Paddler (a/k/a Richard Gray) is one of the more versatile members of Macjams, posting high quality songs in a dozen different genres (he has 68 songs posted as of this writing). He seems at home in all of them. I get the impression that he’s gone through different musical eras in his life. I’m thrilled he shares both his older and current music. Paddler has been a Macjams member since 03-15-04, when MJ was a mere two months old.
Paddler is 35 years old, born in the West Midlands, UK. He currently lives in the Lake District where, he says, “the landscapes are really beautiful and very inspiring but also it is quite remote after living in a city where there is a guitarist on every street corner. It can make you feel a little alienated sometimes when there is not much going on around you artistically”…
My personal Paddler favorites include:
Strange Jane (featured in MJ Music Podcast #1)
The Jackdaw Song
I’m Always In Late
I Am Freedom
North Star Rising
What I Feel
Skylarks (MJ Coffee)
Paddler’s been playing music his entire life…
“I had a toy guitar confiscated when I was toddler. I wouldn’t stop twanging it in peoples ears. When I was six I really got into the piano - in an abstract way. All the black notes sounded like the sun coming out from behind a cloud and all the low notes bashed around a bit sounded like thunder.”
You can see how poetic the guy is.
“The earliest memory I have of music being completely inspiring was the intro to ‘Close To The Edge’ by Yes - with those glittering notes and the sounds of birds singing a dawn chorus. I shared a bedroom with my brother and he’d play that record early on a saturday morning while I was still half-asleep.It always sounded to me like a wizard conducting a sunrise - and I loved Roger Deans landscapes.”
(Close To The Edge was my favorite album, too, so I can relate. My college roommate owned it. I played it so much I had to buy him another copy. It’s nearly always listed as one of the greatest albums of all time. A testimony to how music can inspire. And how cool album art was in the old days. The entire music scene, come to think of it.)
Paddler has more great reminiscences about his early musical influences:
“When I was eight my friend had an attic where we’d mess around - he had a bass guitar and I used to take a casio keyboard around with batteries in it. I remember we wrote a couple of songs inspired by the TV show ‘The A Team.’ We were into BMXing then and Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ - I remember loving the laser type synth sound he used - an Oberheim OB-Xa, I think.
“It was the song ‘Dirty Mind’by Prince that first made me realize it doesn’t take much to make a song - that album is so minimal. I liked that plain synth with the bass drum. So I started multi-tracking songs by recording one track on a stereo cassette player. Then I’d put the cassette into a sony walkman and sellotape the earphones next to the mics on the stereo, press play on one and record on the other and overdub the next track. By about the fourth track the quality would be terrible but it sounded vaguely like a song.
“Its that first buzz though I think when you realize you’ve created something possibly original that has never gone away.
“Later on I discovered it was pretty much the only thing I could attempt to impress girls with at school…or not - as the case would often be.”
Paddler founded his first band as a teenager: “I formed a band with my cousin Will, called ‘Richard,William and Gary.’ We intended to blow everyones heads off with ‘Money For Nothing’ (Dire Straits). I was on drums.”
Then he struck gold…
“I had a bit of luck with a national song-writing competition round about then with a song called ‘At The Top’ and got interviewed by Mark Goodier on BBC 1, plus all the local newspapers and local radio stations. it was quite an experience at 16. The most nerve-racking part was making it to the final three which were to be voted for live on a Saturday morning with us all in the studio. I met Peter Powell, Anthea Turner and Jason Donovan and, well, I came third. Just as the credits were about to go up Anthea Turner shoved a microphone in my face and said, “So…how do you feel?” to which I panicked and just replied “I’m great!” It was a strange experience getting slightly drunk afterwards in the green room next to Jason Donavan.”
“The band repertoire kept growing. I was singer and keyboard player on certain songs, like “Bat Out Of Hell’ and “Alright Now.”‘ I didn’t quite fit in visually because everyone had long hair except me. There was one really embarassing time when we attempted to sing “Twist n Shout” with the layered backing vocals at a fashion show. I remember singing “ahhhhhh” and waiting for the other lads to join in on the harmonies - but they had chickened out and I was left feeling like a complete dickhead. We decided to ditch that song. I grew my hair long. We started drinking, smoking and getting in trouble with the police.
