Interview: Paul Freeman
Thu, 08 May 2008 09:59:20
In Los Angeles, there's a small bar that sits on Fairfax Ave. just above Wilshire Blvd. It's called Molly Malone's, and the only thing distinguishing it from the nearby, rundown shops is a bright, four leaf clover over the door. It's an unassuming, little watering hole reminiscent of the gritty, Irish pubs in Boston. It's nothing like the track-lit, glossy "Lounges" strewn about Los Angeles. In other words, it's a bit of a welcome relief. In addition to serving up frosty brews, Molly Malone's features up-and-coming, young musicians nightly. However, one artist that graced their stage especially resonated with this writer. His name's Paul Freeman, and he turned the tiny bar on its head, injecting a large dose of energy, electricity and vitality into the room. Paul took the stage like he was playing Wembley Stadium, and for forty minutes, he held the crowd captive under an old school, rock and roll spell. With an accomplished band, he tore through one catchy, original pop gem after another. That wasn't the best part though. Mid-set, he leaped off the stage with his guitar in hand. He then proceeded to play and sing in the crowd, as patrons flocked around him. It was somewhat rapturous for Freeman, but all in a day's work, nevertheless. Suffice it to say, he won the crowd over.
Somewhere between Oasis's pensive, power pop and Bruce Springsteen's arena rock bravado, you'll find Freeman. His forthcoming RCA/Arista Records debut (Summer 2008) has the gusto and pop appeal to possibly pull in a wide variety of fans. Cranking out pensive ballads and full-blown rockers, Freeman nails it all. He takes classic elements and adds in personal charisma and wit. No doubt, he's a Hell of a showman, but his songs have some serious hooks. Fast forward past that Tuesday to a Friday night scene in one of those glossy, track-lit "Lounges." This one's called Bodega, and it's in Santa Monica. From the sleek décor and exotic wine menu, the place oozes West Side chic. With pretty waitresses and even prettier clientele, it ain't so bad. Freeman grabs a table by the window, and the young rock-star-in-the-making-from-Wales jests, "Let's talk about the music now, before the alcohol really starts flowing!" Agreed.
From there, Freeman delved into everything for ARTISTdirect, discussing his favorite literature, being signed personally by Clive Davis and the Queen's two birthdays. Thankfully, this all transpired before the alcohol really took hold at Bodega.
Your live show is phenomenal. It seems you play every show like you're playing Wembley.
Pretty much, I don't feel as though there's any point in doing it otherwise. It's 110 percent, whether there are 10 people or 10 million people there. It's got to be the same show. If you're in the zone and you're clear with who you want to be as an artist, you're going to do this regardless. You're doing it for yourself, first of all. When people get off on it, that's the added bonus.
The crowd connection is what's most tangible. You're at home on stage, and that's why it works.
You've hit home with that. Connection is something that we're all looking for, generally. I just try to be as honest as I can be when I get up there. Nobody likes a liar on any level—in a relationship or anything. If you go to a restaurant, and the menu advertises fish, but they don't have it, you're going to say, "What's fish on the menu for, mate? You're lying to me." Nobody likes to be lied to. I try to be as honest as I can be.
That comes through with the songs. "The Girl Who Broke In Two," "Earthquakes" and "You and I" have some powerful resonances. Where do you come from as a lyricist?
I tend to write backwards. I come from a title first. Then I write backwards from that—especially with a song like "Earthquakes." I had just moved to California, and I'd never experienced earthquakes in Wales. So I came here and everybody's talking about "The Big One." As a concept, the song is really about what happens when your foundations get shaken and something large happens—when a family member dies, someone loses their job, someone leaves a relationship or your dog dies. It all leans back from the blues. We're a little bit miserable [Laughs]. The dog's gone, and the car's broken; it's all the same thing. As a lyricist, I'm trying to explore new ways of telling old stories. I think the same old stories are the things that connect. "The Girl Who Broke In Two" is particularly personal. It's about a friend of mine that died a few years ago. She was just a fragile girl. The song is written for her family and her really close friends. The song looks at it from their perspective, as opposed to trying to put words in her mouth.
That one especially stands out, because you slow down live. Everything is given space to resonate.
That one is directly coming from the heart. There's a huge connection with that, and it's sometimes hard to sing. Those honest moments are the best moments in rock and roll. Whether it's a ballad or it's Green Day, if it's honest, it's going to connect. You hope anyway.
That connection is what people are looking for, and that's what makes them come back.
That's the thing that I always loved about Bruce Springsteen or The Beatles. Paul McCartney, to this day, still has a great connection with his fans. They're real people doing an extraordinary job.
Musicians are like superheroes .
[Laughs] Exactly! I need to get a cape with a big "F" on the back. I could come out on a wire, live. When was the last time that was done? It was probably last week [Laughs]. Justin Timberlake's probably doing it already, wearing a big "T" on his back.
The highlight of the show is definitely when you come out into the crowd during "Go On." However, at Molly Malone's, dedicating "The Girl Who Broke In Two" to the Queen was hilarious!
