Having released 2012’s ‘The Lovers’ via a well-supported PledgeMusic campaign after finding himself without a label, the anxiety that was increasingly attached to live performance and staying afloat in a painfully ephemeral industry prompted Paul Marshall to knock his work as Lone Wolf on the head. Only when he discovered that a studio that had been central to his writing to date, The Lodge in Bridlington, was to be sold and converted was he compelled to return. The resulting record, for which he plays all parts, is a brutally honest portrait of the reluctant artist.
The latter-period Talk Talk influences were already evident on his previous release, but that sense of luxurious claustrophobia is writ large on ‘Lodge’. The gentle background hiss and clunking of a pounded piano all add to the atmosphere on a set of songs where no attempt at artifice is offered. Marshall has talked in the past of being someone who finds it hard to say for certain that anything is finished and it could be argued that the limited time and spontaneous circumstances surrounding this record’s creation have freed him to let his writing pour out unencumbered.
The not especially ambiguously titled ‘Give Up’ is littered with vividly unfiltered, strikingly bleak imagery. “I’ve been sleeping with a blindfold on, sleeping with the curtains drawn,” Marshall sings, suggesting that the enemy isn’t necessarily outside. The song gradually builds around the refrain “maybe I’ll meet you in the water, maybe the water’s just dry land, maybe the water never ever really happened.” The notion of being submerged both literally and metaphorically is contrasted with a gathering of delicate backing vocals, swirling piano and the insistent percussive pulse that offers a little hope. When it drops out at the end, the listener is left moist-eyed and uncertain. It’s a remarkable moment on an enthralling record.
Such moments of lyrical nudity are not uncommon amongst the eleven songs that make up ‘Lodge’. ‘Art Of Letting Go’ and ‘Alligator’ in particular are perfect vehicles for Marshall’s beautiful vocals, similarly imbued with anguish, and the sparse arrangements are augmented with skittering drum parts and mute trumpet. Along with opener ‘Wilderness’, they are the most Hollis-like moments here, although that knack for making the space as important as the music is central to this album’s dynamic.
The strikingly sombre two-minutes of solo piano that form the introduction to album closer ‘Pripyat’, named after the Ukrainian city abandoned following the nearby Chernobyl disaster, neatly capture the sense of abstracted isolation at the heart of its lyric. Marshall’s delivery is delicate, almost slurred, battling with the piano and trumpet, as Lone Wolf seems finally to be subsumed by the music. It’s a hauntingly slow, resolutely downbeat way to conclude a record that still finds beauty in despair.
In entering the studio for purely selfish reasons, Marshall ended up crafting his finest work. The Lone Wolf years may be over but it would be a great shame were this to be a full stop.
I spoke to Paul for Clash around the time of the album’s release and it would be rude not to reproduce that interview here. So, read on, eh? Lovely chap.
As an aspiring singer-songwriter, Paul Marshall found himself feted in certain circles upon the release of 2007’s ‘Vultures’, a folksy acoustic record revealing a not inconsiderable talent. It wasn’t long before he signed to Bella Union and the Nick Drake-esque plucked guitar was beefed up with Wurlitzers, trumpets and a string quartet for 2010’s ‘The Devil & I’. To mark this shift, a new moniker was adopted. A press release at the time proclaimed, “Paul Marshall is metaphorically dead. Long live Lone Wolf.” Five years on, it would seem that Lone Wolf is nearly dead, but Paul Marshall seems fairly well resuscitated.
“It’s a stupid, stupid name that should never have happened,” Marshall tells me. “There were loads and loads and loads of singer-songwriters everywhere and I was another guy with an acoustic guitar and I was just plain old Paul Marshall. Simon [Raymonde – Bella Union boss] was my manager at the time and I’d suggest something that I liked and he wouldn’t like it and then he’d suggest something that I wouldn’t like and it became the best of a bad bunch and then, once you’ve made that kind of a decision, you just have to stand by it.” Apart from its ubiquity as a phrase making it a nightmare for search engines, the name soon came to feel like an unnecessary burden and, as Marshall prepares to retire it, he reflects “I almost feel like I went from it being just a name to it actually being a pure metaphor of who I am, because I actually ended up being very much a Lone Wolf more than I was when I got the name, and that’s why I think it’s as good a time as any to go back and be Mr Marshall again, boring old Paul Marshall.”
