Saturday, August 21, 2010

Interview with Michael Paynter

by Alexander Nagorski

Michael Paynter is a rare breed when it comes to contemporary pop stars. When he first appeared on the Australian music scene a few years ago, it was evident that this was a man with an indescribable musical gift. With a heart-shatteringly gorgeous tenor voice that is rivaled by very few, and the ability to play the 88 keys of a piano like you’ve never heard the instrument played before, Paynter is the real deal. A musical prodigy of various sorts, he released his new EP Love The Fall earlier this summer. Already a smash success in his homeland and climbing the charts worldwide, the EP serves as an appetizer to his much anticipated debut full-length album. It also features the eponymous lead single, with contributing vocals by fellow Australian superstar pop act The Veronicas. Calling in via Skype from his home Down Under, Paynter chatted with me about the EP, the upcoming album, breaking America and of course … Justin Bieber.


AN: The first song of yours I ever heard was “Novocaine,” which I saw you playing on YouTube about a year ago.

MP: What’s funny about that song is that originally it was not meant to be on an album. Then I put that song on YouTube and I ended up singing it with Lisa and Jess (The Veronicas) and experienced how much people liked it so I thought “I’m going to have to put this out on the next EP or album or else I’m going to get chased down and mugged in the park.


AN: The week after its release, “Love The Fall” quickly became the most added song to Australian radio and continues to climb the charts. The music video for it has also ranked highly on YouTube in countries like the UK, Italy, Canada, and Mexico. How has this rapid success changed your life in the past month?

MP: It hasn’t really changed my life yet. It was the #1 most added song to radio and it’s the #6 most played song on the radio right now here, which is HUGE considering the rest of the chart consists of people like Taio Cruz and Katy Perry. I think what has changed is that people are finally appreciating and enjoying my music, and I’m really liking being able to say to people “Yes, I’m a singer, I’ve got something coming out soon and you’ll be able to get it in on MySpace.” It’s good to have people recognize the song and like it. It’s a different thing when you’re making music when people really want you to succeed and are behind you than when you’re making music and nobody really cares about it. It’s also nice to finally have some recognition and a bit of a pay-off for all the years of hard work.


AN: Are you planning on releasing a full-length album in the near future?

MP: Yeah. I’m going to release another single from this EP and then recording the next seven songs for the album. I’m finishing recording the album between here and Los Angeles and squeezing as much in as I can while I’m promoting and touring. I’m hoping to be finished up in a couple of weeks and then we’ll see what happens from there on.


AN: So on this album you’ll be including the songs from the EP rather than doing a completely brand new tracklisting, right?

MP: Yeah. I think the EP (and whether there’s another EP after this) is more just a strategy for not wasting any more time. I made my first record two-and-a-half years ago and it never got released, so I’ve been working my ass off ever since. But I thought that instead of waiting another six months to get all the mastered and finished tracks, I would release this EP to get the music out to people as quickly as possible.


AN: “Love The Fall” features guest vocals by your close friends Lisa and Jess, more commonly referred to as The Veronicas. Could you please talk to me a little bit about how you all met and became friends, and why you asked them specifically to sing on the track?

MP: Well we have a foundation here (in Australia) called ARIA. I’m not sure what the American equivalent is – it might be Billboard? The one that controls all the charts. Every year there’s an award ceremony called the ARIA Number Ones, which is kind of our version of your Grammys. The ARIA Number Ones just invites record company people and all the artists who have had number one singles or albums from the past year. I sung there three years ago and Lisa and Jess were there for “Untouched.” They came up to me afterwards and we started to chat backstage. I also spent eighteen months after overseas, mostly in L.A. but also in London and New York, so every time I was in those places we ended up catching up and getting together. We have really, really similar tastes in music and hit it off really well. I started singing on their tours while they were out there and so when it came to recording, we would send each other demos of new songs we were writing. I sent “Love The Fall” to Lisa about a year ago and she really loved it. When it came time to making the real version of it for the EP, I said “would you like to sing it?” and she said she’d love to and then got Jess involved and that sort of spiraled into them also being in the video.


AN: Is there any one song in particular off of the EP that you have the deepest connection to? In other words, out of the five tracks, which one could you play everyday for the rest of your life and never get tired of?

