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Paul Curreri & Devon Sproule: Berlin Calling, on Folk & Beyond

Paul Curreri & Devon Sproule: Berlin Calling
on Folk & Beyond with Aer Stephen
Thursday August 25, 2011, 6:00 PM

Paul Curreri/Devon Sproulephoto by Nick Strocchia

When Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule take the stage at the Jefferson Theater on Saturday, August 27th, it will be their farewell concert - “Thank You & Goodnight”. Berlin is calling. Are they really leaving us? Say it isn’t so, Joe. But it is true. Berlin is the next stop for Charlottesville’s Folk Royalty. And we are not talking Berlin, Virginia, or Berlin, Vermont, or Berlin, New York, but the far away famous across the big pond Berlin….. Berlin, Germany. The shelves are bare and the furniture is gone. The dates on your calendar may be closer than they appear. A true life adventure is on the horizon. Please join me as I once again take Folk & Beyond on the road and visit the now sparsely appointed home studio that has been dubbed “Amanda’s Old Room” this one last time. This is a very special feature - funny, heartfelt, and liberating. Paul and Devon will each perform a song solo, they will do one together, we will talk about the impending move, the new projects in store, and wax about what the last 11 years has unfurled. Since Paul Curreri rolled into town as the last of the leaves stubbornly clung to the newly barren branches at the beginning of this century, no artist has appeared on Folk & Beyond as many times as he. I heard Paul for the first time that November when he strolled in with his brother, Matt, to play at the Acoustic Open Stage I hosted once a month at The Prism. “Senseless As A Cockoo” was the first offering and I was floored. He followed up with “Long Gone” and was anything but. I was witnessing a new star. I first saw Devon Sproule belting it out busking on the Downtown Mall. She must have been all of 15 or so. Such a petite young lady with a giant voice. As she grew into that voice, her songs and musicianship followed, bringing a depth and texture that captured my respect and admiration. They may be leaving, but my bet is they will not be strangers to us here in Charlottesville, and will achieve much success and critical acclaim on the European continent. Join us, won’t you?

~ Aer Stephen

The Big Shitty

"I hadn't quite moved yet to Charlottesville and was working a catering gig that night, and some people asked if I wanted to go hear Devon Sproule," says Curreri . . "They said, 'Have you ever heard her? She's kind of good.' So they dragged me, and I walk in and I thought, 'My goodness, she's kind of cute' ... something propelled me onto that stage, and I think it was more than whiskey."

“We all live with hardship and crisis. But maybe it’s the price paid for being surrounded by and involving oneself with only what feels authentic and important. I get to play music, even if – yeah – on occasion it’s just at home……”

“………I realized certain junk isn’t permanently within me, that there’s peace to be found relatively close by, that some degree of – I don’t know – grace is attainable, even if it kinda comes and goes.”

~ Paul Curreri

This October, Tin Angel Records will proudly release The Big Shitty, the eighth album by Virginia-based songwriter / guitarist / producer, Paul Curreri. Primarily recorded over four day's time in Berlin, Curreri's much-celebrated guitar prowess is supported by the excellent English rhythm section he's toured with for the past few years. The resulting arrangements are spacious, electric, and the performances by the core group seem graced by a sort of musical fearlessness. The Big Shitty, on the other hand, is a place populated by characters suddenly questioning their long-trusted paths, whose gangs are in various states of dissolution. The defaults, the bumper stickers, even the tattoos look different! Explosive and evocative as always, Curreri's gutsy lyricism indicate his familiarity with the place. Speaking of which, this fall, Paul and his wife, songwriter Devon Sproule, will be relocating to Germany's Millennium City. Tin Angel Records hopes you enjoy Paul Curreri's The Big Shitty.

I Love You, Go Easy

Midway through a geographically eccentric tour of Britain, France and Ireland, Devon Sproule finds herself in Arlington, near Newbury in the south of England. She is standing on stage, unselfconsciously, on one leg. Her hair is scraped into a bandana, her clothes sprinkled with sparkles as part of a pact she has made with her band. Her big Gibson jazz-style guitar was built in 1954, the year her father was born; its “dirty pot” – a loose connection on the volume dial – gives the occasional grunting squeal. Sproule leans into the microphone to open with Terre Roche’s “Runs In The Family”, with a trademark slight crack in her voice on the extended notes. When we talk in London, she admits that she uses cover versions as a way of voicing sentiments “I don’t feel I’ve earned”; her own songs are defined by three pieces of biography. She grew up in a commune. She is married to a musician. And she is 29. Although she records her life and her preoccupations, she writes elliptically; the lyrics of her new album, I Love You, Go Easy, glance off each other arrestingly, juxtaposing images. The music is correspondingly complex. She already has five studio albums under her belt, all recognizably old-time country. Her new one, though, runs the gamut from jerky piano ballads to funk, from the swing of a pocket marching band to what sounds, on first listen, like a nursery rhyme about a dog, and only slowly reveals itself as a song about quarter-life crisis. Her melodies, in the past sweet to the point of hokiness, are now more angular, full of twists and turns that resolve only on the last note.

