Oct 21, 2022
By Dom Gourlay
Brighton based singer/songwriter Paul Thomas Saunders releases his long awaited second album Figure In A Landscape today (Friday 21st October) via the sevenfoursevensix label. The follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed debut Beautiful Desolation, Figure In A Landscape is the result of almost eight years away from music in search of greater meaning which saw the songwriter become a paramedic and RNLI lifeboat crew member.
Having released a couple of standalone singles in 2017, Saunders once again stepped away from music until an invitation came out of the blue from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to play at the Forbidden Fruit Festival in Dublin. This recognition led to Saunders rediscovering the value in his writing and in his music, and from that acceptance came this collection of songs.
A talented producer and engineer in his own right, Figure In A Landscape was written, recorded and produced by Saunders himself at home amidst frequent collaborations with Alastair Thynne and Max Prior, with the record also featuring a number of other artists and friends including Ajimal, Hilang Child and SIVU.
Figure in a Landscape is titled after Francis Bacon’s 1952 painting ‘Study of Figure in a Landscape’. Taking up the story himself, Saunders says, “I first saw the painting in my early twenties and it reminded me of a hallucination I had at 17, on psychedelics. I was silhouetted in a wheat field, standing resolute with a wildness around me. I was cripplingly socially anxious growing up, and that poised and unwavering apparition of myself became a version of myself I could aspire to, and respect.”
“The album is a collection of songs about the desperate moments of human interaction. After my first album, I felt divorced from community and purpose, leaving me unable to create anything of worth even if I had wanted to. Ultimately, this lead to spending the years that followed as RNLI lifeboat crew and a paramedic in the NHS. There is definitely an anthropological aspect within that existence, and being able to witness, listen to and interact with such a diverse cross-section of our society feels more like a privilege than a vocation. I have a complex relationship with creativity, it can often leave me feeling indulgent and questioning my worth. But, the further I am from it, the more I feel the need to express something. Distance from music has allowed me the perspective to create this L.P., 9 unafraid songs that are perhaps as close I may come to being the figure in a landscape.”
In an exclusive track-by-track rundown for Under the Radar, Saunders takes us on a journey through each of the record’s eleven pieces and what inspired them.
“TV, Junkfood & Bed”
“TV, Junkfood and Bed” came from a messaging a friend after finishing a night shift. I was in bed at 9am, eating fast food I’d picked up on my way home and watching a talk show. Judy Dench was being interviewed – I was bored and just sent a picture of the whole shameful affair and said ‘…my life is nothing like Judy Dench’. I think they replied sounding excited about that as a song name and it went from there.
The line that means a lot to me in the song is ‘so you feel you’re growing up, I feel nothing’, I really relate to that line. Especially at this point in my life, at times I feel a great dissonance between what I should be, and what I feel I am. It’s about perpetual childhood, growing up, not feeling like who you’re meant to be, pretending to be who you’re not – be that as a result of all the compounding cultural and societal pressures around us…whatever. It’s an anthem to that really.
I wanted to write a naïve antidote for the spiralling sense of doom you can feel as the world seems to spin further and further into an utterly avoidable nose-dive. I wanted it to feel like finding a moment of peace, standing with your eyes closed, as the chaos turns around you.
All those sentiments seemed to be encapsulated in this song – feeling like a child, as I do sometimes – overwhelmed by what’s happening around us and wanting some unrealistic, fantastical respite from that.
“Heartlands” was the first song I’d written after about 2 years, since stepping away from music. It felt like a different kind of song-writing than I’d been used to in the past. It felt like a warm hand on my shoulder, like words of comfort from someone I trust at time when I felt lost – I write these songs for me, but I hope they’re received as if being spoken to by an empathetic friend. I want them to feel tactile, embracing and open. This is the first song where I became self-aware of that, and it’s what I consider now not only when writing the songs, but when I’m producing the music too – it’s there, with every new sound and each instrument – they need to strive to fulfil this purpose.
“Heaven Or Higher”
In the past, I’ve always felt quite vulnerable about laying my voice quite bare within a song. Throughout the album, and with the songs I’ve written over the last few years, there’s much more honesty and reflections of myself. They’re open, they expose a vulnerability that I’ve masked in the past. I knew I wanted the production to mirror that at moments on the album, an intimacy I didn’t feel brave enough, or confident enough to expose. “Heaven or Higher” was a really big step allowing me to break a habit of disguising my vocals and just show a truer version of myself. Having Ajimal come over and spook the track out with the most tender Musical Saw was a real privilege too. In the track, the Saw to me feels like the spirit of something lost, weaving throughout the song.
