Paolo Nutini’s Very Long, Sorta Strange Trip

Music Features Paolo Nutini
Paolo Nutini’s Very Long, Sorta Strange Trip

Time no longer passes the same way for Italian-descended Scot Palo Nutini. So he barely noticed the clock ticking as the years flew by since the release of his last soulful set, Caustic Love back in 2014. The son of a fish-and-chip owner from the tiny town of Paisley who had burst so strongly out of the gate with his hit These Streets debut in 2006 simply seemed to disappear for nearly a decade, until finally it was left to Scottish rock star Lewis Capaldi to voice what many fans were secretly thinking in a telling tweet: “Right—enough’s enough. Where the fuck is Paolo Nutini?” The query took Nutini, now a seasoned 36, by surprise, he was so lost in his own experiential universe.

“When I first saw the tweet, I was in a supermarket, just buying stuff to make dinner,” chuckles the singer, who recently returned with a generous 16-track followup, Last Night in the Bittersweet, his fourth, and an anybody-remember-me American tour that’s just now wrapping up (turns out, the answer was a resounding yes, as the tour sold out). “I was just doing my thing in Scotland, probably an hour from where Lewis would have been when he sent that message. And then, everybody was coming up to me, going, ‘Did you see this? Did you see this?’”

Where has the man been? That takes nearly an hour’s worth of explaining, and involves an ongoing journey that’s simultaneously spiritual, cerebral, metaphysical and, of course, musical; it resulted in a truly diverse, downright adventurous anthology of tunes, like the thumping “Acid Eyes,” a Joy Division-ish “Lose It,” the swaying folk-country twanger “Abigail,” a clanging “Desperation,” and a Zeppelin-heavy “Afterneath,” which boasts a dialogue sample from Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance. Elsewhere, simple acoustic notes or piano chords hold sway (“Julianne,” “Everywhere”) allowing Nutini’s stunning voice—now grown deeper, woodsier, even more resonant—to take flight. Yes, absence has definitely made the heart grow fonder. And Nutini is feeling equally reinvigorated out on the road, too—he rhapsodizes about two American gigs in particular, one in Philadelphia and one in Denver, where he was touched to hear crowds singing along to early catalog obscurities. They hadn’t forgotten him, and that was all the wind he needed to fill his flagging sails. Now, leaving school at 15 to roadie and sell merch for his friend’s band Speedway—with whose drummer he’d already begun composing songs—was a gambit that paid off, he reckons, because the years since have just flown by. He maps out his long, strange journey to Paste below….

Paste: The first time we met was at your initial afternoon showcase in Los Angeles. And you were too young to legally drink, so a rep actually had to sneak you cocktails out in her purse. Awkward, but it worked!

Paolo Nutini: Ha! I remember those days! And I remember my struggle to get a drink until one day I was presented with a Blockbuster Video card with this picture on it (as ID), and it was of a guy that a friend knew who looked exactly like me who was of age, and it was from Okonumowok, Wisconsin, and I basically used this card to get my drinks, because he looked exactly like me and he was 22. So that’s how I managed to get around that problem at the second. But I don’t need to worry about that anymore, thankfully.

Paste: Okay, talk to me like I’m five. “Caustic Love,” your previous album, comes out in 2014, and then what? You’ve said you spent a lot of time just traveling instead of touring?

Nutini: I think much more was made of my foreign disappearance than it really merits. But certainly, just because I wasn’t choosing to make music or remain in the public eye didn’t mean that I wasn’t loving life. I went over to New York and thought that was where I wanted to be, and then I ended up in Mexico—I went for a weekend and came back a couple of months later. I had a good time, and saw parts of Tulum and saw that side of Mexico, and I even made my way up the coast. And when I turned 30, me and my friends, we all went to Vegas on a trip and then stayed there way too long. And when we came back, we hit San Francisco on the way down to L.A., but on our way back, it was at the time of that Coachella thing called Desert Trip, and they had Bob Dylan and the Stones double-billed on the first night, but on the last night, Roger Waters closed the show on that Coachella stage, in the desert, and it was an experience. And I was handed a bar of chocolate that was, uhh, not chocolate, so I went on a whole trip just inside my head, while Waters was playing “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun,” and I just went soaring through the skies. It was a real moment. But I also spent a bit of time out in Joshua Tree, and I found a studio out there, so all the while I was recording songs.

