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Having released his debut album to little recognition at home in Ireland. Perry Blake's career unexpectedly gathered momentum in continental Europe. Whilst he remains little more than a cult figure in his native land. These days in France it's all deification by La Monde, movie soundtracks and policy debate with the Culture Minister. "Part of me is thinking, oh fuck I hope it doesn't do a David Gray" Perry Blake.
Kim Porcelli, 06 Oct 2003
About nine years ago, in a vastly different version of Dublin, there was a sweet, rough-and-ready, hilarious 24-hour cabaret called Mr Pussy’s Café De Luxe. In amongst the jugglers and the fire-eaters, the transvestite barbershop quartets and the David Blaine manqués, the drag-queen bingo and the Eurovision karaoke, there was exactly one ‘proper’ artist, whom, you felt, simultaneously did and did not belong there.
A smallish, quiet, eternally besuited man, he was always perfectly turned out, in immaculate tweed or spotless gabardine, usually with a cravat in a tastefully provocative contrasting colour: a flashing canary yellow, a mulled-wine burgundy. He would sing, unaccompanied, over backing tracks that walked the line between torch-song and trip-hop – every song a tale of disastrous romantic denouement, isolation, regret – his consumptive, jaded murmur the midway point between David Bowie and Neil Hannon. As he performed, he would move, veeery slowly, striking poses, forming a series of one-man tableaux of despair: the effect was of Scott Walker performing kabuki theatre. It was a little pretentious, a lot audacious, unlike anything I’d seen before – and pretty great.
His name, at the time, was Perry Coma – an ironic handle that belied the seriousness of his music, not to mention the gravity with which he very clearly took it. Before that, back in Sligo, where he came from, he was Kieran Gorman. But – as thousands of continental music fans will tell you – he is certainly Perry Blake now.
“Sometimes in France it gets a little too intense,” Perry Blake is musing. “I was brought to a radio station in Paris one day, during the French elections – and the French culture minister and a couple of other politicians were there. I didn’t realise at first – I thought they looked familiar, I’d seen them on TV and stuff – and I was thinking: Why have they got an Irish songwriter here, asking me, through an interpreter, about French politics? I’m a singer songwriter. You know? I mean, I read the newspapers, and I’m aware of what’s going on, but what relevance has my opinion to anything?” He shrugs. It’s what can only be described as a terribly urbane, French shrug. “Really,” he scoffs. Then he pauses. “But they take artists much more seriously in France. Sometimes too seriously.”
Perry Blake, in 2003, is remarkably unchanged. As before, he has the tiniest dot of a goatee, as well as a twinset of those permanently cocked, angular eyebrows that, strangely, seem to grow naturally on the foreheads of musicians of a certain, darker-than-average disposition: Nick Cave, Jack L, Andy Cairns. Nowadays, however, in addition to the spotless suitjacket and matching waistcoat, there are tiny clues as to how successful he has become: handsome shoes, an expensive-looking watch.
The main difference, though, is a quiet confidence. This may have something to do with the fact that despite being unknown in Ireland and the UK, and having not even had a record deal in either territory for most of his career, Perry Blake is among the more successful and respected alternative artists currently working on the continent – particularly in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium – and has all but been adopted by France, where he is held in almost unimaginably high regard. This autumn, however, finally sees the release of a new Perry Blake record in Ireland and the UK: California, his third studio album. It was released on the continent in 2002.
This re-debut in his home country has been a long time coming, to say the least. Having left Ireland at 18, Blake spent most of his twenties living on and off in London, “kind of getting my stuff together, musically,” and doing odd jobs in the film and music industries. Meanwhile, he says, “my mother used to send me little brown envelopes, like a Fianna Fail minister, every month or so – she’d bail me out, behind my father’s back. Because it was slightly frowned upon. Pursuing music was seen as saying, ‘Mummy, I want to be an itinerant.’
“The only live shows I did [at the time] were in Mr Pussy’s Café De Luxe,” he says. “It was a wonderful place. I have no connection with U2 or any of that stuff, but Bono’s brother was the co-owner – Norman, a very sweet man – and he used to give me a call, going (gruff nort’soide accent) ‘Yeah, Perry, bud, there’s eh, someone from Island’ll be in today,’ and I would go in and do a few songs. And eventually someone at Polydor UK heard about me through someone at Island, and they came and saw me there, and signed me the following summer – June 95, I think it was.
“Actually,” Perry says impishly, “PolyGram in Ireland at the time sent me a rejection letter, six months after their bosses in London had signed me. ‘We feel your music is not suitable for any market,’ was, I seem to recall, the general gist.” He looks at me significantly from beneath his right-angle eyebrows. ‘We did inform them of the situation,” he adds, “and they apologised and offered to take us to dinner.” He smiles. “But we declined.”
