Interviews with Paul Voudouris

Music For The Bunker
by Pablo Montero 

What was your first contact with music?

Well, music has been with me for as long as I can remember. I started taking piano lessons at about age 7 and that was not the best of experiences but it was my first contact with playing music. My sister, two years older, used to listen to L.P.’s of the musicians of the time, and I was exposed to pop music. I also used to listed to the classical musical collection of my parents: Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Debussy, and others. Then, in high school, I remember listening to “Abbey Road” and Chris and John Spheeris used to come to Greece for vacations and brought their albums of Elton John and Carole King and James Taylor and Cat Stevens, and I was hooked. I started composing my own material at about age 15.

You have a long trajectory as a musician and composer. Which stage, or phase, was the most important for you in your career?

All the times of my career seem the most important. Each and every song awakens the passion in me and I always feel as if I were composing for the very first time. And each song, as I’m working on it, seems to be the very best thing I’ve ever written. It’s this wonderful euphoria which songwriting brings up for me that keeps me pursuing the perfect song and expression after so many years. Now, then, when Chris and I sold lots and lots and lots of copies of the record “Enchantment” that was memorable because the money I’d made writing songs, in the past, was modest, at best. (If money were my pursuit I would most definitely have chosen another career. I chose music because creating, for me, is as fundamental to my existence as breathing.) After more than 34 years composing I feel I’m just coming into a new phase of creativity and returning to the excitement and joy I used to experience when I first started my career.

You’ve traveled around various parts of the world, quite a bit. Do you think other cultures have influenced your music?

Songwriting, for me, is an internal process, a self-analysis. Traveling is an external process. I like to travel because I love culture, I love humanity, I love language, I love the smell and tastes and sounds of different cultures. This is such an amazing world and there’s so much beauty in each and every place I’ve been. And it all becomes part of that database (that fertile compost soil) from which my expression draws when I create. So, my travels haven’t influenced my songwriting directly but, hopefully, they’ve helped to create a richer human being through which expression is translated and transmitted.

"Speak to me" is very interesting and difficult to classify. What did this work mean to and for you?

This is one of those creations that is very, very dear to my heart and is as unique as anything I have ever heard. By anyone! I remember Chris (Spheeris) and I were working on some other songs of mine and, very late one night, decided we wanted to leave the confines of the studio to get some ice-cream. So we drove to the only grocery store open that late (this was in Milwaukee, where Chris is from) and walked down the aisles looking for ice cream. At that moment, exactly, I remember it well, I had an epiphany, and decided when I returned to Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, I would record all my conversations with people and later splice up the conversations and preserve the gems of wisdom that I would (theoretically and hopefully) speak. Returning to Los Angeles, I set up a phone tap and trained myself to start recording the moment the phone rang and before I lifted up the receiver. At the end of each day, I listened to all I had taped and wrote down what was being said, by whom, and labeled it under categories such as “love,” “death,” “relationships,” and so on. But, to my embarrassment and astonishment, what I was hearing was unsettling. I would interrupt people when they were saying something of value and, it became clear, I was more interested in expressing than listening. This work would prove to be the best self-therapy I could have ever imagined. I realized that I was a loud-mouthed speaker, full of myself, and needed to shut up and learn to listen. And when I finally started to listen I heard the beauty that lies beneath people’s words. That the tones of people’s voices reveal more than their words ever could. I was in tears frequently as I worked on that record and I am still reduced to misty eyes as I listen to the record today. This truly is an amazing, beautiful work, with people revealing their true natures, unaware that “sneaky” Paul was recording them!

 "It Takes Two" and "Nothing But The Truth" are more acoustic, more pop records. Do you feel more comfortable interpreting vocal songs?

I became well known on the international music scene as a result of our instrumental release “Enchantment” (and later, “Europa’) with Chris Spheeris. But I have always been challenged by, and inspired by, the confines of a pop song. It is the most difficult and awe-inspiring labor to create a good pop-song in which one expresses himself personally, universally, and in a way that someone else may want to sing along. Yes, without a doubt, I not only feel more comfortable expressing myself as a songwriter writing vocal songs but I’m also most inspired and drawn to this specific genre. Don’t get me wrong, though I can create instrumental music in my sleep, it still requires a LOT of work, and an acute sense of song structure and arrangement; something to which Chris and I have always paid a great deal of attention. But I love to sing and it’s my unique singing voice, expressing my vision of the world (with lyrics), which continues to drive me. “It Takes Two” had five singles released and “It Takes Two To Tango” was a huge hit for me in various countries. The entire disc is about relationships. “Nothing But The Truth” is also very much about relationships, but related and delivered in a more sensual, smooth manner. It is not as overtly pop in its presentation as was “It Takes Two” but it was a natural progression for the style with which I wanted to express myself.

