I just couldn’t believe it, I rang him straight back and we chatted for ages, and the whole time I was shaking like a leaf.” At a plucky 16 years old, it was just the boost of confidence Steel needed. Growing up in coastal Worthing as an XTC and Radiohead addict, his first foray into the world of music was hardly the earth-shattering debut one would hope for. “Me and some mates formed a band, we took it very seriously but all we did was imitate Radiohead songs. We never got any gigs, Worthing doesn’t really have much room for teenage indie bands, and I was always throwing myself about the stage and stealing the limelight.” He explains about his music career in its earliest stages, adding somewhat needlessly “We weren’t very good.” But his first stunted experience fronting a band- ‘I can’t tell you what our name was, it’s too embarrassing”- set in motion years of experimenting with music in that den of creativity for musicians everywhere: his bedroom.
As well as spending an adolescence aping Johnny Greenwood’s fingering skills, Steel highlights discovering the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as a defining moment. Even now, the 20-year-old grows notably more animated when discussing how Brian Wilson was an unrivalled innovator, whose sound has never grown dated and that “there are new bands every week who copy the Stones or the Beatles, but no one ever tries to take off where Brian Wilson left off.” But defining influences aside, how does Paul Steel see his own work amongst the likes of late 60s Psychedelica, 70s new wave and 90s prog rock? ‘I have a lot of ideas that come from the artists I admire, and the one collective feature they share would be, I guess, that they never take the easy option.” Artists like Wilson, Gruff Rhys and even Mika all share, as Steel sees it, a way of making traditionally non-commercial music sound commercially viable. “I make pop music, that’s exactly how I’d describe it, but it sort of does the opposite in that there are aspects to my songs that are challenging and unusual, but, hopefully, never awkward.” He claims his music is about “high production ideas”, that’s despite his mini album April & I being recorded in his bedroom for under two hundred quid. Ah yes, the debut.
Steel concedes that April & I is a concept EP, although the very idea of it dismays him slightly. April is his imaginary friend, created during a childhood of isolation in rural West Sussex, she is happy, she is sad, he gets stoned, and even when her creator left the lonely shores of Worthing for the bright lights of Brighton in 2006, she came with him to keep him company. Track two on the album, April, describes how his platonic love affair with his invisible friend began. On a night when he “needed help with society”, and was even pondering the question “How about suicide?” along came April with her infinite wisdom and her ability to make him feel swell.
Where April trundles along merrily, projecting from the inner sanctum of Steel’s bedroom out into the cold harsh world, the track School Bully is out there in the real world, and hating it. It is as ‘experimental’ as it gets- a gabba infused, pre New Rave tantrum that simply states over and over “School Bully, making my life hell.” In an debut that covers the pain of young love in I Gave her My Number to the joys of drug induced inebriation in to Honkin’ (On My Crackpipe), April & I reflects the drama of everyday life in an album that plays like the dramatic score of a MGM musical, each diverging emotion accentuated through rolling drums, perfectly timed glockenspiel and harmonising melodica. By the time April & I reaches its breathtaking final throws, Steel’s cry of “Farewell April” feels like the closing scene in a play that is both comedy and tragedy at once. At a time when gritty social realism in British music is at its zenith, Steel’s lyrics may seem to reflect the same world as the likes of Jamie T or the Arctic Monkeys, but the singer insists that his socially conscious, observational lyrics are actually anything but.
“I’m not at all urban, I’m not out on the streets. I’m very much in my bedroom in front of my computer, probably looking up how to grow daffodils on the internet.” So Honkin’ (on my Crackpipe), instead of being taken from Steel’s experience of Brighton’s hard-bitten Kemp Town, is in fact indebted to Mitchell and Webb’s Peep Show. “There’s a scene where Mark asks Jeremy what the character Super Hans, who’s this drug fiend friend of theirs, is doing and Jeremy responds ‘honking on his crackpipe’ and the line cracked me up. Because we’re used to hearing about drugs in this really dramatic way, and the reality is actually very different.” This is exactly the approach Steel took to his work when he set about making April & I.
Paul Steel’s world isn’t a place of empty cider cans, hoodies and happy slapping. It’s a world where pianos are played alongside the ring a ding of glockenspiels, where birds sing in harmony and your imagination holds the key, all for the sheer joy de vivre of it all. And just when all that gritty social realism is getting a bit wearisome. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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