Citing Brel, Bach and Bob Dylan as influences, Paul Kowalski writes songs full of harmonium, harmony and deliberate disharmony; and has an excellent Leonard Cohen cover in his repertory. Giitv’s Harry Milburn caught up with London-based singer/songwriter ahead of his gig at The Lexington next week.
Hi Paul. Could you describe your sound in three words?
Alternative European Rock.
I notice your parents are Polish, and that you grew up in Africa, the Middle East and America. How much of an impact do you think that has had on your sound?
Well, I’m definitely not playing ethnic or world music – my songs are firmly rooted in the traditions of Western rock and alternative music. Having said that, a song like ‘Galicia’ has elements of Spanish classical, and nods at Polish mountain music and gypsy fiddling, but it’s probably more influenced by the Doors.
I think growing up in so many different places gave me unique contexts to encounter popular music. I was in an international school in the middle of Saudi Arabia, for instance, when I first heard Nirvana, and decided to pick up a guitar and write my first songs.
And how about on your lyrics?
Moving around helped hone my perception. I’ve never really felt completely at home in just one place, so I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, seeing things differently, and searching for a way to understand and express that.
A lot of my songs are about journeys, maybe even literally – people have told me ‘Oh, Carolyn’ sounds like a train chugging along.
…and when I sing ‘Galicia’, I always feel like I’m standing on the bow of a longship. Then there’s more obvious influences, like in ‘Painted Red’, which is mostly about London. When I moved here six years ago, I spent days just walking around alone, digging up old street and place names, obsessed with the city’s history.
So I suppose always moving around, and feeling displaced, gives me this urge to always look back to the past, and something to hang onto.
What else has influenced you musically?
Nirvana was the gateway – through them I found The Pixies, The Velvet Underground, The Beatles, and other lesser-known groups like The Vaselines and The Wipers. It wasn’t till later that I got into Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and the French chanson tradition of Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, as well as Chopin and Bach.
Why the harmonium? What is it you like about the instrument?
When I started, I was working within a typical rock set up – two guitars, bass, drums. I fronted a few Indie rock bands, but would always end up frustrated. Eventually, I realised it was my palette that was wrong. I dumped bass and second guitar, and fattened my guitar with a chorus pedal and big tube amp. But I still needed something else for melody, and a thicker wall of sound. Synths and samples were everywhere, but I wanted to keep things simple and natural. Then one night I saw this Polish physical theatre production, and one of the actors was playing a harmonium. The Gothic drone, that sombre but sweet tone, takes you somewhere different; it gives this church-like grandness and Baroque quality that makes such a great contrast to an electric guitar. It’s also very natural – wood, reeds, bellows – and is very physical to work, with the player having to pump with one hand to keep the air moving.
But the whole thing sprung from a very conscious idea to limit myself. With just a harmonium, one guitar and percussion, a lot of songs stop working – you just can’t do them live, and that’s fine. Like with a rhyme scheme for a poem, a budget for a film, or doing a painting with a limited palette – paradoxically, limitations often yield more creative results. Suddenly, you have an identity – it’s unique, it’s your voice, and that counts for a lot.
Before I met Andy, I had already auditioned drummers. I knew I was looking for someone who had more of an orchestral feel to their playing and equipment – definitely not a straight rock drummer. This guy called James Taylor came in, who had played with the National Youth Orchestra, and immediately related to the kind of open and deep space I was looking for with the rhythm. In one song, he flipped his drumstick round and scraped it over his cymbal so it gave off this echoing squeal. I never saw anyone do anything like that before. I thought, this is exactly what I’m looking for! On some of the tracks I recorded later – a cover of ‘The Partisan’, which Leonard Cohen made famous, and ‘Galicia’, James even played his vibraphone.
Other than James and Andy, I’ve played with various double bassists and violin players, both in the studio and live. Regardless of the setup, I work with the philosophy of trying to make sure nothing is superfluous; I like to keep things tough, tight and together. Every note counts.When we saw you live, at the Troubadour, you were quick to make the audience aware that Bob Dylan had played there once upon a time. Do you think it is important for musicians to be aware of the history of venues they are playing in? And do you think it helps add to an audience’s enjoyment too?
I’m not so sure. I’d like to say yes, but often I’d be excited booking a gig, building the night up because Dylan or whoever had played there, and end up disappointed because the sound was bad, and a venue had generally become a shadow of its former self. Anyway, I think most people get excited to play or watch a gig at the Royal Albert Hall because the sound quality is excellent, and the space, so atmospheric.
I think the night you’re talking about, I just loved Dylan’s pseudonym when he played the Troubadour in the 60s – he booked himself as ‘Blind Boy Grunt’. It made me giggle!
You’re supporting Billy Lunn from the Subways on Tuesday, at the Lexington. That must be pretty exciting…?
Sure, it’s a great London venue, so you know it has the chops not to let you down, and that’s always reassuring to a musician. The night is also being properly organised and advertised by GooMusic, a growing music management company, whose work is a far cry from how other promoters tend to take advantage of gigging musicians in London.
I’ve also been rehearsing with a violinist and double bassist for the show, so throwing them into the mix on a few songs should really help bring the songs to life.
What are your plans for the future? Can we expect an album?
Well, I’ve just finished mixing four singles that I’m pleased with, and want to play around Europe as much as I can, then get back into the studio to record some more. As for an album, I’m not sure; I’ve definitely got enough material to fill a double album, so why not? But I’m quite happy making singles. Each one is its own little world. I mean I’ve always been a fan of great songs, you know? In the end, they’re all that matter – they outlive the albums, live shows, even the artists themselves. Great songs are built to last, and I’ve always felt, above all, that’s the reason why I’m in all of this – to write great songs.