My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Brooklyn musician Ashley Paul on lyrical development, the conservatory, and the Third Stream between jazz and classical.
Line the Clouds, the latest album from Brooklyn-based musician Ashley Paul, is bewitching. It combines familiar elements (the guitar and vocals of the singer-songwriter genre and the techniques of the veteran improviser, for instance) but mixes them in such unusual ways, and takes them from such seemingly incompatible sources, that the result is a unique personal aesthetic. It could be confounding if it weren’t affective at a gut level—on repeat listens any initial strangeness gives way to reveal her intuitive sense for melody and a disarming emotional directness. Though musically inventive, the record is a humane experience filled with moments of rare grace.
When we met near her apartment in Brooklyn, Paul had just performed at the release party forLine the Clouds. Over the course of a few hours and a few beverages, we talked about topics including: playing music that doesn’t fit in, intuition, music’s slow evolution in relation to art, busking, singing, and how to disguise your nerves while playing the saxophone.
Sean Higgins So I was reading through the description for the record, and I wanted to ask you some questions about that.
Ashley Paul OK, I didn’t write that description.
SH Who did?
AP I think there are two descriptions, and all the press stuff I feel a little crazy about. But I think Eli [Keszler, Paul’s husband and head of REL records, the label that released Line the Clouds] partially wrote one of them and then someone who works with the person who is helping me out—like my publicist—wrote the other one.
SH The one I was thinking of was on the record label website.
AP Oh! Eli wrote that one.
SH OK, it’s very good.
AP Yeah, he’s good at writing about what I’m doing.
SH Do you think that you’re not good at it? Did you have him do it because you didn’t want to?
AP He did it because he generally writes the descriptions for things on the label, but I do have a difficult time writing about my own music, I think. Or trying to describe it to other people.
SH Do you think he managed to describe it accurately?
AP I feel like right now some people are trying to figure out a way to describe it so that it makes sense to people. To spell it out a bit more than I normally would.
SH If it were your choice, you would present it as-is, with no description?
AP Obviously I want it to get out to as many people as it can, and because of that I understand that sometimes you have to help people understand what you’re doing. But, I certainly would not be able to do that, I think, for myself. I am happy that I have other people who can help me right now. It’s too close to me to be able to step back and think of how it might sound to anyone else.
SH In an interview of yours I read, you mentioned how you’ve been working through the idea of being a sound artist versus an improviser versus a songwriter. Did you find yourself trying to negotiate what category to emphasize?
AP Absolutely. I was trying to figure out where to place myself as far as playing shows. Like, who do I play with? I don’t fit on improv shows or jazz shows at all. And for a while I was getting placed in noise or experimental shows where I fit—kind of—but there’s a lot of pressure to make a lot more sound than I necessarily want to. I took time to figure out where I fit. I really like playing in galleries; they’re generally a good place for me to be. And I like the community of people who do more song-oriented music. But I still don’t know where I fit, and at a certain point I just realized I should just let things fall where they fall. It’s been difficult letting go of needing to know exactly where I’m going to go.
SH What is it that you like about playing in galleries?
AP They’re quiet, generally they have really good acoustics, and I find people that are more involved in arts to have fewer preconceived notions about what music should be. I mean, musicians really find their one thing, and that can make it challenging if you’re not really fitting in. I like playing for people who have no ideas about … I don’t know how to phrase it without sounding horrible.
These people are coming with a much more open mind. As far as where art is, it’s really pushed boundaries much further than music has so far. People like music that makes them feel good. People aren’t as ready to listen to music that might be challenging, but are willing to look at really challenging artwork. The people that are coming from the art world are used to being challenged, are open. I don’t think of what I’m doing as being that challenging, but at the same time, people who aren’t coming from this kind of music might think it is. Also, I like it when people sit and listen, as opposed to being in a bar where there’s a lot of extra sound.
SH Your music seems fairly quiet.
AP There’s a lot of space in it.
SH I wanted to ask you more about the conservatory. You went there for two different programs. What did you study the first time?
AP Jazz—saxophone, for four years. The second time I studied Contemporary Improv. The department is called Contemporary Improvisation but it is probably the least representative title for a department that could possibly exist. It started out being called Third Stream, it was started by Gunther Schuller and Ran Blake. Have you heard that term, Third Stream, before?
SH No, I’ve not heard it.
AP Gunther Schuller coined the term. Originally it meant if you were to combine jazz and classical music, you get that third stream of music. But the department was the first that invested in people combining multiple genres in music. So there was a lot of combining of world, ethnic, jazz, classic, new music—making this new form of music that didn’t exist before. Then, over the years they changed the name to Contemporary Improvisation—and I don’t know why they did that because most of the people aren’t focusing on improvisation as their main form of creative practice—but it’s an interdisciplinary department where you can cross study openly. So you can study with studio teachers in any department you want and you can sort of build your own degree.
