The giant cavern that is the music industry has trapped and buried musicians and artists across all genres. It’s an endless pit, a deep dark grotto into the roller coaster journey of superstardom. Few can boast that they’ve been in that endless pit, taken that ride and have escaped with their passion of music still intact; Paul Brill is one of the lucky few. With the release of his latest album “Halve the Light”, Brill has shown that you can experience the music industry, get courted by deep pockets and still keep the identity and enthusiasm that fuels his creative brilliance. Not only has he continued to write fantastic songs, record and tour but he has used that industry knowledge to his advantage.
Describe the sound of Paul Brill and share with us a little bit of history.
It’s been a bit of a meandering road. I’ve been writing songs and performing for many years, and my songwriting style has evolved somewhat drastically during this time. I call my style, “Post-Country Heartache,” a self-fashioned term that hopefully sums up what I’m writing now: some strange blend of Americana and Pop/Folk Rock, with a dark/melancholic tinge, lyrically at least. I think my latest CD, “Halve the Light,” captures this mix fairly well. I’ve been in several phases when I was writing straight-up Country/Bluegrass music or Rock songs. I think I’m at a point now where the two styles have fused.
How did you first get started writing music and at the time, what were your important influences?
Writing was somewhat of a revelation: I discovered one day after playing guitar for a few years that it was ok for mortals to write music, too. I had always written poetry and short fiction, but songwriting always seemed so distant and exclusive to the Rock gods, and it never occurred to me to try it, even though I have played instruments nearly all my life (Piano, Clarinet, Guitar). My big early influences? Bob Dylan, the Clash, always the Beatles, Hard-Bop Jazz, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, so much.
Have those influences changed and what would you say influences you to write the songs today?
Not surprisingly, most of the artists I mentioned above are still influences and heroes of mine; however, there are so many more elements influencing my writing now, from music to literature to people. The things that influence me now are so disparate and seemingly random and have a subtle effect on my music. I just discovered Hawaiian slack key guitar music – which is crazy good; I went through a period of obsession with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; listening a lot lately to people like Rufus Wainwright, Nina Nastasia, Astor Piazzolla, Al Green, Perez Prado, Joao Gilberto, Sea and Cake, Joe Henderson, etc.
How important was your experience with Envelope and how has it shaped you as an independent artist?
Playing in Envelope, which ended being called SF Envelope following a name dispute, had everything to do with my current artistic identity. I cut my teeth with that group. The people in that band were like brothers – we toured together in a van for 3 years – did something like 6 coast-to-coast tours and dozens of trips to the Northwest (we were living in LA/SF back then). We booked our own tours, did our own promotion, ran our own record company, secured distribution – all DIY. Through the Envelope experience, I saw how the whole industry worked, particularly on the business/promotional end, which has helped me immeasurably as I market my current material. On the flip side, I became very disillusioned with the business of music following the whole record industry/management swindle saga. At a certain point, the business can take over and sully the whole musical experience. For Envelope, the end came when we were playing every show for industry people, everyone dangling carrots, and I simply wasn’t enjoying the music we were making anymore. It took a long time to rebound from that experience, but, in the long run, it was very useful in helping me educate myself about the pitfalls of the music business and how to navigate my career now. I’ve learned that the music is paramount and must remain so.
Your new album “Halve the Light” features an eclectic blend of musical styles, what was the experience like working on this album and how did it differ from the previous album’s you have worked on?
Halve the Light, like most of my CDs, was a complete accident; that it became an international release is a huge surprise. I began the project largely at the behest of my co-producer Dave Camp and his partner Nancy Hess, who work out of Portland, Oregon. I’ve played with them for years, and they would press me to get my music out – to make a CD that represented my songs accurately. So I flew Dave in to NYC, and we spent about a week tracking 10 songs. We didn’t have a great sense of where the recording was going, though we did think through arrangements and song selection. The players in my band at the time, Milkweed (which was pretty much a bluegrass/old time country group, about 8 members), backed me on the recording, and we did it at Tin Pan Alley right up the street from where I live. I was very fortunate in finding that studio, because not only did they cut me a deal, but the engineer, Giovanni Fusco, was super talented (and now is the drummer in my current band). Halve the Light was similar to everything else I’ve ever recorded in a studio in that it was a rush job. Whenever you are paying for studio time yourself, you have to push on through no matter what or else you end up with unfinished songs and no more money. I’ve recorded a few previous CDs at home on the four-track, which is always hit or miss. A landmark moment for me came recently when one of my oldest 4-track recordings, made with a crappy drum machine, made it on to a film soundtrack. That’s Punk Rock.
