Paul Bushnell of The Commitments fame reveals all about LA life as a session guitarist

Marjorie Brennan talks to Paul Bushnell, who used the success of The Commitments to secure a career in LA with the likes of Neil Young, Elton John, Michael Buble, and Phil Collins.

Paul Bushnell of The Commitments fame reveals all about LA life as a session guitarist

Paul Bushnell is speaking to me from his home in Los Angeles.

It’s a damp and blustery night on this end of the phone but Bushnell is kicking back in his sunny backyard.

“I hate to tell you,” he laughs.

“It’s about 75 degrees and the sun is blazing down. That’s winter in LA. I had 29 years of Irish weather and I definitely don’t miss that.”

The LA lifestyle is a far remove from the streets of 1980s Dublin, where Bushnell honed his skills as a guitarist, busking on Grafton St and playing in various bands.

Since Bushnell moved to the US west coast in 1991, he has worked as a studio bassist and sound engineer with some of the top names in the business, including Elton John, Phil Collins, Neil Young, Celine Dion, and country superstars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.

Bushnell decamped to LA on the advice of director Alan Parker, with whom he worked on the smash hit film The Commitments.

Initially, he was asked to get a live band together for the auditions but his role soon escalated.

“Alan asked me to come to [casting directors] Ros and John Hubbard’s office for a conversation. I was handed seven or eight tapes with about 150 R&B songs.

"My job was to write out chord charts for every song, and write the horn parts. I had never done it before and I had to run to McCullough Pigotts [music shop] for a book on musical arrangements. The next Monday I had an 11-piece band with Rob Strong on lead vocals.

"We finished on Friday evening, we were packing up and slapping each other on the back — all of us exhausted — and Alan said, ‘I’ll see you in the studio on Monday, you’re producing the record.’

"I co-produced the soundtrack with Kevin Killen, a great engineer who has worked with Elvis Costello and U2, and is still my best friend. It was great to have him advising me, as I had the ears and the heart, but I had no engineering chops.”

Bushnell, whose mother was well-known cabaret artiste Anne Bushnell, grew up in a musical household.

“There was always R&B and American soul music in the house. I got home from school one evening and heard a beautiful sound coming from the spare bedroom.

"My father was practising classical guitar. I lost my mind when I heard it, it was beautiful — my father gave me the guitar and said, ‘This is yours, you can take my lessons.’”

Bushnell went from school in Terenure College to UCD, where, surprisingly, given his creative bent, he studied physics, maths, and computer science.

“This was 1981 and the start of computers, but I didn’t love what I was studying. I was meeting colourful characters, I was familiar with the bar, there were many parties.

"One Saturday afternoon on Grafton St I saw a commotion — there were four guys I hung out with, busking. There were 200-300 people gathered around them and I knew it was for me, so I jumped in and sang harmonies with them.

“I left college to become a musician, and things started to happen. We had a band and Shay Healy took us under his wing.

"We were the fun buskers on Grafton St — you also had Glen Hansard, who was only a teenager, and the Hothouse Flowers. We hung out at a pizza place on Duke St, it was brilliant.”

While Bushnell enjoyed his time as a wandering minstrel, Alan Parker and the Commitments came along at just the right time.

“I had lots of fun but I had done the rounds and hit the wall. To get the opportunity to come over to LA and hit the reset button, and have a nice calling card, which The Commitments was amazing. I was supervising the last portion of the production of the soundtrack.

"The idea started to ferment in my head about the move, but I didn’t know if I’d pull the trigger on it. Alan Parker said he’d buy me a ticket back to the US if I wanted to continue there, and I took him up on it.”

However, when Bushnell did move to LA, he was in danger of enjoying the benefits a bit too much.

“I started a two-year party, where I lost all traction on The Commitments. I had to start again, literally playing in coffee shops for 20 bucks.”

Once again, fortune, in the guise of another influential industry player, smiled on Bushnell.

“Ed Cherney, who had produced the Rolling Stones, came to one of the things I was doing, and asked me to play on a record, and it started to snowball. It’s a big town but in other ways it’s a small town, and word gets around.”

The roll call of musicians that Bushnell has worked with, as a session bassist and sound engineer, is a long one. Those that stand out in his mind are the ones that make the recording experience an enjoyable one.

“To me, it’s all about the hang in the studio. Michael Buble comes to mind — he’s a hoot, a beautiful guy and super sweet. He likes to have fun and then he gets in front of the mike and he’s like Sinatra, who used to knock it out first take.”

While Bushnell is well used to working with big names, he struggled to keep his cool when he was called in at the last minute to work with Elton John, one of his musical heroes.

“The producer Pat Leonard called me, sounding flustered, and said, ‘I need you right now at the studio, I have a really disgruntled artist at a piano because today’s been a bad day.’

"He didn’t tell me who it was, because he didn’t want to freak me out. I walked into the room and see the Queen of England on the other side of the piano, and part of me is going ‘Oh shit, Elton John,’ but on the outside I’m ‘Hey man, great to meet you, what do you want to do?’

"He said ‘all right’, then handed me paper with scratchings of chords. We started, stopped after 30 seconds so he could change something, played it one more time, and he said, ‘That’s great, let’s do another’ and three hours later we had three songs cut.

"We ended up spending three weeks in the studio and it was one of the highlights of my life.”

Bushnell recently worked with Neil Young, another musician he greatly admired.

“I had been working with Micah Nelson, Willie Nelson’s youngest son… Neil heard his record and asked who was playing bass. I got a phone call the next morning from Neil, and of course I nearly shit my pants. He told me to come into the studio a couple of days after.

“There was Neil and me and Jim Keltner, a beautiful drummer — more than a drummer, a painter with his drums. We had four days recording songs Neil had barely written, fresh off the press.

"It was very spontaneous and organic. I remember snogging an old girlfriend to Harvest, so all these things come back into your mind and the circles close.”

Having seen how fame works up close, Bushnell says he is more than happy to stay in the background.

“There are few jobs more horrible than being well-known,” he says.

“I love the anonymity of being a studio musician because you don’t have to put up with all the other bullshit, you’re free to be a musician, to be part of that moment.”

Bushnell also prefers to avoid the hard slog of going on tour, but makes an exception for legendary country couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, who are now good friends. Serendipity once again played a role in how he ended up working for the couple.

“I played on a Phil Collins record; Tim was on holiday with Faith in Italy and happened to hear it and said, ‘You should have this bass player play with you.’

"A few days later, I was recording with Faith, then I got to play live with her, and that turned into playing live with Tim. They’ve been insanely good to me, and pay me as a studio musician when I’m on the road with them.”

Working with Hill and McGraw also provided financial stability for Bushnell at a precarious time for the music industry.

“They brought a secure financial backbone to my world — when people stopped paying for music, budgets were slashed. It’s ridiculous — would you ask your dentist to work for free, or take bread from the store and not expect repercussions?”

Bushnell is currently working on an album with US-based Irish lawyer Dave Sweeney, who is returning to his musical roots. He continues to be thankful for the Commitments and where it led him.

“It was such a brilliant experience and people still hit me on Facebook about it. We really caught a youthful energy.”

However, while Bushnell might give the impression that his career as a studio musician is down to chance, there is no doubt that his skills, and his personality, have played a big part in his success.

“You have to have a certain mentality [to be a studio musician]. It’s not something contrived, it’s just what you are. Artists are sensitive people, and if you’re standing in front of them pretending to be something, they’ll smell bullshit.

“You have to be who you are and, luckily enough, I am who I am and it seems to work. I found my groove.”

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