Paolo Nutini on taking a break, working with The Rolling Stones at 19, and his upcoming gig in Dubai
Five years is a long time in anyone’s life, but for Paolo Nutini, the past half decade has been seismic.
In March 2010, when he was 23, the Scottish singer-songwriter visited Dubai to play a sell-out gig at The Irish Village. On Friday, Nutini will return to the city to perform at Dubai Media City. That first, award-winning gig five years ago came off the back of 2009’s Sunny Side Up, which was Nutini’s second two-million-selling album in three years.
But shortly after that success, he disappeared. He stopped touring, learnt carpentry and photography — even flirted with quitting music altogether and enrolling in college. He only re-emerged last year, with the release of his third LP, Caustic Love.
“What was I doing, man? I took a little bit of time,” he says, as he begins to offer a lengthy, roundabout explanation for his lengthy, inexplicable break.
“Some of it was just going home. I bought a house and never really slept in it — go home and live in the thing, go and reconnect with people, hang out and readjust.
“I was lucky to be busy — it’s really fortunate if you’ve got shows and people that want to see you, it’s wicked. But I found myself collecting all this stuff I wished I had the time to do. When that stuff became too plentiful, the balance was lost a little bit and I was finding myself slightly resenting the schedule.
“Then I decided: ‘What am I whining about?’ Why don’t I just celebrate the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to do all this, and then go and do what I want to do?”
While that might sound like the words of an artist following his muse, a typically errant troubadour in the vein of Bob Dylan or Neil Young, there’s none of that self-assurance. None of those greats’ “I’ll-work-when-I-please” stubbornness.
Listening to Nutini’s heavily accented, unassuming drawl, I have to pinch myself and remember it’s the same voice that has sold four million albums in the United Kingdom alone. The same voice behind radio smashes Last Request, New Shoes and Candy. The same soaring, soulful voice that impressed legendary Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegün — who was behind countless careers, including those of Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane — and which won this guy support slots for The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Amy Winehouse, all before his 21st birthday.
And here he is telling me he doesn’t even like half his songs.
“With music, deciding when you want to do it and when you don’t — I don’t think that’s quite your decision or your right,” he says. “Perhaps the reason I wasn’t so enthusiastic or buzzing off music for a while was because the music I was writing just wasn’t working, it wasn’t sounding too good to me.
“It’s not like I’ve got a right to go out and have a career with songs that I don’t even like. There’s nothing inevitable about this.”
Nutini talks in long, complicated, contemplative sentences, riddled with self-analysis and insecurity. Having interviewed more than a few international musicians in my time, one can place celebrity personalities on a continuum of self-assurance and directness.
At one end would be the unshakable confidence of 50 Cent — at the other I would put Nutini.
I ask if he liked the LP he eventually came up with, Caustic Love, and he manages to avoid quite saying yes.
“I feel comfortable going out and performing these songs, talking about them and putting them out there,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve nailed anything at all. I remember when I finished the record, I think I had more pride than the previous two, yeah.”
So will it be another five years until the next one?
“I don’t think so — I’m certainly not in the situation I was last time when I was down on my creativity, down on my ideas. I’ve got lots of threads and songs — some finished, others that are in more infant stages — but certainly enough to feel like I’ve got stuff to play with and sink my teeth into, which is different to the last time.”
One of the most oft-repeated anecdotes about Nutini, who was born to a father of Italian descent and a Scottish mother, is that he “escaped” working in the family fish ’n’ chip shop, in his hometown of Paisley in Scotland. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that shop, Alfredo’s, and I suggest a celebratory gig from the prodigal son might be in order.
“That would be a first — I’ve never played in a chippy,” he says. “You raise a good point here, I really should.
“You never know, maybe we’ll go and do a little show. I’ve always thought about doing a chippy tour,” he adds, championing Badly Drawn Boy’s “Chip Shop Tour” of 2007.
In his mid-teens Nutini even worked at his dad’s chippy. But after being signed by Atlantic shortly after turning 18, by the time he was 19 he was supporting The Rolling Stones in Vienna, in 2006, and a career as a fish-fryer was no longer on the list of possibilities.
A year later, he was rehearsing with the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band in a budget Travelodge hotel room — a “surreal environment, discussing whether to go to an E or an A, and laughing” — before joining The Stones onstage in front of 90,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Speaking of crowds, I can’t help but notice that Friday’s gig venue has a total audience capacity more than three times larger than his 2010 appearance in Dubai.
“No pressure,” he says. “Who knows? I’m certainly going to give it as much as I can, man, that’s always the plan. I hope that people dig it.”
Nutini corrects himself, his internal insecurity wrestled by the outward demands of being a touring superstar.
“Let’s be positive,” he says, “they’re going to dig it.”
• Paolo Nutini performs at Dubai Media City on Friday, April 10, doors open 6pm. Tickets from Dh350 at www.platinumlist.ae
Updated: April 7, 2015 04:00 AM