Written by Bridgid Brousseau
New York native, vocalist, saxophonist, flautist, and writer, Paula Atherton began the path to her successful career at age nine when she began studying voice and flute. Paula Atherton’s long list of accomplishments can now include being the second artist to be signed with Maurice White’s record label, Kalimba Records. Her fourth album “Ear Candy” is set for release on February 17, 2015.
Bridgid: Congratulations on your new CD “Ear Candy” set for release on February 17, 2015 by your record label Kalimba Music! Tell us everywhere we will be able to purchase “Ear Candy” so that we’ll all be ready.
Paula: Wherever you typically go to get your music you will definitely be able to find it. And of course you can download it on itunes. Anywhere that you go to purchase your music you will find “Ear Candy.”
Bridgid: I like having the physical CD. So I’ll be getting the hard copy. Call me old fashioned. I like being able to flip it over and see who’s playing.
Paula: Yes, the artist spends a lot of time on it, putting in their creativity and what they want to say about the recording. I think you can now get the jackets if you buy something on itunes. But previously you weren’t able to. So if you want to get information as to who is playing on every track you couldn’t see it before but now you can.
Bridgid: Where does the title “Ear Candy” come from?
Paula: We were actually fooling around with that for a title for the first single which we wound up calling “Pocket Full of Funk” “Ear Candy” was the working title for “Pocket Full of Funk” and as we got further into the record we decided to make a switch and use that for the title of the CD and come up with another name for “Pocket Full of Funk.”
Bridgid: Which typically comes first for you, the song or the title?
Paula: It depends on whether it’s a vocal tune or not. If it’s a vocal tune the title usually come easily. If it’s an instrumental tune it winds up having all kinds of names before the title sounds like something that would really fit the song and give the listener an idea of what the song would be about or sound like. It’s harder to come up with a title for an instrumental than it is for a vocal tune.
Bridgid: “Pocket Full of Funk” lives up to its’ title. That’s a really funky tune! I like that one a lot!
Paula: I’m glad! Stations have already started to play it. South Florida started to play it and station WFSS in North Carolina just added it. So it’s already picked up and getting some airplay.
Bridgid: How do you feel when you hear your music on the radio?
Paula: Unfortunately, in New York we used to have a station that played the type of music that I write and they went out of business. There is still a station that I can hear in New Jersey, station WBGO and there’s a show on Sunday nights when they play contemporary Jazz but it doesn’t play that music full time. So my chances of hearing my music on the radio here in New York are not very high but I have been in other towns in the US and gotten in the car, turned it on and had one of my songs come on. Of course there’s a lot of screaming and jumping up and down in the car.
Bridgid: That’s got to be one of the most amazing feelings! Tell us about your band.
Paula: The band consists of New York based musicians. Lionel Cordew played drums on every track. Currently, Tony Lewis, Thierry Arpino and Shawn Murray are also doing gigs on drums. Lou Gimenez is on guitar and he is also the producer. Nick Colionne is playing the guitar solo on "Remember When". Darin Brown played a lot of the studio sessions on keyboards, as did Jorgen Kjaer who does most of the live gigs. Gail Johnson also guests on keyboards. Schuyler Deale, Roy De Jesus, Ron "Rondew" Monroe and Dave Anderson all play bass on the recording and they have all done gigs with the band. Cindy Bradley guests on trumpet. We have done gigs together. Ernedin RIvera is on percussion and he has played gigs with the band also.
Bridgid: You’ve done some great collaborations on your previous CD’s. Who do you collaborate with on “Ear Candy?"
Paula: I have some very special guests on this one including Nick Collione, Cindy Bradley and Gail Johnson.
Bridgid: You’ve noted some of your very early influences such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Ella Fitzgerald among others. Where and how were you exposed to those great musicians as early as your teenage years?
Paula: I was starting to study music seriously and learning how to play my instruments. I hadn’t really been exposed to much Jazz. so I started seeking it out. A few of my friends, people I studied with and professors in school turned me on to the artists you mentioned. Once I heard them I was totally floored! I had to learn about what this music was and how I could play it. It totally spoke to me. Not that I didn’t like other music like Pop or Rock which I still do. I was interested in using my voice as an instrument and playing the flute and saxaphone. Jazz was the vehicle for me.
