Holed up in a Brighton studio, worship leader PAUL OAKLEY spoke at length to Mike Rimmer.
I am at Esselle studios, the same Brighton studio where Fat Boy Slim records his chart topping material. This afternoon though, Paul Oakley and his band have gathered to record a session for my afternoon radio show Rimmerama and I have come to chat to Paul about his excellent new album 'Kiss The River'.
My arrival precipitates a late lunch in the local Meena's cafe who seem to do a roaring trade from bands that use the studio. Discussion ranges from new worship band Heat, Paul's trips to Canada and the busyness of schedules, the merits of the new Viola album, the forthcoming Worship Together conference and Matt Redman's prayer retreat that Paul has just visited. Oh yeah, and psychotic drummers! Paul tells the story of the drummer in his first band at school, a punk band. He knew it was time to get a new drummer when the incumbent of the drum stool decided to smash his kit up with an axe and then chased Paul out of the garage where they were practising! All of this over all day breakfasts.
It's likely that you'll be familiar with Paul Oakley through his work with Re.vive, one of the youth events at the Stoneleigh Bible week captured on a series of what can either be described as raw or ropey live albums! Paul explains, "The main agenda at Re.vive is to meet with God - we're not there to make an album. The Re.vive album is just moments that are captured where we've been worshipping so it's warts and all. It's very raw and a little bit ropey! If you saw the conditions you'd probably see why. We're normally in a cow shed and this year we were in a tin shed, which is really terrible for acoustics!"
Generally though, we shouldn't be too shocked that Paul likes to go for passionate guitar-driven music. His beginnings were with the aforementioned punk band. He remembers, "Music was what I wanted to do with my life, even though I was discouraged to go that way by anyone who had any authority to speak into my life. It's so much what I wanted to do that I just nagged my mates into learning instruments and we just formed a band! We just got on with it. There was quite a major crisis in my life, in a positive sense, when I met God and became a Christian. For a couple of years I laid music down completely, didn't play a single note and sold all my equipment. I had to sort stuff out in my life in terms of priorities."
Eventually when he returned to making music, it was worship music that attracted him. Hadn't he ever thought of forming a straight forward Christian band? "To some extent we are a band -where do you draw the line? The underlying motivation for me now as a writer is that God is all I want to write about. I feel like I've been ruined. Like Isaiah said: 'I've seen the Lord.' What else is there to write about? Nothing compares. Occasionally songs come out of life experience and things you're working through in your life. There are songs on this new album, like 'Cover Me' and 'High Wire'. The main focus of my writing is coming out of my relationship and my walk with God. I've seen God and I don't want to write about anything else. It feels to me - and this may just be a personal thing - that music, as well as being a gift from God, is for him as well. There's almost a sense in which music itself is more fulfilled when it's to him and for him. That's not to say that there isn't a place for entertainment or performance songs because it all points to a creator and brings glory to God. But for me personally I want to write about God because he's totally changed my life."
For those unfamiliar with Paul's music, and if like me you're over 30, you'll think of him as the Paul Weller of worship music. Paul himself prefers more up to date comparisons. "Recently I've been listening to bands like Stereophonics, Supergrass, and Blur who are just developing the same new theme. Guys like Paul Weller and The Jam and going back further, The Beatles, the Stones and The Kinks. It's all just Brit pop really. Bands right through the 70s like The Pretenders and Elvis Costello, who is one of my favourite songwriters, are just part of the same theme. I don't think my influences are hugely intentional - it's just the kind of music I like. It's very accessible with strong, singable melodies with plenty of energy and passion and that's how my album's turned out."
Interestingly enough, the producer of his new album, Alan Shacklock, was responsible for producing some of Paul's favourite albums. People like The Who, The Alarm and Meatloaf are part of Skacklock's legacy. For the last few years Alan has been living in Nashville and Phatfish fans will notice he produced their latest album. Paul knew nothing of Shacklock's conversion and was therefore surprised when Alan appeared on stage at Stoneleigh playing guitar with Stuart Townend! When it came to selecting a producer for 'Kiss The River', he was an obvious choice. Paul explains, "It was a privilege working with Alan. It feels like this whole thing has come full circle. It's like I was saying, when I was into this whole music scene then laid it all down, I totally lost touch with Alan and now he's ended up producing the album."
Paul continues to describe Shacklock's methodology. "He's very releasing. I don't know if he is like that with everyone but he was with us! He told us to play what we were feeling, to play with authority and go with it. He didn't really call the shots. He just fathered it really. He was just there and you felt safe and would say if it was going off course, He really helped me with vocals. He pushed me hard but he got vocals out of me that I haven't sung before. It was good fun and we had a lot of laughs. We had some good times of prayer with him as well."