Once the confessions start, its hard to stop them…
“I’ve never really had a rock type voice - I can’t scream or shout and my voice is just too soft. But we had a high time auditioning the prettiest girls we could find - in my bedroom. It was never going to work though - we had a girl aged 19 singing for a while - when we were all just 16. She’d pull into the driveway in her car and we’d all be acting like Christmas had just arrived. And as for her habit of sitting on the bass amp…well…I’ll say no more.”
Band antics notwithstanding, Paddler made it to college…
“I left for Brighton - a seaside resort - at 18 to study ‘Visual And Performing Arts’ and ended up in all kinds of shows. On one occasion I had to climb down 20 ft scaffolding singing, dressed as an angel, and hand out petits-fois to the audience in a banqueting hall. I managed to accidentally set myself on fire from one of the candles on the tables. The audience thought it was quite a clever trick. ‘Have you any idea how much these costumes cost?’ shouted the director… when I’d just narrowly avoided death!
“It was at Brighton I came into contact with all different cultures and styles of music. Every week we had a platform for playing songs and getting feedback from each other. We’d collaborate with dance/theatre groups to create whole performances for the public. Brighton has always been a vibrant place for new and upcoming artists so it was a great place to be. Plus, I met a great friend there who introduced me to all kinds of music I’d never heard of in my life.”
After college, though, comes the Real World…
“I couldn’t get a job so I started busking while I was in Scotland doing voluntary work for the wildlife trust. I often went to a riverside cafe and jammed with fiddle players there, which was interesting as it was quite tricky fitting chords to jigs/reels that everyone seemed to know from memory.
“Then I went back to Brighton with a sleeping-bag and ended up joining an Acid-Jazz Funk band and we got paid thirty pounds each a week playing in a basement club called Casablancas. I learned then to quickly score stuff out for brass from CD’s by ear. It seemed the quickest way to get a song together. On Saturday nights it was so packed full of people dancing I often had to grasp the keyboard while people fell into the band area, either drunk or delerious. Herbie Hancock used to go down really well.
“When that band split, I joined a glam-rock band called ‘Kinky Journo’ and we played in London a lot. We’d carry our instruments on the subway which was kind of interesting at 11.00 at night. We recorded an album in ‘Metway Studios’ in Brighton and got into the final of an NME battle of the bands competition. (The National Music Express ran a battle of the bands competition every year in London.) When we came second our manager dropped us, discovering ‘The Electric Soft Parade’ who were not only younger but had far bigger side-burns than us. They went straight into the national music charts.
“At this point - I was living in a goat shed for 25 pounds a week. I ended up being persuaded by someone to do a show on my own in a local hall. They printed 200 tickets. Why I ever went along with it I’ll never know. I was to wear a top hat that lit up when I pressed a button. At this point I’d ask the audience a music quiz question then carry on with a song. (Not the best idea to win fans - but, hey, the guy had printed all the tickets and got the hall for free so it seemed fair enough at the time).
“On the evening before the show I’d had a massive argument with my then girlfriend of 4 years and the following day - feeling like death warmed up - found myself in front of an audience of 150 people wearing a top hat that lit up. It was the last place I wanted to be. But I made a fair sum of money and at least I was performing other peoples songs rather than it being testament to my own creations. Think I might have had few pints (or ten) that night.
“I’d been self-employed for a couple of years by then, singing blues and cabaret in all different kinds of venues. I decided I’d had enough of living in the same place and needed a change, so I gave everything to charity except my bike, tent and accordion and headed west along the coast, busking in each port I came to. It became a way of life and I became pretty good at self-subsistance, camping and drinking wine.
“Once I left my accordion at a bank in Exeter, Devon, by accident… at a time when the country had been alerted to be on the lookout for anything suspicious regarding terrorism. I came back to find the bank closed due to a bomb scare and the supermarket next door being evacuated. I sighed as I waited with the manger for the police to arrive, gazing at a convoy of pensioners, thinking, ‘if I had my accordion now, I might’ve made enough money to get a pie.’ Oh well.
