Paolo Nutini: New music, new ideas and how Paisley “shaped my life”

Paisley may be a town with little money but it is rich in culture. Local boy turned pop sensation Paolo Nutini explains why it deserves to be crowned UK City of Culture 2021.

Paisley, known as ‘the town that thread built’, was founded on industry. Establishing itself as the home of weaving with the world-famous Paisley Pattern, today economic and industrial decline has resulted in social problems threading their way into the bones of the town.

“For a place like Paisley to survive it’ll take a community,” says Paolo Nutini. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter who found fame with 2006 debut album These Streets, has never shied away from his roots, still living in the area today. His family emigrated from Italy to the town in the early 1900s, opening fish and chip shop Castelvecchi in 1914, which still stands in its original New Street location today.

“Paisley offered me and my family a life, way back, and it has continued to do so. When I think of Paisley, I think of everything that has shaped my life.

This bid is about restoring the faith in Paisley

“They’ve not always been big events,” Nutini says, sharing an anecdote of his nonno (grandfather) having a dram and cigarillo with the local priest, whilst listening to Fats Domino records. “When is the Boogie-Woogie Priest coming back round?” a young Paolo would ask.

“The first time I did everything was in Paisley, the first time I went to the pictures, or the bowling, or the ice rink, or the swimming baths. The first time I got to go to the toy shop and pick my own toy out.” (A WWF wrestling figure, if you were curious).

“The fact is these places are all gone now, there ain’t no cinema anymore, there’s no bowling, the ice rink went, the toy shop went. All of these things had such an innocence to them that I’d like to see brought back. For me, that’s why this bid is so important, it’s about restoring the faith in Paisley.”

His choice of words – “faith” – is fitting, for on October 20 he will sing a concert at Paisley’s magnificent medieval Abbey as part of the town’s annual Spree music and arts festival, a very special show: 50,000 people applied for just 550 tickets with 100 community groups being allocated a number of them.

People regularly tell me what Paisley meant to them, I just love that vibe

The Abbey nestles among manicured gardens in the heart of the town, by the tumbling waters of the River Cart that fed the cotton mills upon which its fortunes were built. The architecture of that Victorian boom time, when ambitious families of industrialists including Clarks and Coats built a museum, library, Town Hall and a grand Observatory, that still forms the bones of Paisley. But the once-great jewel that shone brightly in Scotland has fallen victim to poor fortune and industrial decline; it lost 76 per cent of its manufacturing jobs between 1979 and 1989, and the explosion of out-of-town shopping centres sucked the last soul out of a dying town.

Even in its lean years Paisley never stinted on pride in its home-grown cultural icons: saxophone sweetheart Gerry Rafferty, Hollywood heart-throb Gerard Butler, Doctor Who David Tennant and inimitable polymath John Byrne. But the social problems that inevitably accompanied industrial decline in the 1980s – unemployment, addiction, violence – blighted Paisley and its reputation hit rock bottom, its suburb Ferguslie Park named as Scotland’s most deprived place in 2012 and 2016. So the initial announcement in November 2015 that it would bid for City of Culture 2021 was met with no small degree of doubt and some derision. But, thanks to the tireless efforts of redoubtable bid director Jean Cameron, it is now a serious contender – joint second-favourites according to bookmaker Ladbrokes – facing off against Coventry, Stoke-On-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea. Paisley will learn if it is to be Scotland’s first UK City of Culture in December.

Paolo Nutini supports Paisley's bid to be UK City of Culture 2021

The cultural programme which has transformed Hull during its tenure as City of Culture this year has demonstrated the rejuvenating power the title can provide for a floundering city. Research conducted around Hull’s year in the sun found nine out of 10 local residents experienced a City of Culture event in the first three months of the celebrations, as well as an estimated £60m finding its way to the local economy with a rising stock of cultural capital to follow in the years to come.

Nutini remains hopeful of Paisley’s chances: “One of my favourite artists, who I was fortunate enough to meet and sing with, Sixto Rodriguez [immortalised in the highly-acclaimed documentary Searching for Sugarman] always says ‘nothing beats reality’ and to me, that’s Paisley – Paisley is real.

“There’s been a lot of different Paisleys, that have meant something different to a lot of different people and they’ve all had a different energy each time. People regularly tell me what Paisley meant to them, I just love that vibe.”

That energy is what we’re trying to restore in Paisley

Nutini recalls a recent incident where a beep of the horn from a nearby car saw an older man beckoning him over.

“It was this old man called Jim Collins, he starts telling me this story, he said; ‘When I was a boy, they used to call me Jazz.’ He told me about how he was raised round the corner and would go to Paisley Town Hall, a band would play and you could go up and sing with the band.

“You meet these people and they paint you these pictures and there are places in the town that still stand. I imagine that queue now whenever I walk past, and can almost hear the music in my head. These things always hit home with me.”

It is a typically down-to-earth, honest tale from Nutini, which echoes his own success story. Aged 15 he was at a concert in Paisley Town Hall to celebrate the homecoming of David Sneddon in 2003 when, with the Fame Academy winner running late, Nutini grabbed the chance to fill in on stage. The schoolboy’s talent was spotted and signed to Atlantic Records by the legendary Ahmet Ertegun, who hailed him as the best soul voice since Otis Redding. Nutini released his first album, These Streets, in 2006. Three years later Sunny Side Up notched up a raft more hits and with third album, 2014’s Caustic Love, his voice and songwriting came of age.

Paisley Abbey
Paisley Abbey, where Paolo Nutini will play as part of the Spree festival

Nutini still lives in Paisley and by his own admission it runs in his blood. That is why he is backing the bid, which was dispatched to its final stage in Westminster last month, with rousing cross-party support of Holyrood’s politicians united behind it. “The high-street used to be heaving,” Nutini recalls. “You would see all these people, all these colours and noises and bodies. That energy is what we’re trying to restore in Paisley.”

Throughout the bid process the town has already become re-energised, bolstered by a potential £45.7m investment in local venues, including a major modernisation of Paisley Town Hall which would see the 135-year old building re-established as the buzzing hub Jazz described.

“I’ve always enjoyed the bohemia of Paisley,” Nutini says. “The beauty of it and the sense of romance of what it was in its past, and what it could be, and I hope it will be, now.”

Paolo Nutini’s Paisley Abbey show is sold-out thespree.co.uk paolonutini.com