February 15, 2003
Illuminating Weller
By MARY DICKIE
As far as fame and fortune go, Paul Weller is in a peculiar position.

He enjoys almost godlike status in the U.K., where his albums routinely head for the Top 10, and his words and fashion sense are studied as those of a respected elder statesman.

But in North America, Weller is just another obscure Englishman with a small cult following -- that guy from the Jam who sounds a bit like Steve Winwood now. His two previous solo albums weren't even released on this side of the Atlantic.

Hope springs eternal, however, and Weller has re-emerged with one of his strongest albums in years, Illumination, which does have North American distribution. Even better, he'll visit Massey Hall Monday for his first Toronto show since 1997.

Over the phone from Los Angeles at the beginning of the tour, Weller admitted to feeling disappointment about the unreleased albums.

"It's frustrating," he said. "I mean, I don't expect to sell millions of copies, but it'd be nice to think that at least the records were available if people wanted them.

"I've no idea why my music doesn't go over in America. Some say it's too English, but there are other very English things that North Americans have taken to heart, like the Beatles and Monty Python. I don't have an answer; I'm just glad this record's out over here."

Indeed, after a quarter-century of making music -- first with the Jam, then the Style Council, then solo -- Weller has learned to be philosophical about success.

"Without any false modesty or anything, as long as I've got some sort of audience here that I can come and play to, I'm happy," he said.

"I'm not out for world domination or a No. 1 record; I'm just happy to keep playing."

A grab bag of British blues-rock, soul, pop and rock, Illumination was recorded in small spurts in between dates on a solo acoustic tour.

"It was more enjoyable doing it that way," Weller said. "It wasn't too laborious. We'd go in for two or three days and get a lot of work done, and then I could go off and play and think about the tracks and come back. It was kind of fun to do, and hopefully that comes across."

What really comes across is a surprising optimism, a faith in the future that belies Weller's worries about the current state of the world. While songs like A Bullet For Everyone and All Good Books lament war hysteria and the misreading of religious books, others celebrate love, babies and spring, and Standing Out In The Universe encourages people to stand up and make a difference.

"I wanted to make the sort of record that has people coming away feeling somewhat positive about things," Weller said. "I think it does have a certain amount of faith, an uplifting quality."

When it comes to politics and music, there's a fine line between making a point and overdoing it, according to Weller. "First and foremost I'm a musician, and if politics come into my music, if I take a certain stance, well that's part of it as well," he said. "In the '80s, in the Style Council, we were involved with a lot of political things going on at that time. I think after a while that overshadowed the music a bit, and I suppose because of that experience I'm wary of getting too involved.

"But I still think there's a place for outspokenness. That's what folk songs were all about, originally ... I think that's still valid."