Printer Clips: Paul Noonan’s romantic and melancholy duets
The Bell X1 man’s side project teams him up with female stars such as Lisa Hannigan and Joan as Policewoman
Paul Noonan: ‘I didn’t want to crowbar the duet format into songs that weren’t written as such’
What is an obsessed musician and songwriter to do during his downtime except more of the same? This bug bit Paul Noonan – best known as the lead singer of Bell X1 – earlier than most. He ended up busking on the genteel island of Jersey. He looks sheepish as he recalls those balmy days of belting out Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes in the island’s pretty main town. “Character-forming? On the brutal streets of St Helier? Oh, yes.”
Since those hot summer nights many years ago, Noonan’s profile has steadily risen. For all his success with Bell X1, he remains grounded. He has cycled into Dublin’s city centre from his house a mile or two away. With unruly stubble on his face, and headgear in hand, he looks not unlike a courier.
Initially, there’s a guarded quality about Noonan that he gradually eases out of. In a way, he reflects his lyrics: multilayered, sometimes waylaid by too much thinking, but ultimately wryly funny, often charming, polite and slightly melancholic.
Duets with female singers
For the past decade or so, Noonan’s side project, Printer Clips, has gathered original songs, some of them written for specific people and bands (including Bell X1) and for specific records (2006’s various artists Oxfam charity album The Cake Sale ). Mostly, however, it’s a standalone collection of duets with a range of accomplished female singers and songwriters.
Irish input comes from Lisa Hannigan, Cathy Davey, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gemma Hayes and Danielle Harrison; from across the Atlantic, Martha Wainwright, Joan as Policewoman, Julia Stone and Amy Millan have provided vocals. Some of the songs, says Noonan – notably Vapour Trails , which previously appeared on The Cake Sale – have “incredible personal resonance”. Others, he says, work in a more objective narrative fashion.
“I wanted light and shade, and I didn’t want to just crowbar the duet format into songs that weren’t written as such. A duet is more than a harmony – the whole has to be greater than the sum of its component parts, either as an entwining of the voices or the trading of narrative verses.”
That Printer Clips works is a credit to all involved. Each song is imbued with strong folk-pop melodies, but the tone isn’t as sweet as you might think. Fans of Bell X1 will love it, while Noonan’s less entrenched detractors might just be won over.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Access to some women he wanted to work with wasn’t always provided – he approached, for example, Emmylou Harris and PJ Harvey, each of whom declined. “Perhaps that was overreaching,” he says now. “But, yes, I’ll keep looking for other women to duet with. I don’t see this particular album as a finite thing – I’d definitely like it to continue.”
Putting in the work
Noonan is certainly putting in the work to ensure creative longevity. For the past few years, he has regularly worked office hours, in a manner of speaking, in a room at the National Concert Hall. The discipline has been beneficial. “Of course, there are days spent staring out of the window or playing golf on your phone.”
Since the start of this year, he has written an average of one song per week, he reckons. Does he approach songwriting these days in a more coherent way, rather than an abstraction? Does he know where all the parts fit now?
“I still wouldn’t say that,” he says. “I’ve consciously not become accomplished or learned any particular instrument. That’s partly out of laziness, or partly out of fear that it might remove some of the magic. Or, indeed, the possibility of stumbling upon things. I suppose I’m more into having a sense of a song, in that while I’ve started lots of them, it’s finishing them that’s the hardest.”
In Printer Clips, there appear to be no loose ends. There is, also, the fact that Noonan is naturally drawn – and not just in a creative sense – to romance and melancholy and their intermingling.
“I’ve often found it easier to do sad than happy,” he agrees. “Bell X1 has spent a while as a band trying to do joy, and I’m not sure we’ve done it very effectively.”
For fans of the band who are suffering withdrawal symptoms, there will be Bell X1 dates during the summer, but following the launch of Printer Clips at the NCH in May, Noonan plans on taking it on tour, later in the year, with selected dates in Ireland, the UK and North America.
He is somewhat out of his comfort zone with this side project, but he is thriving on that. In an odd way – despite all of the plaudits for Bell X1 – it is almost as if Noonan feels he has, yet again, something to prove. “I don’t want to leave any regrets in terms of my insecurities or perceived limitations.
“I never felt insecure about getting the songs done,” he says in a firmer voice. He reaches for his bike helmet, and then he’s off, a courier, eager to deliver another well-wrapped package.
Printer Clips (the album) is released May 23 . Printer Clips (the live show) takes place at Dublin’s NCH on May 24