“It's a funny old thing”, says Polly Paulusma, talking about the urge to write songs. Paulusma, who started learning the piano at the tender age of three, wrote her first song at the age of ten. Very young, I suggest, to which she furrows her brows slightly and responds “I think a lot of people who have that bent, if you have that weird bug inside you, if you're compelled to do shit like this, it does rear its ugly head quite early on – and, continues – It's a curse as well as a blessing”. It's a theme that she returns to, time after time, during the interview – this strange, intuitive place where songs come from.
That's not to suggest that Paulusma is a frowning primadona, constantly courting her muse. Far from it, when we meet she's bringing in the gear, for another night's gig, from a decidedly uncomfortable looking van, in which she's travelled, with band, throughout Italy. She looks tired, after a year of constant touring, but is cheerful and an engaging interviewee. She is, though, acutely aware of her craft, and it shows when listening to her debut Scissors in my pockets. The album has been lauded, rightly, by critics, and made it into the prestigious Uncut Magazine's 'Best of 2004' list of albums.
It's the last night of a European tour, and in effect the last gig of her touring year – a year which has seen her play with acts ranging from Jamie Callum through to Bob Dylan, and most recently Marianne Faithful. Touring the hell out the record makes perfect sense, as it was recorded almost live, with a sound that has intimacy written all over it. “I love playing live, so that will always be a part of it, but with this record the live playing was as much out of necessity as anything else – she explains – We could only afford one day in the studio, so you get to play everything once, and that's that. I did the rest of it at home”. Without a record deal to start with (she's now on the One Little Indian label), Paulusma with an admirable determination and confidence went about recording and producing Scissors in my pockets. She identifies strongly with the growing crop of artists who've recorded and released records in similar circumstances, like Damien Rice for example: “That very home made sound, on those records, that give them that 'acousticity', was born from the fact that we didn't get any support from an industry that was focussed on glorified karaoke for so long, and it's turned out to be a wonderful thing. It's like a forest fire. There was a ravaging time, and now there are all these shoots coming up, forced due to circumstances”.
The comparison with Damien Rice may well be the most apt one, though she's been likened to everyone from Joni Mitchell through to Nora Jones. The almost reflex action lumping of all new female writers into the Jones bucket must be frustrating, and tinged with a hint of sexism? “I find it's like:’if you've got brown hair, you fit in this category' – she nods – but you don't get all the guy artists with brown hair being lumped together, you know!”. She's practical though, at the same time: “On the other hand, people are lazy, and they do need something to write about. If they're talking about what I'm doing, even if it's criticism, then I'm happy. I'm very aware that I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing. There are so many people I know, that aren't even being mentioned, which is much worse, believe me”.
Writing great songs, and recording them, is only half the battle though. Getting the record heard is another thing, hence the constant touring, interviews, and the ,somewhat controversially, licensing of one of her tracks for a glossy TV advert. She's unrepentant in the face of an implied criticism: “I think it's absolute bollocks if people give you a hard time because you've given your music to an ad campaign.It's so hard to get your head above the parapet these days – she reasons – above this endless cacophony of noise, that anything that helps you get your voice heard is important. Ultimately I'm a musician, and I want as many people as possible to hear my music, and quite frankly, I don't care how that happens. I found loads of great music when I was a kid, through ad campaigns. I never would have heard of the Steve Miller band, had it not been for that great Levi's campaign If someone else is willing to pay for an ad campaign that uses my music, well and good” Having said that, there are obvious caveats: “there are certain things that I'd never give my music to, like the army, or any political party”. And what of the danger of overexposure? Isn't there the danger that success comes, and the record gets heard, but the songs are then ubiquitous and associated with various products, a la Moby? She smiles, “maybe he overdid it! While you're a struggling artist, trying to get your name heard, there's a certain rationale for it. Once you get to a certain level, where you are a household name, like U2 doing this I-pod ad, it becomes ridiculous. I mean, they don't need the recognition, they don't need the money, the exposure”.