Penny for Your Thoughts
Hearsay #11 / 1995 / Interview with Chris

"We all fall into bad times, and the ways in which we move on are unique. That's what I write about."

PAL SHAZAR, Woodstock-based singer-songwriter, combines elements of defiant, striking performers with warmth and wonderment. Here, as she releases her most recent album There's A Wild Thing In The House in the UK, she talks to Chris Fowler about her past, including her collaborations with Matthew Sweet, Mike Scott and Jules Shear, and her hopes for the future. We've long loved Pal here at Hearsay, so it's a delight to finally run an interview her. Chris spoke to her in mid-September, the day after she played a scintillating gig at the 12-Bar Club...

HEARSAY: Welcome to England - or is it welcome back? Have you visited London before?

PAL SHAZAR: Many times, I would guess six. The first time was when I came with my sister fresh out of high school. Then my band Slow Children was with an English label. We did the first half of the album in LA where we were all living, then we finished the album around Portobello Road. Then six of us, the whole group, stayed in London for about half a year. Before that we'd been living in LA. After London we went back, and we collected our wits. I moved back east around 1984, first to Massachusetts, then Woodstock, then Manhattan, then to a place outside of Manhattan, and now we're pretty much living in Woodstock. We have a little place in the city for when we need a city fix, or if I have gig in the city, so I don't have to do a long drive home.

I was born in LA, but I grew up near the beach, around Santa Monica. I got a job at the Troubadour, which was the happening little club. It was an education. I saw all the acts play, Dylan came to my booth for a ticket, I met Jules [Shear] there, I met a lot of boyfriends there. I had always been a fanatic about music, I worked in record stores. When I got the job in the Troubadour Club, I got an apartment around the corner. I was busy doing illustrations during the day, and working at the club at night. My future partner moved in downstairs and while I was drawing I would hear him banging away on the guitar. We started to be friends. Then Andrew [Chinich] started teaching me his songs and I would sing them. It was the first time I'd ever been a singer. Eventually I was writing the lyrics. That became the perfect chemistry. He would supply me with the finished music, and that is how I started to learn to write songs, with that boundary, so that is pretty much how I still write. I got my basic training from Slow Children.

Had you written before — stories, poetry? And did you publish any of your illustrations?

I can't read poetry. There is something about that stem of words down a page that just doesn't appeal to me. When I went nuts over Patti Smith, I ran out to buy Rimbaud books; thank God he wrote prose as well. As to my illustrations, there was a great magazine, similar to Hearsay but not nearly so broad-minded, called Backdoor Man. They were diehards — if you were not doing the punk thing you were the enemy. The first successful drawing I did was of Patti Smith. They saw the picture and they said they wanted to use it for the magazine.

Was all the music that you liked punk?

I remembered all the people that I always loved. I never gave up on Neil Young, the Stones, but it wasn't the same. Patti took over my life. I used to hang out at her management office because it was the first time I had a role model in my life I couldn't relate to the waitresses at the Troubadour, to my mom, to my sister, to any of my friends in high school any more, and there was nobody until I started to meet new people around the time Patti happened. She was what brought a lot of us together. Andrew and I, because we both loved Television so much, we were able to click. It was Patti and Television that we related to together.

The way Patti appeared seduced me entirely, the way she was, the way she wrote, the way her band sounded. With Tom Verlaine, although he wrote really interesting lyrics, he was just the guitar maestro at the time. Andrew could listen to one Television song and then sit down and write a killer song. They were an inspiring band. If you were an original you could be very much affected by another artist without them altering your art. It was not like my music started to sound more like Nirvana as a result of listening to it all the time, but they sure made me want to sit down and write.

We stayed together but not for much longer after that. I moved on to Woodstock, and drew, and the deal with the label started to fizzle, and we were not doing anything to keep it together. I was just ready to go. I kept telling myself, I don't want to be married, I feel like I'm married and I don't want that.

Were you developing more sense of yourself?

No, absolutely not. When I sat down and I realised that I didn't have a songwriting partner I was terrified. I thought: I learned to write really good songs with this guy, but I can't write songs by myself. It took me a long time to write the songs that I write now. I was stumbling in the dark. I didn't have confidence in my guitar playing, so I used to sing my songs into a tape machine, but they had no beat, so it was not like a musician could like just sit there and go, that's C and then it goes to G and then to E minor.

