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Interview: Paul Curreri

PUBLISHED: 09:42 17 May 2010 | UPDATED: 15:41 29 October 2010

Rob Garratt

Paul Curreri is the best American singer songwriter yet to hit the big time - or so argues ROB GARRATT, who caught up with the folkster-turned- art-rocker ahead of his visit to Norwich.

Paul Curreri is the best American singer songwriter yet to hit the big time - or so argues ROB GARRATT, who caught up with the folkster-turned- art-rocker ahead of his visit to Norwich.

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I first heard Paul Curreri five years ago, supporting blues giant Kelly Joe Phelps at a theatre gig in Nottingham.

One man sitting alone with a guitar in the centre of an empty, black stage, I was stunned with the thunderstorm of sound emanating from him, a twisted blues-folk brew. A landscape of fingerpicked notes cascading from his Martin while his foot stamped out the beat like a prehistoric bluesman, a bittersweet autobiography drifting over the music in chatty whispers and almighty bellows.

In the years that followed I collected his records, caught up with him on subsequent tours, and submitted glowing feature pieces to weekly rags and music zines.

Now on his umpteenth tour of the UK, and five studio albums into his career, Curreri is set to visit Norwich on May 5 for the first time as a name in his own right.

I spoke to Curreri earlier this week hours after a “crazy” 12.45am gig in Ireland, and the first night of the tour after three earlier dates were cancelled due to wrath of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull. He wrapped the night off at a karaoke bar, singing R Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly.

The tour sees him ditching his earlier folksinger sound in favour of a band, and is to promote his latest album, California. By far his most accessible work to date, it crucially came out of a fulfilling period of forced solitude in his Virginia home.

Suffering a vocal injury in late 2008, Curreri was ordered off the road for 18 months and, in between producing 10 albums for other artists and taking inspirational motorcycle rides in the Blue Ridge Mountains, crafted a series of sketches in his home studio that make up the album.

“It's so strange,” says Curreri. “It was a year of great crisis because I couldn't do what I consider to be what I am meant to do.

“I was waking up when I wanted and deciding what I was going to do for the day, not worrying about people emailing me back, and it was really surprising how peaceful it was. It was probably the best year of my entire life, and in some ways the record reflects that.”

The key, he told me, was recording every song the day it was written.

“I feel a need to make music every day, but I don't have a severe need to finish music every day; I much prefer to put it down and allow it to evaporate into the writing process than make it permanent by writing lyrics. If you don't finish it the possibilities are endless.

“I decided I would just finish everything; I would get the music going in the morning, write the lyrics on coffee and then go into a dash into the studio with some wine, celebrating the fact that I've got something - and then there's a very small window until I am not able to play, about three hours. In the morning I would stumble into studio and see if there's anything there - about one-third of the time there is, and two-thirds there isn't.”

Despite his virtuoso abilities on the guitar, Curreri, born in 1976, didn't pick up the instrument until he was 18. Developing his own, distinctive style while at college studying film, his songwriting was lent a Polaroid like authenticity.

After early careers teaching guitar and writing children's poems, he made the switch to pro musician just under a decade ago after impressing blues connoisseur's choice Kelly Joe Phelps, who is on record as calling Curreri his favourite living musician, and went on to produce his second LP.

Curreri's unique songwriting gift relies on a firm base; entrenched in the great American traditions of blues, folk and country, he is far from tied to them, and carves his own sounds out of what's gone before.

The results pick up rave reviews and rarely fail to wow crowds, but to many Curreri is better known as the wife of fellow performer Devon Sproule. Her last LP, ¡Don't Hurry For Heaven!, was one of the 10 he produced last year.

But, contrary to what he told me at our last meeting some years ago, he insists there is no success-related tensions in the marriage.

“I like to be a little bit of a behind-the-scenes guy,” he says. “I am so proud to be married to her, and I hope she feels the same. I would have married her if she was a gangster rapper - it's a bonus that I actually like her music.

“It's just music. We all think we can be Bruce Springsteen when we're 17, then you start reassessing your goals.”

t Paul Curreri plasy Norwich Arts centre on May 5.

t Further listening: www.myspace.com/paulcurreri

CURRERI ON RECORD

Curreri's 2002 debut From Long Gones To Hawkmouth runs like a scenic cross-continental train ride; chugging along to the great American rhythms of blues and country, winding round hills and ravines as it takes in the picture-postcard scenery of Curreri's life. Its folky follow-up, Songs For Devon Sproule (2003), strips the formula back, lays it bare. Recorded live with one guitar in two nights, this one brings the self examination into closer focus as the momentum slows down, more like a contemplative walk through the country.

His third album Spirit of the Staircase (2004) brings in a band. Organic layers of instrumentation spatter across the soundscape whilst the camera pulls in and out, a sense of musical and spiritual identity loss, hinting at the catharsis to come in 2007's The Velvet Rut, a car-crash of genres, emotions, sounds and images.

Recorded as doodles in his newly built home studio, Curreri's subconscious had unleashed a beast of tangled contemplation and spicy vitriol. But where its predecessor felt like a brave bedroom experiment, California (2009) combines the lush, layered arrangements with songs with as much depth as his early folk albums. Curreri's relentlessly inventive guitar prowess, scattershot lyrics of idiosyncratic banalities and soulful roaring vocals have found a perfect home on what could just be the underground star's breakthrough.

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