Without a doubt your experience as a teacher influenced your music. Paul, tell us something about "Emilia's Notebook".

Interestingly, teaching has always played an important part in my life. When I wasn’t making enough money through music I would teach to pay the bills. I taught high school in Greece, the United States, and Mexico. And, now, as I’m also a certified (and extremely active) Feldenkrais Method teacher, I continue in the vein of instruction. I don’t think teaching ever influenced my music but it was certainly another tool I had at my disposal for the day (and project) that I would want to draw upon it. When I realized I was going to be a father I was very concerned with the development of language and accents that my daughter would learn. Living in Mexico, where there are numerous American tourists, I’ve been exposed to the worst accents (in Spanish) that anyone should ever endure. I swore that my daughter, though born in Mexico, would never speak the languages of her roots in such as a way as to induce nausea in the listener. I began to research speech and accents and learned that the neural sound clusters, called “phonemes,” are formed from birth until the age of eight, when they begin to atrophy. Realizing the importance of exposing a baby to the sound clusters used for the languages that child will speak as an adult (I chose English, Spanish, French, and Greek; Emilia’s roots) I created “Emilia’s Notebook,” which is the alphabet, the numbers, and the days of the week, recited and sung, in those four languages. In other words, the work was not created to teach her the ABC’s, numbers, and days of the week. It was created, specifically, to form the phonemes for those languages. That way, when she would begin to learn to speak those languages, it would be with a natural accent. The CD was awarded the Parent’s Choice Award, in the United States, for best educational material from 2-6 years old, though I think it should be playing from the time the child is in the womb. And, parents, don’t worry, it’s not the crap that you hear the purple dinosaur singing. These are adult and child-friendly melodies! By the way, Emilia, now ten years old, has impeccable accents in the four languages.

What are you working on now?

For the last ten years, I let go of music to focus on being a father and I also spent four years training in the Feldenkrais Method. Other than recording other bands in my recording studio and touring with famous trumpeter Doc Severinsen, overseeing his live sound, I let go of being a musician. But, as of this past summer, the call has returned, the muse visits me in my sleep and in my days, and I’m busy at work writing new songs. I’m as excited writing again (I’d promised myself I would never again return to creating if I didn’t feel the sense of joy and excitement) as I ever was. Unlike the past, I’ve decided to not write in my studio (which offers too many options) and to only create with piano and voice in my living room (upstairs, as the studio is downstairs). It’s been very important to me to focus on the basics of songwriting without all the rhythm machines, synthesizers, and recording gear. The less my left-brain is involved in the process of writing songs, the better. (Of course, recording and production is another story.) It all comes down to the basic song. You can produce the hell out of a bad song and it will still be, as the Americans call it, a “polished turd”…una cagada pulida! But a good, or great, song stands on its own and doesn’t need twenty guitars, twelve synthesizers, and seven background vocal parts to be listenable. So if the song doesn’t sound good with me singing, accompanied by a piano, then the song itself needs revising, it doesn’t need more production.

Recommend something for us to listen to.

I like “High” by the Blue Nile, very much. I’ve always liked their songs, the voice of Paul Buchanan, and the arrangements. I like “Turbulent Indigo” by Joni Mitchell, who is a poet and wonderful songwriter. I still listen to Brian Eno and use some of his music-as well as some of my ambient releases with Chris Spheeris-during my Feldenkrais work. In fact, I still listen to many of the artists that I listened to when I was growing up. I prefer singer-songwriters to singers and am always drawn to unique melodies and lyrics.

Where can someone buy or download your music?

I have five vocal CD’s available on I-Tunes: “It Takes Two”, “Nothing But The Truth”, “Emilia’s Notebook”, “King Prawn”, and “Renaissance”. Chris continues to manage our instrumental stuff on I-Tunes, as well. You can stream my releases at www.reverbnation.com, www.soundcloud.com, www.tunecore.com,  www.facebook.com, www.myspace.com and can download from some of these sites, as well.