Waiting for Paul Smith to answer the phone, it occurred to me that the most recent three chats I’ve had with him have had precisely nothing to do with his role as the energetic frontman and songwriter of indie pop rockers, Maximo Park.
And it’s not as though the band – to which Billingham-born Paul was recruited in 2000 – have been having a particularly quiet time or anything.
On the contrary, their last long player, 2012’s The National Health, signaled the start of what the 34-year-old calls “a bit of a hot streak” where they were “writing songs as good as we can write”.
Nevertheless, intervening pockets of creativity have seen Paul finding the time to offer meaningful contributions to a trio of significant North East cultural projects under his own steam.
First up was last year’s multi-event arts project Space Invasion, which saw him compose a song in response to a poem by award-winning poet Lavinia Greenlaw, and perform it to an intimate audience of 25 inside Newcastle’s Morden Tower.
Then, earlier this year, he had his travel writings set to music by Field Music’s Peter Brewis for a commission from the Festival of the North East. The project, called Frozen By Sight, offered an outlet for a long-awaited collaboration between two of the region’s best-known 21st-century music makers, and was performed to a sell-out crowd at Sage Gateshead.
And now there’s this.
The reason for me bothering him for the third time in relatively quick succession was his name appearing in the new commissions list for this year’s Great North Run Culture (GNRC) hoopla.
A Mind Full of Nothing but Continue is a new choral work he has composed after a pre-commission conversation with GNRC director, Beth Bate.
“Beth got in touch and sounded me out to see what I would think of doing something for the run,” explains Paul. “She wanted to do something with the voice – be it with a gigantic choir or something more intimate. It was all up for thinking about, which was really exciting. I’m very glad she had the faith in me and I was more than happy to get involved. It’s something totally different and that’s always something I’m looking for.
“Everything I do is trying to make little left turns and do something else – and every little project rubs off on each other in the end.”
Having been figuratively given a blank book of staff lines – although Paul confesses he can’t read music – the singer began musing on what the piece could be.
“When she first asked me, I didn’t know what form it would take,” he says, “but in the end I’ve come up with about 26 minutes of new music, based on driving around the route of the run.
“I haven’t done the race myself, but we drove around and I suppose the lyrics which are in it reflect the kinds of things I would pick up on anyway if I was going out with my notebook and looking around.
“In that respect it goes along with the recent thing I did with Peter (Brewis). It’s funny how things which seemingly have nothing to do with each other, do link up.”
The resulting piece offers parts for six voices – one of which is Paul himself, with vocal group Mouthful also in the mix – and also has room for “a little bit of synth”.
“It’s not a mass voice, but it’s also not too quiet,” he says. “It has quieter moments but is quite triumphant in places, too. It’s a blend of different musical ideas, which was really interesting.”
Although not a recipient of an official Great North Run number, a younger Paul did represent his school in cross country running: “I would go off to other schools and just run in the rain, for what seemed like forever,” and continued the trend afterwards. “I used to run to keep fit, but now I just play concerts and football,” he laughs.
Having explored and dismissed a number of ideas during the development of the piece, Paul ended up focusing on the breathing patterns which emerge when runners are running.
“When I used to run, I’d find myself in these rhythmic patterns in my mind. You’d get a phrase in your head and it would just go round and round. The lyrics of the piece are little loops really. Like the little mantras which run inside your head when you’re running.
“I also found you’d just get on with it – and I suppose that’s where the title of the piece came from,” he adds. “In the end, when you hit the wall, your mind is full of nothing, but let’s keep going and try and get to the end.”
Thankfully, Paul had a mind full of something while composing the work, which gets its premiere on September 14.
And the many ticket holders will be delighted to hear that rehearsals have been going more than well.
“I was just grinning,” says Paul of the first time he heard it sung.
“I’m probably the weakest link because I can’t read the music back, so I have to concentrate on keeping to my harmony. But the first rehearsal was brilliant.
“Obviously, you pick bits and bobs out to make it better, but it was so good to hear it for the first time – and hear it worked.
“Certain parts are quieter and more reflective and others will be possibly more what you’d expect from a sporting piece of music,” he adds when asked to offer a flavour.
“It’s not particularly derivative of anything, but there’s a moment when I mention the name of a place, and it kind of feels like a bit of a fanfare – but I’ll leave it for audience to hear it on the night.”
Although the commission won’t gets its premiere until September 14, there will be a preview of the piece at the wider launch of Great North Run Culture at Sport Central in Newcastle on September 6.
The day after that, Paul will be off to Istanbul with his Maxï¿½mo Park bandmates to play the latest in a long line of 2013 festival performances.
“It’s been such a busy time over the past couple of years – and it’s not as though the ones before that were quiet,” he laughs. “But I think you have to embrace the opportunities you’re given. You just have to be a bit more sensible when it comes to partying and all that.
“We’ve been in the studio and have got a new album together which, in a perfect world, will be out early next year.
“I want to connect with people – that’s what I always want to do, and that’s the same whether it’s a pop song or 26-minutes of choral music. It all comes from the same place.”
:: A Mind Full of Nothing but Continue will be premiered at Sage Gateshead’s Northern Rock Foundation Hall on September 14.
The few tickets which are left are available from the box office on 0191 443 4661 and www.sagegateshead.org
Tickets for the launch of Great North Run Culture on September 6 are free, but need to be reserved at gnrc13launch.eventbrite.co.uk