In the first of our Mick Dillingham Interviews, Mick talks to Paul Sumner about Sumner's That Ladybird Summer album. Since we returned to Public View, the Sumner album has been the most viewed post on I Don't Hear A Single.
What a total delight Paul Sumner’s seemingly out of the blue new album “That Ladybird Summer” is. A beautifully crafted pastoral jewel of “as English as tuppence” psychedelic pop, chock full of great songs. Sublime melodies that lift the heart and please the ears with the abundant treasures it contains.
Don has already waxed lyrically about this fine album here and I agree with every word of praise he has generously heaped upon it so far. We thought the time was ripe to sit down with the modest creator of this brilliant music. In what turned out to be his first ever interview, we find out from the man behind the curtain himself just how this magic came about. First up though here’s an exclusive, the unused introduction page to the new album that Paul kindly shared with us, then on to the excellent interview itself.
So when did you first become aware of music?
Paul, “I grew up, the second youngest of eight children, in a three bed council house in Crossens, a small village in Southport in the North West of England. Thinking back there always seemed to be music playing. I've got six sisters and a brother. My brother was into soul, a couple of my sisters were mods and my twin sisters were sort of hippies. My Mum was mad on jumble sales. She would've loved charity shops and car boot sales.
In fact, you probably won't believe this but some of my happiest times were spent down the land fill site wading through mountains of shite looking for broken toys. My Mum loved music as well. I remember she bought a big old Radiogram, second hand, from the money lender, Mr Bevin. It was a Dynatron, a bloody beauty.
I clearly remember one of my twin sisters, June buying a K-Tel album and hearing "Say You Don't Mind" and just being almost hypnotised by it. That voice and melody and those strings! I used to pester her to play "Life's Been Good To Me" by Frank Sinatra over and over and over. I loved the tempo of the song, the story and the way it made me feel, even though I didn't really understand its whole premise.
My best mate Stephen was a drummer, his dad was a drummer and so was his brother. His bedroom had a drum kit in it and an upright piano. It's quite sad to me, looking back, that I had this music that was trying to get free from me,but I'd be sort of frozen inside, afraid to make some sort of move towards it. Steve was in various bands and I'd sit in the corner of the bedroom watching them rehearse. They'd get stuck on some part of a song they were making up and I'd know inside what should be happening, but was unable to convey it. No confidence I guess.
In the Christmas of 76, I got Abbey Road and Sgt Pepper. Still got ‘em, with the Woolies pencil dates that they used to write inside the sleeve. I'd become interested in The Beatles for a couple of years before because my Mum had an album, "The Stars Sing The Beatles". Bernard Cribbins, Cilla, Kenny Lynch and a few others.
I started playing guitar a bit in my mid 20s, trying to learn a few chords, as you do. Then I remember thinking up some melodies and trying to fit them around the songs. I guess that was sort of the beginning song wise.”
Can you tell us about the first album “A World of Horses”
Paul “In the early 90’s me and a childhood mate, H Ryding, had the idea to start a pop art band called The Trayns. We'd already recorded some demos at a couple of small studios and heard of Mark Wainwright’s studio Aliensound in Lancashire, about 30 minutes away from Liverpool, via a family member. We recorded a couple of tunes and things were going tickety boo and then we had one of those silly fall-outs over nothing, if my memory serves me. Anyway, I found myself alone with a bunch of tunes, so I decided to brave it and carry on regardless.
By then I'd written a whole bunch of songs that seemed to fall into two camps. There was a group of songs that appeared to be about my childhood and another group. As for the time period involved in writing all those songs, it was so long ago that I'm struggling to remember to be honest. I just remember songs almost pouring out of me. They always seemed to happen very fast. Just strumming a few chords, maybe try something different. Then bang something would just happen, usually words and music together, or sometimes I'd be at work and I'd suddenly get a melody.
I've about eight old mobile phones full of stuff. Most of it probably tripe, but there might be some good ones in there. When it came to the sessions with Mark Wainwright. I remember us recording "Let's Go and Play" but something just didn't feel right about the sound or something. So I jettisoned the childhood album to return to at a later date and started working on what would eventually be my first album “A World of Horses”
I didn't think they'd be rolling around my head for such a long time. The sessions were difficult mostly down to me being a bag of nerves, I should say. Just building up confidence, whilst being in the company of proper musicians was a bloody big struggle in the beginning. Mark is a very laid back chap, very patient and easy going. I was so nervous that all of the vocals are first takes. “Maybe It's You” should've been re recorded because there was only actually the guitar mic working.
But seeing as I was playing and singing at the same time, I didn't think I had the confidence to do it again, so I just left it. One bit that makes me laugh listening back is during “Golden Sun”. If you listen closely there's a distinct difference in the vocal between verses. Due to the fact that there's over a years gap, or maybe more. Another meltdown!”
So then a few years later you headed over to Sweden for some new recording.
Paul. “The whole production process always intrigued me, probably from scanning the covers of Abbey Rd and Sgt Pepper and seeing produced by George Martin. Then becoming aware of Spector, Joe Meek, Nitzsche, Eno, etc. I really wanted to try and work with a producer. See what could happen?
