The thing that was so magnetic about Moon Rock, Paul Steel’s second album, was the juxtaposition. He had the pastel colors in place in his grand, highly orchestrated classic pop tunes, but he also had a wicked sense of humor. It came through on the opening cut “In A Coma” where the girl of his dreams is wooed away because, sadly, her rescuing hero is actually in a coma. “I Will Make You Disappear” is a gorgeous, harmony-laden threat of violence. “Hole In Your Heart” is a pitch-perfect kiss off that would make Dylan and Costello proud.
But that was a decade ago. In those twelve years, Steel was/is a part of the duo Cold Crows Dead, released an EP as LL Cosmonaut, and became a producer/songwriter for hire working with groups like Empire of the Sun. But now Steel has returned as himself, and with a sequel to his first album, April & I. This one’s called Carousel Kites, and is a contender for best album of the year. In it, immaculate pop-rock production meets sometimes devious, sometimes melancholic, but always interesting songcraft. It is sugar-infused ear candy that has enough bite in it so it won’t rot your sweet tooth.
Popdose spoke with Steel about the album, where he was, how he got here, and about what “luxury music” really means.
Carousel Kites is your first full-length as Paul Steel in about a decade. Not that you haven’t been working, with Cold Crows Dead and you also had a four-song EP out under a band name/pseudonym, plus you’ve done songwriting work for other artists, but this seems like a very specific statement piece. Why the delay, and why now?
Well, I think I took getting dropped by my old label quite personally. I was just a kid and I’d just endured a few years of people telling me I was brilliant then all of a sudden no-one would touch me with a barge pole. I was always self conscious about my voice and being dropped was all the confirmation I needed that pop stardom wasn’t for me. I continued to make music but rarely played it to anyone until a few years ago I got really fed up and frustrated with the pop co-write world and told my manager I wanted to make some music for the right reasons and started work on what became Carousel Kites. A record label overhaul, mental health diagnosis and mammoth mix session later it arrived and it feels like a big weight off my shoulders!
If I’m correct, this was to be the sequel to your first record April & I (and it still is, as far as most of the content goes). However, April & II is now Carousel Kites. Why the distinction?
It is a sequel to April & I. When I was starting to think I might try writing a new album for myself a friend of mine (Luke Sital-Singh – who also features on the record) suggested I do a sequel to April & I and call it April & II as a joke. I laughed it off initially but after a while I couldn’t stop coming up with ideas for it! Unfortunately it only works as a visual pun written down (April and two/April and aye aye!? Rubbish!) and I didn’t want to alienate any new listeners who hadn’t heard of April & I. But I can confirm Carousel Kites is very much the Empire Strikes Back of the saga.
You have tagged your work as “luxury music.” It seems to be a pointed difference from “yacht rock” which is an offhand way of describing ’70s light-rock. Can you give me a clearer definition of what you mean?
The way yacht-rock was originally explained to me is that it’s music made by people who own yachts FOR people who own yachts and I thought that idea was funny and wondered if I could create a kind of music that is so extravagant and excessive that it would have to be more expensive to buy than “normal” music. Maybe it would come in a format that only a £1M hifi system could reproduce. I don’t know exactly how it would work in practice but it’s exactly the kind of preposterous concept I get a kick out of.
Carousel Kites is ambitious, even against Moon Rock which sounded like an enormous production. The song-cycle merges together so that the whole is nearly a continuous track, even though they are clearly distinct songs. What was your thought process when it came to developing the album?
April & I was also a gapless song cycle so I wanted to tie it in with that and include a few references to the original themes. I started with 3 or 4 major tracks to outline the story and then joined the gaps with the rest. I think it was a 20 track album at some point but thankfully there were some casualties during the production process. I think I’d have totally lost my shit trying to finish that. The great thing about concept albums or whatever you want to call them is its easier to justify including more far-out ideas and songs that don’t necessarily stand up on their own.
