Writer of hits for artists as diverse as Cliff Richard and Rebecca St James, singer/songwriter PAUL FIELD is a seminal figure in the evolution of British Christian music. He was quizzed by Tony Cummings.
Few figures in British Christian music have contributed so much to the scene as Paul Field. From the 70s era with the hugely influential Nutshell, through to his classic songs for Cliff like "Thief In The Night" and "The Millennium Prayer" and a whole bevy of American CCM acts like Point Of Grace, Jaci Velasquez, Avalon and now Rebecca St James, Paul has proven himself to be one of the most gifted songwriters on the scene. He is also a gifted producer crafting albums for many artists. Finally, he is an exceptional vocalist. From his solo debut 'Restless Heart' back in 1982 through to his highly acclaimed live album of 1997 'Empty Page,' Paul's warm sinuous voice has often caught listeners' attention. Now with a new album 'In The Long Run' on his own Nearfield Records (distributed by ICC) Paul took time out from his busy schedule (he'd just returned from a songwriting jaunt in the USA) to answer some questions about past, present and future.
I began by asking the veteran how he made his first steps into music. "I was brought up in a Christian home where my dad played the organ and ran the choir and my mum led the Sunday school. I started playing guitar when I was about 13, learning by listening to Paul Simon records and trying to copy what he was playing. I guess those records also had a big influence on my songwriting too. I began singing with a couple of girls from the youth club, writing all the songs for us right from the beginning. We began to play in church and gradually started getting invited to other places further a-field. In those days (we're talking early 70s by now) coffee bars were the big thing so there were plenty of opportunities to play."
Nutshell were hugely influential on the British scene. Remembered Paul, "Nutshell was part of a 'pioneering' movement in Christian music in the early 70s (including Parchment, Graham Kendrick, After The Fire, Judy Mackenzie and others) basically the whole notion of contemporary Christian music was still an issue back then, basic things like the use of guitars in church, writing lyrics that weren't specifically religious, etc, etc. I think all those of us who were trying to write and sing about our faith in a contemporary fashion and to be real about the problems of trying to live out a Christian faith in the aftermath of the '60s within the (then) very tight parameters of church life helped to pave the way for the new expressions of faith, particularly in worship that we see happening today."
I grasped the bull by the horns and asked the hard question. Was the effort to "go pop" with Nutshell a mistake? "In a word - yes! It came on the back of two years of work with Cliff Richard as support and backing singers and it seemed right at the time to try and go beyond the Christian 'circuit'. I firmly believe that we need Christian artists, writers and musicians working in the environment of secular music and I thank God for the many committed people who are out there doing it. These days a fair percentage of my work falls outside of the specifically Christian music area but my experience with Nutshell back then just brings home to me that the most important thing is to be in the place that God wants you to be. Without that, our best laid plans are never going to work!"
I asked the singer how he got the big breakthrough in songwriting for others. "I'm not sure there was ever one particular breakthrough song but 'Thief In The Night' recorded by Cliff on 'Now You See Me Now You Don't' in 1982 was the first major cover I had. Lots of smaller cuts followed including quite a few by Dutch and German artists (I was working there quite a lot during the '80s after Nutshell split up). In many ways my biggest breaks as a songwriter have come in the last few years with Cliff's recording of 'All That Matters' on the Diana, Princess of Wales tribute album which sold several million worldwide and then in the States with 'Testify To Love' which was first a hit for Avalon (number one for a record six weeks) and then for Wynnona on the 'Touched By An Angel' soundtrack - the song won a Dove award in 1999 and has now gone well over double platinum sales. More recently of course was the extraordinary and controversial success of 'The Millennium Prayer'."
Paul has been working on musicals for a long time. How did he start in that area? "The musicals I've written have almost all been connected with the work of Rob Frost. The roots of the first one, Daybreak, in 1983 go back again to the church youth club and a musical written for the church one Easter. One of the basic things Rob and I have tried to achieve through most of the musicals is to be able to involve local communities in the productions so that the bringing together of people through rehearsals and the organisation involved in putting on a performance is in many ways more important than the performance itself. Hopes & Dreams from 1999 has had more than 500 local productions over the last 18 months.
"We never anticipated what would happen with 'The Lord's Prayer' from Hopes & Dreams but my wife did suggest at the time that it would make a great Christmas single for Cliff. He sang the vocal on the original version and I suggested it to him (as a songwriter you never pass up an opportunity!) but I heard nothing more until I saw him again at Jill Dando's memorial service in London (where he sang another of my songs 'This Love' requested by Alan Farthing, Jill's fiancé) and he told me he was releasing it for Christmas with the title 'The Millennium Prayer'. The rest, as they say, is history. Through all the controversy and adverse press that raged at the time, I was just thrilled that the words of Jesus were in some way able to reach millions of people at the turn of the millennium."
