Craig Mathieson February 12, 2015
Last October, just before a pair of arena gigs in his hometown of Glasgow, the Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini came down with a sore throat so bad he couldn’t eat, drink or even swallow. At 2am in the morning he went to the emergency department of the hospital around the corner from his family home.
The doctor who saw him took one look at his throat and then said two things. The first was “tonsillitis”. The second was, “We’ll both be doing something else tomorrow night.” Like more than 25,000 other Glaswegians, she had tickets to his shows.
It was the first gig in 10 years that the 28-year-old had cancelled, a record that had become a point of pride for Nutini. What’s more, having to do it in Glasgow left him worried that he’d offered offence somewhere he shouldn’t. “I may have annoyed someone with a bit of pull upstairs,” he adds with a rueful laugh.
Speaking, sans tonsils, from a quiet corner of the backstage area of another arena, this time in Birmingham – “I’m not sure what they call this place, but it’s big,” says Nutini – the musician with the Italian name, courtesy of his Tuscan immigrant father, and the Scottish accent was easygoing with an obvious passion for music and a vein of self-deprecating humour.
“At the end of the show people are still pretty much all still standing there, which is a good sign,” he says. “Seems like they come to my show because they like the music, it matters to them, and not because they just want to see if I’m any good or not. There’s not a lot of cynics in my audience, and that’s fine by me.”
In an era of music stars as multi-media engines and successful brands, Nutini is a throwback to 1970s. He writes songs, makes records – at a fairly slow pace – and then goes on tour to play them live. “Don’t bother asking,” he says, joking at one point, “I don’t have any new dance moves.”
Nonetheless, over the course of three albums – 2006’s These Streets, 2009’s Sunny Side Up, and 2014’s Caustic Love – he’s sold about 8 million albums worldwide, showcasing a voice that recalls the greats of blue-eyed British soul, such as Steve Winwood and the recently passed Joe Cocker. Nutini grew up listening to 1950s doo-wop groups such as the Platters on family vinyl, and those formative musical memories remain his strongest.
“Hearing those songs makes me feel like I’m home, so when I’m in America I try to pay my respects, even if it’s just going to the places where those musicians worked and played, says Nutini. “I’m just hoping to get a sense of what they did and what made them so good.”
Nutini tours with a 10-piece band, the Vipers, but their warmth and force live hasn’t precluded Nutini from growing more assured in the studio. On Caustic Love, which debuted at No. 6 on the Australian charts last April, there are digital grooves and a shimmer worthy of American R&B contemporaries such as Frank Ocean, while Janelle Monae guests on the funk joint Fashion. Nutini may be down to earth, but he’s not afraid of progress.
His inspiration was the legendary Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun, the man that corralled the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and who, before he passed away in 2006, told the 19-year-old and newly signed Nutini to ignore the advice his staff would invariably offer.
“They’re good at their jobs but it means nothing if you don’t give them something to work with,” said Ertegun, whose dapper appearance reminded Nutini of his grandfather, “and the only way you can do that is by being you.”
Nutini has heeded Ertegun’s advice, even if “being you” means that he casually proclaims his daily marijuana use to the disapproval of some or publicly frets about whether he’s up to the considerable success he’s enjoying.
“There’s not a lot of days I feel like a rock star, nothing has really up and changed in my life,” says Nutini. “And I wouldn’t want to feel that different than I do now. I probably wouldn’t make the music I’m making now if I thought I was someone different.”
Paolo Nutini plays the Enmore Theatre on March 31, tickets $84.10, ticketek.com.au; and the Byron Bay Bluesfest, April 2-6, bluesfest.com.au.