When Paul Carrack was 15, the careers officer at school in Sheffield made him and his class an offer they wished they could refuse. But it helped him decide what he already knew: that his future lay in music.

“When we were coming up to leaving school, they took us to the local coal mine,” he remembers. “That was the best money around at the time. So you go down in the cage a really long way, then you get on a little train track, and that went a really long way too. You get out, and you’re walking, and I trod on this bloke sitting there having his sandwiches in the dark.

“Then you get to the coal face and it’s low, you’re crawling around under there. They’ve got the hydraulic props, dust flying everywhere. I was claustrophobic anyway. And it was ‘Get me out of here. Give me that bloody guitar and let me learn a few more chords.’”

In a weird way, thank goodness for that careers officer. Playing music has been Paul’s life ever since, across a half-century in which he paid plenty of dues before turning into Britain’s best blue-eyed soul singer-writer, and purveyor of songs that are deep in the DNA of pop history. The BBC documentary about his life and times wasn’t called ‘The Man With The Golden Voice’ for nothing. Now he returns with the finest album of his distinguished career.

Paul wrote and sang ‘How Long,’ the much-covered 1974 classic from his days with Ace, and was the voice of ‘Tempted,’ from his tenure with Squeeze. Then came such hits with Mike + the Mechanics as the Grammy-Nominated ‘The Living Years’ and ‘Over My Shoulder,’ the latter a co-write with Mike Rutherford. Not to mention that another co-write, ‘Love Will Keep Us Alive,’ was covered by the Eagles and won a hugely prestigious ASCAP award as Song of the Year.

Diana Ross, no less, covered Carrack’s co-write with Nick Lowe, ‘Battlefield,’ and as an in-demand collaborator, Paul’s decades of distinction include sessions with the Smiths, Roxy Music, B.B. King and countless others, culminating in a request from Eric Clapton to join his touring band. That rare honour comes up to date in the summer of 2018 with their homecoming performance in London’s Hyde Park.

“I hope it (the new album) will resonate with people who are going through the same stuff. It’s not being frightened of it, and just trying to enjoy it.”

But after so many years of selflessly helping other artists look great, Paul is ready to reach new heights of his own with ‘These Days.’ It’s his 17th album in his own name, a run that began way back in 1980, but which has been building real, independent momentum since he formed his own Carrack-UK label in 2000 with the landmark ‘Satisfy My Soul’ release.

Since the turn of the century, Paul has quietly built a huge, loyal fan base, the audience that not only devours his albums, but turns out to see his frequent, extensive tours in their thousands. He’s done that the only way he knows, by making high-quality, accessible pop-soul with unmissable hooks and lyrics that say something about all of our lives.

That’s more true than ever on ‘These Days.’ The album’s stunning line-up features Paul on keyboards and guitar and regular bandmate Jeremy Meek on bass, joined by Robbie McIntosh (Paul McCartney, Pretenders, Norah Jones, John Mayer) on lead guitar and drummer Steve Gadd, Paul’s Eric Clapton bandmate who has graced the work of everyone from Steely Dan to James Taylor.

As if their exemplary playing wasn’t enough, the album’s horn section is hand-picked and overseen by the mighty Pee Wee Ellis, the American saxophone ace who was an integral part of James Brown’s shows and records of the vintage ‘Cold Sweat’ era. Five tracks on ‘These Days’ have lyrics by Paul’s friend, former Squeeze bandmate and consummate wordsmith Chris Difford.

As usual, the new songs started in Carrack’s home studio, but they came to life in a different and exciting way this time. “I don’t write a song and then do a demo,” he explains. “It’s a little nugget of an idea and I start messing about with it, chipping away and it becomes something. Usually, that’s completed and that becomes the album.

“In this case, I took a lot of the songs quite a way, but then we decided we wanted to make it a bit more performance-based and with some other influences. I’ve been playing with Eric for about five years now, and I just mentioned it to Steve Gadd, we were playing at the A Hall, was it something he might be interested in, and he was very keen.”

“We decided we wanted to make this album a bit more performance-based and with some other influences”

When Gadd said he’d be coming through the UK on the way home from a European tour with Chick Corea, Paul seized the moment. “We had him for three days and we went into Air Studios in London. Gadd is really committed, he’s humble but he’s really behind whatever he’s doing. There’s no ego there at all.

“And Robbie, he’s such an understated guy, he’s brilliant. He played on an album of mine called ‘Blue Views’ years ago [1996], and having decided we were going to record as a band, we figured it would be great to get him in. Pee Wee did the horn arrangements — he did some on the last album too — and he put a great section together. We did a dozen tracks in three days, then we brought it back to my studio.”

“I hope it (the new album) will resonate with people who are going through the same stuff. It’s not being frightened of it, and just trying to enjoy it.”

By the time Carrack hit the road again early in 2018 for another huge, sellout tour (how many other artists do you know who can do those between albums?), he was ready to road-test a couple of the new tunes, and now we can enjoy all of them. Plenty, from the title track to ‘Where Does The Time Go?,’ ‘The Best I Could’ and ‘Dig Deep,’ strike a glass-half-full, pensive mood about the long road travelled and the adventures still to come. “When I think about it, we’ve come a long, long way,” as Paul sings on the typically catchy and beguiling ‘Amazing.’

There was another moment of reflection when Carrack came to choose the striking cover image for the album, as he rifled through a box of his late father’s photographs. “When you go through these things, you realise you’ve come a hell of a long way,” he muses. The gorgeous image is of Paul’s brother. “That’s us on holiday,” he says. “We’re living it large there, I think it’s probably the Isle of Wight. Man, that was exotic back in the day. We had pretty humble beginnings.”

Giving the coalmine the heave-ho, by 17 Paul was already on tour, if you could call it that. “I went off to Germany, we auditioned in London and got the gig,” he recalls. “We did two weeks in a club in Frankfurt then two in Cologne. All covers. Then we had a month-long residency at the Top Ten Club on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.” They were in some footsteps: the fledgling Beatles played there in 1961. “Then the progressive rock stuff was coming in. We decided we were going to go for it, threw in the cover malarkey and went for it.”

It took several more years, via the jazz-rock band Warm Dust, to get any kind of payback on those dues, when Ace’s ‘How Long’ not only became a UK success but a top three smash in the US, covered by Bobby Womack, no less. At this end of the race, the songbook has grown to the point where it’s almost burst its binding. A whole new album’s worth of instant gems will add to a solo catalogue that includes ‘Satisfy My Soul,’ ‘Eyes Of Blue,’ ‘Good Feelin’ About It,’ ‘That’s All That Matters To Me’ and ‘Keep On Lovin’ You.’

How long has this been going on? From those first musical adventures, it really is 50 years, and it’s only getting better. ‘These Days’ is grown-up pop music made by, and for, people who’ve had the ups and downs that life unfailingly provides.

“It’s about getting to an age, and appreciating what you’ve got,” says Carrack. “I hope it will resonate with people who are going through the same stuff. It’s not being frightened of it, and just trying to enjoy it.”

– Paul Sexton, July 2018