Paste: Was this a Carlos Castaneda type of spiritual journey for you, overall? Did you try ayahuasca or any mind-expanding things on your trips, especially in Mexico?

Nutini: I found along the way some pretty good ways of bending my mind, you know? So ayahuasca, for me, well, I didn’t really go down that road. But we did a small tour of South America, and that took us through places like Santiago, Chile, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, which was great. And then after the Sao Paolo show, I went out for a little bit and I did a lot of driving in Brazil, and then I found myself in a situation where I got to do what a lot of people would love to, and I got to go to Machu Picchu. And I just went on my own, and it was quite the trek—I trekked for several days until I finally got there, and of course, you meet great people along the way. And then I spent some time in Bolivia, and of course, there were a lot of things that can go along with you on such trips, but I didn’t need it. I think the whole thing was just enough for me in itself. So I came back from that trip, and I was just in a very good place. And then I left to write for a bit in Norway and Sweden, and in between that, I went through periods where I would get the guys, the musicians together—people that I thought would be the right guys for the songs that I was writing—and we would go in and do a four- or five-day session, so music was always kind of a common thread throughout the whole thing.

Paste: Call me curious, but what happened on the Machu Picchu trek? Is there a vending machine at the end of the trail?

Nutini: Ha! You get Machu Picchu as the vending machine! You get there and your guide says. “We’re here. Now you go and do your thing!” So there was no huge revelation, but I wasn’t looking for a revelation. Hence my swearing off the ayahuasca. So there really wasn’t that much more — I just wanted to take time just to…to take that time, you know? I thought, “If I could do this, I can do this now—there’s nothing in my way, so I’m gonna do it!” And I’m very lucky to have been able to. I mean, a lot of people often say they want to do something, but they just can’t do it. And I’m not above any of then—I’m just very grateful that I can do that.

Paste: There was a quote from you in one interim interview, where you said, “I wasn’t dealing with myself in ways that were the healthiest.”

Nutini: Yeah. Yeah. I think I was just referencing drinking, my level of drinking, perhaps. And I think that’s a, uh, pretty common thing.

Paste: Can you look back and pinpoint the moment where you told yourself, “Okay—this far, no further,” and you changed things for the better?

Nutini: Sure, sure. I think I had that, and I kind of continuously have that, to be honest. Before I get to that point, I think there’s a constant getting better. You kind of slip off track, get back on track. But one thing that did change was, like I said, I would find good ways to distract myself from myself, and I would go away and do something of that magnitude and that kind of beauty and that kind of experience. Even just living by the fjords in Norway, where I was able to sit in a little cabin and cook for myself—that was every bit as amazing as Machu Picchu, but it was these kinds of escapes, these mobilizations, and that went on for a couple of years. And there, you have a lot of time for reflection and a lot of time to focus energy on writing and creating, but not on the road, not on the fly, not with an ever-changing landscape. There was something a lot more pure and brutal about the whole thing. And I guess a lot of the hangups that I had about being onstage and doing interviews and talking and maybe just even explaining myself? Those perspectives changed with all that isolation, and intense cutoff from other people. So I dunno—that whole life that I was living before I finally saw as a really lucky one, and what an opportunity if you’ve got it, to be able to communicate on that level and be that open across the scale. So that’s what I eventually thought, like, If I can do that, I’m crazy not to try it.

Paste: What’s the weirdest port of call you wound up in? Where you thought, “Okay—Detroit. This just ain’t working!”

Nutini: You know what? I absolutely found New York to be like that, for instance, before I went to Mexico. I was on the back of a breakup, a breakup of a relationship, and I slipped into this sort of movie-funk guy, this sad, jaded, lonely guy in New York—I was going to the bar early and just kind of wandering around. I was appearing sort of happy, but actually being very not. So that was a pretty bad moment, involving alcohol. And that was one point where, thankfully, it wasn’t just myself—luckily, I had some good people around me who said, “Whoa—you know this can’t go on.”

Paste: It sounds like urban scenarios did not facilitate good songwriting for you, while rustic, pastoral landscapes did.

