There’s nothing unfamiliar about Paul Wesley’s childhood dream to become a musician. The Texas native picked up the acoustic guitar as a teenager and soon made the jump to electric and informed his best friend they were starting a band.
After years of working on his craft, he released his debut album, When I Let Go, earlier this spring with help from over 40 musicians including Dustin Tanner, Bruce Robison, Allison Russell, Bukka Allen, Tosca Strings, and Warren Hood.
He took some time to talk with us about the various aspects of recording the album, writing songs, and mowing lawns to get that first guitar.
On recording the album…
I tried to do it myself, and I kind of wish I hadn’t. I did learn a little bit along the way. I tried to do the home recording thing and I was never totally happy with the way that it sounded. I kind of nibbled at it and tried to do it myself and I wasted a lot of time doing that. About two years ago I decided that I wasn’t going to get the record I wanted to get by doing it myself.
I started hiring pro engineers and calling people here in town to play. It was like making cold calls, like a salesman. I’d just call up a musician and say, “Hey, you don’t know me but I’m making a record and I want you to play on it.”
It was kind of intimidating to do that at first but I got better at it. I sort of learned at some point that these are really cool people and they like to play and the like to be involved in projects like this.
Once I got the ball rolling with four or five people, they would join in to the work. I’d say, “I’m really looking for a cello player or I need a lap steel,” and these guys would jump right into their own email folders or they’d grab their cell phones, calling people that they knew.
On finishing the album…
I mastered it in New York, at Sterling Sound, and when I was leaving Greg Calbi’s secretary gave me a copy of the masters. She handed them to me and said, “Well, I guess you’re ready to get started.”
It was a big moment, I had thought, “Wow, this is the finish line.” I hadn’t even considered that I was starting anything. It was an educational experience, to figure out how to get it distributed and get it on people’s radar.
On the idea of being a full time musician…
I haven’t quit my day job yet, I’m sort of testing the waters. I’ve gotten to the point where I think I may have taken this record as far as I can personally.
It’s very surprising to me how much time gets eaten up maintaining websites and posting announcements for the next show and that kind of thing. I would like to do this full time, and I think that will happen by the end of this year.
On getting his start performing at the Cactus…
Griff, at the Cactus, I guess heard me play at some open-mics and he used to call me and use me as an opening act sometimes when he’d have touring acts come through town.
On the album art…
I love that picture. I went to New York, it was one of the first times I spent time in New York and I was in a gallery in SoHo and I saw these paintings. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience where you see something and you feel sad for the money you’re about to spend because you don’t really have it but at the same time you just have to have whatever the item is, that was sort of how I felt about these paintings.
I ended up buying three of the paintings and hung them up in my living room. And a year or so ago when I could start to see the light at the end of the tunnel I started thinking about cover art and what it was that I wanted to use. The artist name was Boris Kulikov and it was another cold call sort of email. I said, “I love your work, I’m about to finish a record and I want you to do the artwork.”
The picture for the front, with the man cutting off his wings. I think it’s typical for his work, it’s kind of whimsical and kind of childlike but at the same time there’s something happening that’s a little bit disturbing and a little bit puzzling. He did that and he did the image on the back. We talked about the image for the back and I wanted it to be related to the front, like some sort of consequence – what might have happened after the front image. He painted the picture of the feathers all falling from the sky and the woman looking on. And I don’t know if you noticed but all the clouds have fallen to the ground.
On the song “Christmas Eve, 1992″…
That’s another one that’s really autobiographical and the song didn’t come until years later. I had a good friend in high school and he and I were roommates in college at the University of Texas for a couple years and he was killed on that date.
After it happened, some of our other good friends were telling me I had to write a song about that and I couldn’t really do it on command. I couldn’t just sit down and say, “I’m gonna write a song about this event.”
But years later, I guess when I was ready or when my brain was ready, I sat down and wrote the song. The lyrics and everything happened really quickly.
And the outro of the song was a lot of fun, I shouldn’t say fun, but I was really proud of the way the outro took shape. We got a choir in the studio that sang on a bunch of songs on the record and they sang the “Hey-yeahs” and there’s a gospel singer in Austin named Judy Arnold… yet another local musician who I just cold-called… so that’s her voice at the end of that song.
She just totally nailed it, it was really kind of a goose bump moment for me when we tracked that. The choir part was already there and most the instrumentation was already finished and when she sang it, it turned to the engineer and said, “This is going to be the last song on the record.” That’s the sound that I wanted to be the last sound on the record, that long sort of “Hey Jude” outro.
On his first musical experiences…
My mom is amazing, she’s really gifted and has a great ear. She can play anything if you just sing it to her she can sit down and start playing along. I started taking piano lessons when I was really young, but I’m still not half the piano player that she is.
She can’t read music either, she just plays. People would hear her play and they’d give her music and she would take it home and give it to me. So it ended up being me, I had to sit there and figure out how it would go and I’d play it to her and once she could hear it a couple of times she’d play it better than I ever dreamed. That was my first experience, on the piano.
On being forbidden to play rock music…
It wasn’t like an ongoing fight, I think she was probably wise and she knew that the best thing to do was to not lock horns with me and just sort of let it happen.
My parents are really religious people, I sat in the services where the Evangelists would say that this music was the devil’s music and then I would have to defend myself in the car on the way home.
I started playing acoustic guitar when I was 12 and I didn’t play very long before I wanted an electric guitar. I don’t know what it was that I read or I saw but I decided that a black and gold Les Paul was the ultimate guitar and that was what I was going to get. I wasn’t going to get anything else. I spent another full year mowing lawns and saving money until I came home with a black and gold Les Paul. I really didn’t think it through very far because I got home with my Les Paul and I had to start saving up again to get an amplifier. I figured out this way to plug it into a stereo with a series of adapters and that was how I played for the first few months.
The night that I got it home, my mom had a big sit down talk with me, which she never really did about many things, and said, “I’m just going to tell you right now – you’re not playing rock ‘n’ roll.” I guess we both decided the best thing to do was not to fight about it so I nodded my head.
I took the guitar to my best friend’s house and said, “Dude, you’re getting a bass. You have to get a bass because we’re forming a band.”
On writing songs…
I don’t know, I think a lot of the songs have a long gestation period. I rarely sit down and write a song about something that happened yesterday or a week ago. Some of the songs on the record like “I Can’t Explain” I sat down and wrote that song in a couple hours but the relationship that I wrote it about had ended four or five years before that. It usually starts with just one line or one little short melody and the songs usually get fleshed out pretty quickly.
On his favorite songs…
“I Can’t Explain” is the most stripped down and the most personal song on the record. I think it’s probably the best song on the record. But for most people that say “play me something from your record,” it’s not the one I play. because it’s a little more thoughtful and not as accessible. It doesn’t have a chorus that hits in the first 30 seconds, you have to dig a little deeper.
There are elements of each song that I’ll listen to – a string part that Tosca did or a background vocal that Allison Russell sang and I’ll think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ There are moments in each song that I’m really proud of.
On his first concert…
Eric Clapton, live at the Summit in Houston where I grew up. I remember it very well, I still have my t-shirt.
On other songwriters he admires…
It may be a cliché answer, but John Lennon. I don’t even know that I would want to pick his brain about music but I think the body of his work is amazing and I’d like to meet the person behind it. I feel the same way about Paul Simon and Jackson Browne.