Folk rocker Paul Thorn harnesses the power of feel-good
Let's be honest: This past week was pretty awful. Whether it was beloved celebrities passing away or the chaos going on in Ferguson, the last seven days have been pretty miserable for the nation. It's safe to say that people could probably use a hefty dose of feel-good, and luckily, Paul Thorn is happy to oblige.
The Kenosha-born, Mississippi-raised folk rocker is releasing his seventh album, "Too Blessed to Be Stressed," Tuesday, Aug. 19, an almost gospel-like collection of relaxed, pleasant tunes eager to get people's tired feet tapping and faces smiling. He's bringing his stress-free sound on the road as well, including a stop at Milwaukee's Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, Aug. 21.
Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Thorn about his new album, the power of feel-good and his secret arcade claw machine powers.
OnMilwaukee.com: Why, for this particular album, did you feel it was the time to really emphasize the idea of feel-good?
Paul Thorn: Well, for the last few years, I've been touring the country and having conversations with common folks, and I noticed that it's troubling times for a lot of people. They don't have jobs, and things just aren't going their way. There's a lot of music out that talks about missing a girl or a broken heart or something bad happening, but I just thought it would be good to write some songs that make people feel better, kind of lift them up a bit.
OMC: Was it hard for you to move away from the autobiographical material on your last albums?
PT: No, not really. Every album is different. There is a lot of my history in my previous songs. One of the things I do when I'm traveling is I like to get on YouTube sometimes during down moments, and I like to look up people who are really positive and have influenced me in a good way. I like to listen to them talk and get some wisdom from them.
That's what kind of birthed this record. It's not a gospel record, but it's a spiritual record where there's positive messages all the way through it. I was influenced by a lot of people in life and people I've watched on programs or just people I look up to.
Coincidentally, I was doing an interview with The New Yorker magazine a few weeks back, and they asked me some of the people I was listening to on the Internet. I mentioned Maya Angelou, who just passed away. I like to listen to her talk because she was a very positive person. I also mentioned Robin Williams, and then right after I mentioned him, he passed away.
Those people were all so positive, and even did though he did what he did, when he was out in the world, he was a very positive person. He always had a good attitude, he made people laugh and he loved children. Now he's gone, but people like him and their philosophies actually influenced this record a lot. I want people, when they listen to this record, to elevate their mood.
OMC: Yeah, the Robin Williams news was absolutely just terrible and tragic. Do you have any particular favorite movies or memories or him?
PT: One of the things I'm very proud of is that I still have my "Mork and Mindy" lunchbox. (laughs) I took it to school, and I still have it. It's one of my prized possessions.
OMC: How was the recording process for this latest album?
PT: Well, I've had the same band for the last 20 years, so we really understand each other when we get into the studio. What usually happens is I write a song on acoustic guitar, and then I just go into the studio and play it for the band, and they just start making up parts. We just kind of have fun with it. We have our own studio, so we're not bound to some $5,000-an-hour inflated record company budget. We took our time, and we had fun. That's the main thing. It wasn't laborious for us. We just felt like we were having a vacation or a good time.
These new songs on this record … you know, it's an insecure thing to put out a record because you don't know if people are going to love it or hate it. But what I've noticed with these songs is, when I play them live, the crowd starts singing along right off the bat. Part of that is because I made the choruses real simple and real sing-a-long. They're kind of like positive anthems.
One of the main tracks is "Everything's Gonna Be Alright," and when you get three or four thousand people singing "Everything's gonna be alright" really loud, it puts a great vibe in the air. You see people smiling and giving each other hugs. Some of these songs, it's almost like they're healing people.
OMC: Like you were saying, there seems to be a desire for that kind of feel-good vibe coming from entertainment nowadays.
PT: People ask me what's this record like, and I say it's like the Americana Kool and the Gang. All of their songs were happy, feel-good songs, and that's why they were so popular. Their music made people feel good. I don't sing the same kind of music, but the sentiment is the same.
OMC: One of the outliers on the album is "Mediocrity's King." What was the main motivation behind that song?
PT: It's easy to understand: just turn your TV on. It used to be that you used to have to be very talented to be on television, but now with all the reality TV shows and everything, you don't actually have to have any talent. You just have to be able and willing to parade your stupidity in front of the world. Then you turn on the news, and most of the news now is human interest stories.
It just seems like the standard has been lowered, is what I'm trying to say. I'm not a political person, but now, when you see our president giving a speech, it's like – I mean, he's obviously reading a teleprompter – he almost looks embarrassed because all the wind's been knocked out of his sail, you know?
And even in popular music. I wish everybody success, but the standard on what's the best in that has been lowered. I'm not going to point fingers and name names, but the quality of what a hit song is doesn't seem like it's at the quality of what it once was.
OMC: I looked at your upcoming schedule, and you're pretty much touring for the rest of the year. What do you do to keep busy on the road?
PT: One of the things I enjoy doing is artwork. I like to draw and stuff like that. I like to exercise, I'm into that. Plus, I get along with my band. We're actually friends. A lot of people who travel together can't stand each other, but I'm fortunate that all of the members of my band are friends of mine. They're kind of like my second family when I'm away from my immediate family.
We go into convenience stores and play those claw machines, and every once in a while, we'll win a teddy bear or something. (laughs) I'm sorry; I don't like to blow my horn, but I'm probably one of the greatest claw machine players in the history of the whole world. (laughs) It hasn't really been documented, but I gave myself that title.
OMC: Any tips of advice for a lowly claw machine rookie?
PT: Always get the one laying loose on top, even if it's not what you really want. You may want the Hulk action figure, but if Rainbow Brite is sitting on the top loose, grab it. The Rainbow Brite unicorn; get it. (laughs)
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