Interview: Pat Kane of Hue & Cry
Since they first burst onto the scene in the mid ‘80s, the mighty Hue and Cry have crafted an enviable back catalogue and 2017 saw the release of their fourteenth studio album, the glorious Pocketful of Stones. Known for their thoughtful lyrics and sophisticated arrangements, Scottish brothers Pat and Greg Kane have always been regarded as so much more than a pop duo. Although huge hits like “Labour of Love” and “Looking for Linda” shot them to fame as purveyors of intelligent, funky yet commercial pop, a listen to the material from the intervening thirty-plus years tells a deeper story. From jazz to soul to big band to ballads, Hue and Cry can do it all. Greg’s superlative talent as a multi-instrumentalist and producer, and Pat’s stunningly distinctive voice which is quite simply one of the most soulful in the business, has marked them as a class act whose quality songs have made them one of our most enduring and much-loved acts.
Ahead of their 2nd March show in the Belfast Empire I was excited to have the chance to chat to Pat about their latest release and the many influences at play in their music nowadays, from parenthood to politics to those pocketsful of stones.
Gigging NI: Pat, congratulations to you and Greg on the gorgeous new album. What can you tell us about its title?
Pat Kane: Well Pocketful of Stones, it’s a bit of poetry, it comes from a number of sources. One is that Gregory and I are both family men; my children are 20 and 27 and his is 4 and I used to take my children to the beach and we would all come back with our pockets full of stones and he is doing that now, twenty years after I started doing it, so that’s a nice reference.
But also, it’s a metaphor for middle life I guess, and the idea that you build up lot of experience, but that’s not about it dragging you down, it’s about a platform that you leap forward from. Experience is something that can propel you in later life so that line, “One by one you throw away your pocketful of stones”, is the whole idea that you’re actually lightening your load as you go rather than having a heavier load, so you can go and do amazing new things. It’s sort of a metaphor about maturity as well as a family, childhood reference to knocking about on beaches in Scotland.
GNI: And a lovely image…
PK: Well thank-you
GNI: Hue and Cry are renowned for the diverse range of styles evident in your music, from the soulful pop for which you first became known, as well as jazz and soul and a more stripped back crooner style performance. Where does the new album fit in to all of that?
PK: Well, this new album was the result of a coin toss. Back in 2012 Gregory said, “I want to make a New Orleans funk record”, and I wanted to make a beautiful ballad record, and he won the toss so he got to make his funk record, which was Hot Wire. So, then it was my turn. But also, we were looking around us in the charts and we were seeing lots of beautiful young male balladeers, you know your James Blakes and Hosiers and James Morrows and the rest, and we thought okay, that’s an environment in which it’s okay for a man to sing plaintive, lovely songs from his heart. Let’s do it from the perspective of two fifty-something men rather than twenty-five-year-old men.
We also had a theory about what would be the musical palette that someone like a Sinatra or a Tony Bennett would use if they were recording in 2017. What mixture of strings and electronics and this and that would they put together? So that was another idea behind it, that’s why the record sounds the way that it does.
GNI: There is a huge, rich sound to the arrangements on the new record with its beautiful strings and sax, some Hammond organ and even a zither in there. The last track “Surprised by Joy” though, is a bit of a departure from the other tracks on the album. It sounds almost like chamber music with that minimalist guitar accompaniment. What was the inspiration behind that?
PK: I am so happy that you respond to that track. It is kind of a tradition for us that after we have strained vitally to make a big elaborate record we usually put an acoustic track on at the very end, just to give ourselves – and maybe the audience – a rest. Often it turns out one of the best things on the record. It seems to be that we have to go through the mighty labour of elaborately putting together a meticulously arranged record, so we can come up with something that’s a one-take wonder. I am very proud of the song. Lyrically it’s all about that somewhere between elation and despair look on life that I’ve got at the moment. And one of the most wonderful things about this record is that my brother Gregory shows what a multi-instrumental talent he is and on this track he plays acoustic guitar as well as anybody could. Yeah, it’s open-heart surgery that song!
GNI: Thematically this is perhaps your most “grown-up” album if you will, in-keeping with an audience who has grown with you; on the liner notes you say it was written in times of financial slumps, parenthood, and a changeable political climate. Are these songs among your most personal do you think; and do they give us a real window into the Kane Brothers’ lives as they are now?
