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Interview: Wonderful Life singer-songwriter Black

WHETHER or not his name rings a bell, a few bars into singer- songwriter Black’s most famous track is bound to have you singing along.

Singer- songwriter Black. Photo by Gisli Snaer
Singer- songwriter Black. Photo by Gisli Snaer

WHETHER or not his name rings a bell, a few bars into singer- songwriter Black’s most famous track is bound to have you singing along.

Black is the man who gave us 80s hit Wonderful Life – twice (it was even more popular on its second release), which went on to dominate charts across Europe.

Even if you don’t think you know the song, it has over the years, due to multi cover versions and regular use as a backdrop in TV dramas and adverts, formed the on-off soundtrack to our lives.

But where is its Liverpool-born creator now? And what is he up to?

Well, the where is Ireland, having escaped there from London several years ago. And Black, real name Colin Vearncombe, is about to go on tour.

But right now he’s at home; more precisely in bed, as I find out during our (phone) interview, having retreated back there as it’s such a rainy day – “I can’t see out of the windows; I can normally see the ocean”.

And, comfortably ensconced, he’s in chatty mood, proving fine company: irreverent, unguarded and highly entertaining.

This Thursday he’ll be launching his tour from Newcastle although, much as he likes the city – “you have a fondness for some places” he says – you get the impression that if it wasn’t all part and parcel of the job, he’d really rather not bother (more of that later).

Vearncombe lives out “in the sticks” not far from Cork, which feels like Liverpool did 15 years ago, he says.

Getting out of London proved a tonic – “such a bad-tempered, miserable city. Whatever sins I might have had must have been atoned for by now” – and he so much dreads going back, as he must do from time to time for work, that on his last visit he decided “to reinvent myself as an actor”, adopting a cheery Irish brogue and forcing himself and initially reluctant people into conversation. “It worked a treat,” he says.

In Ireland where besides his music, art (he’s a keen painter of the female form, or “wobbly women” as he puts it, and is about to hold a third exhibition of work) and poetry-writing – his first collection coincides with the tour – share his family life, conversations are never a problem and can inspire a song.

“Songs basically get written,” he says.

“In Ireland you’re never short of someone willing to talk. Shutting them up is more of a problem.”

Talking about the music business which has, of course, changed beyond recognition over the years, he says that, with online music streaming services replacing the old lure of record shops, “no one is making a living”.

He notes: “Rock and roll music belongs to those who are breaking through walls. There’s a terrible degree of conformity now.”

Yet after the success of that song and Top 10 hit Sweetest Smile, Vearncombe, now 50, has hung on, through 10 studio albums, plus live ones of music that’s been described as eclectic, slightly melancholic and always extremely classy; unhappy experiences with record labels, which prompted him to launch his own: Nero Schwarz (which means ‘black’ in Italian and German), and a spell of recording under his real name.

Constantly working on presenting material in a different way, improving, re-recording and editing – “I have a tendency at certain periods to be long-winded” – he is clearly a deep thinker and curious about his own direction and how to keep things interesting for himself as well as his fans (he experimented with free downloads and fans picked the tracks for his 2011 album Any Colour You Like from his back catalogue).

“I need to pick up,” he thinks.

“Ed Sheeran set out to do 300 gigs a year and achieved it. These people know how to do it.”

He does a few gigs in Ireland which are going down well and has an EP of new material out, his first since 2009’s Water On Stone, to coincide with the tour.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to make an album again.” The effort involved for few buyers just doesn’t stack up.

During the tour fans will also be able to get their hands on that first book of poetry, I Am Not The Same Person, which he’s illustrated with his own paintings.

Discussing his poetry, his art and film interests, Vearncombe uses rather beautiful turns of phrase, such as “thrashing around in darkness when what I’m aiming for is light” and, in talking about people’s apparent inability to appreciate the control they have over their lives, “responsibility for your own life is a privilege, not a burden”.

I wouldn’t have found him like this if it had been a fine day, he laughs.

So ... to the tour: is he looking forward to being back on the road, I ask?

Er ... no, he isn’t.

“I never really expect to enjoy gigs,” he answers, then considers: “When people ask ‘am I looking forward to it’, I should just say ‘yes’.

“What do you expect? Anticipate with pleasure? It’s like staring down the barrel of a gun.

“In one sense it’s you against them.”

Whereas many visiting performers trot out the usual line about how much they enjoy playing Newcastle, with Vearncombe it rings true.

“There’s not that much difference between Liverpool and Newcastle, and the way people relate to each other,” he says.

“When the prospect of touring came up I didn’t want to go just anywhere on a punt but just a few places I’d like to go.”

He adds: “Being on stage is like stepping into a dream. If you do it right then you are not aware of thought.

“On stage you try not to be thinking at all.”

But he will be giving some prior consideration to when Beautiful Life should make its appearance in the play-list.

If there’s a song audiences really want to hear, when is the best time to play it, he ponders. Does he keep them hanging on?

But play it he will.

Not everyone knows that Wonderful Life is a song laden with irony, its lyrics written at a very low point in Vearncombe’s life.

He explains: “It was a terrible year. I was homeless at the time; I literally had this run of things.”

He’d been dropped by his record label: “the company dropped me, my first wife dropped me, I had a car crash.

“I was couch surfing, without a home but not without friends.”

In the song he was castigating himself, he says, “for obvious bouts of self-pity”. He certainly hadn’t set out to have a hit.

It continues to bring him royalty payments but he points out: “My money comes from writing songs not because I’ve made royalties.”

Yet Wonderful Life has dominated his career.

He considers himself lucky but adds: “Looking back, I’ve never been aware of any (feeling of) having made it. I still don’t think I have to be honest.”

He hit a nadir, he suggests, mentioning the film About A Boy in which Hugh Grant’s character is living off the royalties of a successful song composed by his father.

“At least I wrote a f***ing song!”

He muses: “What is it about that song?

“I don’t know and it’s probably just as well. If I did know I’d be driven to try to replicate it. It would be unbearable!”

Black plays The Cluny 2 on Thursday, joined by Calum MacColl on guitar and vocals. Visit www.thecluny.com and see www.colinvearncombe.com


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