ESSAY: PLASTIC SOUL IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL
by Jason Paul
I first should admit that Soul Food is not exactly what I intended — but it did exceed my expectations. I sometimes consider it an imperfect work – maybe even unrealized. If it is, the fault lies entirely with myself. I had the opportunity to work with superbly accomplished musicians and artists to complete this project. This gave me a kid in a candy store feeling. There are at least three distinct concepts I was pursuing with the project. With hindsight, I see that they could have been executed separately.
At the end of 2006 I began writing dozens of songs based on very simple loop structures. With the help of David Rozner, we assembled a group of talented musicians into the group Japan Seoul (Jason Paul anagram = Japan Soul). The first concept, which I call Containers of Expression, was to have a very simple music, often looped, which gives the players free reign to experiment because of the secure foundation of the music piece. This would also allow for a very portable group in which players could be added or subtracted easily with minimal rehearsing. The second concept was a songwriting epiphany, in which I found that by adopting spiritual church music influences, melodies and lyrics had a curious way of falling perfectly into place. The band Spiritualized is an obvious influence for this method although I'd like to think I differentiated myself because I was after a feeling of pure transcendence without psychedelic drug references. The third concept, is less a concept than a goal of creating pure, "sharp" pop in the vein of Roxy Music. The sophisticated pop sensibility factored into the art for the project.
1. Containers of Expression
While all of these songs were created with the "containers" method in mind, most became more refined songs with designated parts that could be relied on after repeated performances. The one piece that most retained it's "containers" mandate (at least at the time the recording was made) was "Weird World." It's the only song from Soul Food in which the lyrics weren't written by myself, but by avant garde saxophonist DaVe Lipp. I believe the very process of composing the music for the song set the tone for the musical liberation it represents. I attempted to write a very dynamic melody over the repeating loop structure. The song became a mission to show that the containers method is both viable and thrilling to both listener and performer. Everyone performing the song is improvising except for myself providing the melodic vocal structure and the loop rhythm guitar chords of the song. I'm most proud of the piece because to me it illustrates that you can have chaos and still have sound people want to listen to. It remains my favorite Japan Seoul song and I believe it was appreciated when we played it live because of the interplay between sophistication and abandon. I took the Roxy Music song "Remake Remodel" as direct inspiration for the containers method. I don't know if they were actually improvising, but it does sound like they are to me. "Remake Remodel" feels so free yet so refined at the same time and that's really the ultimate goal for a "containers" piece.
2. Spiritual Soul Music
While I've heard many groups like The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Spacemen 3 and others use spiritual music devices in their songwriting I've never heard any of them come quite so close to the genuine article as Soul Food does. So close that Tris, keyboards, asked me shortly after he joined the group if I was religious. The answer was no, but that I couldn't resist working in that idiom (or something to that effect). Why work in that idiom at all? Because for me, especially regarding performance, something about those familiar traditional forms gave me direct access to a feeling of transcendent expression. It is related very closely to the "containers of expression" ideal, yet the expressiveness can be achieved in a more developed music. What I crave most as an artist is creative euphoria. The excitement of creating something expressive and new. Somehow, working with spiritual structures delivered the creative euphoria I was looking for. I can't help thinking that the excitement some people get in church is the same feeling I get from creating something new. Maybe we all need this kind of release. Some people find it in art, some in sports and some in religion. Maybe it's all the same feeling. By bringing these two incompatible elements of art and religion together I realize Soul Food may seem convoluted, yet I still find it moving in a guttural way.
Lord Have Mercy was the first song I wrote in which I tapped into the spiritual soul music feeling. It is more or less built on the riff for "Take Me to the River" (I had the Talking Heads version in mind).
I may have overstepped in the song "Salvation" where I lyrically illustrate the conventional concept of Christian salvation. A passive listener could make assumptions about the songs intent. What I was trying to do is take an objective look at what we're told "salvation" is and also suggest that the doctrine could be expanded to "cover" even non-believers (but that might make for a very friendly but impotent religion). Hopefully the last song "Don't Lose Your Light" clarifies the intent of Soul Food. The "Light" is the creative spirit. Life is hard, it's easy for the artist to be discouraged and give up, crushed by failure. I'm afraid to lose that light myself. The creative spirit makes life worth living. How could I live without it? It seems that some people do – but I don't want to.
3. Pop Artifice
My creative partner (and now wife) Ewa Orzech mulled over what the art for this would be for awhile. This was the first of many creative (and life) projects together. She came up with the idea to fetishisticly photograph a plate of realistic-looking fake pasta. It was inspired from when she travelled to Japan and took note of how some eateries showcase their food with plastic representations. Ironically you can kind of tell it's plastic, fake food. Calling an album of "inauthentic", non-religous spiritual music "Soul Food" and representing it with a plate of plastic food on its cover is the piece that ties the whole thing together and elevates the project to the level of art (in my not so humble opinion).
As someone whose academic credentials are in art, rather than music, art is where I try to elevate all the albums I've done. Undoubtedly confusing in a landscape with commercial pop expectations. I do think this album, while perhaps conceptually difficult, is highly accessible to most ears. There I go again. I want it both ways.
released October 1, 2007
Jason Paul - vocals, rhythm guitar
David Rozner - drums, percussion
DaVe Lipp - saxophone
Jesse Blockton - lead guitar
Tris McCall - keys, synth
Matt Hyams - bass guitar
Recorded, engineered and mixed by Travis Harrison at Serious Business Studios
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