Last week we looked at Paul Ubana Jones's upcoming gig at Downstage Theatre. And if you click on that link it will provide the information about the show this Sunday, some links to songs and to albums and I shared some of my experiences seeing Ubana Jones play; meeting Paul. And several readers shared their experiences and impressions too.
I suggested - as part of that post - that I would try to squeeze in an interview with Paul Ubana Jones and so here we go. I'll resupply the info about this Sunday's show at Downstage Theatre (click there for ticket info for the show, this Sunday, August 29, 7pm) and for all other background/context you can click the link in the opening line.
Paul has just arrived back in New Zealand after four months in Europe. Three months were spent teaching music classes at two schools in Zurich with some weekend gigs ("to keep the hand in") and there was time to catch up with friends and family ("now that we're all so scattered") in France afterwards.
But Ubana Jones is back in New Zealand and straight back to work. He arrived home last weekend and when I spoke to him he was in Invercargill; the week filled with workshops for schoolkids and lunchtime performances, radio interviews and evening shows.
"I knew the schedule," Paul tells me down the phone, back in Motel Life, "but it was probably a bit crazy. Oh well, we'll get these shows done - and so far it's been a blast, I always love doing the playing - and then I'll relax again for a bit. Catch up on the garden which will have turned in to a f**king jungle!" He laughs it away, telling me for the first of several times that he feels very privileged and honoured to be able to do what he does.
This is the first time I have officially interviewed Paul Ubana Jones. I have chatted with him on several occasions, before gigs, after gigs, at airports, in hotels, over the phone. But in all the times I have spoken to Paul I have never really known what motivated him to start his life in music. So that's where we head this time...
"Really it was my mum and my dad who loved music and brought it into our home in Southeast London. My brothers and I caught on to it. There would be the Sunday afternoon radio shows with the big band and trad-jazz. And later we'd go down the market and see the skiffle bands and the acts imitating a sort of blend of jug-band and folk music. It was fascinating stuff. And then, next thing you've got your first guitar and your first Beatles songbook..." He trails off with a chuckle.
There's a pause and then another burst:
"I just remember these amazing voices - I'm talking Muddy Waters and Ray Charles and it was just so alive - and I just loved it. Instantly. It had my heart: music. I just loved it. It was a wonderful time, growing up, the end of the 1950s and then into the 1960s. It was just beautiful. The music was really beautiful, so special. And I knew I wanted to be involved with it then and there. I wanted to listen to music, to play music. So I worked at the guitar and singing and I listened to whatever I could get me hands on, ya know."
And there were chances to see these early heroes too - living in England.
"Yeah man, I was 12 years old and I attended a dance for an insurance company; they had booked, as the main band, The Animals. So I'm 12/13 years old listening to Eric Burdon screaming his lungs out - live, in the flesh - and that was it man. Hooked!"
From there it would only get better.
"At 15 I was at the Marquee seeing Jimi Hendrix. It's not something you forget!"
And as the music continued to pour itself all around the young Ubana Jones, he started to pursue it as a player, all the while marvelling, still, as a listener.
"It was to the folk clubs next where you'd see Bert Jansch and Davy Graham and John Renbourn and Martin Carthy and there was all this music that was informed by black American blues music and white English folk music - and it was a mixture, a cross of styles; becoming its own thing. And it was just great. That was a real influence on me - those are players I've gone back to, revisited. They're all players that helped me to see that playing the guitar this way is an ongoing craft...a long road..."
And so, first steps out on the road saw Paul taking night classes in classical guitar and cello. He says he never owned a cello ("I couldn't afford one, bloody expensive, so just used one when I was at school") and while he will admit to very occasionally having a tinker on an electric guitar and a wee touch at the piano, Paul's weapon of choice is the acoustic guitar. "It's just become my sound, my voice, either an acoustic guitar plugged in, or an acoustic guitar on its own, I guess it fits the idea of the solo act I have, the self-sufficient musical traveller." Ubana Jones considers himself a lifelong student of the acoustic guitar.
Of the decision to move to New Zealand, Paul says he wanted somewhere he could play, have a lifestyle, have somewhere nice for the kids to grow up. His work as a solo act means he is not limited and he continues to divide his time between hemispheres, travelling to play festivals and solo shows across continents. Returning always for a nationwide summer tour.
"That's the loose plan anyway," he says with a chuckle. "I haven't thought too far ahead this time around, there'll be more European shows in November and then I'd like to be back here to tour the country in January. I like to get around the whole country then every year, see the people, play the music. It's a nice time - everyone is on holiday and relaxed. The fans come out and reconnect with the music, I reconnect with the fans. It's been a nice pattern."
So when did he know he had his own voice as a musician?
"Well, I think I can say, honestly, that it was when I started touring America in 1992. I was playing shows with David Lindley and Ry Cooder and Ry Cooder said 'I can see how you have taken the blues and added it to your style'. That was a nice compliment - and he's right in the sense that I am not a blues player. I don't want to be considered any one thing."
I suggest that Paul is clearly someone who pays respect to the blues in his performances, in some of the songs he selects to cover, in some of the ways he channels a sound or steers a version of a song.
"Absolutely - but there is soul and pop and rock and really whatever anyone wants to hear in a song or a sound that I make. There are roots - and the blues and folk songs are very much part of the roots for me but I prefer to think of myself as just someone who plays acoustic guitar music."
Paul says he was reminded again of having his own voice when playing some shows with Don McLean and Joan Armatrading in Canada in 2007 as part of the Calgary Folk Festival. "People were very kind - they seemed to like my approach and you know, honestly, that's what it's about - that connection. You try to lend an ear and hear someone's story; you have your chance on stage also to tell yours. And that's been a beautiful reward for me."
He takes a lot from the connections made when playing with others. "I worked some shows in America with Taj Mahal, and there he is, one of my heroes. And he's still doing it; still delivering. And he's been doing it a lot longer than me. It's great. It's great to see - and great to experience that thrill. And that's music - it's always a thrill for me."
So to this Sunday night in Wellington, Paul Ubana Jones will offer two sets. He plans to focus some of the material on his most recent album, At Al's. The album was recorded live but the audience noise was then mixed out of the final record ("it gives it a freaky feel actually, so it's like a live studio sound or feeling"). The Al's album was a chance for Paul to record some songs that had been played live but had never made it on to a record. "But," he adds, "I'll definitely be playing some of the older stuff as well, some of the songs people identify with Ubana Jones, sure."
There are plenty of things in the pipeline. He claims to be a "very slow writer" but is working on a new set of songs - "I'd like to bring different people in for that, some strings and so on" and has been offered to play a set with an orchestra in Saigon ("we're just seeing if we can organise that, timing-wise").
And, given that Paul is known for his covers, his clever interpretations, he's been crafting a version of Nina Simone's Sinnerman, saying he "walks it down a different avenue". Hopefully we'll get to hear that taken for a stroll this Sunday.
If you would like to win a double-pass to Sunday's show in Wellington - please write a comment below telling me why you would like to see Paul Ubana Jones play. I'll select one lucky winner.
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