1991 was your first solo album. Were you working with other people over this time? When did you start working with Jules Shear and Matthew Sweet?

Jules and Stephen Hague had co-produced Slow Children records. Then Jules wrote Here S/he Comes [from The Eternal Return, 1985] for us to sing together. Matthew Sweet's A&R person thought I was a great lyricist. It was Matthew's first solo record [Inside, 1986], and I guess they didn't want to take a chance on Matthew writing all the songs by himself I think we wrote seven things. It was fun, so easy, melodies just fly out of him. The lyrics were very different from any lyrics I would write for myself. I prefer writing for me. The lyrics I write for someone else are never anything like I would sing. I don't think they are as interesting. I'm not trying to water it down or make it more commercial, I'm not that kind of writer. It doesn't seem to be my pure voice.

Were you performing? How did you support yourself?

The greatest crime is not gigging for me, and I wasn't till the first album. I was with Jules and he was making a living. It allowed us to be writers all the time. If I'm not writing I'm not happy. I don't feel worthy. If I spend a few hours during the day writing, I feel like I'm being of some purpose. Then my nights feel better. What does Jules say? 'It's easier to not write, but it's not better.' And you don't get better. I wanted to be as great as I could be as soon as possible, so I just wrote all the time.

You did some collaborations with Mike Scott, including the cover of his last album. How did that come about?

Mike heard Cowbeat of My Heart, and loved the way Jules and I sang together. He was doing the last Waterboys record, and he invited us to come and sing background vocals on a couple of things while he was recording in New York. In the studio I had shown him snapshots of a couple of paintings that I had done, totally innocent, never dreaming one day he would call me and ask me to paint his cover. When he did, I said I think I should sketch you because I want it to really look like you. So he came up to Woodstock for a day and overnight, and I sketched him and he really adored the sketch. I didn't work hard on it. I really believe that if you try really hard, the first time is pretty much the best you are going to get, because then it gets overworked. You get too self-conscious. I'm like that with songs. I put the sheet of paper in the typewriter, I get that first line, I just go with it, see where it goes, don't start rewriting now, just trust your instincts. So I showed Mike the lyrics of Penny For Your Thoughts. I said would you like to sing, and he said yes. I was knocked out. He came to the studio with guitars, and he participated, and he added a lot in the studio in that one day. Now I still get such a kick when that verse comes in and it's not me singing, it's Mike.

Making your first solo album, Cowbeat of My Heart, was that hard?

My heart was breaking for years, because I was writing the songs, and I was surrounded by people telling me I was great, and nobody was willing to let me make a record. I had record companies telling me I was great and nobody wanting to make a record, so I was very confused. The idea of doing an album myself did not appeal to me, because I'm not a big self-promoter. The goal was really to make the record and maybe somebody would pick it up. That did not happen, but such great stuff happened as a result of Cowbeat that it doesn't even matter that nobody picked it up. It got me out gigging, I made so many friends, Mike heard it, and that led to working with him. Once I made that CD all those years of self-pity just fell right off me. Making a record and playing at gigs and giving them away at gigs, and selling through my little PO box, that became my world. I was reaching out to people and they were reaching out to me, and my life completely changed. I think there's maybe about 1,200 copies of that CD out there.

How about performing?

I was gigging around New York City. A friend called and said you should check out this little club called Sin-e, a wonderful place where Jeff Buckley played. I called up and said I would like to send you a copy of my CD. They said they were not listening to any more stuff, everybody was banging on the door. I was so into it, I started selling myself on the phone to this guy, because I wanted him to know that I had done something, I had worked with cool people. I sent the CD and a week later he said let's do something. The gig went great. They kept the door open for me. I'm going to do a month of Wednesdays in October there.

When did you make the switch from acoustic guitar to electric?