Paula: There was also Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They were a Jazz vocal group. Some of the things they did was take Count Basie charts and wrote words to the different instrumental parts in a score and scat sang it. I had never heard that before and I thought it was really cool. I had been playing the flute since I was a kid but it didn’t express everything that I wanted to as far as emotions. I had started to play saxophone a little bit and then I heard Charlie Parker. That completely turned my head around. I thought it was so beautiful and it inspired me to learn and play and see what I could do with it.
Bridgid: What was it about Ella Fitzgerald that struck you as far as her sound or style? Many artists name her as a major influence but they are typically strictly vocalists. Being a multi-instrumentalist, what was it about her that was special to you?
Paula: Well, voice is my first instrument. So, a lot of things, even with my writing come through vocally. A lot of the instrumental tunes that you hear were actually vocal tunes that I recorded instrumental versions of. I really liked the way Ella used her voice. She used it like an instrument. She was really great at scat singing. It was really just like playing an instrument. She’s the best if not one of the best at that sort of thing.
Paula: I remember learning a lot of from solos, being able to sing them and also transcribe them. I learned many scat solos by Ella. There was one on the recording “Live in Hollywood” that was about a ten minute scat solo on “A Train.” It took me months to learn it but I learned every note and I could sing along with it. You learn so much by dedicating time to something like that and just getting to know the artist. I was doing it as a way to have that artist show me the way. It’s a learning tool. It’s like a blueprint for what you can do. You go from there and make your own way.
Bridgid: You studied the improvisational skills of the musicians mentioned. One has to be a great musician to study the greats yet not sound like an imitator. How do you circumvent that task of not sounding like an imitation yet excel as an artist and emerge with a unique sound in which you do?
Paula: Every person is unique. We each have a unique fingerprint and you have the opportunity to use everything that makes you unique and use that to turn into your music, your sound and the way you want to express yourself. What we learn from all of these wonderful artists that we study is that those become our tools. What we than have to do is use the tools and just keep working towards listening to our inner voice and becoming who we are.
Paula: I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s something that takes a long time to develop. You have to be really patient and within that there are definitely still traces of these artists that you’ve studied or little musical motifs. I have been compared to different people but you can take that as a compliment which I do, especially when they say that I remind them of someone whom I love. When you’ve gotten to a point where you can imitate someone, it’s a skill. That’s an important thing in its’ own right to be able to imitate but you want to create your own music and fingerprint. You have to go past that and find out within yourself what makes you “you” and how to express that.
Bridgid: Exactly! When I go out and buy Paula Atherton’s CD I want to hear your style. I don’t want to hear an imitator. I want to be able to recognize your signature style. Like you said, there may be elements of those artists that you’ve studied and that is indeed a developed craft and great compliment.
Paula: Within that you may have found your way as an artist but you don’t want to keep doing things exactly the same because then you become boring to the people that are listening to you in the first place and following you. They don’t want to hear the same thing rehashed over and over again, right?
Paula: It’s really a challenge to me and I’m sure to other artists. I’m writing most of my music. I co-write a little bit but for the most part it’s mostly me. I’m always trying to do my best work. That’s all you can do. You just put it out there. I always think in the back of my mind and hope people aren’t saying “I liked the last one but I’m not that crazy about this one,” etc. but that always happens. You can’t please everybody.
Bridgid: You recorded a song called “Herbie” which is a tribute to Herbie Mann who passed away in 2003. He obviously holds a special place in your heart.
Paula: I enjoyed his music. I studied and listened to Hubert Laws or James Moody but there was a something about Herbie Mann’s music that I enjoyed and when I started to come up with this melody in my head, the feeling reminded me of a Herbie Mann song called “Memphis Underground”. It reminded me of that track. I was really trying to come up with a different name for this song but that was its’ working title. "Herbie" stuck and it definitely clues people in on what I was thinking about when I wrote it.
