It can be tempting to mimic the egoless smiling Buddha, if you’re a musician inspired by Buddhism. Why change your sound? Why not just be, like the Buddha?
Paul Willson has certainly dealt with the problem of change recently, and he’s overcome it in a new LP that’s aptly titled “I Made Friends with a Dragon.” You might be familiar with Willson from his songwriter showcases at the Camel. Or perhaps you’ve heard something from his prolific catalog, which features appearances from members of Butcher Brown and No BS Brass. To date, he’s released three double albums and a traditional LP, full of jazzy syncopation and mystical lyrics.
In some ways, this back catalog was breathing fire down Willson’s neck. He had tried branching out with a couple of Irish tunes on “Heaven Reaches,” and confesses he wasn’t very happy with the result. But sticking with his old formula wasn’t an option because he’d watched some of his former musical idols lose their vitality to predictability.
“It's not good to stay in a comfy place too long as an artist. I had to leave a place of consensus. I never quite fit in a scene, nor am I sure I want to,” Willson says.
He decided to delve deeper into the British Isles music of his ancestry. About half of the songs on his new album are reinterpreted folk classics. “That’s what my heart wanted,” he says.
Other dragons kept popping up, though. Willson is a clinician by day, and says he’s often observed murky power dynamics in the clinical space. Recently, he took the risk of becoming an independent clinician, rather than be part of an agency. He also committed to buying a house with his fiancée in Lakeside, and became board president at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha, where he leads a Shambhala meditation group. Simultaneously, he’s been distraught over accusations of abuse levied at Sakyom Mipham Rinpoche, leader of the Shambhala Buddhist community.
“It’s not like I tamed a dragon,” Willson says of the album title. “It’s about finding levity in the face of threats to one’s ego.”
The album took two years to gestate. He faced a steep learning curve for the folksy voice inflections and fiddle parts. Many of these songs were recorded in his sparse, monastic backyard shed. “It’s demanding,” says Willson, who played everything on the album this time. “This has been my longest project.” One album highlight is “Rain in the Desert,” a rustic ballad reminiscent of Fleet Foxes. But the dragon’s riches may be in the deeper cuts, where Willson explores humanity’s contradictions. “Willie O’Winsbury” is an old Scottish tune in which a king demands the execution of his daughter’s secret lover, but has a change of heart after meeting him. “Bitter Brew” is an overdubbed a cappella journey that pokes fun at the persistence of negative worldviews. On “Willow Haven,” the tug of war between adventure and comfort plays out against a backdrop of lush string arrangements.
The album was slated to come out earlier this summer, but Willson took the opportunity to tour Indonesia with an outfit named Rumput. The band plays keronchong, a traditional form of string music from Indonesia. Their sound gets blended with old-time string music from the United States and British Isles, complemented by a show of shadow puppets known in Americana circles as crankies. Indonesians have their own type of scrolling puppet show, too, called wayang. The cultural crosspollinations challenged Willson to “keep my own flame going” and discern where personal inspiration comes from. “Rumput is a wonderful group of humans,” he says.
Rumput’s bandleader, Hannah Standiford, attended Virginia Commonwealth University with Willson and was his roommate. During production of this new album, she observed his growing mastery of those challenging fiddle sections. Half-hearted attempts aren’t in Willson’s repertoire, she says. “Over the past 10 years I’ve watched him work on all these different disciplines,” she says. “If he picks a discipline he wants to work on, it’s not going to be shallow.”
Despite the progressive self-study, Standiford says Willson makes a point of learning from musicians who aren’t classically trained.
“I’ve never seen him shy away from working with a great musician who doesn’t happen to read music or have the same theory background as he does,” she says.
Opening up to vulnerability is a reward in itself, Willson agrees, even if that means he has to go it alone.
“For some people, music is meditation. I try to bring meditation to music,” Willson says. “It helps me connect with a vulnerable state.”
Willson will release his album Sept. 22, during a traditional Irish folk set at Blue Bee Cider. Start time 6:30 p.m. Also available at paulwillsonmusic.com.