Paul Cowley upends everything you might expect of an acoustic country bluesman. He’s never been to Mississippi and says he has no desire to go; he’s a white English guy living in the French countryside; he heard the blues for the first time when he was about 40; and he started playing the guitar late in life because an uncle had left him on in his will.
And yet…Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, has a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition and has become an outstanding exponent of that tradition, whether it’s re-interpreting songs from the past or writing his own.
He has five albums behind him and we thought his 2018 Just What I Know was outstanding. He has now released Long Time Comin‘, with twelve acoustic blues songs, five traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and seven originals. This one’s even better.
I review a lot of albums, some of which I like, some not really so much, some of it very worthy, great musicianship, maybe important lyrically – but it’s always good to listen to something that is just…well…enjoyable. And that’s what you’ll find with Long Time Comin’.
I got talking to Paul in his home in Brittany about his music. I asked him first of all about the album’s title – in the title track he sings, “I’ve got my mojo, I’ve found my voice.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “For many years I’ve questioned what I do, how I sing, how I play. Should I do something different? But over more than a 20-year period I’ve now arrived at this point with age, wisdom and all the rest of it. And actually, it’s just me being me, and I can’t do any more than that really. I’ve always wanted to be authentically me. I don’t want to study John Lee Hooker for ten years and become a fantastic interpreter of John Lee Hooker. I’ve done what I do long enough that I have my own unique style and take on this music. So over a period of time, it’s become a sort of definite style. The songs I write, you can recognize it’s me.
“But I’m most pleased this time, because this time in the recording process I found a new level of certainty. So yeah, long time coming, I do feel I’ve got my mojo and my voice and I’m happy!”
Paul is the most refreshingly unassuming professional musician you could meet, but I put it to him that what he does in taking a traditional song that everybody knows, like Louis Collins, which appears on the album, and reinterpreting it, not playing note for note John Hurt’s version, say, seems to me, takes quite a bit of skill and ability.
“When I begin with a song, I almost always start trying to play the original, the “proper” way, but it’s never right. So, somehow it kind of gets massaged and changed and I think, well, it’s nothing like Mississippi John Hurt anymore, but it feels right for me. I’m not a technical musician, it’s all by feel and instinct. But over the years, there’s a bit of experience built up as to how one can flesh out a very simple arrangement. If you can move the chords up and down the neck, you get these different dynamics, I’m never stopped learning. I’m more interested now than ever in learning things that can just expand my options.”
In Cowley’s hands Louis Collins isn’t the rather jaunty version you often hear, which maybe doesn’t do justice to the song’s terrible story. He slows it down and adds some very cool slide guitar, and it becomes, fittingly, a bit more sombre, but at the same time, it never gets morbid. It’s a great version.
There are a half a dozen Paul Cowley originals on this album. As with all the songs, it’s mostly Paul singing and accompanying himself, picking acoustic guitar and adding some delicious and judicious slide here and there. I asked him about the song writing process.
“The first album I recorded here in France was a hundred percent original songs. I don’t have a problem coming up with original songs, and I love the album and I’m proud of the songs, but I think my audience likes a little bit of something they recognize as well.
“But the song writing process – I’ve got a studio across the yard in the barn upstairs. I never think I’ll go and write a song. I play guitar generally speaking, twice a day, couple of hours in the morning, a couple of hours in the evening. And almost without fail, I will find something on one of the guitars, just a simple phrase, two notes or two chords or some chords other people don’t tend to use, but there’ll be a feel or a timing to it. I do that frequently and often it goes no further than that. But sometimes I come up with that little phrase or whatever it might be, maybe three words that suggest the lyrical subject or topic, and that’s how they come. I can’t predict when that will happen, but when it does happen, very rapidly the song comes together.
“With the guitar part, that hook thing or whatever it was, there’ll be this period of embellishment, maybe I play it for two years and a few more bits and bobs come in, so songs are constantly changing and evolving. So – simple!”
One thing you’ll notice when you listen to the album, is the sound quality. It sounds like Paul is sitting right in your living room playing for you. It’s crystal clear and the instruments and vocals are perfectly balanced. On the album liner notes. Cowley says that, although he recorded the album in his barn/studio, he’s “low tech.” Yet the sound on the album is superb.
“Well, my background is I’m a builder, so there’s a little bit of understanding of buildings and shapes and materials. I’ve got this studio over in the barn upstairs with sloping ceilings, oak rafters, beams, chestnut flooring – all cobbled together from materials left over from renovating the house. Think of the Robert Johnson thing where he turned his back and played into a corner. and the sound was remarkable.
“I’m comfortable here at home, fleshing out these ideas on my own, nobody around me. If I was in a studio, however nice the engineer might be, I’d be wanting to play the song again and again because I’m not quite sure whether that was the right take. And he’s looking at the wall. I don’t like any of that.
“But the stroke of luck that I’ve had is called Pascal Ferrari. He’s a musician from Marseille, really high calibre. He’s a guitarist, a bass player, and he’ll pick a trumpet up. His musicality is quite remarkable. I met him five years ago, and we’ve done some gigs together and he’s fantastic in the studio. So I did the recording here straight, no effects whatsoever, into a fairly dated Korg mini recording machine. And then I physically carried that across Brittany to Pascal’s house. He then, transferred this into his computer and he’s a really very talented mixer. And then he sends that to his friend and they listen to it on some big, serious equipment, and tweak it from there. So I feel very fortunate that I’ve stumbled across Pascal!”
It’s pretty unusual to find a traditional blues picker living in the French countryside, instead of in a big city or somewhere in the Southern United States. I wondered how that worked for Paul in terms of performing his music – granted that the last year has been more than a bit unusual. He told me how he’d been building up his gigs across France and then popping back to the UK for small tours – and along the way discovering that French hospitality for the traveling musician is so much better than what he often gets in England.
I wondered also what attracts Paul to this traditional country blues music. Here he is, an English white guy based in the French countryside playing the blues of African-Americans from a hundred years ago – it all sounds a bit unlikely. But perhaps it says a lot about the universal appeal of the blues. Paul began to tell me about his own journey.
“I discovered this music relatively late in life. I’d had a few Spanish guitar lessons in my early teens and I love the sound of an acoustic guitar. But my teacher didn’t inspire me and I stopped playing music for 20 years. I became a self-employed builder, but I never stopped listening to music. But when I was 40 my wife Diana bought me for my father’s day present from the kids, Clapton’s Unplugged. And I remember, I was decorating the room and I put the CD on and Signe and Before You Accuse Me came on and it was instantly like, “What’s this?” And there was this lush interpretation of Walking Blues, just a beautiful sound and Clapton’s softer kind of vocal style and I thought, this is marvellous! And then I thought, well, I wonder who is that Big Bill Broonzy bloke that does the song. Hey, Hey? Well, I looked into that, and it was a delight.
“And then I was given a guitar. My uncle died. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go out and buy one, but I got this steel string guitar. And I got a very basic blues tutorial book with the tab and I thought, I can play this – it wasn’t fantastic but it was delightful to me. And I’ve never looked back.
“The Clapton album made me want to get some proper old blues to listen to. So one Saturday I went into Cobb Records – an old-fashioned record shop – to the blues section, maybe 20 CDs in all, if that. And I leafed through and I didn’t know any of those names at all, but on the one towards the front, there was this picture of a very cool looking black guy, hat on, guitar in hand, looking exactly like what I expected a blues player to look like, and he was Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Coffee House Blues was the album and we put this on in the car on the way home and played it for two years. He’s important to me because it was him that got me into this…fantastic voice, proper steel string, acoustic guitar. I just love that and still do to this day.”
Paul has worked hard at honing his guitar chops over the years and explained that one formative stage in his development as a guitarist came at a Woody Mann workshop he attended in Liverpool.
“Woody Mann gave us a general philosophy about how to go about getting better. He talked about keeping the repertoire relatively small but well played, and effective use of your time. And because I went home on the train alone, I made all these notes of the key points. You don’t get good at anything without applying yourself hard to it. And to this day, I’ll get up, I have breakfast and I go and play for maybe two hours. I try and pick the guitar up again during the day for a few minutes. And then I’ll play a couple of hours in the evening, But that’s nothing compared with some guys – we had Steve James staying here, and he plays six hours a day – for the past 50 years!”
To start with, Paul never thought he’d perform publicly, but from first steps playing in the round with friends at his local blues club back in Birmingham, he’s developed into a fine acoustic blues artist and song-writer with serious guitar chops. Ever self-deprecating, he told me, “I’m quite surprised that I do it, but I love it!”
As well as Paul’s own songs, Long Time Comin‘ has songs by Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Ray Charles. But I wondered if Paul has any artists that he’s particularly fond of?
“I love Lightnin Hopkins. I find Mississippi John Hurt songs come into your repertoire, whether you want them to or not. His music is so playable, they’re great songs and I love his music. I like Blind Willie McTell, I’d like to do more of his. A long time ago I heard his Love Changing Blues on the radio played by John Hammond and I never in my wildest dreams when I took my sandwich that lunchtime listening to that, thought that one day I’ll be able to play that kind of stuff! And I love Fred McDowell’s stuff – there’s just something about him.”
It’s fair to say that Paul Cowley’s been smitten with the blues. And if you get yourself a copy of his Long Time Comin’, you will be too. This album is one of the best acoustic blues albums you’ll hear this year – check it out www.paulcowleymusic.com or Bandcamp.
And if you’re in Southern Brittany sometime when this pandemic has passed us by, listen out for the sounds of the Delta where you least expect it.