Bridgid: You recorded “Sassy Strut” from your “Enjoy the Ride” CD with Nick Collione. I had the pleasure of interviewing him. He’s such a cool guy! How did that collaboration come to be?
Paula: Nick and I have been friends for years now. I got to play with him at Rehoboth Beach a year ago. He actually wrote that song. He’s playing guitar on it and he co-produced it also. I was getting towards the end of finishing “Enjoy the Ride” and I was talking to Nick. He asked if I was listening to anything or looking for tunes for the record. I said “maybe.” He said “I have something!” and played it for me. I thought it would be great so that’s how that came about.
Bridgid: You also recorded “Rice n Beans” with Cindy Bradley. How did that collaboration come to be?
Paula: Cindy is a dear friend of mine and we love playing together. I knew that there was going to be a trumpet feature on that particular song. She also lives close to me in Upstate New York. She came over and played on it. As you can hear on the song we do a back and forth, trading thing at the end. I like to get a little of that in there because the spontaneity is what Jazz is all about.
Bridgid: “Send Down an Angel” from your CD “Groove with Me” has got to be one of my personal favorites by you. We can all relate to those beautiful lyrics. “Send down an angel to me, show me what I’m too blind to see. Send down an angel to me, why is life such a mystery?” I know the emotions the lyrics evoked in me. Tell us what you would like to know about that song.
Paula: That’s one of the songs I usually do in my show. “Send down an Angel” is not about me. It’s about a friend of mine. I find that when I perform it in a show, I talk about it a little bit without going into details. A lot of people are able to identify with something in that song. People have come up to me and thanked me for playing it because it has helped them get through something, think about something or they felt like I was talking to them.
Paula: It comes from an incredible, amazing story. It’s not a happy story. A good friend of mine had moved out to California. Her family lives here in New York. She found out she had cancer but she didn’t want to get any kind of chemo or treatment for it so she told her family that she was okay. She then came back to New York to see them right before she died.
Bridgid: So her family had no idea she was ill?
Paula: No, her family had no idea. By the time she got back here the tumor was inoperable. What really struck me so much about this is that she completely took control and said “this is my life and this is how I want it to go and I’m willing to do anything to be in control of it.” That was her personality. She didn’t want to take any medication. If her family knew, of course they would have tried to convince her to get treatment because they love her. So to get around that she just told everybody she was fine. It takes an incredibly strong person, a strong-willed person to make a decision like that. It speaks to the fact that your life is your own. She was determined to keep it her own and on her own terms.
Bridgid: Amen! That is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing that. That makes the song all the more powerful when you learn the poignant significance behind it. I’m a little blown away right now!
Paula: Yeah! By the time we all found out about it there was nothing that could be done. It taught me that your life is your own. You can’t wish your wishes on someone else if it’s not for them.
Bridgid: The rise to the top in any profession, particularly the music industry can be extremely difficult and challenging. I can only imagine the dedication, commitment and long hours you must devote to your craft.
Bridgid: There is also a line from “Send down an Angel” that says “words can do nothing and there’s a choice we must make.” How do you remain diligent, focused and unwavering during your most challenging times?
Paula: I try to listen to that little voice in my head. I pray or meditate. I stay focused on what I’m doing and have gratitude. I think having gratitude is something that I’ve learned is extremely important. If you do have gratitude then good things will come to you. I think that the key to having good things coming to you is having gratitude.
Bridgid: You also contribute generously to the Holland’s Opus Foundation.
Paula: That’s a really wonderful organization. If I had more time I’d be more involved. There are just not enough hours in a day to do what I’d really love to do. Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation is a wonderful foundation that brings instruments to kids at schools who can’t afford them. So they take instruments in pretty much any condition, refurbish them, get them in playing shape and bring them to schools for kids to have them to learn how to play. If you look on their website you’ll see pictures of when they went to a particular school and brought all of the instruments. They take pictures of the kids with the instruments. It’s just a really cool thing.
