Paige Clem’s Authentic Roots and Community Spirit
Proving the adage “good things come to those who wait,” Paige Clem’s debut album Firefly, recorded after more than 25 years of writing songs and singing in numerous rock and jam bands, is a sonically excellent and fittingly exuberant reflection of her life in music. The San Francisco Bay Area-based songwriter talked about making Firefly, which was produced by Jeff Berkley (Berkley Hart, Citizen Band), before its March 9 release.
You’ve been singing and playing and writing for a near-lifetime, and contribute to many other music projects. When did you know it was time to record your own material?
Paige Clem: I think I always wanted to record (“make a CD” is on the bucket list I have from college). I just simply didn’t know how to. It’s a big leap from your living room to the stage, and in ways an even bigger one from the stage to a studio, and no one really tells you how to do it. Or more accurately, I didn’t realize I needed to ask. For the longest time, I just didn’t understand what it would take. Honestly, I think I was a little bit afraid… all those buttons and knobs seem so big time! Earlier in my musical development, I had some misbelief that the way you ultimately made a record, was that you played music out a whole bunch, and one day someone would hear it or say something to the right person, and then some producer would “discover” you and take you under their wing, and bring you into a studio, and make your record. I’m not kidding. I thought that a record had to happen to me…I didn’t know I could just figure it out and make it happen myself. I didn’t even understand what a producer even did!
Over time, and through hanging out with other musicians I started to get my head around it more and more, and more people kept asking for my recordings. But I didn’t have any, and I certainly didn’t have any money to do it.
Then one day, a few years back, I was hanging out with my friend and mentor, Steve Poltz. He asked me if I [had] recorded a particular song I’d just played for him, called “Firefly”, because he liked it. He even said it sounded like a song Madonna could cover—ha! I answered that I had actually never recorded any of my music, and he asked why not. I told him I didn’t know how. Then he immediately launched into a 10-minute monologue about every single thing I needed to do to make a recording. There was something about a legitimate artist like him, taking the time to tell someone like me what to do, that made me think that maybe he believed I really should do it. So I did. That week I took the first steps. I called up a guy I knew who was a producer and started asking questions. I started looking into crowdfunding options. I called some of the people Steve told me to call. I pretty much did everything he told me to do, and about two-and-a-half-years later I have a record.
How did you go about choosing the songs for Firefly?
That wasn’t easy. Since I’ve been writing songs for over 25 years, I had a lot of material to work with, and I didn’t really have a sense fully of what my “sound” should be. I leaned a lot on my producer, Jeff Berkley, to help me make some of those calls. Jeff was amazing in that he sat and listened through over 30 tunes I sent him, and helped me cull them down to what we put on the record. I have a few different writing styles, and the songs we ended up with are a nice reflection of that.
Describe working on the recording: How did you get connected with Jeff? Was there a specific sound you were both after? Were any of the songs written while you were in production?
I ultimately ended up going with Jeff Berkley because he was on my to-do list from Steve Poltz! In all seriousness, Jeff had just finished up working with Poltz on his most recent recording, Folksinger. It’s a phenomenal record, and I fell in love with it the second Steve played it for me. I was so impressed with how it captured Steve’s essence and [his] many sides. Right about the same time, I ended up meeting Jeff personally when he was in the area playing a show with Tim Flannery and The Lunatic Fringe. I got to know him better in the coming months, and really appreciated his sincere approach and interest in recording me, and realized he was the best man for the job.
Sound-wise, the goal was really just to figure out ”Paige,” — a tall order tasked to Jeff to figure out how to make sense of someone who’s been playing and writing solo for as long as I have. I have so many influences that I myself have struggled with being able to really kind of hone in on what it is I do, other than simply, “Americana”. I leaned heavily on Jeff to help extract what the record was going to be like, because I simply didn’t know how to get from a woman singing songs with an acoustic guitar to these fully produced and polished songs. The songs that wound up on the record, in the way they’re done, really cover the gamut from roots to rock, to folk to old-timey, to blues and back, but the reality is, so do I. I kind of emotionally live in all of those spaces intermittently throughout any given day or week. It’s fitting that that’s how the record came out. Jeff did a fantastic job of trying to distill me into something tangible, and he did it with an absolutely amazing cast of players. The record features a rhythm section comprised of Jeff himself on guitars, Rick Nash (Chaka Khan, Chris Isaak) on bass, Bob Sale (Rick Elias, Eric Johnson) on drums, and Sharon Whyte (Kenny Loggins, Eric Johnson) on keys, organ and backing vocals.
Between my world and Jeff’s, we were able to bring in a lot of fitting guests for different songs as well, including former Johnny Cash guitar player, Jim Soldi; bassist, Tim Lefebvre (Tedeschi Trucks/David Bowie’s Grammy-winning Blackstar); singer-songwriter Steve Poltz (co-writer of “You Were Meant for Me” with Jewel); Jon Graboff on pedal steel (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals), and Bay Area organ player, Danny Eisenberg (The Mother Hips, Anders Osborne). And spectacularly fun for me, Jeff helped me execute on my vision for the song “Long Time Coming” with “The Long Time Coming Choir”— an assemblage of Bay Area singer-songwriters including Moonalice’s Roger MacNamee, Pamela Parker, Michael McNevin and more recorded at Hyde Street Studios. I still get goosebumps when I hear it and I can’t wait to bring the choir to my release show!