He parted ways with Bella Union after that first record as Lone Wolf and increasingly found himself plagued with anxiety about his music and, in particular, performing. “I don’t know if it was just when I lost my record deal or something, but I almost felt like I’d embarrassed myself or I felt like a failure and as if the world looked at me like I wasn’t good enough to be there. It started to manifest itself as a thing where I just didn’t feel good enough; I didn’t feel worthy of being on a stage.” These feelings are explored in unrelentingly vivid fashion on his recently released album ‘Lodge’, the last under his adopted name. It is a quite remarkable collection, built around the stirring piano sound Marshall so adores in producer James Kenosha’s soon-to-close Bridlington studio that gives the record its name.
Marshall makes full use of the instrument’s magic, conjuring a pulsing rhythm with it on ‘Crimes’ that was one of the driving forces in the creation of ‘Lodge’. “I wrote that on my iPad when my baby daughter was only about a week old and I was walking around downstairs, getting her bottle ready, and I got that rhythm in my head. I listened to a lot of R’n’B and hip-hop for a while and essentially that’s a hip-hop kind of loop, if you think about it. If you took my vocal off it and someone did some kind of syncopated rap over it, it would actually work, I think. That was one of the first things that made me think if I’m going to do this record, it’s got to be on the piano for it to work. I just wanted the piano to be the beating heart of the record as it is the studio.”
The sparsely captivating nature of his sound is something he, in part, attributes to the producer of his previous record ‘The Lovers’, Jon Fougler, who “helped me to understand that I should show a bit more of me as opposed to layers,” which he had embraced on ‘The Devil & I’. The musical nudity seems a necessary accompaniment to the emotional nudity of the lyrics, as Marshall tells us everything about his extreme anxiety.
“On ‘The Devil & I’, I’m telling you everything on that as well, but I’m disguising it in stories. With ‘The Lovers’ it’s almost like the music takes your attention away from maybe what the real inner meaning of the lyrics are and that’s why with ‘Lodge’ it had to be more spacious, almost to give the words room to say ‘hey, listen, please, I need to talk to you.’” With song titles like ‘Give Up’, “Art Of Letting Go’ and ‘Mess’, there’s no hiding on ‘Lodge’, indeed ‘Mistakes’ opens with the lyric “I’ve made mistakes, I think I’m making one right now. You’re hearing every note of it.” I push for more on this unease about putting those thoughts out there. “I love making music and I love making it in the privacy of my own home. It’s only when it comes to letting other people hear it that I start getting a bit nervous.”
Driven to make the record by the news of the imminent closure of The Lodge, Marshall was actually freed from some of this concern, deciding to work on songs for an album irrespective of whether it would actually be released. He wrote a blog for his fans explaining his intentions and confessing he wasn’t sure how it would come out. “I was thinking about doing a free download, because that was the thing – it was no longer about a career. I mean, I’d love to make some money, I really would. I’m skint. I’d love to make some money; all this was done on my credit card.”
Finishing the blog with a note to independent labels inviting them to get in touch if they were interested in working with him, Marshall was surprised to then be contacted by two fans of his, Gene Priest and Derek Jones, who run an American music podcast and, it transpired, nascent label of the same name, Sharing Needles With Friends. Using money left by Gene’s mother-in-law, herself a big fan of Marshall’s work, they offered to release ‘Lodge’. Despite initially battling his own doubts about letting them down – “this is the way my brain works” – he has been thrilled with how it has worked out. “They are absolutely wonderful people and they are just two human beings. They’re not part of the wheel that I don’t want to be a part of. It’s almost like a couple of pals have released my record for me and I’m eternally grateful to them for that.”
