One-Man Band Series, #12: Possessed by Paul James
Almost every artist involved in the one-man band movement does things his own way, making his endeavor wholly individualized. He selects the type of instrumentation he is going to use, develops a sound often by combining more than one musical style with his own, and then slaps some sort of moniker on it. Both the sound and the setup with which he creates his sound range from simple to intricate. And though there are a handful of directions from which to choose, he more often than not either adopts a purist approach or a more experimental approach to crafting his songs.
One singer/songwriter whose sound is both unique and pure is John Konrad Wert, or Possessed by Paul James. An exceptional vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, John Konrad Wert assembles the components of his sound into a seamless whole with acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, an old suitcase and tambourine for stomp percussion, and an incredibly powerful singing voice. Just as much a bluesman as he is a folk artist, Wert’s songs possess both traditional and modern qualities in abundance. In addition to that, he is one of those rare singer/songwriters who is equally in his element busking on a crowded city sidewalk or on a subway platform as he is at a local hole-in-the-wall punk venue or large folk festival.
Wert’s sound can be described as soulful and primal, worldly and spiritual, raw and thoughtful and uncompromising. It is real life music, his compositions and their subject matter. And though he seems to somehow transcend himself and his humanity through song, he remains irrevocably human, and so too does his music. Music is something called forth from the innermost depths of the artist, after all, at which point it is communicated to his fingertips, his voice, his feet, and the other parts of his body that go into creating the song; a perfect mergence of an artist’s inner and outer self…a crossroads, if you will, where the physical and immaterial intersect. Few know this better than John Konrad Wert. And all one needs to do to come to that realization is attend one his live performances, as it is one of those experiences that stays with one for a long time to come.
“Feed the Family,” the third and most recent album by Possessed by Paul James, is a collection of twelve original and important songs released on the Texas-based Hillgrass Bluebilly Records. Wert’s earlier releases have appeared on Italy’s Shake Your Ass Records and Switzerland’s Voodoo Rhythm. He has also toured extensively, sharing the stage with many of today’s notable bands and singer/songwriters.
Recently I had both the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing John Konrad Wert for my One-Man Band Series. What follows is that interview in its entirety.
In the interest of giving the readers of this piece a better understanding of the artist I am interviewing, I would like to begin in an introductory fashion and ask you: Who is John Konrad Wert (aka Possessed by Paul James), not just as a singer/songwriter but as an individual, as a human being of this mad world in which we live?
Well, first off, I’m a daddy with two boys; and second I’m a schoolteacher. I’ve been working and involved with non-profits like Boys and Girls Clubs, gang prevention gigs, community development, case management, and now teaching since the late ’90s. James, I guess I mention that to give reference to why we approach music. It’s meant to be a social service, so to speak. It allows us as a family to subsidize the income a bit, exorcise life’s frustrations and gather together with friends and strangers for some singing, drinkin’ and pickin’, ay. I find it even more of a release now as a father. When your children come about, such opportunities to pick are pretty limited, so when it does come it’s always a good time.
Your youth was spent in a rather unusual way compared to that of much of the rest of the world’s youth at that time, when you resided in Immokalee, Florida, with your family and their very spiritual ways. How has that experience shaped you as the artist you are today? And how is your way of life today in comparison to the one you knew in your youth?
The thing here to remember is that our particular family, like many others, was a household built on faith, specifically within the Mennonite Church. The cultural dynamic is interesting when there are very few Mennonite congregations south of central Florida on the Gulf side. Now, our church community was in Immokalee, where I was born, but we soon moved to Lehigh Acres. My parents worked there in the Church nearly ten years prior to moving to Lehigh, but still attended prayer meetings, Sunday service, potlucks, caroling, etc.
It taught us community. It taught me very early how to sing, or at least follow along in music. It taught me about diversity and understanding at a real early age, and what it means to see poverty and hope, what it means to see people working with and for one another, and what it means to hear music in the Haitian churches nearby, or recognize the smell of orange blossoms along the citrus groves, and so on.
I think now as an adult and parent our approach is to take with us what was most beneficial as opposed to the dogma of the church. I’m not a person who believes in a religion, so I no longer identify with such a group. But with that said, I think there are some very true teachings regarding what it means to ‘serve’ one another, what it means to live simply (less is more), what it means to think globally and act locally.
In writing there’s always the danger of coming off too preachy or standing on a soapbox. I think there’s a trick to it, and sometimes we figure it out and other times not so much…ha.
Having listened to your songs absorbedly and again and again I am rather confident in referring to you as one of today’s genuine living bluesmen. Of course, there are also bits of folk, country, and even punk in your sound, but the blues seems to be the dominating style overall. How did your sound come about? Experiences? Influences? Etc?
I tell ya what, I don’t identify with the blues more or less than other genres, but I do favor writing about regret and lament. The double thumb bass picking style I do enjoy when fingerpicking. I think the punk and folk flavors cross paths with blues, but it’s a different demographic. It’s not
Chicago or Delta black men and women, nor is it Prine, Biafra or Christopherson; rather, we throw those styles in a pot, add some Hank Chinaski and apostle Paul, and there ya go. Artist-wise and music-wise I’m most influenced by the other players I meet or share bills with at the shows. I think that’s a fun thing about playing when ya really dig another artist and what they’re about.
The actual performance or “sound” came from busking, honestly. We would go down S. Congress, or when on the road, and make a little cash and share conversation. When the first show came about it wasn’t planned out; it just came about – the alternating of the instruments, using the suitcase to smack like off S. Congress, the growling or yelps and whatnot are just a feeling or fun way to add melodies. I also think the early touring overseas in Europe helped tremendously since it was much more of a cultural representation in the eyes of the Europeans. I better identified with and understood what we were trying to share when folks appreciated the roots and raw style that came about.
“Feed the Family,” your latest album on Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, has only been available for a few months now. In that time I have come across a lot of favorable reactions from both fans and press alike. Now, most of the songs on the album have appeared on your previous recordings on Shake Your Ass Records and Voodoo Rhythm, save for one or two, though they sound decidedly more polished and produced than before. Did you re-record all of them for this album?
Well, actually we only re-recorded four tracks – “Old Man Souls,” “When it Breaks/Vodka and a Fight,” “Take Off Your Mask,” and lastly “Color of My Bloody Nose.” The other eight have never been recorded on an album we’ve released. I like the fact that those previous four songs were able to share a different feel and intent. For example, the fingerpicking in “Old Man Souls” felt real strong and fitting to the tone and meter of the song. “When it Breaks” feels like the finished version of “Vodka and a Fight.” See, that song was originally recorded while I was drunk after fighting with Jen. Though I like the way it originally sounded, I wanted to put more structure into it and add our catch phrase, so to speak, with “What you gonna do when it breaks, I’m gonna keep on coming.” Haa haa. A friend of mine said he was listening to that track while makin’ out with his lady and they kept laughing because it sounds like we’re talkin’ about a condom…ha ha. Lastly, “Color of My Blood Nose” is my favorite love ballad. When it was first sung in ’06 it came out real raw and even primal, not melodic or inline with it’s real meaning. Granted, folks dug that version, but I wanted to add it again since the recording was so nice and it brought a slight edge to the somewhat contemporary overall feel.
See, the themes I enjoy the most when writing are recognizing the flaws and failures in all of us but adding lines of acceptance and strength. We can sing about our shortcomings, but we can’t hide from them when they’re declared. In answer to your question about the remaining tracks recorded for this album, yes they’re from sessions in Austin, Elgin, San Francisco, and one from the film “The Folk Singer” by M.A. Littler’s Slowboat Films.
Now, I know you don’t exactly consider yourself a one-man band, though you have been included in that scene, as well as others, for some time by fans, press, music enthusiasts, labels, etc. With your methods of making your music – strumming your guitar, picking your banjo, playing your fiddle, stomping on a block of wood, and singing – most would say that those things constitute a one-man band. As a matter of curiosity, why did you choose to go it alone, rather than take on fellow musicians for your musical endeavor?