“Jesus Says, “Forgive Yourself””
This is one of the oldest songs on the record, I wanted to include some tracks that were written before I came away from music for a while. I liked the conflict that might create between the material. For me, I can tell they come from a different place. There’s a yearning in the older songs that feels different to a lot of tracks on the album. I remember feeling quite suffocated, scared and desperate for change when I wrote this. The song doesn’t feel like me now, but it was who I needed to be then, to get here.
The sound of the track which I co-produced with Max Prior, was kind of inspired by an old juke box my dad bought. You could always here the mechanics of the turnstile, the built in speakers would crackle and hiss and each record would warble just beautifully. We used to have a lot of Elvis on there, and I wanted this to feel like some kind of swampy ballad of old.
“Cruel” was the last track I recorded for the album. I’ve read a lot about album’s just not quite feeling complete, then a song appears at the eleventh hour, like a final puzzle piece. That’s just how it happened with “Cruel”. I was listening through an old lost file of about fifty-or-so demos/ideas I’d recorded about 8 years ago and there was one with quite a repetitive, moody sounding chord progression on keys. It felt contemplative, but also a little hopeful – and that shade of optimism was what the album was missing. It was funny that the last song to be recorded, came from this almost forgotten idea. I think most importantly, “Cruel” felt like an open door to the next chapter of song-writing for me, when it was finished, it felt like an elipses rather than full stop.
“Anything Man” was recorded live, sometimes songs just exist that way. Trying to manipulate them into a more perfect or prescribed form absorbs it’s essence – I love that about music – it’s magic that sometimes a song doesn’t want to be anything other than how it was conceived. Sometimes when I write, I find myself falling into painting a picture of the very worst of myself, or imagining the very best I could, or should be. I think this song is letter to myself, a better and devoted self.
“I’ll Come Running”
“I’ll Come Running” was the first time I’d set out to write a love song. I’d always been intimidated of writing love songs, worried it would come across as quite saccharine or with a recycled sentiment. I wanted to make something that felt like that excited rush of unstoppable adoration, but slightly irrational too, slightly obsessive – I think the first throws of love can be a tight-rope walk of all those almost unhealthy compulsions. It was recorded in an unused photography studio in Greenwich – it was like a concrete box – no natural light. It was a fascinating space, but with no atmosphere to project onto a song. I think that’s why it’s such an atmospheric track – we built that bed of sound and I wrote the song on top of it. It was inspiring to have to create our own colourful environment to exist within.
“Spending Time” is one of the only songs on the album that formed quite slowly over the course of a few live shows with the band. The structure at least was almost fully formed when it came to recording – and it was always intended to be recorded more collaboratively, but when I ended up recording it alone at the height of the pandemic, it started to take on more eerie dance-hall feel that I ran with.
The song was inspired by Buffalo 66, a Vincent Gallo film. When I was maybe 20 I watched it with Max Prior, who produced Beautiful Desolation with me, and there’s a scene where Gallo and Christina Ricci are in a phone booth pretending to be a couple. Gallo keeps saying ‘we’re just a couple, spending time’ – the way he said ‘spending time’ always cracked us up and we’d mimic it for years. I knew I wanted to write a song with it in one day. It’s a great film.
“Pas De Deux”
In classical ballet there’s usually this climactic dance duet between the protagonist couple, the story feels like it’s hinged upon this single moment, and the subtleties of their relationship are almost characterised in one intimate moment. I became a bit obsessed with the idea of these dances and their ability to capture the essence of what lies between two people after watching Norman Mclaren’s 1968 short dance film, which is just the most beautifully psychedelic thing. I wanted to write something that felt like a modern day pas de deux, an intimate portrait of love despite hardships and misfortune. I love the idea of trying to capture in song, something that’s inspired in a different form, whatever that is, a book, a poem, a movie or a dance – to try and recreate a feeling. It’s usually where all my favourite ideas come from, as opposed to being inspired by a song.
There was definitely part of me that didn’t want to release “Love Birds”, it is a raw song, and even more so on this song than some others on the album, there are such autobiographical moments. It’s hard to know how much of yourself to bare. In song, but also in life – I’ve been such a product of who I’m trying to project at times. There’s been moments, I’ve become so disorientated and lost all sense of self, self-worth and self-respect. So, when there are moments of clarity, moments of truth – to me these feel like a hand reaching down from the surface of the water. I feel compelled to display these moments, rather than stifle them, if for no other reason than as a bread crumb trail for myself – to something purer.
Figure In A Landscape is out now on sevenfoursevensix.