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Singer-songwriter and keyboardist Paul Carrack talks to Eoghan Lyng about working with Eric Clapton, Squeeze and Mike + The Mechanics and his impressive new solo album, 'One On One'.
In spite of his varied curriculum vitae, Paul Carrack is unassuming, and occasionally bashful about his many achievements. When we call him, he's just finished a tour with Eric Clapton, and he doesn't believe his luck to have landed this gig. "I've been playing with these guys for about ten years," he says. "Here I am, in awe of these guys, and I'm a bluffer on keyboards. I'm basically self taught, while some of these guys like Steve Gadd and Sonny Emory are very schooled. They're going to do some dates in Japan, which I won't be joining them for, because I will be performing with my own band. They're all world class musicians."
He mentions that he's filled in for Billy Preston, a keyboardist Carrack admires greatly, and he's greatly pleased when we tell that there are some similarities between their voices. "I'll take that as a great honour," he beams, audibly smiling through the phone. "A great compliment, I should say! I know some of the songs like 'Will It Go Round In Circles', and I had an album of him playing instrumentals that I was a big fan of."
Preston was known for his exuberance, a character trait that helped the famously dour George Harrison during the problematic Dark Horse tour in 1974. "I wouldn't know, I never met either of them.."
He pauses, and corrects himself: "Actually, I did meet George. I saw the whole Beatle crew at a table in the cafeteria in Abbey Road. I was there, and I was left speechless.."
Clearly, it takes something grand to silence Carrack, when you consider that he's worked with everyone from Bryan Ferry to Roger Waters, but everyone bows down to The Beatles. We talk about Wings, and Carrack mentions a friendship he enjoyed with Irish born guitarist Henry McCullough. "He could be a bad man, Henry," he cackles. "He could get you into a lot of trouble!"
"I grew up in Sheffield," Carrack continues. "I come from a working class background. Joe Cocker grew up a few streets from me. He was a few years older, but I really enjoyed his work. I got to know a lot of people who worked with him, like Henry, and I'd always try to hear a few stories about Joe Cocker."
Moody Blues singer Denny Laine contacted him on Linkedin in recent years, and he's been long renowned for his vocal prowess. "I see myself as a singer-songwriter. I play a lot of keyboards, but on a good night, I think I'm best as a singer."
He's sung on many indelible numbers, from the yearning 'How Long' to the wistful 'The Living Years', and he even performed the sultry vocals on Squeeze's excellent 'Tempted'. "That was an accident. I won't bore you with the story, but I joined them first of all as a keyboard player. I was lucky to play keyboards for them. As you know, Squeeze had recorded 'Tempted' in a different way, but then we started messing around with it in the soul-ly groove, and Elvis Costello-who was producing- came running out, saying to do it this way. So, it was a stroke of luck, but it was a bit embarrassing, because Squeeze had two great singers in the band. Sometimes that happens: Don Henley seemed to pop up in The Eagles, and Phil Collins from Genesis. So it happens, but 'Tempted' is still one of the best pop songs ever, and I wish I'd written it."
Squeeze should count themselves lucky that Carrack could produce such a vocal. "It's funny you should say that. When I hear it, I don't hear that. Put this say, I was not vocally in shape. It sounds too high, nervous and shaky. But it was a bit of a breakthrough, and obviously I don't see any of the money from the royalties [Laughs]. But I do play it in my sets, which I think is fair enough."
"Those songs are getting kind of old now," Carrack points out. "They've stuck around a bit more than songs you hear these days. But I do think the vocals I've done over the last twenty years are some of the best I've ever done. Obviously, they're not as well known, so it's nice to have some trophies [like 'Tempted']in my cupboard."
'One On One' is an extension of this metaphorical cupboard, and documents the singer enjoying his later years. The album opens with 'Good And Ready', a smooth, Steely Dan-esque track which sees the vocalist gliding over a tasty selection of horns, keys and drums. Then there’s 'You’re Not Alone', a call for support during times of tremendous upheaval. 'Lighten Your Mood'. like the title suggests, is a bouncy stroll through memory lane, while the guitar heavy 'Shame On You, Shame On Me' returns the vocalist to the blues genre where he most certainly belongs. Then there’s the country oriented 'Behind Closed Doors', complete with a Kenny Rodgers like drawl, while 'Set Me Free' finds the nominally reserved vocalist rising to the occasion and delivering his most confident vocal on the record. 'One On One' is Carrack’s strongest work in some time, and like many other artists, he was stirred into creative epiphany during the Covid Lockdown. "I was supposed to be on the road. We did thirty shows with Eric Clapton in January, February and March, before we were locked down. Seemed like a temporary situation, then it was clear that we were going to be locked down for a while. So, I started coming into my studio, messing about, and started recording. I don’t want to call it a “Lockdown album”, because that might sound a bit..”
He’s implying that it might sound downbeat, when it’s surfeited with positive messages and buoyant musicianship. He feels more confident in his lyrical abilities, stating that unlike Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello, his work wasn’t strictly “original”. “I was bit more cliché,” he says. “Not too cliché! But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little bit more to say, and I’ve become a bit more forgiving. I definitely feel more confident, yeah.”
And yet 'Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)' was an astonishingly original track for eighties pop, shifting focus from the personal to the more spiritual, pivoting focus on a narrator searching for redemption in a world pivoting further into the abstract. It’s Mike & The Mechanics proggiest moment-their finest too! “Yeah, when I heard that, they had a seven minute backing track with three chords that went ‘Can you hear me?’ They told me to go in and blues away, so I went for it. Then, B A Robertson went away, and wrote a lyric to it. The song was used in a science fiction film called 'On Dangerous Grounds,' which I don’t think I’ve ever seen.”
Considering that Squeeze followed a similar path to Genesis, I ask if singing for Squeeze landed him the gig with Mike Rutherford? “No, it was a bit after. I drifted around for a while. I played with Roxy Music for a bit, and then I was in a band with Nick Lowe. We toured up and down in America, doing arena tours with Tom Petty. But it was a bit unedifying, because the material was so low key, so I was happy to give Mike & The Mechanics a crack. I was introduced to them by B. A. Robertson, and it was initially for Mike Rutherford’s solo album. There are a few singers on the first album, but when it came to bringing it on the road, it was down to Paul Young and me.”
Irish producer Christopher Neil knew Sad Café singer Paul Young from Manchester, and recommended him to Rutherford. “It worked a treat. Paul loved the spotlight, and was very outgoing, while I was the more reserved singer.” Rutherford, Carrack and Young enjoyed a time in the spotlight throughout the eighties and nineties, although this outfit came to an end following Young’s untimely death in the millennium.
Rutherford has rebooted Mike & The Mechanics with Andrew Roachford and Tim Howar, while Carrack is busy working on his own material. “I think 'One On One' is a bloody good thing,” Carrack admits. “ I think it’s a fairly good representation of where I am. These days, you don’t have to sell your soul to get your music recorded, it’s easier now, so the hard thing is getting it out. But I think it’s a good album.”
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