Last week, veteran British singer-songwriter Paul Weller looked back on his 40-plus-year career with a pair of elaborate shows at London’s Royal Festival Hall that found him accompanied by an orchestra and horns as well as his usual band, and performing a set that included most of his latest album “True Meanings” as well as deep cuts he hadn’t performed for decades. While acoustic in nature, the shows included songs from his years fronting the rock band The Jam and the more R&B-leaning Style Council, as well as many songs from his now 25-year-long solo career. He didn’t bother with the hits that the fans had presumably heard many times: There was no “Town Called Malice,” “My Ever Changing Moods,” “That’s Entertainment,” “Long Hot Summer” or “Changingman.” Weller recently turned 60, and he’s said that contributed in part to the reflective nature of “True Meanings.” In many ways the show was a compliment to that album, being both introspective and retrospective in nature.
Variety caught up with Weller (seen above accepting GQ U.K.’s Songwriter of the Year Award) on Friday, backstage at Royal Festival Hall before the second show, as staffers and family members shuffled in and out, nearly all of them stopping to play with his adorable toddler daughter Nova, his seventh child. Weller talked about the shows, songwriting, family, his long and diverse career — and what’s coming next.
What did you think of last night’s show?
I thought it was absolutely amazing. It was a really spiritual experience for us, it was everything I thought it could be. There was a few times in rehearsals where I thought maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew (laughs), but last night it all really came to fruition.
There were so many deep cuts in the setlist, was it designed for the kind of fans you knew would be there?
I guess so, yeah — we weren’t gonna play the hit singles, it wasn’t that kinda thing. So I purposely tried to choose songs that I like and felt a connection with, but also songs that I thought would be suitable for [acoustic arrangements with strings] — obviously, ain’t gonna play [The Jam’s raucous 1979 hit] “Eton Rifles”! And also, to make it interesting to fans with stuff they haven’t heard, or not for an awfully long time. “Private Hell” I hadn’t played for 40 years or whatever, and there was a lot of songs I hadn’t played for 20 or 30 years.
Why did you do an acoustic-based album like “True Meanings” now?
I’d just never done it before. I’m always looking to do something a little bit different. I’ve done tracks like it in the past but I’ve never done a whole album that’s in one mood, really. And I sort of hear it as a suite — a lot of songs have similar keys and chords, I don’t know much about it but whenever I heard classical suites they seem to be in the same mood.
Was there anything in particular you were listening to that influenced it?
No. People have said Nick Drake and John Martyn but I wasn’t thinking I should make a record like those, and when you’ve got acoustic guitar and strings it sounds naturally introspective anyway. If anything, on some of the songs it was kind of me thinking about my childhood, those sort of romantic, beautifully arranged songs from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — Nat King Cole and things like that, although obviously the album doesn’t sound anything like them.
I thought “Gravity” sounded like a lost Kinks song from the late 1960s, from “Village Green” or “Arthur.”
I was thinking more “Theme From a Summer Place” by the Percy Faith Orchestra. It’s the sort of thing I used to hear in cinemas and ice rinks as a kid in between films and adverts — fantastic arrangements and the air of romanticism as well.
It’s in such a high register, is it hard to sing?
No, not at all, not compared with some of the others. “Tales From the Riverbank” was a struggle last night, although I couldn’t tell you why, man, I’ve sung it hundreds of times. Hopefully nobody else noticed! I’m lucky, because I’ve smoked all my life — which I’m not proud about — and I’ve still got a fairly good range for my age and lifestyle. This kind of singing as well, I don’t have to blast it out over the top of a loud band — quite the opposite. It’s a totally different dynamic to what we’re used to, and it’s taken us quite a few days to get used to that. We had four days’ rehearsal a few weeks ago, and then three warm-up shows in Europe without the strings, and then two days [rehearsal] with the strings and everyone, so we’ve really put the time in and last night was the payoff. It was hard work, which I’m not averse to, but it was too much hard work at times (laughs).
How long was the album in the works?
