Embers From the Underground, the interview feature which went on a bit of a sabbatical in 2011, returns this week with Paul Federici, an impressive talent hailing from St. Catharines, Canada. Being that he and I share the same hometown, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Federici and I met years ago through a mutual friend. What gives this entry in the EFTU series an added twist, however, is that through tracking Paul down and getting some thoughts on the making of his debut, Relative Importance (album review below), I've actually learned far more about him than I'd ever discovered in passing social circles. Stream the full album here and read on about his creative renaissance... (Photo by Matt Scobel)
SCQ: I'll begin by blindsiding you with a Leonard Cohen comparison: you've released a debut album in your early thirties. How long have these songs been gestating? Do you feel that the experiences gathered throughout your twenties have enriched this material or perhaps merely delayed it from seeing the light of day?
PF: "First off, I love Leonard Cohen – he and Bob Dylan are two of my Dad’s favourite artists and though I didn’t quite “get” their music and poetic lyrics when I was younger, I grew to realize that my Dad was a pretty cool dude who was definitely onto something. To be honest, the only song that was really gestating was Conveniently Yours, which I wrote in 2008 and turns out it was kind of turning point song for me. I wrote a lot in my early 20s, though I never had much faith in myself or my music, and I produced a few homemade “records” for friends and family filled with songs that left me feeling that I wasn’t quite hearing what I wanted or hoped and like I’d never get it “right” – that frustration and perfectionist thinking led me to stop for a few years until a friend heard some of the old recordings and asked why I wasn’t still writing. That got me thinking again – I tried to simplify things and wrote a few new songs, one of which was Conveniently Yours, and it just felt right. I always believed in that song and it made me realize how much I missed being around the creative process. As for the rest of the album, 6 of the other songs on the disc were written in the 3-4 months leading up to the recording of the project when I hit a real low point in my life emotionally; I hadn’t even picked up a guitar in months but as soon as I did all these songs kept coming out and the music really helped me through. Actually, at the time of recording the producer and I agreed on only 7 songs for the project, but I find that recording and being around the studio/process tends to inspire me and ended up writing Without You midway through and I just really wanted to include it because I felt it fit the theme of the album. (I intentionally left it as the 8th song on the track listing because it was last to be written, same reason Conveniently Yours is 1st.) As for the age thing, I’ve always been a late bloomer I guess, and maybe I just needed time and experience to get to the songs that meant a lot more to me."
SCQ: What prompted you to record professionally? How did you go about choosing the studio and collaborators that aided in the creation of Relative Importance?
PF: "As I mentioned I hit a real low point in my life last year. I had finished my Master’s degree in clinical social work and I ended up with a job in Mississauga managing a crisis network, which really burnt me out and left me quite depressed. I started to take stock of where I was in life, what I wanted and where I was headed – I guess I did all of the things that I thought were expected of me, but I was just so unhappy in the end that I felt like I needed to follow my heart and take some chances. Music was always in the back of my mind, and I didn’t want to have the “what ifs” later in life if I had never even really tried. Maybe hitting such a low emotionally was a good thing really, because I ended up with songs that I believed it and I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose - I was already so unhappy that even if people hated the record or ridiculed my efforts I’d know that I had at least taken a swing, and really I didn’t care as much about critics anymore because I was doing this for myself. Ultimately the timing just felt right, and I knew that if I was going to record that I wanted to do it the right way and make the songs as good as they could be (and if they failed then so be it, at least I’d know then.)
As for choosing the studio I really went through the process pretty much blindly, looking up websites, making cold calls, listening to a lot of samples and trying to find a studio that I felt comfortable with and one that would fit well with my style of music. I met quite a few people, but as soon as I set foot in Catherine North Studios I just felt at home and Michael Chambers (who won 2011 Engineer of the Year at the Hamilton music awards during the project) was just incredible from the start. Really the work that has come out of the studio (City and Colour, Whitehorse) speaks for itself, and I also thought it would be really cool to record in Hamilton since my father grew up there and the album title was based on an old poem he wrote – so in the end it all just made sense. In terms of collaborators, I came into the project with an open mind and trusted Michael’s input, direction and talent – he proved to be an incredible mentor and producer whose finger prints are all over this record, and he ultimately chose the other musicians who participated."
SCQ: Presuming that these songs were born in the merger of voice and guitar, how did Relative Importance's various embellishments unfold? Did you mentally mark a clear line in the sand with regards to how many musical contributions a composition should have?
PF: "Song writing for me is a very spontaneous process, and yes the roots of all my songs come from a combination of voice and guitar together. Once I feel I have a song mostly arranged in my mind I create demo recordings where I really finish writing by adding harmonies and other parts to try and make the songs as “complete” as I can on my own, but each song takes on a life of its own. In that sense I’m very particular about the sound and feel of the song, but it’s hard for me to envision other instruments and contributions as I’ve never played in a band, and writing has always been a solo effort. Given that, coming into recording I was very open to feedback and input and really trusted Michael’s opinions and vision for the songs. There were times where we tried different arrangements and ideas, some of which worked and others didn’t, but it was a collaborative process going on feel and a willingness to experiment in the spirit of trying to make the songs as good as they could be in our minds."
SCQ: Many of these songs feature a nostalgic or mournful narrative often laced, I sense, with a contented air to the way their personal loose ends played out. When performing these songs, do you find you've developed a closer bond to the muse behind your songwriting -- as if opening old wounds -- or, alternately, a disconnect from revisiting these songs on a regular basis?
PF: "I would agree that these songs are nostalgic and mournful in many ways as that was the frame of mind I was in during the writing process for the record. I feel like songs in general tend to be a bit of a photograph or time stamp reflecting where you were emotionally at a particular time, and for me these songs were written when I was unhappy and questioning a lot of things in my life. I didn’t strive to give a contented air to the personal loose ends, in fact I often like to end the chord progressions unresolved or write in suspended tunings that have an ambiguous feel because I don’t think the world is black and white and I believe that many of the pains and struggles you experience in life are chronic and something you’ll always be fighting. Overall though, I feel that this whole process of recording and getting back to writing has definitely helped me learn more about myself and how I write – it’s definitely something I’ve dissected (maybe even too much) but I rarely aim to disconnect with the songs. Instead I sometimes I feel I’m at a point where I’m just ready to move on and new ideas, melodies, lyrics, themes etc. inspire you again. After a long haul of putting your ideas under the microscope of the studio that glow the songs once had when you first wrote them wears off and then you strive to recapture that again with newer material. But like I said, I look back on these songs as pictures in a way of where I’ve been so I’ll always appreciate them for what they are."
SCQ: What has been most rewarding about releasing Relative Importance so far? And what comes next?
PF: "I don’t really know if I can narrow it down to a single most rewarding thing about releasing the album. What immediately comes to mind is the amount of positive feedback I’ve received on the album not only from family and friends, but from album reviewers who have been incredibly flattering, and college/university radio stations like Brock Radio, Conestoga College Radio, Humber College Radio who have generously supported the record. Hearing my songs on the radio has been such a cool feeling, and one of the best moments so far was learning that Relative Importance made it to #1 on CFBU Brock Radio’s charts as of February 22, 2012. Ultimately it’s been a great feeling to just accomplish the goal of recording the record – no matter what happens I’ll always have this to look back on. Maybe the biggest thing is that I’m just following my heart, and ready to take chances again. What comes next? I’m going to keep writing and hopefully record another record, keep grinding, and find a way carve out a living at this. One day at a time."