What’s the best thing about touring and releasing an independent record, how has the fan interaction and response been?
Touring is the best, even when it sucks. I have had some very low and very exultant moments touring. A lot of sleeping on fans’ floors (good and bad for obvious reasons), all-night drives, meeting and playing with great bands, honing your chops and seeing new people and places. Likewise for doing your own promotion: it is tremendously rewarding to see your hard work pay off in getting a record distributed, getting reviews around the country, booking shows, etc. Last summer we did a little tour of side-stage performances with James Taylor, KD Lang and Tony Bennett (pairing that made little sense, but I couldn’t complain) – that was great. We stayed in hotels, which was a first for me in touring. Certainly beats sleeping on the floor of some dysfunctional sound guy living with his mother in Laramie, Wyoming. We’ve been getting great response from “the fans.” People have been very supportive.
What would you say your biggest accomplishment is so far?
Having a fan tattoo our band name on her bottom.
With today’s available media, the Internet, mp3.com, do you think it has become significantly easier to reach some level of success?
I don’t know about that. Success on a level where I am able to promote my music endlessly and inexpensively and reach more people, maybe. Also having a support network for the indie music world. When I first started putting out indie records, I didn’t even own a computer; we were making 7-inch album sleeves at the local copy center. Things have changed so much – probably for the better, at least in music. While the music industry is so bent right now, fixed on working the most unimaginable fluff, cheap quality recording and unlimited Internet resources for musicians have led to this incredible underground surge of talent. Has there ever been a better time for music (artistically)? All this cool electronic stuff is way underground, and there are so many incredible bands and songwriters chipping away at the great monolith. It is just a matter of time before there is another breakthrough in the industry. Look at the incredible bands putting out indie records – Richard Buckner, Calexico, Pinback, Ida, now…Mariah Carey! It’s endless.
What are your plans for the future, will you continue touring and writing?
I’m working pretty hard right now promoting Halve the Light. We did a college radio PR campaign with a company called Team Clermont in Athens, GA, which was very successful – the album hit about #75 in North America. We are following some of that success with shows where the record received the greatest rotation. I’m currently recording a few demos to entice someone to pay for my next CD – I have about 3 albums worth of new material. It has been a good year or so for writing. My immediate goals are to make enough money to continue recording new albums – nothing too crazy.
You’ve experienced the music industry on both coasts of the United States, is there a difference between the two and if there is, which do you prefer?
That’s a good question. It is tough to gauge the difference – each has advantages/disadvantages. I was in California playing a heavier rock thing at a time when that was very celebrated. So we received a lot of attention from the wrong people. The East Coast response to my music has been very strong, but I am much more proud of the songs I am writing now, so again, tough to figure. As far as living, California is sweet and charming, but NYC rules!
What would you say are the most important things to know when being an independent songwriter? What sort of advice would you give to someone who wants to record and tour?
Well, for the aspiring songwriter – just write and write until you find your voice. Find and develop the things that are unique to you and your style. Be aggressive in promoting your work. Recording a lot is also very useful for honing your sound – get a cheap home recording player or pirate some computer software and record everything. As for touring, just go out there and tour. Call clubs and “BS” them. Convince them that you should play at their club. Be sure to have merchandise to sell. Drive carefully.
In the future, how would you like to be looked upon most, whether it be by your fans, family or friends?
I hope to be seen as a hard-working artist who hung on to his ideals and managed to scratch together a living playing music. And wrote good songs. Someone who persisted.