Following four stellar LPs released over long stetches between 1984 and 2004, The Blue Nile disbanded, leaving Buchanan to turn to solo work making way for the critically-acclaimed 2012 album, Mid Air. The remarkable songwriter recently shared his thoughts on musical creation and what makes the writing of music such a special part of life with Decoder via e-mail.
Jordan Anderson: Chords and melodies seem to be vehicles for emotion in your work. What do you look for in a chord progression or melody when you’re composing?
I suppose I tend to lean towards certain chord progressions without realizing it. Once the melody is established over that, small alterations seem to matter. I probably like patterns because they form a canvas for the event to take place, but I really don’t know enough about music to objectively identify them. Stumbling on them is the fun. Once in a while, the rhythm of the melody, and the lyrics, seem to fall into the right place against chords, and that is a song.
Who would you say are the songwriters who inspire you to push forward?
I don’t feel in the same league as the many outstanding best songwriters. There is a compulsive element to creativity, but I wonder why I keep going. If you have a song in your head you have to get it out I suppose. Mid Air was a series of very short songs I first recorded onto a dictaphone and noted in a notebook without really understanding… I was working on something else altogether. When I listened back it seemed they belonged together, so I recorded them exactly as they were, no re-writes, in the hope they made sense as a whole and separately. Perhaps sometimes music expresses parts of us that are slightly unconscious, to do with memory and senses what we cannot always easily describe, but which are universal and personal, and which we feel very strongly about.
The instruments you’ve used with The Blue Nile albums as well as your solo album seem to occupy their own clear, bright spaces within the atmosphere of the records. On ‘Mid Air,’ the use of piano, strings, vocals, etc. is sparse but clear and present, for example. What leads you to these compositional choices?
Time can be an element — music can sometimes bend time, or make it stand still. Each note has a value and so it is necessary to establish the space within which each note, and then the relationship between those notes, has a simultaneous meaning to the listener’s imagination. So sometimes, the space is as important as the note. If sound has emotional value, like melody and intonation, it can be good to clear the space for our emotional intelligence to have room to cherish and react. Whether it’s The Beach Boys or Mahler, I think the best music assumes the best of us and lets us feel, or encourages us to feel. Music serves so many purposes for us, though; its very existence says something.
Looking back on your musical work, is there anything you would have done differently? What advice would you give musicians who are starting with their own body of work?
I would have done some things differently in terms of career, but if I think of re-recording actual songs I realize I’ve moved on, even if I think I missed what I’d hoped for. On reflection I’d say that “A Spell in the Limelight” perhaps wasn’t the best thing artistically. I admire people who can receive attention and keep producing their best work and I admire people who remain true to their goals without attention. An influx of other considerations and people can affect everyone differently, and perhaps unselfconsciousness becomes harder. It’s human to be glad of some approbation, but in many ways I was happiest when we were starting out.
Stay true to yourself is good advice, because I think most people have a relationship with their creativity; it’s probably different for everyone, and I’d like to ask people how they work, or how they know when they are on the right track. For me, the better ideas are their own boss, but I’ve learned that the hard way, and forgotten it a hundred times.
Is songwriting or practicing a daily activity for you?
I play every day. When bursts of ideas come, I work all the time, but every day I at least check in with the guitar or piano. I cannot say there is a clear pattern at all. I can be reluctant to switch the equipment on if I am demoing, but once I’ve overcome that reluctance I work to the exclusion of everything else. Afterwards I might look back at a notebook and find the song referenced in advance in a word or phrase I’d written down weeks or months before and forgotten about.
Is it true that The Blue Nile used a Roland Juno 8 on much of its early work? What was it about this instrument that attracted you to it?
The Jupiter 8 was the synthesiser we used almost exclusively for a long time; other than that we generated a lot of our own samples from objects. I was not the keyboard expert, but there was a warmth and flexibility in programming that I always enjoyed hearing, and the sounds were not identifiable, which was an advantage in our aims of timelessness and place.
It seems like there is a touch of a mythological world in your work – something almost like a mythological city that is straight out of Raymond Chandler: dark, rainy, illuminated by neon signs or streetlights. There is almost a quality of synesthesia to your work – I visualize a kind of version of New York City late at night when I hear your music. Are there imagined settings like this that you’re trying to express or describe through the music?
I think at our best in the band we shared some nameless territory, though we were all different, and we expressed that to each other in visual terms — often, as you say, in seeing moments from a city, often with New York as our mythological or ultimate Western city. Sometimes we felt the songs were taking place in approaching the city, or in going there, or in smaller towns. But yes, often we imagined them in the heart of it. We would be concerned with colors and vertical or horizontal aspects, and lyrically we tried to maintain the integrity of the conversation or inner monologue rather than have the voice step outside of the thoughts to describe where the moment was taking place. We talked about it in very plain terms, and were happy when sometimes people saw the same things we saw even if they weren’t directly mentioned. I suppose there was synesthesia in it, because the sounds represented colors or aspects of the landscape. But it was important not to force it or be contrived. You did your best, and if it worked, it worked, but you couldn’t impose yourself onto it. Quite the opposite. You served the idea, the idea did not serve you. Mid Air was about what I felt looking from my window at night. So many people with their kitchen lights on late at night. If you are lucky you express what we share.
What is your ideal sound, and what would it convey? What does the perfect composition look like to you?
These are an interesting questions you ask: What does a perfect composition look like? Maybe black dots and lines hanging or dancing on a piece of paper and if you scrunch your eyes up the whole content is there? Certainly music is architectural. After extra ideas are cleared away, I’m always surprised how simple the remaining lines are…
An ideal sound? Again, invisible. Whatever expresses you in that moment… the rush of euphoria and the sense of compassion?
In a related question, what artists in other areas of creative work really inspire you? Who are your favorite writers, filmmakers, poets, philosophers, painters?
I have fallen far behind in recent years, particularly in going to the cinema. Walt Whitman, Matisse, Jenny Holzer, Dickens, Elmore Leonard, Andre Kertesz… for every person I can remember right now there are many more.
Lastly, what in life gives you the most joy? When are you happiest?
You saved the hardest question ’til last. For now, I will say feeling connected — with yourself, and with others.