In some ways, six years or more: “Gravity,” “Castles” and “Glide” are at least that old. My wife reminded me there was an old demo of “Glide” she recorded for me on her phone in the bathroom in a flat we lived in, we’ve been married eight years so it must have been around that time. I’ve made three albums since then but I knew they wouldn’t fit, so in some ways I’ve been putting these songs aside and waiting for the right time. It all started out with “Gravity” — I love it and I knew it was special, so that really formed the cornerstone for the record and I built it around that. And then there was three or four other songs, “may love, come along, “Books” —that I wrote as I was finishing the album, which I thought it needed. I wanted to put it out on my 60th birthday, which was back in May, but we didn’t have enough time.
And after these shows, this is it?
It’s not the sort of record I wanna tour — I couldn’t afford to, anyway. I’d love to do Carnegie Hall, because I’ve never played there or been there, but unless there’s some fantastic offer, this is it. Which I’m quite happy about, really. I think it’s quite fitting that it’s these one-off shows and they’re special and that’s where they’ll stay. I think it would spoil it for me, to be honest —I love the idea that this is it.
Are you writing all the time?
For the last 45 or whatever years?
Yep! I’ve had a bit of time off here and there, there’s been times when I haven’t had an interest in writing for two years or 18 months or whatever, but in the last 10 years I’ve not seemed to be able to stop, really, and I don’t know why that is. Whenever you’re feeling it you just go with it, because you never know when it’s going to stop or not happen for a bit. But I’m at that age as well where I realize if it doesn’t happen for a while, that’s alright — you just have to sit it out and wait for it to come around again. When I was younger, if I didn’t write for a few months I’d be pulling my hair out thinking “It’s all over, I’m finished.” Then I realized it just comes in waves. I’ve only found that out through age and experience. But we’ve had this record finished for eight or nine months, and that’s a long time for me, so I’ve already got half a dozen songs for the next record.
What do you think it’s going to be like?
I don’t know at the moment, I can’t tell where it’s going. It’s a bit more groove-based, more of a band thing. It’s definitely not acoustic — to me they sound more groovy and more soul/R&B, I suppose.
What have you been listening to lately?
Loads of stuff. The Villagers’ new album, “Pretending to Swim,” fantastic. I really think Connor has raised the bar for me in terms of songwriting and production. That’s the biggest. The Mr. Jukes record from last year, quite soulful. Gaz Coombes from Supergrass, his record’s great. Jorja Smith has got a great voice. I like some of Drake’s record, Kendrick Lamar’s funkier stuff. I heard a great country record the other day by Travis Meadow called “Killing Uncle Buzzy.” I’m not a massive country fan but I loved this, a song called “Learning to Live Alone,” a great story song.
There’s such a wide gap in age between your kids, isn’t it exhausting doing it all again?
I’ve gone through that quite a few times so I’m kinda used to it, really. But what they add to your life, these tiny little beings, they’re so beautiful — I think it’s so wonderful, I just feel blessed and lucky. And obviously I think about the fact that I’m pushing it a bit to have little kids at my age, but that’s just the way it’s worked out and I’m lucky to experience it. The only drag side of it is I wonder how long I’ll have with them, right? But outside of that I love it, and I think the old cliché about them keeping you young is true. And they keep you optimistic — you can’t be cynical or pessimistic, they don’t want to hear about that stuff. They want to think it’s gonna be alright, and you have to believe that as well.
That’s certainly a challenge these days.
Yeah, for real.
I know you’re not as politically involved as you were during the ’80s, but have you ever seen things this bad?
No, not in my lifetime. It’s almost like we’re on the brink of a third world war — that’s a bit melodramatic but I think it’s not too far-fetched. We live in extreme times, don’t we? People’s attitudes, what they watch, their behavior. It’s all very extreme.
I used to feel a sort of envy for people who grew up during the ‘60s, but I feel like we’re living in similar times.
Um … but look at the marches and anti-Vietnam protests and how strong that was. There’s still people out marching, but people were more radical then, weren’t they? That postwar generation was very special — and all the art and music and writing and all the rest of it, everyone was breaking new boundaries, and people were committed, weren’t they? Not just in America but in the world. People were out in the streets, and I’m not seeing that commitment — not since the ‘60s, really. But I think the tide may be turning, I think youth want something else, and hopefully that’s where the hope lies. Who knows?