SH What happened to you artistically between going there for undergrad and going there for grad school? The focus of the two programs seems very different.
AP Very different. I entered undergrad sure I was going to be the next Paul Desmond. I was always drawn to more experimental improvisers but I didn’t have a lot of exposure to different kinds of music when I was young. I was raised in a house that was both very classical jazz and classical classical. I grew up with opera and Chopin and Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. My dad had a crazy record collection but it was all straight-ahead jazz. I lived in Des Moines and there wasn’t anyone I knew that was interested in experimental music. I didn’t first get exposed to it until I was 19.
SH When you were already studying for your undergrad degree in the conservatory.
AP Right, when I was already in school. It started with the downtown New York scene and then I think when I first heard Arto Lindsay everything changed for me, not to sound totally cliché, but it did. I didn’t know anyone who knew him and I picked up a record of his at a consignment store because I liked the cover.
SH Solo record?
AP Yeah. And it kind of blew my head away and it was back when Napster existed. And so I went on Napster and found everything Arto Lindsay did.
SH I’m surprised that you managed to find that on Napster.
AP I know! I could find a bunch of DNA stuff and then so that kind of changed things. When I started, my first college roommate was really into everything on Thrill Jockey and all that. By the end of my undergrad I was doing mostly free improv stuff but writing songs too. And then I finished my undergrad and didn’t really play music for a year. I was totally just … disillusioned.
SH What did you do instead?
AP Well, I had been really involved in the arts my whole life, visual arts, and I started making jewelry really seriously and I went to Penland School of Craft in North Carolina for a summer program in jewelry making and then I just worked at a bead store 9–5. I moved to New York the next year after that and I started playing music again. I played in the subways. That was my job, I guess, for the whole first year I lived here: Playing in the subways six hours a day.
SH Performing for that kind of crowd sounds really intimidating.
AP It was intimidating at times. It was really cold at times. The things I remember are smells and cold. I had a lot of success doing it, but people thought I was really young. I’m so little and I think I look much younger than I am so people would always crowd around me and I made a lot of money doing it. I mean not a lot of money because I could only play for a certain amount of time. It’s grueling work. I was exhausted when I got done and I had to be really careful about tendonitis and the other physical factors that go along with playing. But I paid for all my groceries in quarters and single dollars. I paid my rent in single dollar bills for a year. It was an insane existence for a while.
SH How do you imagine that such an extreme experience has had an effect on the music you’ve been making recently?
AP It’s hard for me to say if it’s had a direct effect, but I feel like after all of these things I have a little thicker skin, which helps. Because I came out of my first degree just really wide-eyed and naive.
SH You weren’t even recording yourself by the time you graduated, right?
AP I didn’t know how to record at that point at all. I was completely intimidated by computers. I had a band and had some friends that got some studio time and I recorded some right before I went back to graduate school. But the whole process of recording, at this point, I can’t imagine letting anyone take that away from me. I really like to be in control of every part of it and to be dependent on a studio or someone else takes away so much of what my actual process is at this point.
SH What’s your process like? Do you compose as you record?
AP A lot of times. I usually have an idea but it might only be a phrase, or words, or a little cell of music. The thing that is really exciting to me now is letting the moment dictate where things go. I mostly compose on the spot using recording as my tool. I love that rawness that gets captured in a moment.
SH How long does it generally take you before you know a piece is finished? Does it happen quickly or do you happen to spend a lot of time editing afterward in order to hone?
AP The recording process happens relatively quickly, a lot of times I’ll get a whole song down on tape or computer or whatever recorded within a matter of hours. But then from that point I probably spend 100 hours on each song editing. I’ve gotten a little faster at the process because I’ve gotten better at editing—logistically—but I am really particular about everything being perfect.
SH Do you have a certain set of criteria that you’re trying to meet? Or do you operate on intuition?
AP There is definitely a point where I think I need to stop. When you spend that much time on something it’s hard to have perspective, so I usually get to a certain point and then won’t listen to it for a week. Then, I’ll go back and fine tune from there but it’s usually minute. I don’t necessarily move pitches around that much in the recordings. I overdub occasionally if I feel like a recording needs a little more, but more I just make sure the balance between everything is right. Really fine tuning all the spacing and all of the volume levels so things have glorious little seconds.
I think I’ve always liked really detail-oriented work and it’s like crocheting or jewelry-making, where you spend a lot of time on very minute things. That’s what editing is like for me. I sort of zone out.
SH You’ve talked before about when you perform and the relationship that your performances have to the music you record. Do you try to balance out improvisational elements with a recreation of these very carefully constructed recordings?