It was a third the way through the recording of Wild Thing in the House, around 1993. I recorded that in pieces. I would get up enough courage and the right songs and the right pocket change to go into the studio. It would come in batches of four, or three. So by the time I did the second batch I had gone electric. But not with that beautiful red guitar you saw me play last night, that's my second electric guitar. It's a Fender Jaguar, candy-apple red, I love it. I haven't touched the acoustic guitar, literally, except to loan it to someone, since I got my first electric, and I haven't touched my first electric since I got my red guitar. Whatever that means about me, it is true. I haven't taken my first Telecaster out of its case since I got the Jaguar.

Do you do demos at home?

I just use something simple, it's just play-record. I just bang the songs onto the tape. Let's say I've written a dozen new songs. I've played them all live, and I can tell after playing them live if they are going to live. It has nothing to do with audience reaction, but it has to do with them witnessing me. When I know which are the right songs, I take the musicians into some dingy little East Village rehearsal room and I give it three days because I don't want anyone to get to know it too good. I don't like perfection on tape, I want it to feel loose. But I want them to be familiar enough that when the studio time starts ticking, they know the song. We hone it a little bit. When we go in the studio, it's the usual song and dance, you get the bass and drums, you get the guitar, you get the vocals, and you mix and you hope you're happy.

How do you go about selecting musicians?

What I like to do is work with the same guitar player, Mark Bosch, a real instinctual player, that I've worked with for a long time. This last album, about half of it was produced by Jules, and it was put together his way and with the people he knew, and everybody played great. But when it was time for me to produce myself, I wanted to use people who might end up in my band. I just gathered people, like the drummer was coming to my gigs, I wanted to give him a shot, because he dug the stuff so much, and I liked him. I just let the pieces fall as they did, and I got lucky.

Will you go out playing live with your band?

That is definitely the goal. We've done some gigs in the city with the band. But it costs a lot of money. You've got to rehearse, get the gigs -- it's more time-consuming. With a band I've got to stay in the city, go to the rehearsal place at least twice if you want everybody to feel confident. And there is no money in it for them, though these guys will play for no money. We did a couple of gigs, and it was really fun. It sounds really good, but a lot of the lyrics get lost. Then again, I can really bash on the guitar, that is fun. My guitar player said that it's possible that he could play acoustic guitar so I won't be so drowned out by the two electrics. But I'm not going to put everybody through that for one or two gigs in Manhattan. They are too busy trying to make a living as musicians. When the time comes we'll do it.

Will that be when you get your music distributed properly in the US?

This deal is for the world excluding the US. I want us to come over here and play. I'm not so interested in America. In the British release of Wild Thing in the House, we've dropped one song, Scared, to please me and we've added one song, No One Knows, from The Requiem Tapes. The CD is remastered -- I didn't master it before. It’s coming out October 23 with new cover artwork. We did new photos and got some pictures of Cargo in there. I think it's going to be really nice.

How about the themes of your songs? You said last night they were all about ‘fucked-up people’...

People I relate to! Not because I think it's wonderful to glorify misery by any means, but if there's a way to learn how to move on from a bad place, that to me is the most interesting thing. We all fall into bad times, and the ways in which we move on are unique. That's what I write about. It's what fascinates me about being alive. I guess you could call it self awareness. Just being fucked up is not interesting. Being unhappy but still trying is greatly courageous.

I also know how miserable I've been in life and how many times I failed at overcoming it. I have not forgotten the times I have managed somehow to get through to a better place, with the support of my friends, through the inspiration of other artists, together with my will. It is a constant theme going through my head every day. I just don't forget stuff. That's why I have to be very careful what I let into my brain. I can't read newspapers, I can't see typical American films, because they are too violent. Images, messages, go into my brain and they don't leave, and I'm lying in bed at night traumatised by some bullshit I might have seen, some horrible, ridiculous, gratuitous violent image is stuck in my head. So I guess my songs run a narrow gauntlet, because I'm very particular about what I let in, and what comes out is only a reflection of what you let in.

Last night you made a Nirvana reference. You said their music was like discovering a new colour...

