Paul Cebar has been a mainstay -- and a leading light -- on the Milwaukee scene for years. Starting out in coffee houses playing solo, in a duo with Rip Tenor, with the incarnations of his band The Milwaukeeans (can't get more Cream City than that!), with the R&B Cadets ... the list goes on.
Many years ago Cebar went from being an under-appreciated guitarist with a distinctive voice, performing mostly other people's work, to a guitarist and singer with even more personality who, by and large, plays songs that emerge from his own pen and plectrum.
But despite lots of friends and insiders raving about the quality of his solo demos, Cebar hasn't released a solo acoustic CD until now.
That's right, "One Little Light On" (Groovesburg Joys Records) has 13 tracks -- all basically solo acoustic -- that allows listeners to really hone in on Cebar's skills as a guitarist and a singer. What "One Little Light" reminds us is that the city -- at least in recent years -- hasn't had a performer with more expressiveness than Paul Cebar.
The mix of originals, covers and songwriting collaborations seems like a perfect philosophical approach and yields results that will lead you to, perhaps, consider Cebar's talents in a new light.
We took the opportunity to catch Cebar before he blew town for the holidays to ask him about "One Little Light On."
OnMilwaukee.com: I've heard solo demos and recordings over the years that were some of your most affecting work. How come you decided to finally do this record?
Paul Cebar: Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to open a few series of shows for Nick Lowe and to open solo for Joe Ely, Linda Ronstadt, Richie Havens, Was Not Was, Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt, Keb Mo.
In the context of these shows, there have been numerous requests for a disc that might more accurately reflect what the listener had heard that evening.
When plans began to solidify for a small eastern tour supporting Chris Smither in early November, I brought a few guitars over to Mike Hoffmann's and began recording what has come to be something of a parallel repertoire.
OMC: What do you hope shines through on the disc?
PC: Part of what I wanted to capture on this record was the timbre of my voice and the quirks of my guitar playing as they have developed through years of the rigors of the bandstand in an unguarded, suggestive and, hopefully, persuasively direct manner.
Moved by Nick Lowe's solo mastery and his reluctance to overdub over the course of his last triumphant run of records, I set a rather rigid, "all solo acoustic" rule.
OMC: Does it feel that way to you, too, that you "finally" are doing this; as if it was a given that it would happen at some point?
PC: In days past, I may have held out this sort of project for some time in the future in order to keep my and the fans' focus on my band work. I feel now that there has been an ongoing development concurrent with my band work and it's best to get it on out into the sun.
I had a lot of fun working with Mike and seeing what I sound like now.
OMC: There are a lot of collaborations -- Peter Mulvey, Willy Porter, (former Wild Kingdom frontman) Paul Finger, (former Tar Babies and Cebar saxman) Tony Jarvis. How did those come about? Were they spontaneous or planned collaborations?
PC: Over the course of the past 10 years, I've very much enjoyed the process of co-writing. The tune written with Paul Finger came together whilst rollicking about quite a while ago. I've had ongoing sessions of collaboration with both Willy and Peter over the course of the last five years that have resulted in tunes on each of their last couple of records.
In the case of "Didn't Bring It Up," I loved the atmosphere of the demo we cut when we finished writing so I thought that I'd bend the all-solo rule to include it.
My collaboration with Pat McLaughlin, my co-writer on "Something Brighter," has been a very fertile one. I was a fan of his for many years and in the course of my travels started stopping in to see him and his family in Franklin, Tenn., just outside of Nashville. We've got eight or nine tunes now, many of which I've been playing with the band and will likely include on the next band record.
Tony and I worked on a mix of a tune for an as-yet-to-be released project of my instrumental work a few years back in his Brooklyn studio and whilst milling about broke out the guitars and wrote what still seems like an uncharacteristic tune for each of our repertoires.
That's precisely what I've enjoyed most in collaboration, the widening of the expressive field. You truly write something that you'd never have written alone.
OMC: I found the covers interesting, too, and "The Book of Love" immediately caught the ear of my co-worker Julie Lawrence. Why did you select those songs?
PC: After cutting a few originals, I tried a few of the tunes which I used to play in the coffeehouses toward the end of the '70s -- "Am I Blue" and "Can't See for Looking" -- and the tune that John Sieger dreamt, "I Painted Your Eyes," which I had loved on a demo of his that he had cut just after waking up. I'd learned the tune for last year's run of dates with Nick (Lowe).
With those in hand, I thought that I'd like to take a crack at the work of a few of my favorite contemporary writers. Stephin Merritt's work strikes me as some of the finest and most potentially enduring of this past stretch of years. Wittiest and wickedly moving, as well.
Dayna Kurtz is a dear friend whose music works for me every time. She's at the top of her game and like so many of my favorites, criminally underappreciated. Both the Merritt and Kurtz tunes benefited from the absurd charm of the lowly but mighty Nashville-tuned Silvertone acoustic hanging on Hoffmann's wall.
As the record took shape, I felt that there was room to include two recordings that I had done some time back whose qualities had seemed to grow on me with time. The fragile, "If Only It Were Over" and the rambunctious, "It Done Fell Off."
OMC: Tell us a bit about how the disc happened -- in practical terms -- did you record most of it in one go?
PC: At The House -- Mike's studio -- I began cutting the first three tunes, three takes each and then took a listen. I believe that we cut one more that first session -- "Am I Blue?". I returned with a couple of other guitars for a couple of additional afternoon sessions. In the same few weeks, I had brought the few takes of "Didn't Bring It Up" that Willy and I had cut in to Mike and we edited and geekified 'til it seemed to have its way.
Then, with the addition of the two tunes from a lovelorn session I had cut in the old pet shop on Lincoln that the BoDeans had briefly set up as a studio and rehearsal space -- "If Only It Were Over" and "It Done Fell Off" -- the materials were seemingly in place.
One final element was the ears -- and vibes on one tune -- of Mark Greenberg. I had worked with Mark in mixing my collaboration with David Greenberger, "Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time" and very much enjoyed his input and intuition.
He has worked with a gaggle of Chicago-area musicianers through the years -- Andrew Bird, The Sea and the Cake, Archer Prewitt, The Coktails, eleventh dream day -- and is a lively, empathetic mixmaster. I took the Hoffmann recordings down to Chicago to run through Mark's system and then brought these mixes back to Mike for editing, assembly and mastering.
OMC: I hear you're working toward another band disc, can you tell me about that?
PC: We are about halfway through making the next band disc and I'm very excited by the results. We'll have more to say shortly.
OMC: Are you going to promote this record as you would any other -- with a release show, etc. -- or is it more of a low-key project?
PC: I've no release show planned for this record as of yet. I'm very proud of it and am trying to help it find its way into as many people's homes as possible. It's available through CDbaby and at Exclusive Co., Boswell Books, Barnes & Noble on South 76th and Mayfair here in town and of course, at our live gigs.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.