That's because she's got two birthdays [Laughs]. As personal as some of these songs are to me, nobody wants to sit there and hear me complain. They've come to have a good time. Whether you're playing at Molly Malone's or The Staple Center, people pay money to see a good show and have a drink. Either that, or they'll sit at home and watch a movie. So it's important to give them as much of a good time as possible. It doesn't have to be all tongue-in-cheek comedy. It just has to have a range of emotions, whether it's Broadway or a rock show. It needs to deal with happiness, sadness, wit, humor, life, death and everything. If you can throw all of that in a half an hour show, you should be good.
Your show set list has an emotional ebb and flow. It's cohesive and timed well.
Yes, I appreciate you pointing that out. Writing a set list is like writing a song for me. There needs to be a beginning, middle and end. There's a structure. You have to just change the content. There's nothing more boring than seeing a band do the same show twice. Within the confines of the structure, all you need to do is mix it up a little bit.
Rock n' Roll needs unpredictability. That's why people get into it, because it's fun. For you, it's a feeling and not an agenda.
You're exactly right. That's probably the best way that you can put it. It's a feeling and not an agenda. There are a lot of writers and bands out there that have gotten a little bit corporate. There's a game that has to be played, because it's the music business and not the music fun box. It's a business. There's always going to be that element. However, it's built on something that's based on raw emotion. If it becomes too contrived, that's just dangerous for everybody. It's dangerous to focus too much on the business side of it.
Things have gotten too safe, and you're not a "safe" artist at all.
I hope that's something that comes through on the album. There's a song on the record called "Waiting on a Miracle." It's, for want of a better phrase, my Obama song or my Clinton song. This is a great country. Unfortunately, I can't vote, because I'm not a citizen. I love living here though. America's been amazing to me. The song is one of the last things that I wrote for the record. This is probably the best country in the world, and I've come from the U.K. America's amazing, but it's going to Hell. So I wrote this song. I'm hoping people see that there's a balance on the record. I'm just trying to find that balance. That's all we want, isn't it?
Have you chosen a title yet for the record?
I want to call the record F-Words. I'm hoping people will see it's because my name's Paul Freeman, with an emphasis on the "Freeman." All my mates call me "Freeman." The songs are words from me. All of my guitars have a big "F" on them, so hopefully they see the irony [Laughs]. We'll find out.
Do you write poetry too? The lyrics have a literary sensibility.
I do. I'm actually working on a small book that I can maybe put out with the record. It's got about two dozen poems. It's nothing too winded or up my own head, but I'm a big Dylan Thomas fan. He's a fellow Welshman. Ever since High School, I've been really into his poetry. He's probably one of my biggest lyrical influences. I read a hell of a lot too.
What triggered your move to L.A.?
One of the last memories I have from London was riding on a big black bus and reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. That book's about California. It really hit home, because that was where I aspired to be. I was sitting on the back of bus in the rain in London. There were smelly people next to me, and people arguing. I was on my way to work, and I was like, "I've got to get out of here." It's not a slam on London, because I love London. After the years I spent there, it just got a bit weary. This Steinbeck book was so inspiring, because it's so detailed and vivid. I moved months after that. I came here with a bag and a guitar. I feel like the luckiest bastard on the planet. Within six months of moving to a city where I knew two people, I had a publishing deal and a record deal.
Clive Davis signed you personally. How'd that happen?
I made an EP with the money I got from my publishing deal, and somehow it found its way onto label desks. There was a bidding war, and I was flown to New York by another label. While I was in New York, I figured I'd make the most of my time, so I went in to see Clive. During the meeting, I stood on the boardroom table of J Records in front of Clive and all the suits. I was standing on this marble table in my boots playing an acoustic guitar [Laughs]. I don't know why I decided to do it. But there was a chair that was pulled out, so I was like, "Why not?" It's a boardroom, so I thought I'd do something about it. It does sound like a rock n' roll, folklore story. "How'd Freeman get his deal?" Well, he got on the boardroom table and played in front of Clive Davis [Laughs]. Afterwards, I was like, "That's been done before hasn't it?" Clive responded, "No one has ever done that before." But, the table's like a catwalk. It's so long. It's just crying out. For me, there's always an opportunity. Whether it's an opportunity to connect with 100 people or one person, I have to take it.
What's your ultimate goal?
If you're a sixteen-year-old in Idaho playing Guitar Hero and thinking about becoming a musician, who are you going to get behind and go, "I want to be like that guy?" I want to be the guy those kids can look up to. I have the advantage of having John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen before me to look at and go, "I want to be those guys." We can't rely on the legend of John Lennon for the next 30 years. So as a musician that's coming through now, it's up to our generation. You've really just got to put your balls out there.
America seems like it's been a good place for you.
America's an amazing, beautiful and inspiring country to be in. There's so much creativity here. Every generation just spawns so many creative people. It's our decision to leave where we're from, some people love where they're from, and that works for them. But, within those realms, you've got to have ambition.
Why do you come into the crowd during shows?
I do that to remind people that I'm a music fan. We're all the same as human beings. I like to leave the stage, because I want to remind people I'm just a guy playing a guitar. You enjoy music, and I enjoy music.