One of the more unlikely areas of activity for this consummate musician has been his successful children's albums for ICC. How did that begin, I asked. "I wouldn't call it a move into children's songs as such; I've just done two albums of kid's songs so far. The first came out of some songs I wrote for my father-in-law, Ralph Chambers, who used to run the Children's Christian Crusade. It basically developed into an album project 'Pass It On' and a second album 'Fit For Life' followed. I hope to do another next year."
How did Paul feel the new musical Dangerous Journey compares with Hopes & Dreams? "Dangerous Journey is a very different project from Hopes & Dreams. Based on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress it's essentially a play, with songs and music with a total cast of eight actors. It basically tells the timeless story of Bunyan's dream, dealing with the journey into faith that can be just as fragile and perilous today (if not more so) than it was in Bunyan's time."
Paul is today well known on the Nashville CCM scene as a grade A songsmith. How did he break into that notoriously insular enclave? "I first started seriously co-writing songs about six years ago through contacts made by my publisher at that time - Windswept Pacific. They put me together with many notable writers including Albert Hammond ('One Moment In Time', 'Something In The Air' and all the Hollies big hits to name but a few) and Pam Sheyne ('Genie In A Bottle' for Christine Aguilera) and it was a great learning experience for me to work with different writers with very different approaches. Following the success of 'Testify To Love' I signed a new publishing contract with EMI in Nashville and I now go out about four times a year to write. Being put in a room with a complete stranger at 10.00 in the morning to write a song can be a bit daunting at first but as relationships build you hopefully draw the best out of each other and come up with ideas that would probably never have happened if you were working on your own."
Looking back on all your recordings what would you say have been your three best albums? "I think 'Flyaway' (1976) is the definitive Nutshell album in terms of sound and songs. It also marks for me the year I went full time into music and a memorable Greenbelt performance during a 'monsoon'! 'For The World 'One Voice' was the first of three rockier albums I made with a bunch of Dutch and German musicians, great players and great friends and the only period really where I've recorded and toured (mostly in Europe) with a 'full on' eight piece rock band. Inevitably I suppose I'm particularly fond of the new album 'In The Long Run'. Having spent the last three and a half years writing for other people it's been almost a cathartic experience to just write from the heart about the things that matter most to me. I'm very happy with the collection of songs and am really pleased with the sound too. I guess it's a mixture of the Nashville influence and the help of co-producer Dave Lynch."
So, if they are his best recordings, what about Paul's songs for other artists? "Basically I'm always flattered that anyone else wants to record my songs. I like Cliff's recording of 'Thief In The Night' with the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra (David Hewson's arrangement) on 'Dressed For The Occasion'. The two versions of 'Testify To Love' by Avalon and Wynnona are interesting in the way they show how the same song can be treated very differently. Avalon's version on 'A Maze Of Grace' is a great pop production (by Charlie Peacock) and Wynonna's version is pretty raw country with a gospel choir kicking in at the end. 'Merciful' is one of the songs I've written with Rebecca St James this year and is on her current album 'Transform'. It's one of those songs that was written pretty fast and I remember it was the first time I'd been to Rebecca's family home just south of Nashville and ran the gauntlet of various dogs, goats, chickens and assorted wildlife to say nothing of her (I think it's six) younger brothers and sisters. I think the song worked out really well with a great string arrangement and very powerful production from Matt Brunleewee."
Paul enjoyed his songwriting with Rebecca St James. "It's always good to write with the artist as you not only are in touch first hand with the kind of subjects they want to sing about but also the way they use their voice, the kind of melodies they like to sing and the overall vibe they're looking for. Rebecca has pretty clear ideas of what she's looking for and seems to me amazingly mature for her years. I felt that especially when I went to see her in concert in Kentucky recently. I was amazed not only by her consummate performing skills but also her ability as a communicator. She can take an audience from 'on their feet rocking one minute, to 'hear a pin drop' attention the next. Writing with Rebecca is basically a process of throwing ideas at each other, singing things over and over and deciding what works best and then piecing it together."
All his behind-the-scenes activity for CCM's finest, it's heartening that Paul has found the time to return to the studio to record his own album. 'In The Long Run' is his first solo project for over three years. Very much a chronicle of his faith journey over his 25 years in music, it promises to be one of the outstanding releases of the year.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.