Perry Blake, his debut album, appeared in 1998. “It was released in the UK, Ireland and France, the same week,” says Perry. “And it got lukewarm reviews here [in Ireland] – no radio exposure, nothing. But it got excellent reviews in the UK. I was getting Single of the Week, Album of the Month, in Q, Mojo, the lot. Everybody was saying, ‘Perry! You’re going to sell a million records!’”
Indeed, this music listener vaguely remembers events to that effect, shortly before Perry Blake temporarily dropped off the Hiberno-pop radar: sure enough, my old, review-stickered copy of Perry Blake reads extremely positively. “Scott Walker meets Bowie circa Low, to a backdrop of Nyman strings” (Stuff). “Like Portishead and Talk Talk” (Mojo). “A string-strewn bittersweet symphony” (Vox). “Wonderfully romantic and forlorn ballads cushioned by subtle beats and loops… The best debut in ages” (Uncut). “Yes. Unfortunately however,” says Perry, “it didn’t actually sell.”
Then, the multinationals-will-eat-themselves feeding frenzy of the late Nineties happened – and so it was that he found himself without a deal in Ireland and the UK. “But fortunately, the same week it had come out in the UK, it went Top 30 in France. And that sorted me out for Europe,” he finishes, in a moment of rather spectacular understatement.
It’s hard to get one’s head around exactly how “big in Europe” Perry Blake is – not least because much of the press information available about him is not in English, and your correspondent is embarrassingly monolingual. Here, however, are some adjectives from his French press cuttings. Melancholic. Exquisite. Elegant. Rapturous. France, declared French magazine Magic! in 2002, is Blake’s “new home country” – and “Indeed, how could it be otherwise, because France has always been a fan of soft voices, romantic atmospheres and lovelorn stories?” Elsewhere in the article, his third album, California – the one soon to be released here – is described as “owing its soul to Marvin Gaye”, while remaining “as stern and sombre as Leonard Cohen”. Elsewhere again: “He has the voice of Scott Walker, and the grace of Kate Bush – both of whom could have been his parents.”
In any case, his European career has certainly been prolific. He’s released three studio albums and a live album (Broken Statues, recorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra) since 1998. He has befriended, and recorded a single with, Françoise Hardy, a iconic and beloved singer in the chanson style – which, in France, represents a mark of critical kudos and generational baton-passing not a million miles away from the friendships between Christy Moore and Glen Hansard, or Sinéad O’Connor and Damien Dempsey. And he has scored a feature film: Presque Rien, the debut by French realisateur Sebastien Lifshitz.
“In Presque Rien, the main character is asking himself many questions, about what it is to be a man,” says Lifshitz. “And in Perry’s music, I felt a lot of things like that – songs about loneliness, and lust, and solitude, and the difficulties to be with someone else, to link between people. You understand? So I called him. He went on the set, and we became friends. And I liked very much his sensitivity, and his character. He is very shy,” he comments. “He’s not at all a pop star.” Whereabouts, we wonder, relative to other bands, would Perry Blake fit into the French pop cosmos? We drop some names. “Tindersticks? Ah yes, he is that big,” says Sebastien. “Nick Cave, Portishead, yes. He is nearly as big as Van Morrison here.”
It is at this point that we decide to phone France.
“Tu connais un chanteur qui s’appelle Perry Blake?” my friend Nathalie, a Frenchwoman, is saying into the phone. There is a pause. She turns to me. “Non,” she reports. “She hasn’t heard of him.” She says something else in French, then: “She has heard of Nick Cave, though.” Aha, so Perry Blake doesn’t out-Nick Nick in France after all. It may however be relevant to mention at this point that Nathalie is in fact speaking to her mother, which means (a) it’s fair enough that she hasn’t heard of Perry, given that (b) we are too busy being impressed that maman knows who Nick is. France, it seems, is a foreign country in more ways than one.
Next. Test subject number two works in an independent record shop. Has he heard of Perry Blake? “’Oui, bien sur,’” Nathalie says. “‘Yes, of course’.” Result! Is he bigger than Nick Cave? “About the same.” About the same profile level as Nick Cave! We thought he was more on the Tindersticks sort of level? “No, he’s bigger than Tindersticks.” He’s also much more heavily promoted than the ‘Sticks, we’re told – interesting, as the two bands are on the same label, Naïve, in France. Is he really nearly as big as Van Morrison? Nathalie translates, listens, then laughs her head off. She turns to me. “C’est ridicule. He says it’s ridiculous to even suggest that.”