For these new recordings she was joined in a Toronto studio, at the suggestion of her producer Sandro Perri, by The Silt, an avant-garde Canadian three-piece. The clarinet, brass, flute and keyboard textures that they add turn Sproule’s country palette into something more idiosyncratic. “They went to school for it and everything,” she enthuses. “The most minimal, fluid music ever. For these guys, definitely less was more. It was like they were using music to quiet their minds.” On this tour, Sproule’s four-strong British band (two of them labelmates on Tin Angel, her Coventry-based record company) are playing the new songs tough and loud, with the dynamics of country rock; the recorded versions, with their layered textures and unexpected lyrical piano codas somewhere between jazz and hymnal, have a centripetal stillness about them, as if suspended for a moment out of time. This mirrors her upbringing. Sproule was born in an Ontario commune in 1982, but soon moved with her parents to the Twin Oaks community, an enclave in Virginia. “It was growing up in the country in a Southern state but having a lesbian mother, a polyamorous father and a black stepmother, a hundred neighbours. All-you-can-eat tofu. It was definitely not Virginian. It was beautiful like Virginia is, but different.” Some of the songs on the new album are intimately bound up with that Southern pastoral landscape. “The back part of the pond,” she sings at the start of the album, over flutes that recall King Crimson at their most bucolic, “belongs to the pilots and yellow-belly sliders”. But soon she pushes through to the other side, musing about the “terra bathers” – the bodies buried in “God’s Acre”, the commune’s graveyard. This song starts as a meditation on a recently deceased friend, then muses on her sister-in-law Maria, a harried teacher living a “miserable rhythm”. It ends, over faint organ, by reflecting on the six years since Sproule’s wedding day, with their friends “pudgy and young, gold ties straightened” and the changes wrought on all of them in the time since then. “If I can do this,” she sings – “this” being coping with bereavement, with pressure, with the passage of time – “I can do anything.”

Aged 15, Sproule moved out of the commune and into Charlottesville, the local town where, for now, she still lives. There she helped to make ends meet by busking, honing her craft on the songs of the assertively feminist rock singer-songwriter Liz Phair. When Sproule started to play small gigs she met Paul Curreri, now her husband, when he jumped uninvited on stage and insisted on singing backing vocals. As well as playing guitar with Sproule, Curreri, eight years her senior, has a parallel career of his own, including an album entitled Songs For Devon Sproule (2003). “One of the things we had to decide,” says Sproule, “is whether it was OK to write songs about each other. Could we complain? And we decided that we couldn’t.” Her childhood offered few models of conventional family relationships. “My parents are kinda into their own lives. They’re into parenting too, but in their own way. I lived in a building with other kids and slept in a building with other kids. They loved being parents but they loved that there were other adults around so they had a lot of childcare.” Marriage has required her to deal with relationships in depth rather than breadth. She affectionately describes the tug between herself and Curreri as mirroring the difference between nighttime and daytime. “He’s into the present, and I’m into the future.” In this light, some of her lyrics break into the abrupt directness of a fragment of reported conversation. “I know I’ve been a bit of a broken record darlin’ as of late,” she sings on “The Warning Bell”. “I grind my axe in the morning, pick a bone at night/Sometimes it’s you I’m picking on, sometimes I think I’m saving your life.”

I Love You, Go Easy is an ambitious record not only in terms of its music, but also in the sense that it is about ambition. On another marital communiqué, “Now’s The Time”, Sproule makes an argument for getting out into the world, while “our folks don’t need us around”, to “give clean living a chance”. And in September, Sproule and Curreri are relocating to Berlin. The original Berlin, she clarifies. “There is a Berlin, Virginia. People keep thinking I’m moving further to the country. Which in a way I wish I was.” She twists uneasily. “We’re moving to make the most of what’s going on over here,” she says. Her career in Europe is taking off, and now requires her to spend nine months of the year there. Berlin is conveniently located between her fanbases in the Baltics and the UK, and, “for Europe”, is cheap. “Paul has lived in New York and places, but he found the pace very fast. I haven’t really moved before. Neither of us personally really, really want to. It’s definitely a move for work.” She dutifully notes down the details of some books about her new home-to-be. “I think moving there 10 years ago would have been a little bit better, some kind of cultural heyday.” She cheers up. “But I think it’s still totally kickin’.” ~ David Honigmann - Financial Times 2011-06-11

photo by Jen Farriello

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