Somewhere in Oslo, Norway, Mikhael Paskalev has just woken up and is putting on a pot of coffee to get through our phone interview. “I’ve been here the last two weeks, I’ve got some time off which is really, really nice,” he says explaining his lethargy. His exhaustion and appreciation of some downtime is understandable; it’s been a real meteoric rise for the Norwegian thanks to his hit I Spy, but Paskalev needs coffee before we talk about all that.
“Alright the coffee pot’s on so I’m ready to go,” he announces, our first topic of conversation the series of shows he’ll be playing here in Australia, a prospect he’s clearly excited about. “It’s probably the place I’m most looking forward to going out of the places I’m planning on going or have been, so I’m really excited about it. I don’t know an awful lot about Australia, I guess there’s a lot of things I’ll learn when I get there, but I’ve watched Home and Away and listened to Silverchair so I’ve had a little bit of an education,” he laughs.
I feel obliged to tell him that unfortunately we don’t all look like Home and Away stars, and (with less reluctance) that Silverchair have broken up, but he doesn’t seem fazed; the opportunity to tour here still a good one, and one that owes a bit to the success of I Spy which made it into triple j’s Hottest 100 just recently. Asked if he’d heard of the poll previously, Paskalev’s answer is assured.
“Oh yeah,” he says matter of fact like, clearly understanding significance the poll has garnered over the years. His understanding, however, of just how popular the I Spy was outside of Norway was not as great. “I know it’s been trickling to other places for a while, in some ways I realised it’s larger than just Norway. But I was shocked when the poll came through and I came seventy-five, it was really fucking great! Sorry for the language…”
As great as the exposure that song has given him he feels more pride for his next single Jive Baby, a track he amusingly describes as “not as accessible” and long. It’s cooler though apparently; “well, from my point of view…” he adds. The video clip for that particular track was shot in Bulgaria where Paskalev’s grandparents and father hail from.
“That was nice,” he recalls of the shoot. “We were staying at my grandparents place in their village and my cousin was our driver, one of my best mates was filming. We were just driving around shooting a video clip for a week”. Shooting the clip alongside actress Elena Arginos may not have hurt either, but Paskalev is not drawn on the subject.
His debut What’s Life Without Losers shows a songwriter more diverse and talented than the single I Spy can on its own, I Remember You perhaps best displaying the brilliant eclecticism of his writing. Starting out almost blues-rock, it rises like a rock song, has group harmonies like a lot of good pop songs, whilst possessing the kind of guitar fuzz preferred by garage rock bands. Later in the album comes Woman, a slow rolling tune full of resonance and clever chord progressions; observations Paskalev seems flattered by. “That’s very cool to hear. They were nice words, I appreciate it thank you. Usually people just mention I Spy! When you mention I Remember You and Woman, it makes me a happy fella,” he says genuinely, his humbleness bloody disarming.
It’s that mashing of genre elements as well as unexpected song structures and lyrical stylings that make Paskalev stand out from other acoustic based pop artists, the reasons for his style though are unclear. “I did spend most of my years trying to be a rock guitarist, not a songwriter singer,” he theorises. “I always thought I’d be the cool guy in the background, but it never happened that way. But I played in loads of shit bands as a kid and they were very prog rock – weird time signatures, 50 horrible songs in one. I’ve never actually thought about this before, but maybe those years of trying to make virtuoso music has done something,” he chuckles.
One thing is for certain: the music of Bulgaria hasn’t had a great influence on him, Paskalev describing music taste there as “pretty shit”, though he’s not being vindictive in saying it. “In Norway and Australia you’d have something you’d define as folk pop, but that’s pretty, this is worse. Old traditional Bulgarian folk music that objectifies – female strippers singing folk pop – it’s really weird!”
If he has picked up one folk tradition though it’s his love of a nylon string guitar, Paskalev preferring it over a steel string, even when playing with his full band. “It’s the timbre (of a nylon string) and tradition maybe in someway. It’s just a lot warmer when you’re standing there on your own”. He won’t be on his own during his musical sojourn here though, Paskalev will have his full band in tow, and he seems to be chomping at the bit, despite enjoying his current down time, to visit.
“It’s really crazy and really great,” he reiterates regarding his success and upcoming tour dates. “I’m very happy about it.”
BY GARRY WESTMORE