Back in the Brighton studios after lunch, perhaps prayer is what is needed. The band are trying to record a live version of "I Have Come To Love You". In one room drummer Matt Leach pounds out the driving rhythm with bassist Mark Prentice. In the control room, Paul Burton is twiddling the dials and listening intently as the band record the song. In front of him Paul Oakley and guitarist Martin Cooper are both playing guitar and singing. They come to the end and Paul points out that there were "several major blunders" in the take. They try again, and Paul teases the band, "Who's going to mess it up this time?" They start again and Paul leans into his microphone a little to sing, he jigs up and down, rocking a little to the music and then once more the song grinds to a halt. Time for a cup of tea. Rock'n'roll eh?
Freshly energised the band start again and this time manage to record a couple of versions that they might be happy with. In the control room we all huddle together and Paul Burton plays back their recordings. Still not happy, the solution is to "cheat". This is meant to be a live session but I give Martin Cooper dispensation to overdub some extra guitar to give the song more meat and everyone is happy.
Paul and his band enjoy working together and there is plenty of discussion and creativity in the studio. This perhaps is a little bit of an indication of how the sessions for 'Kiss The River' unfolded. One of the most striking songs on the album was actually written in the studio.
The song was "As I'm Known" and Paul explains how it happened. "It was a bit of a last minute one. I'd had the melody in my head for a number of weeks and was singing something into a Dictaphone on the way up to London one day and I'd been trying to finish it ever since. I found myself doing pre-production and rehearsing the band. We had a break for 15 minutes and I asked if we could just try the song. We started playing and I was just la-lah-ing my way through the melody -I only had three lines of the song ready! But it was such a great vibe that I thought we just had to try and do it. I played it to Alan Shacklock and he wanted to go ahead with it. It was then a race to write all the lyrics before we came to put the vocals down. I was literally writing them half an hour before the vocal session. But I'm so glad it went on as it's one of my favourite tracks on the album. There's something different about it. I wanted to put a sitar on the track but we ran out of time. I felt there was a slightly eastern thing happening."
And when it comes to penning lyrics in half an hour? Paul confesses, "It's like I said earlier, I feel like I've seen the Lord and it's ruined my life in a positive way and that's all I want to write about. The song's about a desperate desire to know him more and to be in that place before the throne to see him in all his glory."
When it comes to lyrical inspiration, sometimes it's the Dictaphone that helps the process along as Paul gets inspiration and then sometimes Paul just dreams up ideas. Literally. The concept for "High Wire" came to Paul in a dream. He remembers, "I've been co writing with my guitarist Martin Cooper. Melodically he kicked off this idea and we were playing around with it for a few hours then went home for the evening with it unfinished. I went to bed that night and had this dream. In the dream I was at a circus and was looking up incredibly high up at this tightrope and there was no safety net. Suddenly, as it happens in dreams, I was the guy up on the wire. I was looking down thinking this was crazy then I looked along the wire and Jesus was standing on the other side with his arms outstretched just saying 'Come'. That's all the dream was but it was a vulnerability I felt up there. I wanted to come to Jesus but there was nothing to catch me if I fell, so how do I do it? It left me with a sense of vulnerability and stepping out in faith and how applicable that is to so many things in life."
Like perhaps releasing a new album? Though listening to 'Kiss The River', it is definitely his best recording yet. Paul remembers the sessions. "Somebody said that making an album is like having a baby - although I've never personally given birth! It's exhilarating, exciting, quite draining and emotionally like a roller coaster. You're investing so much of your own personal thoughts, ideas and emotional input into it. There's the element of trusting the producer (the midwife?) of taking care of it. It's an exhausting process and you're putting everything into it. You have moments when you think 'What are they doing to my song?' then it turns out actually to be better than you imagined it would be. It's a full-on experience. I don't know if it's what everybody goes through but it's what I go through. It also tests your relationships - you're locked in this little room with four or five people and it can be a testing time."
In the midst of the challenges, Oakley has managed to produce an album that manages to match creativity, musical inventiveness and a heart of worship to make something that inspires. He shares, "I've got a lot of fond memories of making this album. We had a lot of fun and some really good times of worship as well. I really felt the nearness of God, especially when I was doing some of the vocal sessions. I asked God to help me worship. I was trying to get a good vocal, but I was really just trying to worship and I encountered God in a fresh way."
If making an album is like having a baby, is Paul Oakley a proud father now that it's
released? "I think so. I'm very pleased with it and it's basically
true to where I've been over the last two years or so. Musically it
feels like it's what I imagined it to sound like. But already I've
started to write some more and it's changing a bit. I don't know where
it's going but the next album might sound totally different again, but
I'm happy with that."