MP: That’s a question of the heart! I think my proudest moment as a songwriter so far would have to be the second track, “Are You Alive”. I’m very passionate about making music about things other than “baby, are you down, down, down” or “tonight, I’m at the party and baby you got some boobies like wow.” While there’s a place for that music and it does serve a purpose, my calling as a musician is probably to make music encouraging to live a great life. I’ve seen so many people going through their lives just playing it safe and getting by just being comfortable. Yeah, you might be able to pay the bills and buy a house, the kids might go to private school, but they never take any risks and would rather just do what they have to in order to get by easily from day to day and I think that’s a really sad, waste of life. I wrote “Are You Alive” to hopefully encourage people to question themselves. I think that’s a song that I wrote that hopefully I could take to the grave and be proud of. I hope so at least. Talk to me in ten years and hopefully I’ll feel the same (laughs).


AN: How will American audiences be able to access your music? Are you planning on releasing the EP or touring here?

MP: Yes, definitely. I’m coming over early next year to do some showcases for some labels, just off the back of the success of the “Love The Fall” single. I also spend a lot of time in America – I’ve got a lot of friends there as well as some industry people who are pretty keen on bringing me over. Before I do that though, I have to really get it off the ground here first. I’ve got a whole bunch of tours coming up at the end of the year in places like New Zealand. In terms of the EP being released, technically that’s a decision only iTunes can make for themselves. So far, in addition to Australia and New Zealand, iTunes in Brazil, France, Italy, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, Hong Kong, and the UK have already added it to their stores which is great, but America is still holding out so all I can really do is wait and hope.


AN: You mentioned that you’re in the U.S. a lot. What’s your favorite place here to visit?

MP: To be honest, mate, my manager, Paul, was actually the guitar player for two Australian bands: The Little River Band and Icehouse, both of which were pretty big, one in the 70’s and one in the 80’s. So he’s toured America many, many, many times and he’s told me all these fantastic stories about all these great little places in the mid-west. But I’ve only been to Chicago, Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles. Out of those, at the risk of sounding excessively diplomatic, definitely New York would be my favorite. I was only there for a week, unfortunately, but as you well know, it is possibly the only city in the world that has lived up and exceeded the hype from the very first time you land there. I really love London, it’s one of my favorite cities, and I really love L.A. now, but it took me a long time. L.A. I love for the people – I have friends there and have formed a little life. But the city is nothing like New York! I’ve never experienced a literal buzz in the buildings like in New York. It’s literally like the place is alive and not just because of the sickening amounts of lights in Times Square. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Greenwich Village or just a back alley somewhere, you’ll find a beautiful Italian cafĂ©. It actually reminds me a lot of Melbourne, but much, much cooler. I’d love to New York one day. If I could afford an apartment there, that would be amazing.


AN: You cite various influences as having shaped your musical interest, ranging from Nirvana to Eva Cassidy. While writing this EP, which musicians were you listening to the most?

MP: You’ve probably asked about five questions in a row that nobody’s asked me, and I’ve been doing non-stop interviews for the past month, so well done! Maybe it’s because you’re from a different country. I’m enjoying it.

AN: Well thank you, I am as well!

MP: One of my top five, in terms of influences, is The Script. I also love Muddy Waters, John Mayer, Elvis, Sting, and maybe U2. Sting is probably up there as number one or two for me in terms of melody and songwriting. The Script is also hugely influenced by Sting – that guy sounds so much like Sting it’s ridiculous. I was listening to their album pretty passionately for a couple of years, which I think you can hear in tracks like “Icarus” and to a lesser extent in “Lay My Armour Down.” I’ve also been listening to a lot of David Gray. He has a beautiful album called White Ladder, which is a 90’s album with fantastic programming on it. It’s not like modern Timbaland programming, which a lot of people seem to be doing now, but it’s almost like an organic programming. I know that seems like an oxymoron, but it kind of just stretched my brain a bit when I was producing my music and thinking of how I could do things differently. I think the combination of White Ladder and Keane’s Hopes and Fears and The Script were my biggest inspirations for this record. I know this is also a little out of left field, but I’ve also been listening a lot to Linkin Park’s album Meteora, the one with “Easier To Run” and “Breaking The Habit”. I just reckon that’s a fantastic record. That guy has such an incredible voice and I don’t think he gets enough credit for being a great singer.


AN: I completely agree. Your music has been featured on numerous television shows such as “Heroes” and “Lost.” Is it strange for you to hear your music applied to stories and narratives that are so far removed from your songwriting process?

MP: It’s a little strange at the start. But it’s also quite thrilling. As a songwriter, you try to lock into a story, whatever that story may be, and try to convey it … unless you’re Justin Bieber. When other people take your story, like the people who produce these shows, and fit it in with their stories, it becomes very cool to see how someone else reads your songs. How they cut the song and what parts of it they choose to play implies a certain interpretation of your lyrics. It’s very exciting and a big honor when that happens too because there are a million songs they could choose.


