An exclusive interview with a man who is Possessed by Paul James
Artist: Possessed by Paul James / Konrad Wert
Possessed by Paul James Interview
By Elliott Morehardt January 2011
“Possessed By Paul James” is the stage name of multi-instrumentalist Konrad Wert. He was raised a Mennonite with Amish roots in the swamps of Immokalee, Florida and presently resides with his wife and sons in the Hill Country of Texas. Wert’s performances are so energetic that he could easily be mistaken for a small crowd.
For those of you not familiar with the recent deep-roots, folk/blues movement aka “hillgrass and bluebilly,” you ought to hop on this train, at least for awhile, and grab a big taste! One of the more creative forces among these young, passionate musicians is the one-man-band known as Possessed By Paul James. Coming from the bible thumping Florida swamplands, now in the somewhat less pious Austin, Texas, this accomplished artist is highly respected among his peers, and now it’s time for the rest of us to see what this is all about. It is a true pleasure to interview the man and review his latest, timely recording Feed The Family.
Elliott Morehardt: Growing up, was there any other desire besides playing music, like being a preacher? I’m sure you’ve been told that you would have been good at it.
Konrad Wert: Oh sure. The only time we felt music was a viable source for income was really when it started taking on steam back in 2006. Prior to then it was and still is just a fun way to express your thoughts and ideas. I don’t think I could do music full time as it too would become a little drab. My trade is carpentry, teaching, non-profit work etc. and music is the release of all of those. If music became a full time gig I think it would lose some of its appreciation. I’m an elementary school teacher ya see and I think it’s a great gig. We need more men in early education! Regarding preaching, as my dad was a pastor for some time, yes I did consider it. It was even recommended by some old Profs to explore the seminary. But religion is religion and I’d much rather share my joys and burdens on a Friday and Saturday night over some drinks than in a church come Sunday morning ... ha ha.
Elliott Morehardt: Your songs range from the very dark “When It Breaks” to the very hopeful “We Welcome You Home.” Did you have this dark vision as a child?
Konrad Wert: Ha haa well that’s a good question. The nature of bible study and a conservative faith brings up some very twisted images for some kids and I was one of those kids. Keep in mind when you’re flooded with stories of men being sent to fiery furnaces, lion’s dens, the drowning of millions by flood waters, famine, water being turned to blood, crucifixion, the “eating” of the “flesh”, demon possession, lepers AND add that to the martyrdom of Mennonites (burned at the stake, boiled alive, beheaded etc.) ... man that would fuck up any kid!! ha ha haaa. And well, those were the consistent teachings and imagery we learned every week. I think that would be my first guess on where some of these themes pop up.
Elliott Morehardt: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Konrad Wert: Yes actually, it had something to do with teen love and Jesus ... ha ha ... I don’t know how the two are connected.
Elliott Morehardt: Wow, maybe you need to dig that up. So what were your earliest and/or fondest musical influences?
Konrad Wert: No lie, but I gotta say it’s Dotty Mae. My mama singing and playing piano and guitar. Though church was a stressful time, it did expose my sister and me to music. We learned how to sing melodies and harmonies there. We were made to take the string instruments in 4th and 5th grade public school. I didn’t want to as I was already a fat, glasses-wearing preacher’s kid, the violin only made things worse.
Elliott: I’ve read that punk had an influence for you. Was that a big change from what you were used to hearing?
Konrad: Yes man!! When I read “Please Kill Me” and began exploring Bukowski, I was sold on that ship, man. The stories of MC5 and the Stooges, the roots of urban blues and ‘complaint’ rock, I loved it. I took a break from non-profit work and started at this vegan/veggie coffee joint in South Austin and was exposed to soooooo much. Yes, without a doubt, the punk approach from affordable music, tapes, LP’s and ‘black’ was a beautiful awakening.
Elliott: That’s a great book! It’s a broad subject, and too many in my generation dis it. So, you went to school abroad, how was that experience and did it affect your music much?
Konrad: I took a lot of time off, dropped out, in college. First it was to explore Africa, then down to Mexico and Central America and finally just bumbling along the States before finally finishing my degree. I think the more practical you can make your education the better. Why take out all those damn loans if ya don’t know the answers to why and what you’re learning. Specifically in Ghana, the most powerful lesson was to learn the phrase “I am because YOU are...” I think that’s a beautiful approach to living.
Elliott: Your songs are highly personal, sometimes eerily so, yet I guess you’re also quite a private person. Is the name “Possessed by Paul James” one way to keep your public and private life somewhat separate?
Konrad: Most definitely and also to recognize there’s nothing we accomplish or create that doesn’t have the influence from another person. My experiences are my own yes, but my outlook, strengths and weaknesses are of course greatly influenced by those around me. Paul (my late Grandfather) and James (my Pop) have as much to do with these weird ass songs as I do. So I’d rather express their influence within the name, it feels best.
Elliott: Your new CD Feed the Family has a live raw sound, yet has very clean production. Frankly, I’m blown away by the quality. Was it a long or difficult process?
Konrad: Anything is a long process now with two boys at home. But all in all it worked out quite well with a weekend trip here and there to Austin. I recorded with some good friends and talented musicians in Denton TX, and a strong collection of the works actually came about by a fan wanting to record some sessions. We never have much means for these endeavors but this one came together and the finished product turned out surprisingly clean.
