Paul Buchanan: 'I felt lost after the Blue Nile'

It's taken Paul Buchanan eight years to get around to recording his first solo album. And, he says, he never imagined anyone would hear its fragile songs

Sitting in a cafe a stone's throw from his flat in Glasgow's West End, Paul Buchanan looks out the window and sighs. "When you're feeling particularly lost the last thing you admit to yourself is that you're lost, but looking back, I felt rotten. Terrible. It wasn't the best of times, but the action of making the record was helpful."

Elegantly grey and almost terminally self-effacing, Buchanan is feeling "emotionally tired". After 30 years in the Blue Nile, the Glaswegian trio that elevated romantic yearning to a superior art form, at 56 he is about to release his first solo album. Reflecting his pain at the sudden death of a close friend and the almost unfathomable disintegration of the band he always believed was "for life", Buchanan is the first to admit that Mid Air "isn't all singing and dancing". It is, however, a truly special record, consisting of 14 brief, beautiful songs built around the fragile nexus of his immaculately emotive voice and soft piano, with the occasional daub of textural colour.

Though musically more muted than the Blue Nile, Mid Air negotiates the same precarious high wire between euphoria and melancholy, realism and fantasy. On one song, Buchanan has "starlight in my suitcase"; on another, he returns to that cinematic dream country "high above the chimney tops". Writing the album, he would gaze from his kitchen at 3am, see the lights still burning in the windows of neighbouring tenements, and wonder why everyone was still up and what they were thinking about.

The sense of isolation was in direct contrast to the way the Blue Nile operated. On their first two albums in particular, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1982) and Hats (1988), Buchanan and fellow bandmates Robert Bell and PJ Moore were "a group of real friends, truly democratic". They wanted the songs "to be better versions of us – of everything. We wanted to make pictures, so we tried to remove ourselves from the fabric of it, to get out of the way of the music." He laughs. "I'm not sure why we gave ourselves such a Herculean task …"

By the release of their fourth album, High (2004), the dynamic had changed. Aptly, the band that famously never did anything in a hurry fell apart in slow motion. There were no fist fights, no screaming matches; instead, everything gradually drifted to a halt. The phone stopped ringing. Nobody was organising rehearsals. Although he was hurt, Buchanan was aware that "it had been going that way for a long time. You can hear it. We could all hear it. To me, High is a stoic record – it sounds like we were trying to stick with each other and do our best to survive. Some of the unfettered joy had gone. Some kind of magic had slipped away from us, and some of the hope that we started out with. We adhered to each other until we had finished the record, but maybe individually and collectively we weren't as happy as we had been."

A couple of years after High, Buchanan toured and Bell was part of the band. Despite the odd "bump in the road" the pair remain friends, but there has been no contact with Moore for several years. Buchanan – who readily admits he can be "pesky" – remains baffled. "Neither of us has seen PJ for God knows how long. I'm sure he has his reasons, but I can honestly say Robert and I are blissfully unaware of them. He's super-talented and I care about him, but I've left it alone for the best." Does he hope for a rapprochement? "It's not cut and dried. The right thing to do as people would be to get together again – even if we then say goodbye. That's my vague hope. It probably won't happen, but I know that contributing to that unit was me at  my best."

Engineered by the son of Blue Nile producer Calum Malcolm, Mid Air was mostly recorded in Buchanan's flat, working "civilised hours" over a couple of years. Half-joking, he likens the process to Ted Hughes's "sacred trance": the songs appeared almost by accident while he was "banging away" in an attempt to come up with something for Garbage singer Shirley Manson, who had approached him to collaborate on her – as yet unmade – solo record. "Shirley is lovely and I really wanted to get what she wanted, but nothing came out of it in the end. It was only when I looked back I thought, I've got all these little things that I've just noted and put to one side."

He was writing from emotional necessity rather than any commercial impetus. "At no point did I think I was making a record. It never occurred to me that anybody else would listen to it. Looking back, that was a great thing. That unselfconscious quality becomes more elusive as you go on making music, so it's nice to be brought back to that very simple expectation. It was almost like starting out again. I wasn't deliberately making a record of fulfilling a contract. There's a joy and innocence in that."

The Blue Nile famously laboured over their records: four albums in 22 years is hardly a prolific batting average. Mid Air, too, comes a full eight years after High. Buchanan says he has no problem coming up with material, so why does the process take so long? "You work and work and work and have the life that you have, and once in a while, sometimes once in a decade, you see a few things you've got and think, yes, that's authentic. You try to stay true to that little moment whatever the costs." Such is the distance, it seems, between simply writing songs and chasing starlight.


Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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