Song Heap Says
The grace and poised perfection of Polly Paulusma
“Almost flawless” is something of an oxymoron, but I remember applying that summation to Scissors in My Pocket, Polly Paulusma’s debut album, released in 2004. It sparkles with poise and freshness and is one of the most intelligently written and persistently rewarding albums I have ever heard. She followed up in 2007 with the more reflective Fingers & Thumbs, sombre and stoical in tone. Though there was no easy exuberance to latch onto, its depth proved as fulfilling even though her debut contains several tracks more memorable. She is now touring her third album, Leaves From The Family Tree, as an independent, self-published release. I have been looking forward to this launch for some time.
Last Wednesday I saw her play at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell, an intimate but merry gig in a quality basement venue. I find Clerkenwell and Farringdon a strange part of London, a floating piece of emptiness vaguely deposited somewhere between the West End and the East End. The venue’s name and its pentangle sign are clearly a reference to An American Werewolf in London, which to my mind bestows an uneasy Eighties tone upon the place, only exacerbated by the incongruity of this great music establishment lurking beneath a brash pub full of suits.
Keen to catch up and rapidly exchange many views in a short space of time with a friend I don’t see too often, during the support acts we ended up sharing some observations about what set her apart from the crowd; aside from having a pretty voice and singing in her own accent which is such a rarity in the British singer-songwriter scene (the folk scene aside, notably), her lyrics are always well-written and avoid the predictable, off-the-shelf word choices, shoehorned metaphors and unimaginative rhyming patterns that so many singer-songwriters employ: lo, how those angst-ridden guitarists feel pain in the rain again; there are just too many budding troubadours who cry bitter tears for years; not to mention how often having another lover causes one, quite unnecessarily, to recall one’s sister and brother for no apparent reason.
Aside from a far more considered lyrical approach to her material, originality shines out from Polly Paulusma’s actual choice of subject matter too. Without resorting to the hackneyed, fall-back topic of the lonely, misunderstood, poor broken heart, that staple of artists the world over, there are not that many songwriters who can consistently hold one’s attention while navigating other themes. Across three albums she manages this deftly, her best songs generally eschewing the angry angst and breakups in favour of a jubilant thanks for life and love, or for bleak, crushing reflections on the loss of friendships or loved ones, for bereavement, the fragility of life and the ultimate importance of being thankful and savouring every minute we have. Where anger does reign supreme, in One Day, for example, the cause of her ire is not even broached, and the rage itself is masked in a vivid and creative description of how to contain one’s emotions, both metaphorically and, in a marvellous touch of perspective, quite literally.
I noticed another key feature of her craft during her set. Not being a guitarist, I do not recognise guitar tunings and chord inversions when I hear them. But watching her play, I was able to observe her choices of tuning and high fretboard positions – they granted her access to a wider range of walking bass-lines and melodic progressions within the chords themselves, which are not often present in the three-chord arrangements of lesser musicians. I always feel you can tell a songwriter who plays or writes at the piano, even if their primary instrument is the guitar. The keyboard tends to lead to a wider range of chord progressions and musical motifs, even at a basic level. Of course, capable guitarists can achieve their own levels of complexity, but past learning their first 20 chords or so, few bother expanding their musical palette any further. Whether this keyboard theory of mine is true or not in Polly Paulusma’s case (and I could be way off the mark) I think it’s still clear that the guitar is her primary instrument; the more folky melodies tend to be filled more sonically with the guitar, while any song with a jazz or soul inflection she plays at the piano in a more sparse arrangement. Which is not to say that they are lacking – simply that she has a careful sense of which songs work with more and which with less.
I am usually slow to absorb new material and it often takes weeks of repeated listening for me to take to a new album. Or more to the point, I am usually reluctant to say anything too definitive in case I end up changing my mind. However, a few tracks already stand out to me. The opening song Last Week Me, with a delightfully catchy chorus, unusually chirpy despite the darkness of the lyrics; Take Me Home, a beautiful arrangement of folk song underpinned by angelic backing choir; Ocean, a sweet and simply structured soul song, with a tender, sung riff in the chorus punctuating the careful, intimate lyricism of the verses. At the gig, Hallelujah (not that one) left an impression simply for its unusual patterns – but on further listening it sounds like it could be the breakout track of the album for me, not in the hit single sense but on the basis that it’s just so interesting and original. Polly told us at the gig that she didn’t really know how to describe the time signature of that track. I think rather than it having a time signature at all, I’d actually describe it as a soul recitative, if you can imagine such a thing – like a baroque recitative it does not have a formal downbeat and it mirrors the rhythms of natural speech. All in all, a paean of touching tenderness, beautifully assonant words, soul organ and double bass.
This album has already proven to have real replayability and Polly had mentioned how nice it was to have a full three albums to choose songs from, when on stage; I was struck with a little envy at hearing this and I had resolved again to make more effort with my own writing. The friend I’d been out with had asked me if I ever felt tempted to write simple songs with easy, popular appeal. I could only laugh at this and explain how such things are always easier said than done. Of course. (Cue my own angry, broken-hearted, angsty, wholly limited attempts.) But, buoyed by thoughts of an uplifting and inspiring gig I ended up walking the whole way home, attempting to formulate a new musical idea in my head.
I like it when I’ve passed through the graceless grunge of the Old Street roundabout and am surrounded again by the low and underdeveloped but crowded residential sprawl of the East. My journey took me past the Bethnal Green Working Man’s Club. A man in a duffel coat and a fluorescent jacket was locking up. From a distance I wondered momentarily if it was the transvestite who works there, who, after an evening collecting glasses in PVC, had returned to mufti in order to slip anonymously back into the night. I haven’t been there for a while but I reflected that whilst the Slaughtered Lamb excels in the incongruous placement, housing music fans and media types in the same establishment, the BGWMC reigns supreme in the realm of this kind of mismatch, hosting the old East End and the new, on separate floors but still all under one roof. Sometimes that lack of harmony is quite affecting in London.
Tonight was all about harmony and beauty though; playing She Moves in Secret Ways, still my favourite Polly Paulusma song, in loop with Over the Hill, I contemplated their walking bass lines as inspiration and thoughtful, insightful lyrics carried me home.