This was during the MySpace days and I stumbled across this Swedish chap called Mattias Olsson. He is an incredibly gifted musician and producer, so I saved up another wedge of dosh and flew out to Stockholm and onto the Roth Händle Studio. I like writing for a deadline… well I used to. I booked the tickets to Sweden. About 2 or 3 days before, almost panicking, I picked up the guitar and wrote about four new songs. I haven't heard them in a while but I remember being pleased with them although they're still unfinished really.
We worked on several tracks over two separate trips, but yes, you guessed it, I had the inevitable falling apart routine. There's definitely that Swedish feel to them, and a more pronounced percussion and wired electronic vibe.
There's one called "Softly Fall The Tears From Your Eyes" that Mattias's wife Åsa Carild came and sang backing vocals on. They were in a quite famous early 90s Swedish band together called Pineforest Crunch. It has a sort of Andy Williams/Bond theme to it, I always thought, but with that cold Swedish vibe again.
I definitely need to finish them and maybe put a mini album together. I could call it Stockholm. Working with Mattias was a totally different experience. A completely new set of rules entirely. Not better, just very, very different. He had an incredible studio filled with wonderful instruments, Claviolines, Pipe Organs, Mellotrons, Celesta, etc.”
And now we reach the new album “That Ladybird Summer.”
Paul. “Working with Mark Wainwright became easier and easier over the years and so “That Ladybird Summer” was a different experience from the first one. Although both albums had massive gaps of time in between sessions, generally due to mental health problems. I had meltdowns during both of them. Bloody awful. I'm hoping that I might've finally worked my way through some stuff with the release of this one. I seem to feel a bit lighter.
The time taken between albums wasn't actually meant to be so long. We probably started work on this current album about 3 or 4 years ago with the intention of completing it pretty sharpish. Like I said earlier, these particular songs and album idea had been written ages ago.
My initial idea was to try and recreate a single day from my childhood. From the first sounds I heard, usually birdsong and the milkman, to coming home from playing out. I liked the idea of a Sunday, because my Uncle Burt and Auntie Pat always popped round on a Sunday and Mum had surreptitiously recorded just a visit. I even had a song about a Sunday Roast dinner called "The Traditional Roast" but as the album began to evolve, then it changed subtly here and there and that song got dropped.
The most difficult part for me was actually revisiting these old songs and trying to sing and play them with the same mindset and exuberance. I wasn't the same chap anymore and I didn't want to sound fake if that makes any sense? Getting James Hoy in to do the drums on “Barney’s Farm” and “Let's Go and Play” was a lovely moment for me. Hearing James's drumming skipping along was just perfect, I thought. We then had a break in recording, this time mostly because my dear old Dad got really poorly and we all looked after him for just over a year.
When we eventually started work again, Mark and I both realised that strings would be a great idea, so we hunted down a fine violinist from St Petersburg in Russia, Maria Grigoryeva and a fine Cellist from Los Angeles, Luke Janela and with the wonders of modern technology, hey presto!
I also decided to get in touch with Mattias Olsson again to see if he fancied adding some instrumentation to some tracks and he kindly agreed. But I thought there was still something missing, but wasn't sure what? One night, whilst drinking far too much red wine, I had a thought. I wondered if Dave Gregory would agree to playing on a couple of songs? Hic! Anyway, I sent an email, not really thinking for one second that Dave would agree. Well, he did. So the tracks were sent to him and back they came. I can remember hearing them for the first time. It was a bit like opening a present at Christmas. I still pinch myself. He was such a gent.
The only song I remember trying something a bit different with was “Barney’s Farm”. Trying to bring together some different threads, all from the same village theme. I've still got the original idea somewhere on a cassette. It's interesting listening back and hearing things falling into place. I don't really understand too much, but I sort of like that kind of naive approach… well, it's the only one I've got! I love that whole accident thing and texture.
When we moved house in 1994, I was emptying the loft and I found an old reel to reel tape recorder in a box. The tape recorder itself was knackered and I didn't have another reel to reel, still don't in fact. So the chap at the studio transferred the old tape contents onto a normal cassette tape for me. It was so incredible pressing the play button and hearing my Mum's voice coming out. She passed away from lung cancer in 82. Anyway, unbeknown to us all, she'd taped whole chunks of our childhood, conversations and family life. There's some of it on Barney’s Farm. I love that. My mate said when he first heard the song that it's a ghost story and I'd never really thought of that before, but in a way he's right. It's a strange old journey mate.”
And what could be next?
Paul. “There were at least five songs that didn't make it to the finished Ladybird Summer. Like I said earlier I'd written one called "The Traditional Roast". We tried to get a "Making Plans for Nigel" feel to the drum bit. I remember that was with Terry Shaughnessy. Then another called "Terry Stone" which was a bit punky, about a lad from the village. There was one called "Medicine Time", which was about a lady in an abusive marriage. In the end, although I really liked all of them, they just didn't jell.
I'm a bit obsessive about track listing and order and the overall feel of an album. I'm an album nut really, very old school. I always think in terms of an album. It probably goes back to those first two Beatles albums I got for crimbo. Just the potential for creativity within the concept of an album, I love it. I'd also written another longish song for Ladybird, called "The Dead Captains Engine". That didn't make it to the cut either. Same with the first album, I left quite a number off that. Maybe I could do a Ladybird 2
I guess I'm still that kid sat in front of that big old Dynatron, falling in love with a song and that mystery of an inexplicable connection to something deep within us. It used to be like oxygen to me and it still occasionally is.”