AN: You play a ton of instruments, including the piano, guitar, and drums. Out of all of these, which medium do you tend to write songs on first, and why?

MP: That would probably be split between guitar and piano. I would say for the most part, more the guitar – but I also have quite a short attention span when I’m writing, so if I get bored of my guitar, I’ll try to switch to piano. Developing these sounds on different instruments though is immediately different. I think that’s pretty common though – most songwriters I know or have worked with have a similar process. More recently, I’ve been working a lot on the computer and recording and writing as I’m going. Because instead of having four chords and a melody to start with, you can have a great drumbeat, some wicked samples and some synths in there. Put that on loop and that takes you to a whole new place. So like I said, it’s mostly on the guitar but I’m really enjoying beginning to explore the other ways as well.


AN: Critics have often written that your immense vocal range constitutes you as a “freak of nature.” With all the performing that you do, what steps do you take to keep your voice healthy?

MP: I’m not a big party animal. I mean, I have my moments, don’t worry about that. But because I am a singer, when I’m on tour that’s my main focus. I think nowadays so many people who are trying to do what I do are wasting opportunities by trashing themselves and not being able to sing the next day. I tend to get as much sleep as I can. I know it sounds really boring but really the thing that repairs your voice better than anything else is sleep and water. And I’m a singing teacher, so I know this because I do this for a living: you really just cannot beat sleep and water. They’re the two most important things. I don’t take any drugs, I don’t drink a lot. When you’re on tour, it’s a job. For me, the excitement and the rush comes from being on stage and being able to sing, rather than being stuck at some nightclub on a sticky floor at 3 a.m. I’d rather be in my pajamas in my hotel room watching T.V. and eating a burger.


AN: You did a residency at a venue called The Revolver. As a performer, what do you feel are the biggest differences between touring from place to place versus playing the in same space on a consistent basis?

MP: I played eight shows at The Revolver and I think six of them were sold out. I didn’t expect that at all so that was a really big compliment for me. I was very humbled by the support I got there. The Revolver has a reputation of being one of the best live music venues in the world and from my experience, I’d probably say it’s the very best. It was a big honor to play there. With a consistent gig like that, you really get to know the sound system, the crew, and the managers. And if you play a residency (and you’re good), word spreads. The fans get comfortable with the venue too. For instance, they get to know the restaurants in the area and go to their favorite for dinner before the show. I had people who by the eighth show were bringing thirteen people with them.


AN: Your lyrics are often extremely personal. Are you ever afraid that you may be revealing too much through your music?

MP: No, I don’t think that’s possible. My job as a songwriter is just to be as honest as I can. I think people are really smart nowadays and can see through a lot so I don’t think you can get much past them. I find that some of my best songs are when I really tap into something that I’m feeling, whatever that may be, and just express it honestly without any second thoughts. Because if you start to second-guess or mask what you’re writing to appease someone, you’ve automatically taken a step backwards from truth. That’s what I love about musicians like Jeff Buckley. When you see him play, it’s just so raw and you think to yourself “I cannot believe I’m witnessing this. This guy’s heart is literally breaking in front of me on stage.” I think that still, even after all the technology that’s out there, it’s music like that which truly moves people and stands out above the rest.


AN: In an ideal world, if you could co-headline a tour with any musician currently out there, who would it be and why?

MP: This is a very, very difficult. I think for sheer numbers, being Pink’s support would be pretty rad. If I really had a choice though, it would probably be The Script. I think they’re one of my favorite bands, especially of the last decade. I think “Breakeven” is possibly the greatest pop song that’s been written in a very, very long time. It’s just one of those lyrically genius and melodically outstanding songs. I think it was either Rob Thomas or John Mayer who tweeted once “every songwriter in the world right now is trying to beat ‘Breakeven.’ Give up, it’s not going to happen.” Playing on a tour with them would be amazing, and I think also that their approach to their music is similar to mine, so hopefully their fans would connect with my music too.


AN: With the release of this EP you’re launching onto the platforms of international stardom. Five years from now, where would you ideally see yourself?

MP: I hope in five years I’ll have my fifth album out. I’d love to be twice as good a musician as I am now, maybe five times as good if I’m lucky. I want to be a much better singer and have a much bigger repertoire of great songs. I would love to have toured the world, which of course everyone dreams of doing. Really though I would hope that I would still have people who would want to hear music and would support it. Hopefully I’ll still be enjoying the ride and will be the same person. So Alex, if you read in five years that I’m partying every night while on tour, you can call me and say, “you’ve changed pal.”


Watch Michael Paynter and The Veronicas perform "Novocaine" live at The Revolver: