American protest music has often been born out of the working class struggle, racial discrimination, civil rights movements and wartime. In the early 20th century, such marksmen as Joe Hill rallied and organized migrant workers for better wages. During The Great War, lyricist Alfred Bryan and composer Al Piantadosi captured widespread skepticism of the United States heedlessly entering the Europe conflict. The Great Depression then wrought painstaking work on the front lines, enriched through musical activism of Aunt Molly Jackson (“Hungry Ragged Blues”), Billie Holliday (“Strange Fruit”), Fats Waller [“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”] and Lead Belly (“The Bourgeois Blues”), among others. Through the coming decades, singers, songwriters and musicians ⎯⎯ from Woody Guthrie, The Almanac Singers, Odetta and John Denver ⎯⎯ ignited revolutions in their work.
“When life takes a turn for worse, remember this little verse: we all fall down,” Paula Boggs, lead singer of Paula Boggs Band, urges of humanity on “We All Fall Down,” a lullaby anthem found on the band’s latest record, Elixir – The Soulgrass Sessions. “I’m no better than you. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew. We all fall down,” she repeats over ritzy horns, honky-tonk piano and a swelling jazz arrangement. It is that very discernible contrasting tone which needles throughout much of the album, allowing the players to flirt with glistening presentation and hefty messages. “The band thrives on our contradictions. I mean, beyond blues, how many African American women front roots bands? How many roots bands include a percussionist of Tor Dietrichson’s musical brilliance?” Boggs ponders in an interview with B-Sides & Badlands.
“We have two Hawaiians in our band, a born-again Christian and a Buddhist. This diversity, along with our generational diversity and the varied music traditions, we bring makes us, well, us,” she says. Framed in such a wide-ranging cultural melting pot, the group ⎯⎯ featuring members Tor Dietrichson, Mark Chinen, Sandy Greenbaum, Isaac Castillo and Paul Matthew Moore ⎯⎯ infuse the album’s merciless call-to-action with intimate, personal anecdotes. “I didn’t set out to write a ‘political’ or ‘message’ album. My goals were to be authentic, write good songs, better hone our sound into something uniquely ours, and by performing a lot on the road over a 2-year period, develop a tighter sound before recording what became the album,” she explains. “That ‘authentic voice,’ informed by the diversity of my life journey, leads me to write as I do.”
Given the nature of today’s political sphere, Elixir could not have arrived at a better time in history. Protesting is even more vital to our universal story as ever before, and music can often be the conduit to spread change in the world. “Sometimes music speaks to people more authentically than spoken word. It’s an incredibly emotional medium. Earlier this year, I read an article about music and the brain. Essentially, it said music is primal, universal and affects each of us uniquely,” Boggs considers of the need for protest songs.
“A couple days ago I was listening to South African music. Though I don’t understand Swahili, the rhythms, tones, modulation and emotion of the music struck me deeply, creating a window into South Africa’s struggle as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth. Music can breed empathy for ‘the other’ and empathy can facilitate positive change,” she continues.
Below, Boggs details the world events which informed the record, “shut up and sing,” what she learned and celebrating 10 years as a band.
You’ve spoken about how “Benediction” was inspired by the 2015 Charleston, S.C. church shooting. What other events inspired the record?
In a way, every song on ‘Elixir’ was triggered by an event or events. The opening song “Goo Goo Dolls” was triggered by how hard it is for me to make money and be heard as an independent artist who is not a millennial, legacy act like the Goo Goo Dolls or pop artist. The first verse evokes my time living in Austin, TX, and it was fun to be a little tongue-in-cheek throughout the song. “Gypsy Sapphire” is a love song. “Rear View Mirror” speaks to leaving Santa Fe after calling it “home” for years. I was on the road when my house sold and so never said goodbye to it or that magical, ancient city — at least that life chapter with it. Several songs on the album are inspired by our two-year presidential campaign and the closing song “Original Sin” is a celebration of music.
When and how did this album begin?
Some aspects of ‘Elixir’ started several years ago. Earlier versions of “Peel the Charade” and “Original Sin” appear on our 2010 album ‘Buddha State of Mind.’ I wrote the newest song, “We All Fall Down,” a month or so before we started recording. When our last album, ‘Carnival of Miracles,’ released in March 2015, the band had a good sense we wanted to make another album, and it’d take time to do it right. I was thrilled when lead guitarist and banjo-player Mark shared “Two Daughters” with the rest of us, allowing us to showcase an instrumental for the first time.
What did you learn about yourself and the world around you through writing, recording and performing this album?
Between ‘Carnival’ and ‘Elixir,’ I became a better songwriter, in part because I allowed myself to be more vulnerable. As side benefits, I became a better spouse, parent, bandmate and public speaker. “Stealing a look at you, I wonder what you see in me. I squint then pinch myself and pray Murphy’s Law stays away.” These lyrics in “Gypsy Sapphire” suggest the curtain will rise to reveal the con or more charitably, the narrator will one day wake up to learn the love affair of his or her life was only a dream…I don’t always feel that way but sometimes I do. As for recording an album, if you’re lucky, magic happens in the studio. For us, magic was fueled by choosing Robert Lang Studios, with its Byzantine architecture offering several tucked away spaces to just chill and majestic views of Puget Sound.
There’s a park a mile away, and during breaks in recording, I’d walk there. I needed that physical activity and separation to recharge, including on Election Day. And every time I did, with waves crashing through the sounds of children playing, runners huffing and lovers strolling, I’d leave with a sense of “it’s all gonna be OK.” We performed the entire album to an audience for the first time at our recent release show. By so doing, I learned we could actually pull off songs like “Rear View Mirror.” Even though we recorded it “live” with only mandolin and background vocals overdubbed, musically, it’s a complex song with the background vocals almost evoking a Gregorian Chant.
What is the album’s emotional arc?
‘Elixir’ begins (“Goo Goo Dolls”) and ends (“Original Sin”) literally with music themes, and I believe music can be an elixir across cultural, racial and all other kinds of otherwise socioeconomic divides. We hope our album can be an uplifting elixir for its listeners even if only for the 42 minutes they play it.
Which song is your favorite to play live, and does the meaning shift in any way?
From ‘Elixir,’ I’m not sure yet which song is my favorite because most of them we’ve only played once before a live audience. Of those we’ve played more, it’s “Benediction.” We knew “Benediction” would be special and premiering it in Charleston, S.C. with the Mother Emanuel AME Choir on the 2nd anniversary of the massacre was a permanently imprinting experience for every band member. Typically, when we’ve performed it since, it’s been without a choir per se so the audience becomes our “choir.” I love how enthusiastically folks engage. Each time it happens, it’s a beautiful and unique moment in our show.
Many country or folk music fans ascribe to the “shut up and sing” manifest. How have you seen music change people’s minds in that regard?
That certainly happened with the Dixie Chicks several years ago, and it may still largely be true of country music and its listeners. I’d like to think our “message” music is more in the historical tradition of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, The Staple Singers and, though in different genres, what you today hear in the music of Kendrick Lamar or Drive-By Truckers. Closer to home, I love Phosphorescent’s recent cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” There has always been a welcoming audience for this music, and I don’t see that changing.
How does your philanthropic and other work go hand-in-hand with music-making?
There is tremendous synergy between the band and my volunteer activities. Music organizations like the Seattle Symphony and Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University help make their respective local communities, nation and world better through sharing and stoking the magic of music creation and discovery. Beyond music, community building and supporting education are also common themes among the organizations my family supports.
Many of the band’s songs touch on similar themes as the philanthropic work. Do you often find that that two worlds bounce off each other and you are then able to, perhaps, play better or flex your songwriting in new ways?
I certainly don’t see any conflict between those worlds. Volunteering for and otherwise supporting organizations like Seattle Symphony and Peabody certainly expose me to a wealth of creative people who serve, even if they don’t know it, as informal mentors. It’s inspiring to be associated with these organizations.
On Twitter, you recently celebrated 10 years as a band. Did you ever think you’d still be making music together?
Tor, Mark, Sandy and I have played together 10 years. Back in 2007, I did not have the foresight to envision where we are now and where we’re going. The goal then was to see if we could make an album; something we did in 2010 when I was still full-time at Starbucks. Mark’s daughters were pretty young in 2007, and he wasn’t sure how much time he could devote to a band. It was pretty much catch as catch can both in terms of rehearsals and gigs. Our very first gig was in January 2008 at Seattle’s Triple Door Musicquarium.
What have you learned in those 10 years?
So many lessons. I’ve learned to be a better songwriter, guitarist, singer, band member and performer. I’ve learned how to receive feedback better, to work constructively in a band context, to better listen. We’re a better road band than we were even a year ago, we own the stage when we’re on it, and I’ve learned how to accept criticism and failure with better grace. Two years ago we had a show in Bend, OR, and had five people in the audience. Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss were playing down the road, so ‘nuff said. Our show was no different from what it would be for a sold out crowd. The next day, on the drive from Bend to Eugene, where we were playing that evening, I heard live President Obama’s eulogy of Mother Emanuel’s Reverend Clementa Pinckney, inspiring me to write “Benediction.” I’m not sure I’d have written “Benediction” had we not done that Bend show. That’s what I’ve learned…all things in my music journey happen for a reason.
What would you tell your 2007 self?
Don’t sweat it; it’ll work out the way it’s supposed to.
Photo credit: Tom Reese