Speaking about that ambition, it is rather anachronistic when measured against the current model, which tends to be a producer, a singer, a keyboard of some kind, and a laptop. How much is going into one of your recordings, and what draws you to such a big, cinematic approach?
Well essentially it is the current model but I have wildly different goals to most laptop musicians. I have a computer, a couple of microphones and a bunch of guitars, synth and effects I’ve collected over the years. I grew up playing in guitar bands so I’m always trying to replicate a more live sound as opposed to programmed one shot beats and stuff. My main influence for this album was A Wizard A True Star by Todd Rundgren which is just a mad stream of consciousness and completely excessive and chaotic. Less is more? Sure. But more is even more than less is more and that was my motto. I don’t have a traditionally strong singing voice so I have to lean more on my arrangements to deliver the emotion I’m going for which is probably why my stuff tends to be more cinematic and dense.
You set up Carousel Kites on the Pledgemusic platform for funding. Was that your first crowdfunding experience, and what was your experience with it, ultimately?
Overall its a great way of doing it but I’d probably do it differently next time. I launched it quite early in the writing process and didn’t realise how long everything was going to take and a lot of my fans are my dad’s age so I got told off a fair bit. Also having everyone essentially pay for it before it was even finished made it quite stressful because I had no idea if it was any good or not and I didn’t want to come out of retirement only to disappoint and underwhelm everyone. If I do it again I’ll make sure I have everything in place first so I don’t have another breakdown.
The mid-section of Carousel Kites – “Skydaddy,” “Island in the Sky,” and “Yeti Rawk” – nods pretty heavily in the direction of Steely Dan. How did they come to be an inspiration for you? I assume they are one of the better examples of the “luxury music” notion.
Yes. They are luxury music through and through. I like that they write about drug lords and condoms. I quite like cold insincerity in music sometimes, especially in an industry that seems to champion vague and inane sentimentality. I’m suspicious of acts that exclusively deal in heartache and negative emotion, it always feels dishonest to me whereas Steely Dan seem to be very detached and offer an impartial perspective on unusual subjects. I couldn’t eat a whole one though, the guitar solos wear thin very quickly. All my mates detest them so I kind of included the yacht-rock dream sequence to wind them up.
One of the things I appreciated about Moon Rock, and to an extent on Carousel Kites but not as pronounced, is that even when the melodies and instrumentation are candy-coated, they often mask some pretty dark ideas. I’m thinking of “I Will Make You Disappear,” “In A Coma,” and “Hole in Your Heart.” Is that something you are conscious of, trying to balance out the musical sweetness with offsetting ideas?
It’s not something I consciously do. I naturally have quite a melodic sweet tooth and can stomach more saccharine melodies than most, but I also grew up watching programmes like League of Gentlemen so I maybe have a dark sense of humour. I do generally like that juxtaposition though. Sometimes there’s nothing more sinister than excessive and relentless sweetness. “Duck Duck Goose” on my new record is pure innocent euphoria for me so I like that too.
What is the overall goal for the new album and where can people find it?
As always I just want it to get heard by as many people as possible. I’m not expecting any tectonic shifts but if it makes people happy and takes their mind off Trump and brexit and Piers Morgan then it has served its purpose! You can find it on Spotify, iTunes, all the usual places or via http://radi.al/PaulSteel
It is currently a digital release. Do you intend to do a physical release of the full Carousel Kites in the future?I’d love to do a proper run of CDs and vinyl if there’s enough demand and I can scrape together the budget! Watch this space.
Carousel Kites is available from Amazon (click here) and Apple (click here). Popdose thanks Paul for taking the time to sit down with us and discuss the new album.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer, artist, and musician. As a senior editor for Popdose he has contributed many articles that can be found in the site's archives. He also writes for New Jersey Stage, Musictap.net, Ultimate Classic Rock, and Diffuser FM. His music can be found at http://dwdunphy.bandcamp.com/.