Hi Paul. California came out in the UK in the autumn of 2009 and now gets its release in the US. What have you been doing in the meantime?
I’ve sort of been in limbo-land with it, halfway past it and halfway looking forward to hearing if anybody digs it in this country. Because it was all recorded by myself with me playing all the instruments on it, I didn’t really have any perspective on whether people were going to like it or not. Now I know that at least some English people like it!
Does it ever get lonely making music this way, by yourself?
Well, all of these songs, like the previous record, were recorded without the knowledge that I was even making a record. Each of the songs were recorded the day they were written, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I had enough songs for a record. I think it was about 18 or 19 or so. But it was never really lonely for me, cause whenever I would be recording a song, it would be sort of a panicky situation. I would write a song in the afternoon with coffee, decide that maybe there was something there, get excited and pour a glass of wine, and once the wine gets poured, there is only so much of a small window before nothing positive is going to happen anymore. So it was all recorded in this kind of celibatory panic of “let’s try and get this down quickly”. Working alone actually speeds things up, cause you never have to describe to anyone what you’re to trying to do. You’re just hearing this noise in your ear, and it might sound terrible the first time you try to play it, but you just keep searching, and eventually it’s done. In the morning, you listen to it and maybe it’s good and maybe it’s not.
Do you ever get ideas for good songs and then forget them again before you have the chance to write them down or record them?
That happens all the time. Some people are very good at keeping that notebook at hand, but that’s never really been my style. I need to make music in my life, but I don’t necessarily have to finish music. The making of music serves a million purposes, but the finishing of music is just sort of my job, something I have to do. During the day I’ll start playing, then it ends and if I don’t end up recording anything and it just evaporates into the ether, it’s okay, cause I guess that’s all I needed to do that day. But some days I know that it’s time to focus. But I think it’s been healthy for me to just go in and not knowing what to do and what to play.
One thing is finishing music and releasing music, the job-part of it in other words. Another thing is the million other purposes you mention. What are these?
It depends on the day. Certain days it’s meditative, certain days it’s killing time, certain days it’s something I do instead of getting my car inspected or something, and certain days it’s just because I’m feeling inspired. It’s never homework though, I know that. And it’s certain not work.
Do you have music on your mind all the time and a subsequent need to just let it out?
No I don’t actually. I did when I was 21, and I could remember thinking back then that I thought it was interesting that I would be working on songs in my head while I was walking to film class. But I also remember thinking to myself that it wouldn’t surprise me if it goes away, that it was just some early 20’s passion that everyone talks about. But with that being said, it still comes and goes. I still lie in bed trying to figure out chord structures, but in the day it’s not on my mind. But then again, I also think that’s healthy. I play every day, but I also know when to stop. I’m kind of protective over the whole thing, I don’t want to destroy it. It’s one of the few things I’m very protective about, and I don’t want it to go away by working myself too hard. I don’t have enough money to buy more motorcycles!
You recorded California by yourself at home without the studio clock ticking and basically without having to record music when you didn’t feel like it…
Yeah, it’s one of the benefits of having your own home studio. You can work when you want to. On the other hand, I think there are benefits to having that clock ticking and the money rolling in. Working within certain parameters can be a benefit, and I think I might have to do that on the next round. I sometimes worry that I have come to understand my own little realm a little bit too well at this point. Maybe I need to get out of there for a little project.
Yes, cause that was my next question. Do you think you might get a little too comfortable with this way of doing things?
Maybe now. I wasn’t for the last two records, and I don’t even know if I am too comfortable yet. But it occurred to me recently that it perhaps wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to change gears a bit for my next project.
You went on a tour of the UK last year, and when I briefly spoke to you then, you told me you were doing steroids due to the vocal chord injuries you suffered two years ago.
Yeah, that was in November, right? The last run I did was the first one without steroids. That was interesting! I need to start doing some vocal exercises now, boring as that is. I can sing again, but it’s a lot easier singing loud than soft, I can’t hold a long, soft note very well, cause my voice starts to wobble. On the whole, it just continues to get better and I think it’s another year before it’s back to normal. When it first happened, I was told it would be at least two years, and I’ve been out about a year and a half now.
Was it intimidating, not knowing if your voice would be up for the job?
I wouldn’t say it was intimidating. There was really nothing I could do except try it. If it went great, then great, and if I blew my voice out on the first night, then I would just have to figure it out, talk the lyrics or a do a puppet show. I had no idea. When I was in England, I played with my wife Devon’s band and they were just the kindest people, and having them around to support me made a big difference. But with that being said, there was a couple of the first nights where I would do a song and think “whoah, be careful with that one”.
You took a year off from touring. Did that year change your perspective on your musical career?
Well, maybe a little. It changed my perspective on my life and who I am. I always thought I was a worked out fellow, pretty tense – not that I would yell or explode or anything – but I could go from relaxed to gritting my teeth by the most minor of things. I just kinda felt that was how I was. When I finally realised that I couldn’t continue due to my vocal chord problems in 2008 after having considered it for eight months or so, it only took about two weeks for me to feel so great, peaceful and just calm. It was most surprising to me that that peacefulness felt so neighbourly, like it had been right next door for so long. This year was just one of the most peaceful years I had ever had. Except for the one massive compromise of not being able to sing or tour, there was very little other compromising on my behalf. I liked being home making records for other people, I was making California, I bought a motorcycle and put a lot of miles on that riding through the mountains. I have no idea how I managed to survive financially!