Our final test subject is a common-or-garden music fan. She certainly knows Tindersticks and Nick Cave, and has heard of Perry Blake, but hasn’t heard his music. “She thinks she remembers reading about him in [rather highbrow music-film-and-pop-culture fortnightly] Les Inrockuptibles.” Indeed, she almost definitely has: we’ve got the clippings here to prove it.
Make of our (deeply unrepresentative) poll what you will: but ultimately, the way to understand exactly how big Perry Blake is on the continent, and in particular in France, is to witness the extraordinary reaction to the 2002 release of California: a mixture of rapturous reviews and protesting dismay, the sound of fans and critics loving things too much, taking things slightly too personally.
California is a concept album about the American dream, written from the perspective of two characters who (like Blake himself) have never been to California. More significantly, it marks a significant move away from his signature beats-strings-and-sleepless-nights sound, toward a sunnier, sleeker, Marvin Gaye-meets-Bacharach pop amalgam. “I suppose part of the reason I wanted a change, musically, was, I was being seen in Europe as very much a kind of Nick Drake, Nick Cave character,” Perry says. “And it was just too clichéd. I was viewed as this… dark… melancholic… tortured soul. And it was getting ridiculous. People interviewing me, would be like… taking me aside, wondering how I was.”
“California, for me, is a strange album, you know,” says Sebastien Lifshitz, a little sadly. “It’s more commercial than the others. In the first and second album, you can feel more of the real Perry.” He pauses, and then adds: “It is still excellent, of course.”
“I mean, it was very well received in France,” Perry is saying. “Apart from the French daily, Liberation – who I suppose along with Le Monde, would have been my biggest fans, among the mainstream papers. Liberation actually had a full page, talking about how I was a traitor, and how this album was… just far, far too pop, and how I should go back to what I do best.” He pauses, and grins widely. “I was kind of flattered. My record company, of course, were completely overjoyed. They went, ‘Excellent! It’s gonna sell!’”
A whole year having elapsed since California’s European release, of course, Blake is now in the unenviable position of having to promote one album while working on another. “I’m actually heading away in two weeks to finish the next album,” he murmurs excitedly. “It’s fully written. I’ve already half recorded it.” But what of the big question: how does it feel to be releasing records in Ireland again?
He sidesteps the question, neither wishing to admit to being nervous, nor to claim not to care. Instead, he answers at length about how it would complicate matters if things went too well in the US, where it is being given a simultaneous release.
“Part of me is probably thinking: ‘oh fuck, I hope it doesn’t do a David Gray’,” he says. “Part of the downside of becoming too popular, is that your life changes too much. I’ve only experienced that in France, and a little bit in Spain… The attention becomes a bit invasive…” What kind of attention?
“I don’t like the idea of… I’m not very comfortable with the idea of sitting in a restaurant, having dinner, and somebody from a cheesy magazine wants to take a photograph. I wouldn’t like that everywhere.” Does that actually happen to you?
“It happens a little, yeah. Not to a huge extent – I’m not chased down the street by paparazzi or anything.”
It must have been very strange, the first time around, for your career to be taking off abroad whilst remaining a non-issue here.
“It was,” he agrees, “because, you know, certain Irish musicians, who were at the pinnacle of their careers,” he says, the tiniest drop of derision staining his voice, “you know… they’d get the front cover, or sell Whelan’s out or whatever, and they were like, stars in Dublin – we’d be talking, and they’d be going, (south Dublin accent) ‘What do you do?’ And I’d have just come back from playing the equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall two nights before, recording [live album Broken Statues] – and I’m kinda like… (small voice) ‘I’m a singer.’ And they’d be like, ‘We just stuffed Whelan’s, man.’ And I’d be like, ‘Okay.’”
It must have been rough to have to go away to do as well as you’ve done.
(In very small voice that I don’t quite believe) “No!…” (pause)
I would have found it rough.
“Well. There’s a little perverse pleasure in it as well. Because, you know, I’ve really enjoyed it.” He thinks. “Actually, I got a call from somebody the other night, who was going into a nightclub in Galway. There were people queuing. And a few of them had started singing [new single] ‘Ordinary Day’. And then everybody started going (sings) ‘I neeeed youuuu…’” He laughs. “And I’m going, (disbelieving ‘joke’s-over’ sort of voice) ‘Ok, that’s funny.’ And the person holding the mobile up was going, ‘No, listen. They’re singing your song.’ And I thought… (pause) Ah, that’s kinda nice, actually.”
The re-released version of California featuring the ‘Ordinary Day’ video is out now on Reekus