Nathaniel Paul, photo Jillian Speece

Nathaniel Paul Continues The Great NY Folk Tradition

by Geoff Ford

Nathaniel Paul, one half of Emmy Award-winning Brooklyn folk-duo The Bergamot, releases his first solo album Learning to Listen on 11 June via AWAL.

Despite the hustle and bustle of the big city, New York has a long history of producing some fabulous folk music and Learning To Listen continues that glorious tradition.

Singer-songwriter and producer Nathaniel Paul created this first solo record from a closet. After travelling to London to work with producer Matt Wiggins (Glass Animals, London Grammar) to work on The Bergamot’s most recent album, Mayflies, Nathaniel says: “I was inspired so much by Matt and the whole experience of being in London that it was inevitable another record was going to come from the experience.”

“This is not the time for orchids or roses, this is a time for weeds!”

Whilst The Bergamot put finishing touches to their forthcoming album with Wiggins, due for release later this year, Paul decided to put together a solo record from an abundance of music written during the pandemic that abruptly paused his career. Rather than going inward or binge-watching Netflix, he instead set out to write and created a pool of forty-five songs. Technology, race riots, political unrest, global warming, mass media over-reach, homelessness and unemployment were just a few of the topics tackled.

“This is not the time for orchids or roses to bloom, this is a time for the weeds!” he laughs, “That is all I could think about. I have to be like a weed that can thrive in the most desolate of landscapes. I, myself, have to grow and persevere, even though the toughest challenges will lie ahead. The song It’s All A Rage gets right to the point. Life is chaotic and insane, but somehow I – we – will find our way.

“There was an abundance to write about,” he adds. “These are pretty dire times, but we have to retain some level of hope for the future. I am finding ways to see and hear people in a new light. Without judgement and condemnation, but with a renewed sense of understanding. Life is a complicated puzzle of issues and personalities. This record is a way to explore those issues without judgement. To go on a journey with no real intention or hope of returning back. To learn how to listen and to begin again.”

“What’s it like to have your whole life descend into pure chaos in less than seventy-two hours? I tried to write that soundtrack. From the get-go, I never wanted to make this record. In the fall of 2019, The Bergamot were asked to open for OneRepublic for our first stadium-sized show. Then, by March of 2020, I was facing imminent homelessness and complete loss of my career and income. That was the premise of this work, facing severe depression and not relenting until I won.

“I’m just doing the best with what I have. It’s not ideal, but the music is coming out in a way that’s honest and pure. That is all that really matters, Paul continues. “I’m just a guy, down on my luck, trying to do my best to fight the inner battles I have with this relentless sense of failure. Even though everything is out of my hands. This record is a way for me to remember this time for the positive, and for what was accomplished, not the major setbacks that have been dealt.”

This is a delightfully laid back set, sensitively produced allowing Paul’s voice to shine through. The title track echoes the very best of the Big Apple’s folk roots, the purity of Paul’s voice, guitar and harmonica posing searching questions in the uncomplicated way the young Bob Dylan used to great effect to get his message across.

Elsewhere the production is more lush but always subservient to the voice, with a hint of West Coast folk warmth. I have to admit that this is my first taste of Nathaniel Paul but my appetite has been whetted and it will not be the last.

The debut album’s opening tune Songbird is about the dream to go back, and the nightmare that we never can. “During quarantine, I met an elderly man who struck up a conversation with me,” he explains. “He said: ‘Life is hard when you outlive all the ones you love.’ It seemed like an intense way to start a conversation, but I could tell he just needed someone to talk to. I felt this sense that he had that the world at large had forgotten about him. But he had created a plan to travel the world on a train he had read about. He could work on the train while it took him across the world. He was planning his way out. I think the whole record comes to grips with what Songbird sets out – a mad time that has seen many highs and lows – but ultimately leaves us with one thing: our time on earth and what we do with it. I guess it’s time to learn how to listen.”

“Let’s practice empathy. Let’s rehearse forgiveness. Let’s exercise acceptance. Let’s normalize patience. Let’s seek unity. Let’s strive for integrity. Let’s give service. Let’s try respect. Let’s have faith. Let’s cry freedom. Let’s be friendly. Let’s hope for wisdom. Let’s put on gratitude. Let’s prepare cleanliness. Let’s instil self-discipline. Let’s shout faith. Let’s emote enthusiasm. Let’s consider truthfulness. Let’s sing harmoniously. Let’s trust. Let’s spread love. Let’s be virtuous. Let’s honour those among us with the most virtues, and let’s tell them we love them. Just because…”

Nathaniel Paul’s debut album Learning to Listen is out on 11 June.

Track listing:

01 Songbird

02 It’s All A Rage

03 Virtues

04 Lazy Sunday

05 The Phone

06 H.D.

07 Silence

08 Learning to Listen

09 Love Gives Itself Away

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