When you’ve recorded a record built around anxiety often triggered by live performance, how do you then deliver it to audiences? Marshall launched the record recently with several shows and “I came very close to pulling the gigs a couple of times just because I just get so stressed. My friends are like ‘I don’t really know why you’re bothering to play live at all. You don’t have to.’ And I’m like ‘I know that’, but I don’t think it’s fair on the record if I don’t go out and try and at least represent it a little and get it heard. I don’t want people to think that I don’t want to be there when they come and see me performing. It’s not actually the case; I just can’t control the fact that I just become a bag of nerves. Thankfully, my audiences always seem to treat me with a kind of understanding respect.”
I observe that, barring a few festival appearances, he’s now out of the woods, only to find that there is still a final act to be written. “I want to do some stuff later in the year. I’d like to give Lone Wolf a bit of a send off. I don’t want to sound like a Ziggy Stardust kind of thing, but I’d like to draw a line under Lone Wolf as a part of my history I should be proud of, as opposed to something that caused me a lot of pain.”
Talk turns on several occasions to Marshall’s concern that people simply view him as miserable, but there’s definitely hope in ‘Lodge’. Getting all of those emotions out there is surely an enormous weight lifted? “The first reaction of somebody that I know and love, and who will remain unnamed, was that it was just really nice to know that they’re not alone, because they go through the same pattern of emotions. I’d never even thought that it might actually bring comfort to other people that might feel the same way. That’s probably more than I could have asked for; that’s worth a million good reviews.”
The album’s artwork, a photo taken from a chapel across from the studio, also seems to suggest a change. “I was just sat on one of the pews writing some stuff down and turned round and looked at the door and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more directly apt symbol of what this album is about. I’m in a dark room with a massive great door, but if you just open it there’s a beautiful field out there with horses in it.”
Those who follow Marshall on Twitter will know that he’s also a keen astronomer, uploading some of his rather impressive astrophotography from time to time. I wonder if, for a man prone to agonising over whether he deserves his place in the world, staring at the universe and contemplating our role in the bigger scheme of things isn’t the worst possible hobby? “It’s really bizarre and a lot of people talk about the idea of infinity, or the concept of how small we are compared to the universe and how it blows your mind, but for some reason I’m really comfortable with that. My astronomy is purely and utterly meditational.” He doesn’t use computer technology to help him seek out certain clusters or galaxies, preferring to do all the work himself. “I starhop [using brighter, easier to identify stars as a guide for where other things should be] and I can’t always see the object that I’m trying to find because it’s too dim, but when you hit the galaxy, or whatever the object is I’m looking for, it’s like going fishing and catching a fish. It’s like you’ve technically been meditating for all that time you’ve been looking for that object because you’re focussing on nothing else and my astronomy is absolutely intrinsic to my existence as a human. Strangely, it has the opposite of what you might think. I feel my insignificance is of the utmost significance.”
What is, perhaps, more significant is what comes next. ‘Lodge’ has been, quite rightly, lauded amongst those who’ve taken the time to get to know it. With the next Paul Marshall project a blank canvas, I wonder who inspires him? “Talk Talk and things like that come up a lot when people talk about ‘Lodge’, and that’s completely fair enough, because something like that is to do with having the balls to allow yourself to leave that amount of space and that amount of awkwardness in your music without it being contrived. Three albums ago I would never have had the balls to do something like ‘Pripyat’, just because I’d have been like ‘oh, but there’s nothing you can get your teeth into’, but then you realise that Talk Talk did ‘Spirit Of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ straight after a career of pop. I listen to a lot of music whilst I’m recording, because, if anything, I need people to remind me that I am allowed to be myself if I want. I don’t know how to say this without being really pretentious or crap, but you want to have something to do with what we’re leaving behind as a species or at least what you’ve left behind as a human being, and you want that to be as accurate a representation of you as possible. I think that’s where the key lies.”