Bridgid: There are many musicians and people in general who are dedicated and fighting to keep music education in our schools. Many can attest to the fact that music plays a major role in various aspects of education including math, history, communications, language and the learning process as a whole. Why do you feel that this long-standing battle continues to exist?
Paula: Somehow, some people think that learning about music is peripheral. I can’t really even understand it. I think it’s more something that Americans think. For people in other countries, in Europe for example, art is more immersed in the culture. It’s just part of who they are.
Paula: There have been a lot of studies about music and how it helps kids with language and math. There’s also a whole thing about music and symbolism, reading and identifying notes and how long you’re supposed to hold a note. There is this great symbolism. It really makes no sense to cut back on that. It’s so important. But I think that kids watching certain shows on TV sometimes get really excited about singing in particular, so they think that all you need to sing is just to have a microphone, a spotlight, open your mouth and just sing.
Paula: The thought is because you can speak, you can sing. They don’t have any grasp of what it takes to become a really good singer or learning about music and what you should know about singing and reading music. Those shows have sensationalized the aspects of being a singer. Kids come up to me from doing a public performance while I’m preparing the stage and ask about the singer. I tell them about the different instruments I play and they have little interest. They just want to know about the singer.
Bridgid: Where can your fans expect to see you preforming live?
Paula: I’m starting to book some things right now. I’m playing at Raphael Vineyard in Long Island, New York. March 21, and we’ll also be there on the 28th when we're having an all-star jam. I'm performing in Birmingham, Alabama on June 14th at Avondale Park at the Idyllwild Music Festival in Michigan on July 11th and the Atlanta Smooth Jazz festival on September 12th. A lot of things are starting to come in.
Bridgid: What about Los Angeles?
Paula: I’m working on a date at Spaghettini, Beverly Hills this time. I was supposed to play this past August but it wasn’t opened yet so I played Spaghettini, Seal Beach.
Bridgid: Who have you not played with that you would like to collaborate with?
Paula: There are so many people! I wouldn’t even know where to start with that. Because I’d like to be in a situation with certain people playing with them and certain people singing back-up so that leaves a whole wide range of things. There are a lot of artists that I like including Pop artists, not just Jazz artist but also crossover artists.
Paula: It would be really amazing to sing with Take 6. I think they’re one of the wonders of the whole world. I’ve seen them before at the Blue Note and I saw Michael McDonald as a guest with them. I would love to work with him too. I’d love to work with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Stanley Clarke. I got to meet Stanley a couple of years ago when he played at Catalina. Working with Earth Wind & Fire, playing in their horn section would be absolutely amazing! The label that I’m signed with is called Kalimba. It’s owned by Maurice White.
Bridgid: Yes! I was fortunate enough to interview Greg Manning and he spoke about having just signed with them. Congratulations!
Paula: Greg was their first sign and I was their second. In fact, when I played Spaghettini Seal Beach in August. Greg played with me. He played keyboards.
Bridgid: Do you have any particular favorites on “Ear Candy?”
Paula: Sometimes I have to get away from it a little bit to have my favorites because I still so immersed in it. I really can’t say that I have a favorite yet. I really enjoyed recording this one. It was a lot of fun. In some ways I’m really still immersed in it and in other ways I’m looking to be writing the next one. You stay with it but then it becomes time to move on. You have to move on a lot sooner than people would think because it takes a while to write an entire CD of music and record it.
Bridgid: Share something with your fans that you would like us to know that we may not?
Paula: I like to know from my fans what they like about my music. If they could contact me through FB and let me know, I would love it. I love to get feedback from people and see what songs they like. It’s just really great to hear from people.
Bridgid:What are you goint to be doing to celebrate the release of “Ear Candy” on February 17th?
Paula: We’re in the process of booking some CD release parties and I guess pretty much everything I do this year is going to be a CD release party wherever it is. We were just really thrilled to sign with Kalimba and to work on Maurice’s label. I’ve always looked up to and loved Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s a dream come true to sign with Kalimba.
Bridgid: Congratulations again and wishing you continued success. Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with me. It’s been a thrill!
Paula: Thank you so much for having me!