Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Where do the songs come from? Polly Paulusma in interview.

The balances and trade offs involved in achieving a viable commercial success are not things that artists are usually prepared to discuss, usually opting for the simple cred-enhancing answer that commercial success is vulgar, and only thought about by record companies and journalists. Paulusma, though, is up front in a way that you might expect from a self-produced artist. “The most important thing for me to try to hold on to at the moment is that I'm ultimately my own boss, and I have to manage the project the best I can”. She finds it difficult to write seriously while touring and is eager to get back to her kitchen where, on an acoustic guitar, her songs take shape. Does she worry about writers block then? “I think every writer has these periods of real intensive activity, and then it goes all quiet for a bit, and you think ‘Oh my God, I'm never going to write another song again!’. Her experience of touring and returning home has quietened the fears though: ”I find that when I do get home it's as if it's all been stored up and it all comes out in a big rush. I used to be worried about it, but I've learned, this year, not to be too frightened about patches when I'm away, because it's like putting stuff into storage”. Songwriting vs promotion is a delicate balance, and one that she's aware of. ”To let myself get sucked out to the point that the writing suffers or dries up would have a negative impact obviously. I've to prune and tend to the creative side. It's like crop rotation. I just have to juggle things appropriately”.

She already has a number of songs ready for the next album, which she suggests will be somewhat darker than the debut. In explanation for the mood shift (though Scissors in my Pocket is far from being all sunshine), she comments: “You know the old thing that 80% of pop songs are about love? I think that as I get older, my songwriting is getting more knotty or knotted. It's not so much about matters of the heart anymore, but about bigger things, or – correcting herself – not necessarily bigger things, broader things”.

One candidate for the next album is a song called Godgrudge, a song that she has been playing live, causing a flurry of discussion in internet forums dedicated to the singer. She has one golden rule in interviews, and that is not to discuss her lyrics: “I think a song, or a poem or painting, if it needs an explanation then it's somehow faulty. I hate it when you go to a gallery and you see people peering at the little white cards under paintings. And they don't look at the painting, they give it a quick glance, and then move off. A song, if it's going to be alive in people's lives, it needs to be about what they think it's about. Songs got ruined for me as well, when I was a kid, when I found out that the writer meant something different to what I had imagined. You feel like you're somehow wrong for thinking. A song dies if people don't give it their own meaning”. In the case of Godgrudge she relents slightly, perhaps as the title itself comes from someone else – the renowned translator of Greek tragedy, Tony Harrison.“He used this word ‘godgrudge’ as a translation for hubris, the envy of the Gods that pops up again and again in Greek tragedy, and it's a really horrible quality”. And the song – what's the relationship? She reluctantly sketches some of the inspiration: “What kicked me off was that I noticed an obvious parallel between the attacks on 9/11 and the Biblical story of the tower of Babel. That whole thing of trying to get to God and getting splatted. I thought there was a really interesting imagery relationship there, and I went back and read the story. It's tiny, just a paragraph really. I remember studying it in school, and in my mind it was this really long epic story, but it wasn't… I was really shocked reading it!”.

What does she think then of the artistic reaction to 9/11? It seems, for such a huge event that the artistic response has been muted to say the least, unless one takes into account various country and western flag wavers. “An event like that, you'll see it like a geographical fault running through art, in a hundred years time, because it's so profound, it's clobbered everybody. In human experience terms we're still so very close to it. Give it a hundred years and see what happens, there'll be a definite blip. It's been so profound, in the western world. I'd be so surprised if something like that doesn't come out across all artistic fields in one shape or another”.

Paulusma is an accomplished piano and guitar player, but you sense that it's in the crafting of the words that she is happiest, and excels the most. A Cambridge graduate, after college she turned her hand to writing albeit in a different medium – that of the novel. She had a publishing deal and was on the first draft when she abandoned it in favour of music. She laughingly turns her qualified criticism to the draft: “It was absolute shite! It was awful, contrived, drivel. I was wanting to be a songwriter. I [with emphasis] was a songwriter. I'd been songwriting for a long time, and it was right there, it was just waking up to it. I felt that novel writing would be more acceptable, more high brow and more of a career. I didn't start writing short stories when I was ten, I started writing songs. The novel writing was terribly self-conscious, and it didn't come from inside of me. It was what I thought people expected of me”. What about Poetry? For someone so obviously focussed on the musicality of words, wouldn't Poetry make sense? “I think poetry would be just too dangerous – she responds mysteriously – I find poems so powerful, it's like sulphur in a box. I don't really want to go near it, I love reading it but the way things come out with me is in songs”.

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