I’m not sure I can describe to you why, but when I listen to California, it sounds very life affirming, very uplifting. But no one could have blamed your for making a sullen, depressed record. Dumb question, but why didn’t you?
I agree, on paper that would have seemed like the natural thing to do. But like I said, I felt really good through that period of time. I think that sounds crazy too. I take these drugs for a reason, you know, but it was very easy for me being positive through this year.
I recently did an interview with Allison Moorer, who as you might know, is married to Steve Earle. That just about makes them Mr and Mrs Alternative Country. You’re married to Devon Sproule, a fine singer herself. How would you describe your musical relationship? Do you have your music playing around the house all the time?
Music is around the time all the time, but not ours. We tend to work on our music when the other one is out of the house. When someone is in the other room playing, they might be playing the same lick 45 times in a
Row, and we both understand that. We understand that it bothers both of us knowing that the other one is listening to that same lick 45 times in a row. It’s funny, cause when Devon and I met, we were both doing this, so we’ve been playing music as long as we’ve known each other. It’s sort of like a separate part of our relationship. The industry part of the music is something neither of us enjoy, so we actually tend not to discuss business very much at all. It’s a little strange – sometimes we’ll let each other know like a few days in advance when we’ll be gone on tour for a long period of time. We talk about the music that’s on the record player, but we don’t sit around and jam. I don’t know if Mr and Mrs Earle do that?
I don’t think so. And to me that sounds strange. You know, if I was married to Steve Earle…that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean… and I was trying to get past the same 45 licks in a row, the first one I would ask for help would be Steve Earle. Doesn’t the relationship between you and Devon change when you are in fact working together?
Well, we’ve actually only written one song together ever, and that was recently for a trip to Kenya. Devon tends to finish songs and then bring them to me, and then she’s incredibly open for suggestions to improvement, changes or whatever. I myself tend not to even ask. Not surprisingly, since I made two records by myself. And yeah, our guitar styles are very different. She plays all these jazz chords that require the use of all of her fingers, and I don’t even know what they are. And likewise, I know a lot of different licks.
Okay, so here’s a weird question. If Devon comes to you with one of her new songs, and you don’t like it, do you think that’s the same as when my girlfriend comes to me and asks if a dress makes her look fat?
Ha-ha! I just say that I don’t like it. When she was making her last record, she was one song short, and we needed another song. I was encouraging different ways to cranck one out, and she wrote two within a week which is pretty quick for her. She brought them to me, but I thought they were pretty paint-by-numbers Devon Sproule. One of them, I said to her, belonged on her last record and the other one I just didn’t like. And she was so focused that she knew I was correct. You asked if making that record, Don’t Hurry For Heaven, changed our relationship…there was such a time-restraint for us. There was the label and she already had a tour booked, so we only about three weeks to do all the post-production. After a couple of days, it became really stressful for me to have her in the house while I was working on her album, so she was kind enough to accept banishing to her sister’s house, which was only a block away. And also, that allowed me to cheat with cigarettes!
Last year, I interviewed Danny Schmidt, an absolute fantastic songwriter and also a close friend of both you and Devon. Apart from mentioning how he first met you, which I seem to recall included a bar, a Johnny Cash song and a drunken Paul Curreri…
No, that’s how I met Devon!
…oh, yeah, your future wife! (according to legend, Paul – on one of his first nights in Charlottesville, walked up on stage uninvited with Devon playing and sang harmonies on a Johnny Cash song - .ed)
Yeah, ironically, the first time I met Danny was when Devon took me to a party and he was three quarters passed out on a bed in a dark room holding his guitar. I just laid down on the bed beside him and we started playing. And the funny thing is, that room is now my studio, I live in that house I went to a random party in.
Where do you think you’d be today if you hadn’t stumbled upon Devon and Danny at that exact time?
I have no idea. Who knows who I would have met instead. But I do know that it was probably the best time of my life when I first moved to Charlottesville. It was just such a strange thing, on my first night out, I went to this thing called King Of My Livingroom, by myself. It was this sort of collective between eight songwriters on stage who would pretend they were at a party and just pass the guitar to each other. It happens about once a year. And it was crazy, cause on my first night out, I met all of my future friends in one place. I gave them all cd’s, and after having known him for a week, I wrote Danny a letter and apologised for being so forceful in my wanting to get together with him all the time. I said, you and I are going to be best friends, and I know it’s a weird thing to say and I’ve never said it to anyone else before, but you can either accept it now or drag your feet, but either way, it’s going to happen! But meeting Danny and meeting the girl I would eventually marry all in the same week, well, for some reason my guitar just opened up to me then. It was an electric time for me.
OK. California is coming out in the US this month, and as you’ve told me, it was written and recorded under very unusual circumstances. I take it you’re not going to have another vocal chord injury – I certainly hope not – and you can’t afford another motorcycle yet. Where do you think that leaves you on the next record?
I read one negative review of California that preferred when I was more angry and said that “let’s hope Paul’s life takes a turn for the worse soon”…
Yeah, you should crash your motorcycle and make your own Blood On The Tracks!
Ha-ha! I don’t know, man, what do you say to a review like that? I’m trying to tidy up – I sort of overwhelmed myself with too many projects for other people last year – and also I recently did an instrumental soundtrack for a movie for the Discover Channel, so I’ll be releasing that within the next couple of months. As to when more songs are going to come, I don’t know. I would hope soon. But I have no idea what they’re going to be about. I do know that I’m tired of writing thinly veiled complaints about work though.
Paul Curreri’s Californiais out now on Tin Angel Records. Head straight over to Paulcurreri.com for more on this amazing songwriter.