Arts & Events » Music

Everybody Hurts

Local musician Paul Willson’s new album deals with life and loss.


Slowly, the camera pans through Paul Willson’s kitchen as he places a white sheet in a laundry basket and takes it outside. As his song “How I Keep You” plays, Willson hangs the sheet on a line to dry.

A bug flies in front of the sheet, does a lap around the frame, then exits as Willson’s voice sings “Bring me to you/If the pain comes when you visit, then I’ll let it, so I can keep you.” The song is an ode to Willson’s late sister Marigene, and he can’t help but feel like the chance appearance of the bug in his music video was a symbol.

“It’s sort of a sign of magic and presence,” he says, adding that we all need to remain cognizant of the world around us. “Having that bug fly across was a magic moment. You’ve got to keep your eyes open.”

The song appears on Willson’s new album, “Some Live As If,” which debuts this Saturday. Willson says the album’s themes of life, death and loss came about through making the recording in his basement studio.

“The album is about renewal,” says Willson, a licensed clinical social worker who studied music at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It’s about going through, looking at life, and then coming back and making it new so we maintain a living connection with what’s really going on, and that there is pain and there is loss, but that’s part of new life emerging and new forms.”

Always in search of a new sound, Willson says he’s a “restless spirit” musically; with this album, the multi-instrumentalist adds waterphone and concertina to his repertoire. The waterphone — also known as an ocean harp — features prominently in the song “Deep Sea Skinny Dipping.”

“It’s often been used as an extended sound for classical music and/or a creepy sound for scary movies,” Willson explains.

A new challenge for him was incorporating a string quartet on some songs, which he wrote the parts for. Willson says that unlike some modern classical music, he didn’t want it to sound atonal or experimental, but “heartfelt and expressive” while still being “interesting on a musical level.”


His quartet features three members of the Richmond Symphony and one music instructor who teaches at VCU. The album also features Max Wareham on bass, Karl Helander on drums, Matt Coyle on glockenspiel and David Hood on saxophone. Wareham and Helander mixed their parts, and Willson handled engineering on all tracks except “Some Live As If,” which was engineered by Curtis Fye; Fye mixed and mastered the album.

“I lucked out with a really good ensemble of players,” he says. “They were really sensitive and played beautifully.”

While dealing with weighty themes, the album is balanced by a wry sense of humor. “Deep Sea Skinny Dipping,” for instance, is a riff on the ballads of the British Isles. After beginning with a traditional sounding “It was on one bright May morning,” the song’s protagonist takes off his scuba gear and skinny dips.

The album is also populated with robots, vampires and knights. Willson says this came from a desire to embrace images that have captivated him for a long time. The mirroring of robots and humans has been a source of many cheeky jokes. Vampires have long symbolized taking or draining life.

The knights came from the boyhood fascination that both he and his late friend James Ritter had with King Arthur and fantasy myths. After meeting in social work school, Ritter and Willson traveled to Scotland and Iceland together before cancer took Ritter’s life. The song “The Spell is Broken,” is dedicated to him.

“That was what came to my heart when I thought about this young man who had passed away before his time,” says Willson of the song’s Arthurian imagery. “In some ways, you see that his life was really beautiful and wonderful, and then, in other ways, you’re like man, what the f--k? He hardly got a chance to blossom.”

A release party for “Some Live As If” will take place this Saturday at Spacebomb Records. Music videos created for the album by Tu Nguyen, Josh Porterfield, Mike Devine and Alex Salsberg will be shown, and attendees can listen to the album on their own mobile devices if they bring headphones. Watercolors by Theresa Steward, who did the album’s cover, and pastels by Mishari Alduwaisan will be on display.

In “How I Keep You,” Willson says the key line of the song for his sister is “Sorrow sometimes is the price to be paid/The love it costs to keep living.”

“That song is a way of saying, ‘I don’t mind feeling the sorrow, because I know that’s part of how she gets to stay in my life,’” he says. “It’s sort of a package deal. That’s a love letter to her. Even if it’s painful or sorrowful, I want you to haunt me. I want your ghost to linger with me.”

The costume party and album release for Paul Willson’s “Some Live As If,” takes place Oct. 28 from 3-5 p.m. at Spacebomb Records, 106 S. Robinson St., 23220. Tickets are $10.