Songwriter and ASCAP President and Chair Paul Williams has done more than most to champion and reinvent pop, joining the dots between Daft Punk and The Muppets. Paul Sexton quizzes the recent Ivor Novello Award winner on a musical life least ordinary…
Not many songwriting careers embrace The Carpenters, The Muppets and Daft Punk, as well as Grammys, big screen stardom and executive preeminence. But then you don’t get many songwriters like Paul Williams.
Whichever way you slice the career of the 74-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, you’ll hit a rich vein of creativity. From globe-straddling songs like We’ve Only Just Begun, Rainy Days and Mondays and Evergreen, and starring roles in everything from Smokey and the Bandit to Hawaii 5-0, Paul’s had his fair share of magic moments, while these days he’s keeping busy with his ASCAP presidency and a major upcoming musical.
Ivor Novello triumph
Add a dose of Paul’s engaging good humour and selfless perspective, and you have an unparalleled figure in our industry. It made him a hugely popular recipient of the PRS for Music Special International Award at The Ivors in May. He was humbled to receive it and, when he did, experienced enough to trust his instincts.
‘I had no idea what I was going to say until I got up there,’ he laughs. ‘You get to the point where you think, “I don’t know how to do this”, but something inside me does. I walk up on stage, open my mouth and somebody says something that seems to have pleased the audience.
‘The best part of the deal is you don’t have to give up your fan card to work in music,’ he adds. ‘So I could go and corner Ray Davies, and have those little moments. Boy George and I had never met, and we have a lot in common. So it was a real treat and a great honour.’
Random Access Memories
As Paul continues to fight for the songwriters’ cause at ASCAP, it’s significant that his members know he works as one of them. The extraordinary Indian summer to his songwriting lifetime, which included contributing two songs to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and bagging a Grammy as a result, is continuing in various exhilarating, new projects.
‘The last thing you expect is to win Album of the Year at 74,’ muses Paul, still marveling at how his past informs his present. Daft Punk turned out to be huge fans of Phantom Of The Paradise, the 1974 horror musical in which he starred and wrote the soundtrack.
‘They’d seen it over 20 times and that’s where they got the idea, I’m told, for the masks and all. And then years later I get an email from them and they want to talk about it. I think it took me six months to reply. Then I remembered, “Oh, these are the guys that came out of the pyramid at the Grammys”.’
A remarkable collaboration ensued, and the same film is impacting his working life again. ‘I’m writing [the lyrics for] a musical right now based on Pan’s Labyrinth with Guillermo del Toro,’ he says of the Mexican director who made the 2006 film version.
‘The music is by Gustavo Santaolalla. He’s a two-time Oscar winner for Brokeback Mountain and Babel, and did the music for The Motorcycle Diaries, a great, great film,’ Paul continues. ‘He’s an amazing composer and has a great band called Bajofundo, who I love. We’re starting to work on the second act and it’s a very exciting project.’
‘Again, for Guillermo, it was Phantom Of The Paradise, which in the States was pretty much ignored when it came out. I met him when he was a teenager. He came to see me perform in Mexico City, wearing his dad’s suit and in a borrowed car that ran out of gas on the way home.’
‘But evidently, I signed a copy of the soundtrack album of Phantom for him. Years later, he reaches out to me and wants to do a stage musical.’
Bitten by the songwriting bug
The detail of Paul’s current diary is key to understanding the boundless enthusiasm of a man who carries songwriting deep in his soul, and who still remembers the first thrill of having his compositions recognised.
This was after already having made inroads in Hollywood, with his first high-level acting job as early as 1965 in The Loved One, starring Rod Steiger; a year later, he was opposite a young Robert Redford in The Chase, by which time he was already composing songs. Things might have been very different if Williams’ audition for The Monkees’ TV show had been successful, but the writing bug had already bitten.
‘I remember sitting there and listening to the radio. It was a song called Fill Your Heart, recorded by Tiny Tim. David Bowie recorded it years later on his Hunky Dory album. Richard Perry cut an album with Tiny Tim, and [from it] Tiptoe Through The Tulips was a huge hit in the United States [in 1968].