Nutini: Yeah, definitely. At the time, it was the noise—the hustle, the bustle, the frantic elements. It was already playing around in my head, but being in the middle of it, too, was just too much. And then going to Mexico was such a change, it was just unbelievable. There were a lot of things that I did on that journey that did have a big impact on me, mentally and physically. I went into ritual sweat lodges, I took mezcal in Mexico, and I also did something that was really, really intense, called kambo, where they take the poison secreted by a monkey frog and you punch little holes in your arm, and then you insert some of the poison into your system. And you react accordingly—everybody reacts a bit differently, and locals often use it as a cleanse. But on its own, it’s a pretty remarkable thing in itself. And there would also be meditation and to me at that time, I hadn’t done anything like that. So I contemplated natural and deep-rooted, long-existing things that I can now understand, and that’s part of the whole deal, you know? Breaking down the cultures and just taking time. So there were so many little stops that I made along the way—some were trips that I made with other people, some were more holiday-like than just wanderlust. But I’m so grateful for all of that, and you add it all up and then you get to 2020, so that was three of those eight years where I took the time to do all of that. So it’s not as long a time as people came to believe. But I think some folks thought I was living in some remote hideout.

Paste: But still, it seems like time itself became more fluid to you, like a watch-melting Dali painting.

Nutini: Yeah. But I think I just never saw it as being a conscious gauge, because I would always get back together with my reality, and come back to what I’m supposed to be and my job, as a musician. And that was always here for me—writing songs and making music. So a lot of what I’m going to get in the future is gonna come from that grounding, well. But without a lot of those things that happened then and a lot of the changes, I don’t think I’d have been able to pace myself around the place and check out what I’ve got to offer, because I didn’t fee; like I necessarily had much to offer at that point. But I wouldn’t be here now if that hadn’t happened.

Paste: Well, “Afterneath” sounds like prime Zeppelin, so it sounds like all of your stylistic barriers broke down.

Nutini: That’s very kind. But we recorded that song at Rockfield Studios in Wales, and there were a bunch of songs recorded in that session that still haven’t seen the light of day. And You know, Robert Plant spent a lot of time there, so it kind of felt like Robert’s studio. So we mainly worked there and in a studio in Belgium, and yeah, I challenged myself with some new music, and obviously, when I’m writing along that journey I’ve got a journal. And I wrote a lot of these songs on the bass, and that’s my favorite way to write now. And the bass guitar for me really became a great way to pass the time, when there was a lot of time to pass during lockdown. But I also find a lot of joy in different kinds of music, so there’s not one exclusive kind that thrills me the most. I love certain songs. I love songs. I love the atmospheres. And it can be anything, really. Anything at all. I I was just sitting and singing Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” on my guitar, and it’s very pure — Sam Cooke songs are just very pure and pristine.

Paste: So if this gave you renewed strength, did that come in handy when the pandemic hit? And were you back in Paisley, near your folks?

Nutini: It’s funny. I was all set to immigrate to the States, in January of 2020, and I was gonna come to Austin because—from having played SXSW—I’d met some really great guys who were based there, and some of ’em had actually organized the festival. And I just thought that in March I was gonna go there to play SXSW, and I’d start there and maybe stay, and see if they could set me up with a little apartment, a little studio, too. But music was not the catalyst for this trip—I just very much wanted to start again, just start a new life. And I just thought, “I’m gonna do it!” But I didn’t know my final destination was gonna be Portland. Well, I do know why, because I’ve played there and I love it. But there was something in my brain going, “You need to go to Portland—your life is gonna change there, because something’s gonna happen in Portland.” And it wasn’t going away, and I felt like I needed to spend some time there to see what’s really going on. But I never thought I could live in the States, but I think the places I stopped in before, like Boulder, Colorado, or Madison, Wisconsin., or Portland—I could actually live.

And I love Portland because one minute you can be in the city, and then you can quickly go up into nature, and people are really psyched to be there. So back in March of 2020, I never went, I never went on that trip. And at that time, I really wanted to be with my family.

Paste: I had no idea that Scotland has a National Federation of Fish Fryers. And dad Alfredo has been fighting with them to save the country’s local fish-and-chips shops, like your family’s Castelvecchi’s, as the price of running them has nearly doubled.

Nutini: Yeah. They’re definitely under threat. Even high streets aren’t the same. The high street in my home town of Paisley is different now.

Paste: Which is why fans need your music even more now.

Nutini: Well, I’m writing and making new music, and I’ve got some stuff that I really want people to hear. So I just hope that people keep listening. That’s why I’m really interested in making new music as soon as possible.

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