Can you talk about your influences…Who are the writers, performers and/or albums that shaped or inspired you most as a writer and performer?
I’m always kind of wondering about that myself, because I feel like a lot of the time the music that I listen to isn’t at all like what I make. If I had my druthers, I would somehow be singing like Aretha Franklin while playing some crazy funky, wicka-wicka guitar groove in a jamband with 30-minute songs. But in the end, I don’t seem to be able to escape the fact that I’m [a] rootsy chick from Alabama with an acoustic guitar. I did grow up listening to a lot of the vocal female greats like Ella, and Etta, and Billie, and I think some of that comes through on a few of the tracks, like “Sugar” and “Buttercup.” I love jam bands, and I’m a huge fan of Phish and the Grateful Dead, and appreciate that Jeff [added] some jammy elements to the record. I think the song “Obviously,” more than any other on the album, really gets down to my essence musically. The chorus has a banjo along with a guitar played with a Mutron effects pedal, which is what Jerry Garcia use a lot. The first time Jeff sent me the rough tracks of that song and I heard it, I started to cry because he totally was able to figure me out musically in a way I hadn’t been able to express. [The song] has this rootsy, steady, organic sound, combined with an improvisational, jammy spirit, and that’s just plain me at my core. So it was really cool to see that happen to my songs. I’m so grateful.
In terms of performance inspiration, the list is endless. I also host a local songwriting series, and get to share the stage with amazingly talented musicians every month, and I learn from each one of them. It’s like my own little musical classroom. John Elliott has a knack for audience participation that I really appreciate. Tim Bluhm taught me a lot about writing the song behind the song, so to speak. I’ve always kind of prided myself on writing in a very direct, put-it-all-out-there kind of way, and while there’s a place for that, Tim helped me learn to push myself to figure out more colorful ways to say the same thing, and that’s influencing my writing more nowadays. John Craigie and his ability to weave a story and engage a crowd is a true art. Bands like moe. and Fruition and The Brothers Comatose, and ALO and Achilles Wheel I adore not just for their great music, but for being plain nice people and seeing to it that they always bring good vibes both on and offstage. People want to feel good and be entertained and connect when they see music. I don’t think enough can be said about being gracious and grateful as a performer, and taking the time to appreciate your fans, and that’s what I see in those guys. And again back to Poltz, there’s nobody that does a live show quite the way he does. I’ve been blessed to share his stage, and see it up close and personal many times. He, more than anyone, has taught me how truly essential it is that when it comes to live performance, just do you—whatever that is. Be authentic and people will respond. So when I’m onstage, I don’t feel like I’m having to become someone I’m not. I just do my thing and it seems to work.
Anything you’re listening to on repeat right now?
The Revivalists’ “Keep Going”. Sooo good. I’m digging Hiss Golden Messenger and Fruit Bats, too.
What can listeners expect at your release show at Terrapin?
I’m releasing the record in The Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, CA on March 9th. I thought long and hard about the venue I wanted to do this in, and that stage is perfect. Terrapin Crossroads is a special place for me because so much of my musical community is there, and it has the obvious tie-in with the jamband world (it’s owned by Grateful Dead bassist, Phil Lesh). I’m so grateful to the people who have supported me in various ways through funding the record, or appearing on it, or playing music with me in general, or coming out to shows…I really want this event be a celebration for all, because this record is built off of community, and I hope people can feel their own sense of pride in it. For the show itself, I somehow wrangled together a Bay Area “who’s who” band, including James Nash (The Waybacks) on guitar, Joe Craven (Garcia/Grisman) on fiddle, mandolin and percussion, Jordan Feinstein (The Ritual, Mars Hotel) on keys and organ, Robin Sylvester (RatDog) on bass and Ben Lauffer (American Nomad) on drums. Multiple guests will join the evening including Bo Carper (New Monsoon), Deborah Crooks, David Simon-Baker, Ed McClary, Essence, Mark Karan, Michael McNevin, Michael Myers, Pamela Parker, Victoria George and more. Hot Buttered Rum’s Nat Keefe will also appear along my producer Jeff Berkley of San Diego—both of whom will perform opening sets of their original music. It’s going to be a spectacular night!
Any other notable upcoming performances coming up in 2018 and/or will you be touring in support of the record?
Summer plans are still shaping up, but I can always be found hosting my songwriter friends in the round at Songs About Something: Old, New, Borrowed and Blue every 4th Sunday of the month at The Ivy Room in Albany, CA!
Paige Clem celebrates the release of Firefly live with an all-ages show at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, CA, March 9, 2018. feat. James Nash, Joe Craven, Jordan Feinstein, Robin Sylvester, Ben Lauffer + Friends with special guest sets from Nat Keefe and Jeff Berkley Doors 7pm / Show 8pm $15 advance / $18 Day of show.