PK: A wee bit, yes. I would say there are a couple of derivations in the songs; there’re obviously very familial ones, and I sing with my daughter on one so you can’t get more familial than that. But they were also written in an eight or ten month period around about the first independence referendum in Scotland in 2014 with which I was very much involved on the “Yes”, the pro-independence side. There is a song called “It Happened Here” and one called “Nobody Died”. And what happened after the referendum was that there were two general elections and then Brexit! So those are songs about the emotional effect of making a great big existential “Yes/No, Win or Lose” decision about the fate of your country, whatever that country is. We actually took those songs with us playing acoustically all the way through those two elections and through Brexit and all over the country and people really reacted very positively to the songs because they try to capture the poetry of the moment and the ambiguity of the moment and the idea of the moment….
GNI: And the zeitgeist really?
PK: The zeitgeist yeah, you’re absolutely right, that’s the word that sums everything up. But a political pop song is usually about the contradiction between your rational mind and your emotional mind and how you aspire to something or deal with the disappointment of it not quite coming about. We were playing those songs to potential voters for about eighteen months after we wrote them so that when we actually came down to record them there is literally quite a lot of the emotion in there of those few tumultuous years that we’ve been in since 2014. In fact, since 2008 and the crash I think that politics and society have been shaken up like a kaleidoscope and the pieces still aren’t settling. So maybe that’s not so good for people’s lives but it’s great for the songwriter; the human complexity and richness is all out there for you to draw on.
GNI: You mentioned singing with your daughter; “Let Her Go” on the new album is a moving track recorded with Eleanor. Have you encouraged her to carve out a career in music and can we expect to see her make an appearance at any of the live shows?
PK: Ha ha, well I don’t know, she might. She won’t be in the live shows in Ireland anyway. My first daughter is a design engineer, making sustainable products to save the planet so she has completely not followed in her father’s footsteps, but the youngest one Eleanor is at stage school, so the song is about her turning up to her first flat in London. There is a line in the song about her being a triple threat performer, so she dances as well as she can sing as well as she can act. She is fearsomely talented and fearsomely ambitious, and I guess one of them had to go that way in the family.
GNI: She has obviously inherited your soulfulness and that incredible control that she has in her voice.
PK: She has a beautiful voice, but you know she’s flowering away; acting in Ibsen and Shakespeare plays, she is singing in a Sondheim musical this term, and she is ready, she is totally on the launchpad for some kind of crazy career.
GNI: So, watch this space?
PK: I would say so, totally yeah. And the funny thing was that I had recorded the song as a commentary about her as a dad, and when Gregory heard that line in the second verse about her hiding a bottle of prosecco in her bag he said, “your daughter has to sing that because she has to be rebelling against her father”. So that was when she was brought into the studio and that’s how the song came to be.
GNI: Do you remember the first song that you and Greg ever wrote together and has that song-writing process changed much over the last thirty odd years?
PK: I think the very first song we wrote together was a song called “Love is the Master” which went on our very first album, Seduced and Abandoned. Me and Gregory come at things in so many different ways; sometimes I can come in with a whole melody and lyric all sorted out and he can simply arrange the chords; sometimes I’ll come in with nothing and he’ll have a few chords and we’re off on a journey where I’ll just write everything on the spot; sometimes we follow certain genres and the rules of that genre whether it’s country or jazz or soul or rock; and then sometimes we’ll just sit and watch movies for two hours and then go in and do something on the piano. There are a million ways for us to write songs. This time around we gave ourselves about thirty days and we said we’ve got to come out with a song every day – and we did. Sometimes it took twenty minutes to write and sometimes it took six hours but at the end of each day we had something that we thought could be the bare bones of something going into the wider world. So that was a bit of an exercise that we set ourselves.
We have this theory and you’ve probably heard it, from the Canadian academic Malcolm Gladwell. In one of his books called Outliers, he talks about the 10,000 Hour Rule, the idea that if you have done something to a certain degree of committed seriousness for 10,000 hours, it no longer matters what any critic says about you, you know what you’re doing, you’re a master of your craft. Me and Gregory counted up about 23,000 hours between us, so even if people don’t like what we’re doing, they can’t say we don’t know what we’re doing.
GNI: If you don’t mind, I’d really like to ask about “Labour of Love”. It’s so iconic and I think it’s one of the songs most evocative of its era. Are you still proud of that track and do you still enjoy playing it?