Elliott: The title song “Feed Your Family” is really powerful and sounds like it was written for the fiddle. Do you have a preference writing for fiddle, guitar, or banjo?
Konrad: Guitar for sure. The fiddle is so much fun to play but as I get older it’s getting trickier to balance the rhythm of the stomp with the syncopation of the fiddle. The trick writing to the fiddle is the double stops when bowing. It gives it a full tone and ya can sing on top of it. That’s an area where I need to write more, granted we’ll have two to three additional new fiddle tracks on the 2011 album, but right now we’re writing for the guitar and banjo.
Elliott: That’s great; you’re already onto the next project. Now that you have a new addition to the family is it tough being on the road?
Konrad: I suppose that’s what the title track is about. Ha, what road? Road? Touring? Yeah, that’s off the table for a bit except here in Texas. I like my kids and seeing them this early in childhood (2 year old and 2 month old) is an important time. Hell yes, I miss picking but honestly we never did this full time anyway. It’s always been a stretch here and there, no longer than 2 or 3 weeks. I like the road, but too much late nights and crap food can get ya down. On the other hand, when touring overseas everything is new, ya take the train, swim in the Auire in Bern, eat Italian food in Milano, etc. I could easily stay in Europe and pick year round, I’d be happy cat, yes indeed!
Elliott: After the title track, you slow it down with “When It Breaks,” a really powerful and disturbing song. The balance throughout the CD really keeps the listener tuned in, almost transfixed. As a prolific writer, did you have to edit songs out?
Konrad: Much obliged. Yes there are always too many songs, but not enough of the songs ‘grab’ me the way they need to in order to convey the emotion or ‘catch’. There’s a sure way to know if the song is true, so to speak. In the process of writing I’ll find a tune on that particular instrument and start flowing words in the mix. When the lines begin to come and the wording sticks, if I get ‘growly’ or sometimes teary-eyed I know it’s gonna be a good song. And most importantly, if I can remember how I picked it the day before and it sticks, well then we’re good … ha ha.
Elliott: The 1st track “Four Men from the Row” is both somber and energetic with its complex rounds. Is that based on a particular story or just a fact of life living in Texas?
Konrad: Actually we give reference to this in the new song book we just put out. I used to work in a transitional house for VA offenders. So these guys would bunk in the house and find work as they transitioned out of prison. Criminal justice and the ‘prison complex’ were big interests of mine back in the day and I had a few friends that worked with life term and death row inmates. I think it’s important to write about social issues and concerns as well as the broken heart. The key is to somehow address such points without sounding too preachy, sometimes it works and other times not so much, but I think we did all right with a few of these tracks.
Elliott: The 2nd track has some of my favorite lines... “No young man shoes gonna fill those old mans souls”…“dressed in black and on the attack across the USA.” What’s the back story?
Konrad: Johnny Cash, brother. This song is all about the big JC and I don’t mean Jesus … ha ha. I was greatly influenced by Cash growing up. We couldn’t listen to much secular music at home but we did hear a lot of folk and gospel. From the Mandrell Sisters to the Carter family and of course Cash, such music was a very strong influence. When he died it took me back a bit, so I wrote a song keeping him in mind. And it’s true in my opinion, there are no young man shoes that can fill such old men’s souls. It just not there anymore. Our folk writers of today don’t have that grit or power. They’re all very good and accomplished of course, but where the hell is the singing and passion? Just my opinion, but this new breathy way of singing blows!! I like my writers and such with power, the kind of power that says “He can write a song that will make you weep, but he can also kick yer ass down the stairs with the intent of the words and physical presence.” That is what we’re talking about.
Elliott: “Oh The Rhythm” from The Folk Singer soundtrack has a big juxtaposition of sensual beauty and destruction with some political overtones. Are you ever tempted to get more political?
Konrad: Oh hell yes, but as we said before that is a very slippery slope in terms of writing. Not because of popularity but because a well written political song in my opinion gets snuck into the mix. I’d rather trick someone to think about a certain issue as opposed to shove it down their throat.
Elliott: Are there any plans to make The Folk Singer available on DVD in this country?
Konrad: Well, we sell it at shows here in Texas. I think the German Film Group is working on State-side distribution as well.
Elliott: “Older in My Body” and “Take off Your Mask” are haunting with shape singing and gospel undertones. Were those techniques learned in your youth?
Konrad: The structure of hymn singing is a consequence of being Mennonite and I sincerely enjoy taking those structures and adding in the twisted themes of such writing. I think its fun to add a touch of ‘ugly’ to what’s always been perceived as beautiful. A little ugly goes a long way, I say.
Elliott: The last track “Color of My Bloody Nose” sounds like one hell of a love affair you might have had. Songs like that make me want to write a tune or two or three. I’ve got some great stories if you run out.
Konrad: Ha haaaa, right on. I like to think that “Color of My Bloody Nose” is one of the best songs I’ve written. I love the imagery, the tragedy, the phrasing “The trash man took your soul ...” I love the way it makes people at shows sing along etc. It’s good to write and even better to sing what’s been written with attending friends. It’s magic when we all gather and realize it’s a 50/50 process and that we’re all contributing to the process. Music is a great release to the burdens of life, we’re very lucky to have explored this path.
For more information on check out http://www.ppjrecords.com/ and for a review of the ground-breaking release Feed The Family by Possessed by Paul James be sure to read the Boston Blues Society January newsletter.