When I asked David if he’d be willing to answer some questions about his songs for a profile of the Pearlfishers for the website CultureSonar, he was generous with both his time and his thoughts. Consequently there was far more material than could possibly fit into my piece, which is why I jumped at his offer to post the unedited Q&A here. Outside of the songs themselves, nothing offers greater insight to David’s skill as a songwriter or his abiding love of music than his own words. Don Klees, July 2019
DK: The song Even on a Sunday Afternoon would have been the first Pearlfishers song many fans heard, but the album The Strange Underworld of the Tall Poppies was preceded by a number of earlier recordings. Can you tell me about the path that led you to that point?
DS: I can understand the question because the Tall Poppies album was the first Pearlfishers record that had an international release, first through Marina Records in Europe and the UK, on labels in Japan, Canada, I think The Philippines, and then a re-release on Sony in Europe. So that record had a bit of presence. But my first record deal was with a Scottish indie label called Shift back in 1984 when I was at Art School – just a couple of tracks on a compilation- and I progressed to major deals with Phonogram in 1984 with my group Chewy Raccoon and later CBS in 1986 with Hearts & Minds. And although both of those deals amounted to one flop single apiece the second group started to really gather a following: we kept going after being dropped by the label, changed the name to The Pearlfishers, started a label – My Dark Star – and got enough money together to put out three EPs that got a lot of attention at the time. Then we made an album, Za Za’s Garden, that was released on a Scottish indie label in 1993. All of that music is out of print at the moment and once we’re done with the new album cycle I want to make it all available again. Za Za’s Garden in particular is something I feel really proud of – not quite the same ‘sound’ as the Marina-era records but definitely going for the same kind of cinematic thing with lots of songs that I love and still play to this day. The other thing that led me down the path to The Strange Underworld of the Tall Poppies started much earlier, in the middle of my major label disasters in the 80s. I had enough money from a publishing deal to put together a fantastic home studio, so through some difficult years I was able to keep on writing and honing the craft of recording at a really good level. A lot of the songs on that album resulted from years of studio experimentation in finding a ‘sound’.
DK: Battersea Bardot from The Young Picnickers is a song you re-recorded for a later release. What spurred you to rework the arrangement when you revisited it?
DS: Actually the version that appears on the expanded A Sunflower At Christmas digital release was the original ‘master’ version recorded for The Young Picnickers back in 1997/8. Things were moving kind of fast back in those days, with promo tours for The Strange Underworld of the Tall Poppies and lots of live shows, so I just recorded ideas and versions of songs really quickly when I had the time. There was some energy and creative spark on those demos and later, when we finished the ‘master’ versions of songs like Battersea Bardot, Strawberries In The Snow and An Ordinary Day Out In The Suburbs, some of us felt that something was missing. There was a lot of debate over it at the time. Frank Laehnemann and I still laugh about that today – ‘use the demo, Davie!’ – but it did cause some heartache between all of us in the band. Just the other day Jamie Gash was telling me how much he still hates the out of tune autoharp at the start of the Young Picnickers version of Battersea Bardot and I know that Brian McAlpine felt the same. When you know that the track is a, quote, demo, you can hear how rough it is but for me as the writer I love how close the recording is to the original idea of the song. But I was really glad to find a home for the more developed version later, complete with newly added Christmas trappings…
Battersea Bardot live at the Riverside Rooms
DK: It surprises me that Paint on a Smile wasn’t one of the songs Colin Steele recorded for his album of jazz interpretations of Pearlfishers songs. What other songs in your catalog do you think would have lent themselves to a jazz treatment?
DS: I know what you mean although I 100% refused to get involved in any conversations whatsoever around that album outside saying how thrilled I was that Marina set the ball rolling in the first place. A lot of the songs Colin chose – particularly things like Everything Works Out and Gone In The Winter – seemed surprising to me because they were so ‘roped down’ in terms of their existing sound or arrangement whereas others he didn’t choose maybe felt more naturally ‘jazz’. But I love that Colin by and large avoided those, and his song choices are a real strength of that album, as is the incredible musicianship and oversight of arranger Dave Milligan. Funnily enough there are a few things on the new album Colin played on that were sort of freed up for me by what he’d done on Diving For Pearls. He played all the way through a song called A Walk Into The Blue Night and although it didn’t quite work out for that track given the amount of stuff that was already on there I think I should probably do a mix with just Colin blowing away with these beautiful ideas. He’s such a special soul and such a special musician I feel lucky to be able to call on him. The opening of Diving For Pearls at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in 2017 was a very, very important evening for me, I can tell you that for nothing.
Colin Steele Quartet: You’ll Never Steal My Spirit
DK: Like many of your songs, Is It Any Wonder manages the neat trick of sounding both intimate and sweeping in its musical scope? How reflective was the final arrangement of how you originally conceived the song.
