There's ways of doing it…" he muses. "I've got some ideas, bringing on a couple of guests."
It's a couple of years since Nutini was so active on his native gig circuit. In that time, he has fulfilled a punishing touring and promotional schedule in the US which has started to pay dividends, and inked a promotional deal with Puma which took him to the Far East during the Olympics, and resulted in sharing a stage with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to celebrate the anniversary of Jamaican independence. Oh, and he has played another handful of his occasional gigs with common or garden rock legends – more of which later.
Most importantly for the disarmingly down-to-earth Nutini, he has left behind the gauche, doe-eyed Paisley teenager of his hugely successful debut album, These Streets, in favour of new musical and lyrical pastures on his upcoming second album, which better reflect his tastes and feelings.
"I love the songs (on These Streets] but there's ones there that are too nave for me now, that I couldn't sing because my perspective on the subject has changed and the severity of certain things that I thought then seem very light-hearted now.
"Some things just leave you with this contemplation. But barring the song about my grandfather (the elegiac Autumn, on which he describes his feelings at his grandfather's funeral], I never got that feeling that I got from listening to A Change Is Gonna Come or Joe Tex's The Love You Save (May Be Your Own) or even Pete Doherty singing Time for Heroes. There were lyrics in there that seemed to sum up my outlook and I just never thought I was able to get the right words. But with this writing process, I started to get those feelings."
Nutini debuted the fruits of this year's writing and recording sessions at a couple of low-key, unannounced shows in the T Break Tent at T in the Park and again at the Borderline club in London, where he and his band used the pseudonym Snake Derrick & The Vipers. The band liked the name so much, they have officially been christened the Vipers to recognise the contribution they make to Nutini's sound.
Another gig at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange during the Fringe unveiled a dynamic, tight-but-loose sound which almost completely eschews the radio-friendly soul pop of These Streets and instead flirts with Nutini's beloved rhythm'n'blues, roots and country swing, all delivered with more than a little Louis Just a Gigolo Prima swagger. Lyrically, he is now confident enough to share his outlook on society (on a track called High Hopes) but also to have fun on a couple of irreverent ditties.
Nutini wants to extend that sense of fun to his visual identity, projecting more than just the pretty boy image. He fools around with The Scotsman photographer, pulling a series of exaggerated poses like some old-school soul man.
"There will be fewer sultry portraits and maybe a bit more humour in the artwork than the first album," he says. "You've got to make sure that you don't have an airbrushed picture making you look like a 15-year-old cherub when your lyrics suggest otherwise. I suppose I let all that run in the past, the photos that we used on promotional stuff, the money that was spent lighting my face in videos.
"It got to a stage where there was an expectation from the show," he continues. "I wanted to expand the set list but the new songs I had weren't fitting in with the other songs. I just got the sense that I was already pigeonholed and sussed out. I thought, 'I don't even know who I am – how can anybody else know?' I really needed to think if I could do that again. I shied away from sessions with writers. I just wanted a residential studio with my band there."
The as-yet untitled album was recorded at Grouse Lodge in Ireland. Nutini was so intent on maintaining control over his sophomore effort that he took on production duties himself. "I was wiping everything that I felt was holding us back last time, just because I had the chance. I tried to produce what was in my head."
Rather than letting the autocratic power go to his head, he is typically grounded, even modest, about what he has made. "It's all a progression towards hopefully one day making a record that can be the definitive you can offer," he says. "Some bands come in with that at first, and the great bands never really stray from that. I want to earn my stripes."
There is no confirmed release date yet for the album, although Nutini hopes it will be out in the first quarter of next year, joking that he and the Vipers would like its release to coincide with Barack Obama's inauguration.
The recording is finished, but proceedings appear to have hit something of an impasse at the mixing stage. Nutini phrases it delicately, but it is easy enough to infer that feet are being shuffled uncomfortably at his record company because he has failed to deliver "These Streets: Part 2" at a time when no large label is willing to take a commercial risk.
Again, he is sanguine. "Everybody goes through this process, it's nothing new," he shrugs. "In a way it's not the best time for my coming-of-age album, it's more their time for my big radio record that might do whatever the f*** they think that's gonna do.
"If I was to go into the studio and come out with similar songs with that quite distinct naivety about it four years on, and purposefully to do it because it worked the first time, I think that would suit a good few people."
Although Nutini is, in many eyes, the perfect credible pop star, he still prefers to think of himself as a working musician. It's just that he gets more glamorous engagements than your average jobbing player. In his short career to date, he has shared a stage with his hero, Ben E King, R&B behemoth Solomon Burke, Liza Minnelli and Robert Plant. And in the last year or so, he has continued his tradition of being the young dude hanging out with the elder legends, notching up another batch of guest appearances, such as singing with Petula Clark at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in front of the eminent Quincy Jones.
The natural enthusiast in Nutini is as likely to get excited about playing with a respected old session player or joining in at a ceilidh on Tiree as he is over meeting his current fave rave, Sixto Rodriguez, a cult Detroit folk rocker from the 60s with "an Easy Rider vibe about him". He has also managed to cram three once-in-a-lifetime opportunities into one year, including supporting Led Zeppelin at their feverishly received London reunion – a tribute to the late Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun, who championed Nutini before his death in 2006. "I was a pebble in the production," says Nutini. "The ins and outs of the night are hazy, because my heart was racing all day."
He also supported Etta James at the Hollywood Bowl. "She is unbelievably filthy! She would not stop licking the microphone." Did he get to meet her? "Naw, I didn't want to after that! But I'm looking forward to this Beyonce movie (Cadillac Records, which tells the story of the rise of Chess Records and stars Beyonce as James] – that's going to be one raunchy affair!"
There was also a certain little collaboration with The Rolling Stones at the Isle Of Wight festival, for which Nutini was invited to pick the song he would join them on. He chose Love in Vain from the Let it Bleed album.
"I don't think they'd played it in a while," he recalls. "We did a rehearsal in a big Travelodge room and Ronnie and Keith were slagging each other about messing up the chords – (impersonating Keef] 'fahking hell, in front of Paolo'. The wee looks I was getting from them on stage – this is The Stones! Then a chartered ferry home – good, but surreal."
Weather permitting, Nutini should now be able to add an historic Hogmanay double-header and motorway dash to his burgeoning archive of pinch-me moments.
Paolo Nutini plays The Concert In The Gardens, Edinburgh and George Square, Glasgow on Hogmanay.