by Jane Roser
DC singer/songwriter Paul Pfau has just become a household name in Australia after he generously allowed his hit blues-tinged song, “Happy To Be”, to be the theme song of the Sunshine Coast Animal Refuge’s new promo video. But besides making huge strides across the pond, the winner of the Washington Area Music Award for Best Debut Album tours the U.S. heavily throughout the year, always returning to a large, supportive fan base in DC.
“Almost all of my close friends are DC musicians,” says Pfau. “Obviously, no matter what you do or where you are there will always be douchebags, but in the DC music scene there’s so much camaraderie. Just last year I had some problems with my voice and couldn’t sing for six months, [local bands and friends] Melodime and The Morrison Brothers Band wanted to help out and let me play guitar with them so I could work. I went on tour with Melodime last summer and by being able to do that, I met so many people I work with now that I never would have met if it wasn’t for Melodime. We just help each other out here and want to see each other succeed.”
Pfau’s family lived in Oklahoma for a short time when he was a kid and basically lived down the street from Garth Brooks. Pfau’s dad was in the church choir with Brooks’ mother-in-law and the family attended his concerts right as Brooks was getting his start. “I remember at one show, he was hanging from a zip line and he’d be rocking out while the stage was on fire. I just remember thinking how cool that was.”
As a teenager, Pfau loved listening to Eric Clapton and Lenny Kravitz. He played rhythm guitar with a few bands throughout high school before getting bored doing that and instead began singing and writing songs. Pfau was in the midst of a mini-tour in 2009 to promote his acoustic EP when he opened for The Lumineers at Puck Live in Doylestown.
“They were playing after me and it was just a trio-the girl who plays the cello, the percussionist and the lead singer. There’s this tiny green room there, almost the size of a closet, so we all decided to walk around town. They were really cool, nice people, but I wound up leaving their show early. A few years later I remember seeing that Billboard Magazine was Tweeting about The Lumineers and I kicked myself for leaving that show early.”
Besides jamming with The Beach Boys in Winchester, VA (“I asked Bruce Johnston if he had any advice for me and he said ‘stay in school,'” laughs Pfau) and playing a show at World Cafe Live with The 9 Songwriter Series, Pfau has been able to play some pretty sweet gigs and is incredibly humble and grateful. “I wouldn’t be able to do any of this if it weren’t for the fans.”
Recording his debut full-length album, Happy To Be, in 2012 at Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church, VA, Pfau was adamant about how he wanted the album to sound. “It wasn’t snapped to a grid,” Pfau explains, “the bass and drum were all recorded live, the only thing that was overdubbed was the keyboards; it was really a free-form process.”
Produced by Pfau and Sean Russell, the album was mixed and mastered by Jeff Juliano (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band) and Grammy winner Brad Blackwood (Maroon 5, Sara Bareilles) within the span of about five months. “Jeff called me up and told me that Sean sent him the album and he loved it,” recalls Pfau, “he wanted to throw his hat in the ring to mix it. Then Jeff recommended Brad, who has literally mastered just about every record coming out today. Everything just fell into place on it’s own, nothing was ever forced.”
When I ask Pfau how he gets into a songwriting groove, he says that he doesn’t fight the songs, “I don’t sit down and wrestle with it until it’s done, most of the ideas I’ll get while I’m driving to shows. It’s a slow process, but none of the songs on the album were difficult to write. There’s a quote from Mad Men that always comes to me when I’m writing. Don Draper was talking to Peggy and she asks him how he comes up with these awesome, creative ideas. He said ‘you take an idea and you think about it as hard as you can for as long as you can and then you stop and the answer will come to you,’ so when writing a song, I try to focus as much energy as I can up until the point where I get angry with it, then I just let it go and over time it just comes back to you.”
Pfau continues, “”Girl Like You”, for instance, is a song about two bad relationships and I was thinking, man, this love thing sucks, I wish I could just find this perfect girl who was basically just a figment of my imagination. Each verse talks about the past relationships, but although those times were hard, it wasn’t hard for me to get the lyrics out and write the song.”
Pfau got a lot of help when he put out a call to fans to help record the music video for “Happy To Be”. Filmed at the Bright Box Theater in Winchester, VA, the entire music video is filmed on iPhones and then edited by musician/videographer Don Kim. “I went online and said I was looking for seven to eight people with iPhones who are coming to the show to film some footage during “Happy To Be” and the response was overwhelming. I also downloaded an app that allowed me to set my phone up on a tripod and film time-lapse photography. It was great to have so many people be a part of the process.”
Recently signing with Degy Entertainment, Pfau will hit the road this summer for a three week tour with Athens, GA singer/songwriter Connor Pledger, playing several shows sponsored by MacMillan guitars including the famed Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, GA and a performance at the Blueberry Festival in Bethlehem, PA.
In the Fall, Pfau will perform some college campus shows before heading back to the studio to start recording a new album which will hopefully be released by the end of the year. “I love playing college shows,” says Pfau. “90% of the music I listen to today I discovered while in college. I feel like there’s a certain magic and discovery happening there.”
Pfau’s website explains how to pronounce his name as “rhymes with wow” and if you catch Pfau live this summer, you can see firsthand just how well he lives up to this. I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform a few times this year, so be ready to be “wowed.”