DS: Thanks so much for saying that. A lot of my songs grow from tiny but more or less completed ideas that maybe lie around for a while then get developed as part of a broader concept. Is It Any Wonder originated from a little group of ideas that I developed as music for a theatre production of Archie Hind’s Playing For Keeps. The other songs you might know that were sketched out as part of that project were The Vampires of Camelon and Pantohorse, which gets its title because it was written for a scene with a pantohorse! A lot of the ideas for that play were ‘variations on a theme’ and at the end of Is It Any Wonder there are a series of these – short, similar but distinct themes stated one after the other. I like the intensity of that repetition and variation. The song itself describes a difficult period in my life and alongside the lyric I think the arrangement, particularly that end section, tells you how I was feeling and Mick Slaven’s guitar playing brings the blood to the surface with real edge.
DK: Todd Is God obviously brings to mind Todd Rundgren in both word and sound. What is it about his work that touches a chord with you?
DS: I suppose there’s a bit of a risk calling something Todd Is God particularly when said song has something in common with his harmonic style. I did the same thing in calling a song Womack & Womack. The point is that neither of those songs is directly about the specific artists but more generally about music itself and what music has meant to me. There’s a natural and understandable tendency to intellectualise the cultural impact of pop music but sometimes its just that moment of instinct when, as Brian Wilson says, you feel you can ‘trust’ a record, either by its sound or its tune. So often, in Todd’s best records – either Something / Anything, Runt: The Ballad, or even later things like Nearly Human or Liars – the melodies are so surprising and rich and their settings, either in the instrumentation or performance so perfectly judged, that you do feel that pure trust and connection with the artist, quite beyond any legitimate intellectual connections that are also there for the picking. It’s a mysterious thing he does. Born to synthesise, as the song says…Van Morrison does that too.
DK: My Dad The Weatherfan is by all accounts a very personal song for you. Could I ask you to talk about the song and how you feel about bringing your personal life into your songs?
DS: I wrote that song, like I did so many, on an old Danemann upright piano I had in my studio at East Kilbride Arts Centre. Such a bright and open tone and that physical sound can have quite an impact on the way you write or the ideas that come up, in this case a very up-on-its-toes tempo and harmonic structure and – I hope – feeling of positivity. The lyrical theme of the song is just one of those family things that become a symbol of how amazing people are, in this case a little joke that I used to have with my Dad who was always totally convinced about the veracity of the BBC weather reporting. He’d say, ‘they can tell you almost to the minute what the weather is going to be’. No argument would convince him otherwise. But of course the song is meant to be much broader than that, more about faith, belief, trust and the ways people can inspire each other. I do love to write about my ‘personal’ life but you do have to try and make it relatable for an audience so that they can maybe find a bit of their story in it too. In this one, even though the verses are specific to my story, the chorus tries to make a more universal point.
DK: Snowboardin’, which was my personal introduction to the Pearlfishers, remains my go-to song when trying to turn someone on to your music. Can you talk about the song’s genesis and how the A Sunflower at Christmas release developed?
DS: Another one written on my old Danemann upright and, like My Dad The Weatherfan, it has that up-on-its-toes feel. The idea for the A Sunflower At Christmas album came from Stefan Kassel at Marina Records. He called me to say he’d been daydreaming about a Pearlfishers Christmas record but sadly there would be no point doing it – ‘we don’t have time and we’d only lose money’. I knew he’d be back on the phone a couple of days later. ‘We have to do this, Davie!’. So from a standing start around August 2004 I made that record in time for Christmas. I was able to repurpose one or two things: an unused song called Love Plus Summer became Snow Plus Christmas and we already had a lovely alternate version of Blue December to which I added the fake brass band and street noise at the start. Then I wrote a few new things, among them one of my all time favourite Pearlfishers songs Winter Roads, and the one you mention, Snowboardin’. I just looked up loads of snowboarding terms which are pretty colourful in themselves and crafted the song from that. The basic track of The Snow Lamb is a Tall Poppies-era instrumental called Magic Reader and I wrote that little Christmas fable on top of it. There’s always stuff lying about that you can use – partly my Art School experience taught me that. You mentioned earlier that there is an expanded version of the Christmas album which we did for digital a few years later. I do like that version but THE definitive version of A Sunflower At Christmas is the original seven track piece.
DK: The Umbrellas of Shibuya balances melody and mood so well. Was it an encapsulation of a specific moment or something more abstract?
