A long way from the rainy Pacific Northwest, a budding guitar player from Virginia sat in front of a TV set watching “Here Comes the Brides” which is set in old Seattle. In watching the interplay of two characters, Candy and Jeremy, young Paula Boggs, “found her first songwriting muse at a time when I had little sense Seattle was even a real place,” and ended up writing a song from the boyfriend’s perspective with “maybe 2 or 3 chords.” Today, living in the city she once only imagined and touring with her band and a new album, singer-songwriter Paula Boggs credits the start of her musical journey to her parents.
“My parents insisted their kids learn to play music, starting with piano.” she explained. “Those lessons began for me at 6, and I learned to loathe the piano though I now know it was much more teacher than instrument. I then begged my folks to let me drop it for clarinet — I can’t even tell you why clarinet. They bought one and that lasted 6 months.”
Inspiration for the next musical path came with the arrival of the Folk Mass. “I was in Catholic school when the Folk Mass was coming of age and was so inspired, I wanted to take up guitar. When I then asked if I could take guitar lessons instead, they’d already bought a piano and clarinet, and so would only let me rent a guitar,” she recalled.
With the help of her first muse from a TV show, Boggs began writing songs at the age of ten, and, “in time helped pay for a guitar my mom and I found in a pawn shop.” She added, “The first time I remember performing was at my mom’s church, around age 12, though folks from elementary school say they remember me slugging around my guitar.”
She continued to slug that guitar and write songs until her 20’s before moving on to other endeavors. A look at her curriculum vitae reveals a rich and varied job history from decorated paratrooper, to working with some of America’s top corporations as a lawyer, and appointments to high level government positions. Through it all, songwriting remained only a memory.
However, a personal tragedy involving the death of her sister-in-law in a car crash led her back to songwriting 12 years ago, “… initially as a way to grieve. Once I was back at it, step-by-step, there was no turning back,” she said. Instrumental in her return to music were two things: a year-long songwriting course through University of Washington, “caused me to be part of a songwriters’ community, and showing up regularly to open mics became a great way to hone my craft and get supportive but constructive feedback,” she reflected.
Initially drawn to songwriting as part of her grieving process, Boggs is now inspired by, “Seattle sunrises and sunsets, my spouse and kid, the resilience of the human spirit… my list has no limits.” She draws inspiration from those, “moments of ‘ah-hah’ …riding in a van with my mates from Chicago to Saint Louis listening to and singing all the words to songs of the 1960s, having folks dance to our closing song in Spokane, encores, having someone listen to one of our songs and write about how it touched her, having it hit me while on a walk.”
Because all of life seems to provide inspiration, Boggs’s writing process is as varied as what inspires her. “I’m not that disciplined a songwriter in the sense of carving out a set amount of time daily or weekly to write,” she said, “Rather, themes come to me while walking, reading the newspaper, or ‘quiet time.’ I’ve written music both ways — starting with melody and with lyrics — though more of the songs I write begin with words.”
One area in which she is disciplined, however, is in her commitment to being real in her writing. “As a writer, my biggest challenges are authenticity and accessibility. It’s easier for me to wear a mask. It’s one thing if I’m doing that deliberately, wearing the skin of a character. It’s quite another if I’m not being honest with myself,” she said.
As a performer, Boggs, who fronts the Paula Boggs Band, has two additional challenges: “I’m a member of a band and so strive to do my part to make us ‘one.’ It’s also our job to ‘deliver’ to the audience no matter its size. It’s a great night when you see folks groove, laugh, and/or cry from the stage. We get energy from that too.”
She and her band will get many opportunities to tackle both of these challenges as they continue to tour. “We didn’t start really touring until after 2015 album ‘Carnival of Miracles,’ though we’d played some cities beyond the Pacific Northwest, like Philadelphia, before that release. Those first trips were often connected with my speaking at a college or elsewhere in the same city,” she explained.
Now with an album of “Seattle-Brewed Soulgrass” receiving critical acclaim, her band tours as part of their marketing plan. “By so doing,” she elaborated, “we’ve been better exposed to an international audience, grown the fan base, sometimes earned more money, and become a much tighter performing machine.” There are drawbacks, though, to a life on the road marketing an album. “Touring costs money though: vans, lodging, rented instruments, and time away from home,” she added. “Sometimes, the local band doesn’t deliver its promised fan base and sometimes you’re competing against insurmountable odds, like when our Bend, Oregon show was booked the same night as Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss. I think we had five folks at our show.”
In between tour dates, The Paula Boggs Band is putting the final touches on the album art for a third studio album, “Elixir, The Soulgrass Sessions,” and will offer it in vinyl when it is released later this year. And in between her own creative projects, she will continue to listen to and support her favorite millennial/GenX songwriters Conor Oberst, Kendrick Lamar, and Courtney Barnett. “Each artist is an amazingly brilliant lyricist with something to say — sometimes provocative, sometimes ironic, always worth my investment of time, ears, head, and heart. They are the Leonard Cohens, Paul Simons, Joni Mitchells and Curtis Mayfields of that generation,” she explained.
That young girl in Virginia who once sat in front of the TV set for inspiration ended up serving her country as a soldier, as a corporate leader, and as an avid community supporter. With self-confidence as a resource, Paula Boggs tackled a life’s work in the “real world” that was all encompassing. Through it all her inspiration to live by was a Lewis Carroll quote from Alice in Wonderland: “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” But in the midst of that work, she was called back, through life’s painful circumstances, to songwriting.
In retrospect, Paula Boggs has gone back to yesterday … to “the passion and craft I knew as a child and young adult” … to the young woman singing in the church choir … to the soul of the young girl who first translated the world into song at age 10. Perhaps now, as writer George Moore declared, Paula Boggs is actually a woman who has travelled “the world over in search of what (s)he needs and returns home to find it.”