I guess there's three things about them. They sound better than anybody to me. Kurt Cobain's very funny, which rates real high with me. The work seems so truthful and honest to me. Not many artists have everything going for them that makes it for me. That's why I don't listen to much stuff. I could list the people I listen to on one hand. Chet Baker I worship. He also sounded beautiful. He didn't have a lot of humour in his music, but I would call his playing delightful, and also very sad. You know I've always been sad. I remember being a child, and asking my older sister, will I always be sad and she said no, no. But some of us just give in to it more. I think we all are sad, and I think a lot of people fight it. But for better or worse I think I indulged myself for years in my sadness, and that is where the self-pity came from. And getting more confidence has helped me shed the self pity. But I look at someone like Kurt, and I think, if I were not all that different I could have let myself sink. I relate to him. It's as simple as that.

With Jules, I listen to his work and he has always had the complete combination. I think Nick Cave is a mind-blower, and I love Shane MacGowan, and Mike Scott has done a lot of great stuff. When I listen to Nick Cave, the guy is a great writer. By the fact that these great artists exist, they make it impossible for me to appreciate a lot of music that's being made, because I think, hey, that ain't Nick. I don't listen to a lot of music. I spend a lot of time in my own head, and a lot of time reading when I'm not working, mostly Irish writers now -­ Frank Ronan, Sheena McKay, Patrick McCabe. Neil Jordan is a beautiful writer, he has the sweetest vision. And his movies -- The Crying Game, combined with Sin-e, took me to Ireland. I thought, maybe you need to see this country, because you love the people, you love the imagination of this Irish artist. When I came home from Ireland I sat down and I wrote Three Sheets to the Wind. I was in a trance.

I like timeless stuff. That's why I like Neil Jordan so much -- he is so timeless. I don't like contemporary issues, it's the same reason I don't read the newspapers. I enter a book to enter a different place, the place of someone's imagination. When Neil Jordan writes about a love affair at the sea, it could be any time. Irish writers are so like that. They all seem old. They all seem sad. It's just really appealing. But the one contemporary American writer who did reach out to me was Russell Banks -- his work has spirit.

Apart from reading, what else do you do?

I take real long walks, I've always been a walker. If I'm not in the middle of writing a song I know that it is slowly germinating. When you are walking in the country you don't have all of that stimuli bombarding you, keeping you from hearing your inner voice. Aside from that I see my friends on occasion. My friends are in the city. Life in Woodstock is just Jules and Cargo -- our beautiful little border collie — and me. One of my greatest friends lives in Italy, we get to see each other once a year if we are lucky. My dad and sister live out in California still. I have great, great conversations with my father on the phone. He's willing to talk to me about anything. I love the talks that we have.

How about your drawing and painting?

I sold one painting to pay for the pressing of Cowbeat, but painting has mainly been something that took the pressure off getting nowhere with the music, because I would feel so at sea and so heartbroken about the fight to have somebody put out my work that the ability to paint came to the rescue. I don't have this great burning need for people to see my paintings.

Do you think your music has a universal quality?

I figure if you've spent as much time as I have thinking about yourself and how to get out of this fix and into another one, you're bound to stumble on some common thread that runs through other people. We all look different from each other, we all have different fingerprints, we all have different heartbreaks, and different love affairs, but basically we are all people.

Are you optimistic about this album release?

I'm overjoyed. I think it is the right people involved, which makes it the right time. I have to tell myself that what I'm putting out now is far better than what I was writing five years ago. But back then I thought I was ready. I could have made records and people could have heard my work, and it is possible that it would have held its own. But I dig the stuff I'm doing now more than anything I've ever done.

How do you feel about the promotional stuff?

This is a gas! It's like when you do gigs and you get people coming up to you and saying how can I get your CD, you really blew my mind tonight, or someone even just quietly going, ‘what's your name?’ But having someone like you sit down and really like grill me about what am I living for, how could I not enjoy that? I have yet to encounter somebody asking me something that I can't answer or don't want to answer. Maybe that is a result of getting lucky and meeting nice people that I can relate to. Or maybe the music is the kind of music where you are getting an idea of how to approach me. Maybe that is what my music is about, it goes out in front of me and protects me.

Do you want to come back with the band?

Absolutely -- fingers crossed. It would be fantastic. I know that the musicians are praying that this trip goes well because they want to do it so much. The people that I work with love this stuff that I write, and they want to do it for real, but I have to make it possible for them. That was part of what was going through my head when I was playing last night alone — make it as good as you can so you can come back with your band.

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