Music News

Count Your Blessings

The last time William Topley was in Colorado, he almost froze his ass off. It was a week before Christmas in the faux-Swiss theme-park surroundings of Vail Village, and a clearly pissed-off-looking Topley was preparing to play a nighttime outdoor concert in 15-degree weather -- for reasons unclear even to him. Worst of all, the propane-fueled heaters on stage weren't doing much to keep the sotto-voiced singer and his largely London-based band from turning into fashionably leather-bound ice men.

Despite the chill in the air, however, Topley managed to turn in a set that glowed with pop perfection, flowing and resounding with Caribbean rhythms and even a few hints of country sensibility. Bolstering himself with a few shots of Jack Daniel's in between songs, he managed to live through the deep freeze and prove himself even more versatile than previously imagined.

Flash forward a year: Topley is back home in England, working on new tracks in his London studio -- and anxious to return to Colorado for a trio of shows at Boulder's Fox Theatre that will presumably find him in warmer company.

Topley is a self-admitted musical anomaly, a British-based, adult-oriented radio star who just happens to be signed to Nashville's Mercury Records -- a country-music label that's home to such artists as Shania Twain, Wynonna Judd and Kathy Mattea. Given his occasionally reggae-flavored mix of soul and rock, Topley is clearly Mercury's most curious pet project. He's also a singer who has found an unusually receptive audience in Colorado: Though his hard-to-categorize pop leanings remain largely unknown at home in England, his draw in Colorado is so strong that this weekend's dates in Boulder will constitute the full extent of his current American "tour."

"It's become the thing for me to do, to come and play in Colorado at Christmas," Topley says. "I shall be up there at the old Flagstaff, slurping away at the California reds and then trundling down to see the gigs. I really like it in Boulder -- I get affection and appreciation for the music that I don't get anywhere else in the world. I think I need to learn how to bring some of that affection to places nearer my home, but I haven't quite worked out how to bottle it here."

Being lost in that perpetual transatlantic no-man's-land does create a few logistical problems for the singer, who first caught the attention of American audiences as leader of the Blessing. With the band, whose notable sole release was 1991's Prince of the Deep Water, Topley enjoyed a modicum of adult-rock-radio success, both in the United States and at home. But since the launch of his solo career -- and especially with his sponsorship by one of country's most influential labels -- Topley maintains a precarious perch between niche-market acceptance in places like Colorado and relative obscurity. It seems that the eclectic musical tastes of programmers at KBCO and KXPX have helped sustain Topley's local standing, including significant exposure for AAA-format hits such as "Walk Like I Do," from his most recent recording, 1999's Spanish Wells. And that's given Topley plenty of incentive to make the long journey to his local fan base.

"For whatever reason, Colorado's the only place in the world that really connects between my music and that of the Blessing," he says. "Our stuff was released all over the world, and quite a lot of attention was drawn to it...but very few people picked up on that when my solo stuff first came out. The people in Colorado seem to have kept the faith for the time in between."

That support has provided ongoing encouragement for Topley, who weathered an exasperating seven-year gap between his previous band's CD and the release of his own first solo recording. "After the Blessing disbanded," he says, "I was struggling to find an outlet for what it was that I was doing. But by the time that plastic balloon imploded, I was the only person who had faith in what I was doing and would risk time on it. [Ex-Blessing guitarist] Luke Brighty has stuck with me the whole way through, and I've been writing loads of stuff with him, but the rest of them had to find some other way of feathering their nests. Thanks to Mercury, I was able to carry on."

Considering the unusual but pleasant pop that Topley creates, it's too bad that he hasn't received wider attention. His growling voice, which sounds like Otis Redding's with a Chris Rea-styled British accent, makes it difficult for listeners to peg his origins. And his lyrical content is peppered with enough tales from his time on the Texas road and steamy images from the Caribbean (where Topley lived for several years before his time with the Blessing) to make him seem like some strange cross between Larry McMurtry and Ernest Hemingway. Topley says the American undercurrent of much of the material, especially that of Spanish Wells, reflects his own experiences touring the United States, including a 65-day tour that preceded the album's recording.

"I guess the songs have an American feel because that's where I've been...and I feel more able to express myself over there. Loads of people from Britain or Europe go to Thailand or the Far East as tourists, but an entirely new culture like that is both wonderful and very exhausting. Instead, I came to the United States, which wasn't a completely alien culture -- there's still a lot of common ground. But it's also very different, and I find that very exciting and stimulating. Playing in America is also much easier and much better for groups, because music is taken much more seriously over there."

Topley's comfort in jumping from genre to genre is Spanish Wells's most defining feature, from his Ranking Roger-style toasting on "Ten Ten" to the steel-guitar balladry of "Nothing Else Matters." Perhaps the CD's closest connection to the folks who sign Topley's paychecks comes in the song "Cowpoke," an honest-to-God cowboy ditty written by Stan Jones. Topley first heard the song while sucking up the atmosphere during a performance by Texas legend Don Walser on Austin's Sixth Street. Since his last holiday visit to the States, Topley has been collaborating with Brighty on material for a yet-to-be-titled new album and says he has completed the bulk of the work, much of which is in the spirit of Spanish Wells. He had also initially planned to use the three dates at the Fox to record a live album, although he says he's not sure if that will happen now.

"I just do what I've always done, which is to make tapes of my own songs and try to find some conduit through which to get them to the people. I started writing and recording songs just as soon as I came off from playing last Christmas. And I've been writing them with a view to playing them live and getting them out to the same kind of people. There's some bits of Cuban stuff on this one, which is probably the most different material of the album. There's also quite a lot of reggae, which I'm sort of unsure whether I should put on the album or not -- although it sounds good now."

Topley's odd arrangement with Nashville, not normally considered the biggest breeding ground for British rock stars, stems back to a friendship he made with Mercury president Luke Lewis during the Blessing's heyday. Lewis brought Topley to New York to help craft his first solo release, Black River, bringing in hired guns like producer Barry Beckett. That disc was followed by Mixed Blessing, a project that combined four new songs with a number of tracks taken from the Blessing's album. And despite recent record-industry shakeups that have seen many artists dropped from labels' rosters, Topley remains signed with Mercury and continues to be one of its most non-traditional artists.

"I think Luke always felt there was some sort of Americana angle to my music, and at the time I went over to get the deal with Nashville, there wasn't much interest in that kind of thing over here. I'm sure that I'm still one of the more difficult clients they have, but they've given me a lot of love and faith that bigger labels probably wouldn't have," he says. "I'd love to come back to Nashville and do a record with a producer and spend loads of money on it, but as things are at the moment, it seems sensible to knuckle down and get on with the work here. You've got to just keep on with your own little journey. I haven't made the kind of records that would have been easy for a major label to have sold on a mass level. I wish I had, but every time I go in to do one, it sort of comes out a more personal object than I thought it would be."

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Andy Stonehouse