PK: Totally! And I’ll tell you great story about “Labour of Love” and the reason for an iron rule of Hue and Cry ever since which is that I didn’t want it to come out as a single (coughs embarrassedly). I said this song is too complicated, it’s too radical, I don’t know how anybody will dance to it, and it’s too advanced for the pop market – they mustn’t bring it out! Everybody said, “Are you a lunatic?!” and they defied me. Since that I have never been allowed to pick another single ever again.
And we have been listening. We have been doing a lot of promotion this time around and this is a ballad record so it’s not an “up” record but given the amount of enthusiasm that people have had for “Labour of Love”, and given the kind of timeless nature if its preoccupations – we seem to be in a constant “ain’t gonna work for you no more / work for my labour of love” state of mind at the moment on a number of fronts – I think all that is a wee bit of a clue as to what the next record is gonna be. It’s going to try and look at the energy and the directness of “Labour of Love” and see if we can map that to what’s happening coming up to 2020. So we are very proud of it. When we were first writing songs we had Steely Dan and Elvis Costello on one side and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder on the other so even if you only get to 2% of that your attempt is gonna be worth it. So we are always very proud of our old songs because we shot high, we knew exactly what we were doing when we wrote them twenty odd years ago so the quality is all baked in there as far as we’re concerned so we never tire of playing them.
GNI: I’m glad to hear it – so we can expect to hear it in Belfast then?
GNI: The 2nd March brings a return to Belfast to the iconic Belfast Empire. Are you looking forward to it and what have your experiences of Belfast audiences been like in the past?
PK: I think the last time we played the Belfast Empire I remember staying in a local hotel and it was a Saturday night and I leant out the window and just watched the chaos as it was running down beneath me.
GNI: You were probably in the Europa then, watching the pubs across the road spilling out at closing time?
PK: It may well have been. And I thought wow, this is a town that knows how to enjoy itself. It reminds me very much of Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow on a Saturday night. This time are we playing a Saturday?
GNI: It’s a Friday.
PK: Ah well then, it’ll be slightly calmer. It won’t be quite so apocalyptic as I remember it being 25 years ago.
GNI: Oh no, we’re just as wild on a Friday night.
PK: Ah right, okay, well in that case I am looking forward to it tremendously, to say the least.
GNI: Do you still enjoy playing live as much as ever and can you give us any hints as to what Northern Irish fans can expect from this show?
PK: Yes, very much so. We have the best band, certainly in Scotland. We’re coming with the full eight-piece band with horn section and backing singers and everything else. And the band are all younger people who grew up with Hue and Cry blaring out from the front seat of the car so a lot of them know the bass lines better that we do so it’s quite good when you have a senior moment to have these young bucks who can remember what the next section is.
The music business is changing so much because of downloads and everything else music being so easily stealable or shareable or copiable so the commercial emphasis has come back onto live music – which is absolutely fine by me! I remember in the ‘80s when playing live was bothersome; it was a pain in the backside, nobody wanted to do it. Everybody wanted to be on MTV or Top of the Pops, everybody wanted to get their video out. You regarded playing live as a way to lose money, not to make money. Well that’s completely changed, now it’s…..
GNI: The only way to make money?
PK: It is the ONLY way. Well, maybe the streaming thing is beginning to quicken but it’s very, very far from returning to the way it was in terms of recorded music sold. If you can do it – and we still can do it to quite a high level – you should do it.
And what we say to our audiences is that we have a very strict rule when it comes to using your smartphones to record music; if you don’t do it, and if you don’t stick it up on Facebook and Twitter, we’ll throw you out of the building. That’s partly because I want to keep an eye on my own performance, and Gregory wants to keep an ear on the band’s performance, so we get the audience to take their own mementos and post them up to see how well we’re doing. As much as it is a way to say to the fans, you’re a community, you have paid for this over many years and you have every right to record it, it’s also away for us to keep quality control. So – if you don’t do it – you’re out!!
GNI: Any other message for the Belfast fans?
PK: Just so say that we love the city so much. I want to try to find a way, probably the morning after the gig, to try and see the Belfast exhibition. I was actually in Belfast just for a visit about a year ago and I love the place. We’re really looking forward to meeting up with the friendliest audiences that I can remember and we’re very much looking forward to seeing you all.
‘Pocketful Of Stones’ is the brand new album from Hue And Cry released on 1st September 2017, with a stunning deluxe version, available as a strictly limited run. The box is individually numbered and has been delicately hand packed with a raft of exclusive materials including a hand signed album.
Hue and Cry play at the Belfast Empire on Friday 2nd March 2018. Tickets available here priced from £27.75.