The intent was to simply play music. In Austin we started pickin’ at Pizza Shops and busking around. Then we found some real opportunity pickin’ with friends, and writing, but sadly that went south. We didn’t want to stop pickin’, so we threw a show together in 2005 – 2006, and this is what came out. Didn’t really intend for a solo act; it just worked it’s way into being as the response for the songs slowly grew. But if I had my choice, I’d much rather pick with friends. Some of the coolest things about music are the conversations you have with other musicians. And I don’t mean phonetics; I’m referring to playing and reading off one another’s playing. When you stick pickers in the same room who enjoy it as much as you do, I tell ya what, it’s simply amazing, man. It’s orchestral and fun and creative, and you can share those travels and experiences with folks. The kicker here in Boerne, Texas is I haven’t found too many cats to play with, and the closest ones who do either live in Austin or New Braunfels. No worries, I think in time it’ll work it’s way out.
In your lyrics there’s a recurring theme of everyday life, sometimes in general, sometimes presumably quite personal. The album’s title track “Feed the Family” is pretty much self-explanatory, while songs like “Color of My Bloody Nose” need to be interpreted by the listener to an extent. What goes into your songwriting process as far as the subject matter and the feeling the accompanying music creates?
Good question, brother.
So here’s my opinion, I think a song should first be colorful, pose either a question or a solution, grab the attention of listeners by the imagery or wording, oftentimes recognizing our universal connection with what is ugly – and by ugly I mean our failures, our challenges, our heartache, and our battered achievements. I think if ya can lock onto that you’ve got a nice formula for a meaningful song. Also, the interpretation is the best part. We tend to say 50/50 when playing a show ’cause it really is just that. Without the listening audience, what have ya got? Ya got nothin’! See, without the freedom to interpret anything, why would anyone want to listen? And if they do listen regardless what are they really hearing?
I have my ideas and intent, but it takes on another level or presence when someone else tweaks it to meet their need or interest.
Since you’ve become a husband and father your touring schedule has decreased considerably, with you rarely venturing outside of Texas for shows, no doubt so you can stay close to your family. Is that how you plan to keep it indefinitely? Or can we hope to see in our hometowns sometime in the future?
I have no bloopin’, bleepin’ idea. Ha haa. This new adventure in life, having children, is crazy man! We’ve talked about being a family on the road, living overseas, etc. But right now, this very time frame, we need to be close to our surrounding family for support and community. It’s a wonderful thing to have a cousin nearby, an uncle, a Grandma, etc. Know what I mean? Strange enough, we could make a good living on the road, but look at what’s being given up. See? So I think music is always going to be played and written, but regarding how often we pop up in a city…no clue.
Now, if it’s just pop out and about, sure enough I’d be first runnin’ to Canada for a tour, then down to Florida (my home state) and up to Pennsylvania, etc, etc. I miss that, of course, but once again the tradeoff is missing those early stages with your kids, figuring out the financial aspect, leaving yer partner alone, always on the road. Ya know?
I don’t think folks always realize that touring takes a lot of sacrifices in your personal life. For us the intent has always been that music should better our lives, and sometimes it’s really rocked us. I mean when yer out there pickin’ in the venues and crowds we find ourselves…well, it’s not always the best situation, ya know?
At around the same time you released “Feed the Family” you also made available a Possessed by Paul James songbook…which is very cool, by the way. How did that idea come about? And has it proved a much sought after item for your fans so far?
Well, it came about as a result of receiving e-mails from folks here in the states and overseas regarding the written songs. I think it’s a nice way to share personal ideas, as we added a little bio of each song on a neighboring page. No chords were added since I think it’s always better to challenge your ear more and more. Also I don’t really know what key the songs are in as we jump that capo all around when picking. And yes, the response has been very nice. We only had 100 – 150 made to mainly sell them at the shows. See, our merch sales are a funny thing, as we only play about thirty shows a year, so we do a lot of our sales via the website and online. Our intent is to try and put out a songbook every time we put out a record, kind of a nice added thing to throw around.
A while back you were the subject of M.A. Littler’s documentary “The Folk Singer.” Having seen it several times, it seemed like it was a rather difficult time for you – emotionally and spiritually speaking, that is — with the upcoming arrival of your baby and a host of intense thoughts and feelings surrounding it, with your wife at home with child, with the possibility of putting the singer/songwriter life behind you for a more conventional occupation, and with several other things weighing heavy on your head and heart. Will you please talk a little about that experience and what it entailed, as well as the inner struggle that was taking place within you at the time, and what it was like to work with M.A. Littler?