‘The B-side was Fill Your Heart and they turned it over and played it almost as much as the other side. I remember listening to that on the car radio. You’d pull up to the stop light and look at the car next to you and I wanted to roll down the window and go “You hear that? That’s my song!”’
After landing UK writing work – including some when he was in London staying on British composer Gary Osborne’s couch – he went home to quite a surprise. ‘Everything of mine was getting recorded, but it was B-sides and album cuts, nothing [else] was really getting airplay,’ he recalls. ‘I had shoulder-length hair and looked like a little girl.’
‘But I went back to the States and had two songs in the top 10, I had We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters and Out In The Country by Three Dog Night, and everything changed.’ The late seventies brought everything from his Grammy for Evergreen, Barbra Streisand’s love theme from A Star Is Born, to Rainbow Connection for The Muppets.
That Carpenters hit was written, like much of Williams’ early work, with partner Roger Nichols. ‘When Karen sang it, the world responded to that emotion. She was so special,’ he says. But so were Paul and Roger to Karen and Richard, giving them the timeless Rainy Days and Mondays and other songs for their early albums.
‘Good publishing has been a huge part of my career,’ he says. ‘I remember the first four-year deal, and Roger and I writing songs every day. They once asked Sammy Cahn what comes first, the words or the music. He said what comes first is a phone call.
‘That’s been the state of affairs with my career for a while, but it started out with me sitting in a room writing songs, and a good publisher sending those songs around, he continues. ‘And Sammy Cahn, incidentally, is the guy that walked me over to ASCAP and said I needed to be there.’
‘There’s nothing I’ve ever done in my entire career, any of the songs, any of the movies, anything that has given me a sense of purpose to the extent that ASCAP has,’ he avows, full of optimism that songwriters’ voices are now being heard in Washington.
There was a time when you’d walk in and they’d go “What’s Burt Reynolds like?’ But the cigar-puffing politician that is uninformed, those days seem to be happily behind us.’
One of the tallest mountains Williams scaled was his alcoholism, but even on that subject, he shows good humour. ‘Music has given me an identity, it gave me a life, and of course I went through a period where I abused all that,’ he reflects. ‘By the time I got sober, the career I thought I had had been gone for 10 years. You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade.
‘But I eventually got to that place where I put the plug in the jug, and lo and behold, once I started writing again I went to Nashville, wrote a song with a guy named Jon Vezner called You’re Gone, and three years later it was a number one [country] record with Diamond Rio, and things were off and running again.’
Waking Up Alone
Of all his towering copyrights, his proudest invention may be a lesser-known but fine piece from the seventies, Waking Up Alone. ‘I don’t think anyone’s ever recorded it, but I’m very proud of that. That would be a high point for me. It’s probably because of what the bridge does, which is as close to literature as anything I’ve ever written.
‘It talks about going home, trying to go back to the girl he left behind. And the first line of the bridge is I think the best line I’ve ever written: “Oh, your children, oh the youngest looks just like you,” he sings. ‘Because in that one sentence there, you know he’s too late.’
Basic songwriting instinct
Paul is still giving himself up to his songwriting instincts, and, almost halfway through his eighth decade, he has a great deal more to give. ‘Something occurred to me very recently,’ he says. ‘I don’t write hit songs, I write songs that people who make hit records seem to gravitate towards once in a while.
‘I don’t think We’ve Only Just Begun is a hit song, I don’t think Evergreen is a hit song, or [Helen Reddy’s] You and Me Against the World or [Three Dog Night’s] An Old Fashioned Love Song or Out In the Country. But the people that chose to record them had huge records with them because they made a hit record of a song that was evidently meaningful to a lot of people.
‘In 25 years of sobriety, I think that I begin to recognise that the whole writing process is more and more of a gift,’ he muses. ‘But the other side of it is I now recognise that I’ve been given a chance, by trusting to be authentic in what I write.’
This feature was first published in the latest edition of M magazine – read the full print edition online here: