Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Something So Strong

The Uncut Vision of Nicolette Paige

Nicolette Paige is the kind of artist who makes you want to hold your breath. You know something’s going to happen with her, beyond the given that she’s going to write another song, and it’s going to be even better than the last. Despite an impossible economy with a record industry that ignores all rules of logic or integrity, you feel like you can lay money on Paige’s chances at some form of commercial success. She has all the most bankable qualities—she’s young and beautiful, with a full-throated, soulful voice and surprising songwriting chops.

But those bankable qualities are precisely the reason I, for one, hold that breath. They’re qualities ripe for exploitation. She’s a near complete package in danger of being sold as one thing or another that she’s not, and for being bound to far less than her promise. The more attention she gets, the more Nicolette Paige is going to have to fight to be Nicolette Paige.

What I mean by that is hard to precisely define. She’s essentially a singer-songwriter with a fresh style and vision. Musically, part of that freshness is the way she builds her melodies over a strong bottom, often a reggae rhythm. She does love reggae and often jams with local reggae bands, and her new band, the Iries, has a decided penchant for reggae. Yet, she’s not a stylist, and certainly not a genre artist. Her roots are varied and as clearly American as they are Jamaican. As she boldly declares in an onstage rap, she’s a “4 foot, 11 inch, Irish Latina,” and her music can sound like it comes off a front porch in the Delta (though a 21st century front porch, more weary with age and mindful of the ghosts in the wind), and it can sound like it’s catching the call of both a boombox and a tenement saxophone on a city sidewalk. Dreadlocked and playing lefthand guitar upside down and backwards like Jimi, Nicolette Paige is her own synthesis, and that’s what I’m afraid today’s industry is least likely to respect.

(Not that I have any illusions about the industry of yesterday. It’s just that, while Dionne Warwick could once make a hit out of “Don’t Make Me Over,” makeovers are all the rage today. Thank you Simon Cowell and company!)

While I think her band is remarkable, it seems to me that it’s still finding its direction, its way of expressing Paige’s vision. I look forward to that coming explosion of light and color. However, last night, I was lucky enough to hear Paige where her voice still has the most power—alone with her acoustic guitar.

My brother and I caught her set at Howell’s Bar and Grill in Gladstone, and after two previous nights of shows, including a high profile midtown show with the band, this show was under-promoted, so there weren’t many of us there. What made that more than okay, at least for us fortunate enough to be there, was that it allowed for a relaxed Storytellers kind of setting. The stories behind her songs were always compelling, sometimes harrowing and sometimes slight, but they tended to point up what makes Paige’s talent important—her ability to build out of whatever comes her way.

Her set moved in a series of contradictions, contemplating a situation with one song and then flipping the script for the next. “Catherine,” the song that started the set, pleaded with a girl friend to take a good look at an abusive relationship, while “Sometimes Love” followed with a beautiful soul refrain, contemplating the singer in her own romantic quandary.

These songs were followed by a trio of bluesy relationship songs—contemplating a needy relationship, “Mr. Unfortunate”; alternating between bargaining and acceptance in the contemplation of a suicide, “Daniel’s Notebook”; and going uptempo with the death and resurrection of “The Other Side.”

That first set ended with a couple of quasi-psychedelic numbers, “Vanishing Cars” and “Illusional,” which again dealt with contradictions by first reveling in the beauty and then questioning the meaning of transcendental experience. Paige’s second set would remain in this territory, starting with “Back in 1969.” This song, flavored by a Hendrixy chord progression, appeals enough to get away with its simple muse on a little glimpse of eternity shared with friends, but it doesn’t stop there. It ends by tying together a haunting awareness of Vietnam and Iraq. And that underscores what’s so grounded about Paige’s most psychedelic moments. As with her reggae, she uses these elements in such an intimate, clear-eyed way that they avoid settling for the exotic.

Although “Hinun,” the first song I heard her sing, is second to none, I did mean it that each new song she writes is generally better than the last, and her debut of a half written song, “Killers,” drove the point home last night. About what so much great music is about, putting one’s self in another’s shoes, Paige pulled in close to the perspectives of her friends tied up in gangs and others being called murderers as they enter the Aid for Women clinic in Kansas City, Kansas. Though the story behind the song involved her frustration with her friends caught up in turf battles, the song made it clear that she empathized with the complexity of their choices. That’s songwriting as what it wants to be, discovery, and every song Paige played last night felt like just such an unearthed oracle.

An artist only digs up such gems by constantly challenging her preconceptions and being true to her intuition. Last night, with a beautiful ditty of a song, “Fish Like Me,” Paige talked about how small she felt in the world of music, but even that unassuming quality is core to what makes Paige’s art so special. In a world where people are blown up into celebrity based upon cartoonish and often outlandish qualities, Paige works on a smaller scale in three dimensions with lush but rough textures. With her vision, small could be the new big, and I’d never underestimate the heights she could reach, but she needs to be nurtured with respect for her eye and ear and intellect. And I trust she will be. Little fish she may be, but these songs say tougher than the rest.

Note: If you plan to be at Austin's SXSW this weekend, Nicolette Paige plays two sets on Saturday, March 20th, a 1:00 showcase with hosts Go Girls Music at Austin Java, 12th and Lamar and a 4:00 showcase at the Agave Bar 415 East 6th.