Sure enough. Well, not to disappoint, but “The Folk Singer” was a fictional depiction of examples from being on the road. And by the road that too was a staged part of the filmmaker’s process. I’ll back up.
The entire experience was wonderful. I mean…come on, it’s pretty cool when a small German film group, Slowboat Films, wants ya to be a part of a project like that. I’m small potaters, so anything in the realm of what they were doing I thought was freakin’ great and still do think they’re great. But we did enhance and attempt to properly stage certain scenes and dialogues among the characters involved, and I think that went well considering none of us are actors and we’ve never been a part of something like this before.
Case in point, there is a rather large section within the film where I’ve lost it emotionally. We specifically wanted to capture that somehow on film since there have been plenty of times where you’re gonna lose yer shit in life because of all the heavier shit backing up on yer shoulders. We ended up shooting that segment in a small, middle of nowhere Louisiana motel, I think. We told Mark I’d have to be pretty wasted and in-tune with the emotion to do what we wanted to do, so we started drinking. Mark started referencing some of the very real questions coming up, at which point I started to dive into the feeling of it, and we did all right. I remember after that shot, though – we, the crew, me and Mark, were all pretty taken aback by what transpired, but there was definitely a feeling of, “Yeah, we got somethin’.” That was our intent, and they worked it out so well.
What’s next for Possessed by Paul James, both musically and whatever else may be in the works?
See, since we like writing there’s always more to write. I think it would be fun to figure out how to get another record out by February or March. I like this past album, but it still feels like we’re shaping something together, as if the finished product still hasn’t come about.
I hope to pick a little more out of state again, and I’d love to head back overseas. We sadly had to cancel this past summer’s run to the UK and Central Europe as Kai (our second boy) was coming. We hope to have “Feed the Family” pressed via LP by an interested label this upcoming year. So we shall see. There are projects in the wings, but of course they need to fit into this puzzle of an elementary school teacher and father.
Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you would like to discuss or express, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Mr. Wert.
Ok, hmmmmmm. So how ‘bout this: I think, though I’m a hypocrite and an ass from time to time, that we need to figure out where the industry of music is going. I think we as an audience need to really push for the artists we appreciate. I say that because everything is changing in a real weird way lately. Has it changed for the worse? No, not necessarily. But there feels like an air in which music will lose the purpose of serving others. And by that I mean not only entertaining but also challenging and motivating others.
If you look at it like music is a way an artist expresses himself or herself, the way he or she better understands love, or relationships, or religion, or battles with society or celebrates it, etc, then ya would hope that when we listen we pick up on the intent or it’s very process. Not only are we there on a Friday night to get fucked-up and hoot n’ holler, but it’s also an amazing opportunity to do something so socially and historically important during a time when we’re glued to the ideas of separation and individualization.
Music cannot be the idea about “me, me, me, us, them, better than, worse than.” If it really is 50/50, then we all need to do better and recognize that these Friday and Saturday nights are times when we share both wine and stories. Where we share our burdens and our celebrations. Where we share our failures and our attempts to succeed.
While saying this I realize I’m a failure in many ways, but that’s ok. I’ll try and make the better choices in life next time. I’ll come on Friday night and try to clean my head free of shame and guilt. I’ll toast another brother in the same boat and we’ll look ’em in the eye and say, “Yup, yer a dickhead, but that’s ok. You won’t always be a dickhead.”
That’s what it’s about. Nothing more or less. It needs to be about lifting one another up and encouraging one another when we fail over and over again. I think when we leave that outlook behind we really cheat music. And I don’t want to do that anymore. Music needs to embody what is most helpful at the time. It needs to make us better as people, as pickers, as families, as listeners. And when we take advantage of it and forget what it’s all about…well, then we need to recognize that and try again, damn it.
Cheers James, and thanks again for both the interest and the time.
All the best.
*Photo (top) by Garrett Traya