AP I do. But I really don’t think of what I’m doing as being improvisation at all anymore. Although I do feel it’s definitely a part of what I do.
SH How do you think of it?
AP I come in with a very clear idea of form and maybe a melodic concept and improvisation is like a tool. I think the fact that I studied improvisation so much allows me to translate from what’s in my head to sound. It’s a tool for translation rather than the key component.
I want to make music that is really instinctual. Improvisation, at its best, is that way but I also think that a lot of improvisation is conceptual. So, I’m interested in that part of it that is really going for the gut. Although I do improvise with other people, I don’t think of my own work as improvisation. I definitely would consider myself more a composer at this point. I definitely think of what I do more as songs or little works. But I’m still figuring out how to talk about what I’m doing.
SH In listening to your older music and your later music, the most obvious change is the singing. Have you become more comfortable with singing yet? I’ve read that you were very nervous to start.
AP I still get really nervous about it, but I think I realized—just Saturday actually—that I’m getting better.
SH Just this Saturday?
AP Just this Saturday, that I’m maybe getting more comfortable with it.
SH Is that when you had your record release show?
AP Yeah. When you are nervous and you play the saxophone you can mask it with your breath support, but if you are nervous and you are singing, people can hear the quavering in your voice. There are certain things about the command of the instrument that I had to work through. I used to get horribly nervous singing—I mean, I played and performed sax my whole life and so I don’t think about it that much anymore, it’s just what I’ve done but singing feels really raw and really personal still. I feel very exposed doing it, but I think I’m getting used to what it feels like. I’m not quite as nervous, and when I am I can control it a little bit better
SH Considering it was something that you were nervous about, what made you decide to add singing to your music in the first place as opposed to, well, anything else?
AP I think because my role had always been the melody player—a sax player’s role would always be to carry the melody. I started hearing the saxophone as more textural and experimenting with that, but I still was hearing melodies… I can’t remember a time where I thought, “Okay I’m going to start singing now.” I do remember a time when I started hearing these voices in my music but I was cautious about starting to do it. It was partially because, in the music scene that I was in at the time, singing vocals over things was not cool … But then also I didn’t have a voice as a vocalist. I didn’t know how I wanted my singing voice to sound.
SH That was another aspect of your instrument that you had to work out.
AP Yeah. I recorded a lot of vocals and didn’t end up using them.
SH Were you apprehensive about including them?
AP I didn’t like them. They weren’t good enough yet, I guess. So slowly they crept their way in. I am also very self-conscious about my use of language. I had a lot of trouble with language as a child. I was dyslexic and had some issues. That was always something I struggled with. I comprehended things but as far as articulating things, it never came very easily to me and I always had weird ways that I understood things and put them. The concept of putting words out there was really terrifying to me and being a vocalist equaled needing to have lyrics …
SH Had you ever considered wordless vocals?
AP I did and actually a lot of the very earliest records include them. They’re masked to the point where you can’t hear them. Some of them are like half words but I didn’t consider straight-up, only sound vocals. I thought that there needed to be some meaning to the words whether anyone else could hear them besides me.
SH How did you come to feel more comfortable writing lyrics for your music?
AP A lot of encouragement, I think, from some people and then very slowly they came. I think I found a way to do it that felt okay to me. I found a way to tap into the same place that I tap into with music with my lyric writing and it feels honest and it feels alright.
SH I don’t often hear lyrics in music that is so hard to categorize and it’s really fascinating. I couldn’t say what each song is about but I can at least sense that the lyrics are exploring an emotional theme. Is that something you think about?
AP I do. I think of stories a lot of times, or moods. I do definitely. Not that I really want them to be obvious. I get really excited when people tell me how things have affected them.
SH Listening to your songs, I get the impression that some of them are love songs.
AP There are a lot of love songs.
SH It was a pleasant surprise to hear love songs that are still so musically inventive.
AP I’m a little bit of a hopeless romantic …
SH This is why it’s hard for me to think of the music as difficult. When your lyrics are coupled with the range of timbres—the noisy, the quiet, and the gentle sounds—it makes the record feel very domestic and intimate.
AP Thanks, I think so too.
Nagisa Ni Te – Premonition
Mauricio Kagel – Der Schall (Side A, Part 1)
Lennie Niehaus – I’ll Take Romance
Les Rallizes Dénudés – The Last One
Paul Desmond – Nancy
Shin Joong Hyun/Kim Jung Mi – The Sun
Yoshi Wada – Off The Wall I
Ashley Paul is a performer and composer based in Brooklyn. Her new record, Line the Clouds, is out now on REL Records. Sean Higgins is a writer and cultural critic living in Portland, ME. He tweets at @luckycloud, blogs about television at Cool Medium, and writes about music, sound, and other nonsense all over the Internet.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.