DS: Very much the former and of course a reference to Michel Legrand too. We were on tour in Japan with a kind of hybrid of BMX Bandits / The Pearlfishers and were headed off to Osaka from Shibuya Station in Tokyo. Coming up on the escalator you could see over the square outside the station and it was raining. All these plastic coloured umbrellas were going back and forth and it just looked incredible. It was also around Valentine’s Day and the station was full of vendors selling beautifully packaged chocolate – Giro Choco (obligation chocolate) – and flowers and all that. Taken together with the general wow factor of Japan it felt pretty overwhelming and it was corresponding with a really beautifully happy time in my life, hence the song and the melody which is pretty expressive I hope. A little nod back to Battersea Bardot too – electric balloons / neon roses.
The Umbrellas of Shibuya live at Pacific Quay Glasgow, BBC Music Day 2015
DK: As a fan of Pet Sounds, the title song for Open Up Your Colouring Book felt like the sequel we never really got. Do you wish Brian Wilson had been able to follow up Pet Sounds properly?
DS: Thanks for saying that about my song – it’s a heartfelt dedication to my niece and our days painting together, and one of my personal favourites. But musically I would never compare anything I did with someone like Brian Wilson. There’s a difference between him and every other musician on this planet as far as I’m concerned – a totally distinct expressionist and stylist. You can get down a rabbit hole talking about what would / could / should have been with Brian but I tend to remember my own experience listening to his music; getting the feted Surf’s Up album, thinking I can’t see what everyone is on about, and then getting blown away by the last three, Brian-penned, tracks, or hearing The Beach Boys Love You and feeling utterly disarmed, or realising he’d made a solo record in 1988 and listening with my jaw hitting the floor. Think of Pet Sounds as a peak and consider how many amazing records he made before then and that would be enough for ten lives. And then all this beautiful and surprising post-Pet Sounds music…
DK: Chasing All the Good Days Down comes across as the voice of someone who’s found a measure of peace in their world. Is that reflective of your worldview?
DS: That’s a co-write from me and Amy Allison. I produced two of her albums and then we wrote and recorded another as a duo – Turn Like The World Does – and it feels like a really close collaboration. Amy has an ability to cut through the BS in a funny but compassionate way and the character at the centre of that song is realising that these days, today and tomorrow, are the real golden days…and that does very much correspond with my own worldview as you suggest.
DK: The Time Is Right, from Marina Records’ anniversary compilation Goosebumps, is a strong candidate for best Pearlfishers song not to appear on one of your albums. What’s the background on that song in particular, and on a general note can you talk about how you refine the shape of an album?
DS: That one was written, like a lot of the Across The Milky Way songs, in a little room overlooking the Union Canal in Falkirk. I used to just switch on an old cassette Portastudio and make up songs on the spot, looking out at the swans. For example When The Highway Ends was just a kind of keyboard meditation until the lyric started to come out. A lot of the arrangement and production ideas were quite playful from those writing sessions, almost whimsical – in The Time Is Right I was just playing around with those sudden changes in section and feel; the demo and master are identical in structure. I even used the portastudio demo of I Was A Cowboy for that album. Every album has one or two songs that don’t quite make it, either because they are not quite as good as the rest or, more usually, because a theme or feel for the album as a whole has started to emerge and some of the songs don’t quite fit. Across The Milky Way became about escape, Up With The Larks about new mornings and so on. And every Pearlfishers album has something somewhere that has roots in an earlier project. My friend Ricky Ross always talks about songs that finally find their home and I agree with him. Part of finishing an album for me is finding the germ of an overall story, either musically or lyrically.
The Pearlfishers: The Time Is Right from Goosebumps: 25 Years of Marina Records
DK: Of the songs from your new album, Love & Other Hopeless Things, which one do you think will surprise long-time listeners the most?
DS: That’s a tough question and I’m probably the wrong one to ask. Honestly I think I just do what I do and concentrate on the songwriting and I’m not sure I can see what would be surprising or otherwise at such a close distance. One thing that might make long time listeners smile is the closing track, Another Sunflower. I sometimes think about doing A Sunflower At Christmas 2 and always end up concluding that the original is best left alone, but this song kind of got started through thinking about that. It moves it on into the New Year though. The only resolution you need is to keep moving, keep working, breathe in and breathe out.
DK: Is there a song of yours not already mentioned – old or new – that you would recommend to someone who wants to get to know your music?
DS: You’ve asked about a lot of my favourites already but there are a few that stand out for me. I like the warmth of Blanket Of Ribbons from Za Za’s Garden, the outro to Everyday Storms with the cyclical marimba and strings, and When Love Was A River from the last one – that song is very personal and feels very ‘inside’. This week my all time favourite is Away In A Manger / A Sunflower At Christmas. To, as it were, crib one of my heroes, there’s a lot of love in that one.
The Pearlfishers: Away In A Manger / A Sunflower at Christmas