“That particular musical journey came to an abrupt halt after 4 weeks of solid rain. I woke up in the back of a police van having been mugged while in a state of unconciousness. It was time to try and rejoin ‘normal’ society - whatever that is.”
Where does Paddler perform now?
“My main venue is Macjams. I’m not in a band. I can’t drive and I live in the middle of nowhere. I play piano in a hotel next to Lake Windermere, Cumbria, UK, and teach jazz/blues at a boarding school.”
I’ve been to Cumbria. It’s like living in the early 1800s. I asked Paddler how he ended up there:
“After busking I decided I just had to get a job in music so I typed the word ‘Piano Player’ into a job search engine - and the only job available was here in the Lake District. It was either that or go on cruise ships. I had no ties so I decided to go for it. I’ve been here 4 years now. Yeah - it is like the 1800’s - you’re right there! Or the dark ages… I love to jump naked into remote lakes!”
I knew he had more in common with Lord Byron than dashing good looks and a penchant for poetic synthesis.
Paddler’s musical goals:
“My goal with music is always firstly to entertain me - I can’t stand it when people say ‘I’m bored’ - well do something then. Learn origami or take up knitting or go litter picking. I’m also very emotionally charged and music is the best way I know to release it else I’d just spontaneously combust. And of course its great to share stuff with friends, family or anyone who might enjoy listening. I’ve always liked the idea that music can possibly change somebody’s outlook on the day or remind them of some time in their life that was good (or bad). Music can stir something in the spirit or soul and that is an incredible thing. If I knew I could write music that does that - I’d die a happy man.”
Paddler’s music-making process is akin to what he wanted to do with that 19 year old singer:
“When coming up with musical ideas I tend to just go back to bed and half fall asleep with notes, chords and memories just rattling around in a swirling chaos, until it clears and leaves a residue. If I don’t do this from time to time I turn into Mr Grumpy.
“Piano is my first instrument but I find writing on other instruments can be really creative - guitar or drums, anything that makes a noise. I then maybe just record a small sequence into anything that records from a mic - Audacity or Protools - and see how it sounds. If nothing seems to follow naturally, I go back to the drawing board but save the idea for another day. Sometimes things go round and round in my head like an annoying buzzing fly until the next part of the puzzle leaps out.”
“From there I’ll sometimes record the same thing a dozen different ways - with drums or sequenced or acoustic - until I like the sound of it. During this it can morph in all kinds of ways - in pitch/rhythm/order/melody. Just random trial and error, really.
“When it comes to mixing, I’ve mixed something posted it then someone points out something that could be done differently and I think, man, they’re right. So I go back and change it. I’ve heard its quite good practice to let several people do different mixes of a song as we all perceive stuff differently, though I’ve never tried it.
“I generally end up with 3 or 4 mixes. Sometimes I find there is too much stuff going on all the way through and mess around with mute buttons to see how different sections of a song could vary from one to the other.
“It reminds me a bit of painting because its like working with space - you’ve got huge blocks of colour that are the rhythm and little flecks of light that are percussion and stripes that are melody. By the time you are getting somewhere with it, it is like you are trying to fill in little details - such as crescendos or ambience or tightening of rhythm and mood.
“I’m not afraid to try anything new and without confines. I think its easier to avoid mental blocks that way.
“I’d say the main thing is to enjoy what you do. The arts industry has to be one of the most competitive in the world. I’ve met so many musicians and songwriters who have just given up or become bitter because they feel intimidated by that. Its just something you either have to do or you don’t - otherwise why bother.
For Paddler, Macjams provided a needed venue:
“I discovered this site about 4 years ago and was instantly hooked. At school and in my neighbourhood there were never many people writing or recording songs. Here - thats what everyone does! Birds of a feather flock together! Not only is Macjams the greatest site I’ve found to swap musical ideas, but its also very multicultural and often what happens in the news - world or local - gets reflected here making, it also like a diary of events. It is a fascinating place and I am thoroughly proud to be a member.
“So - switch on the amps, turn em up to eleven and lets ROCK!”
Check out all his music on Paddler’s MacJams Profile page.