Interview: Paul David Stanko


Interview: Paul David Stanko

* Early Influences:
    * You mentioned that your dad was into 1940’s swing and your mom loved The Carpenters. How do you think these early influences have shaped your musical style?

I developed a taste early on for a horn driven rhythm and rich harmonic textures.  I think you can see that as my sound settled in, there is often a horn component and a lush choral background.  Even on a song like “Sunshine (after the Rain)”, where I have ultra-processed the background vocals, you still here the vocal harmonic structure that is signature to my sound. 

“Superhuman” and “Together We” definitely have that horn band flavor that I developed on the FGS album, “In This Moment”. 

* College and Musical Evolution:
    * Transitioning from a desire to be a school music teacher to focusing on performance, especially the marimba, is quite a shift. What motivated this change, and how did it shape your college experience?

It really was a simple as I kept getting pulled to drum for various ensembles because I was one of the few drummers in my class that played kit. Eventually, I discovered I don’t enjoy teaching kids too much, and the choice seemed logical.  The marimba was my instrument of choice back-in-the-day because of my piano background.  I loved the earthy, mellow vibe of it mixed with the rhythmic drive.  I totally credit the marimba for fueling my love of the handpans I play now. 

    * How did working with Dr. Paul Smoker and being part of the jazz band influence your approach to music, especially in terms of improvisation and breaking musical rules?

Dr. Smoker kicked my ass.  If you’ve ever seen “Whiplash”, that’s how my college experience felt. When I first sat down at a kit my freshman year, I only know four on the floor big band style drumming (thanks to a less-than-funky suburban public high school program that taught me very little in the ways of jazz music).  When I finished my audition, Dr. Smoker began to “teach”.  It was hard to hear and very ego-shattering—as it should have been.  I am so thankful for his teaching and his pushing me out of my comfort zone to learn more about feel, and improvisation, and tone, and texture.  It may have been rough, but it gave me a solid foundation in a very short time. 

I learned that music is everywhere and in everything and its beauty is in the eye of the beholder.   Paul Smoker was an Avant Garde jazz player who was pushing the boundaries of harmony and the feel of time. His trio blew my mind.  The speed at which they moved together through improvisation would have sounded like noise to the untrained ear.  Dr. Smoker could explain every choice and how it fit in the whole.  It taught me freedom within structure.  It taught me to learn the rules, then break them all with intent.  Powerful lessons that have freed my playing and my composition style up immensely. 

* Personal Growth and Musical Expression:
    * Your personal life underwent significant changes, including a 15-year relationship ending. How did this period of upheaval impact your approach to music, and how did you find your way back to creating after the dormant phase?

There’s a line in my song, “Leap of Faith”, that says, “But what matters most of all is what happens AFTER the fall…” and I aspire to live that.  The music never really died during my relationship’s demise.  I had met my future husband during the ending of the previous relationship, which gave me great joy and helped keep music alive.  Granted, I wasn’t writing too much then, but I was playing, and playing is healing.

But music HAD died at one point so the question is not lost.  If you are an artist, you can put your art away for only so long before it calls you back.  Art is a soul-gift, not just a thing to do.  When your soul is ready for you to pick up your art again, you’ll be called and you are mostly powerless to stop it. It is wise to heed the call, otherwise your will to not heed the voice can turn self-destructive. I chose to listen.   

    * “Emergence” seems like a significant piece in your musical journey.  Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind it and its significance?

It did see its birth after I had left my job at the local “gay church”, which was a defining role for me.  This is back before all the congregations were reconciling and you could go most anywhere without being condemned, and being part of a queer-positive movement was very important to me.  Enter The Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra.  The United States first LGBTQ orchestra.  The conductor at the time, Joseph Schlefke, asked me if I wanted to write something for the orchestra.  

Since “losing my identity” as a mover and shaker in the Twin Cities LGBTQ scene (even if I was so only in my mind), I loved the opportunity to do something important musically with the community.

I felt I could make a statement. The attitude that same-gender love is unnatural, sinful or an abomination was everywhere in the early part of this century (and is still very present in many parts of the world today). The process of “coming out” –of being who you are boldly—is an internal and external struggle of personal and societal revelation, understanding and acceptance. Emergence is a tone poem inspired by this process. 

“Emergence” opens in a minor key with thematic glimpses of the Diana Ross’ disco classic, I’m Coming Out. The mood is expectant and melancholy. The lament theme, beginning with the scale tones of Bb-Ab-F-Ab-G-C played by the bassoon, is filled with a yearning to be released from the inner torment a person thinking of coming out inevitably feels. In the background, time is ticking—the march of the everyday world continues as our hero decides who and how to be. 

This theme is then tossed around the orchestra, each time a little different in its call; reflecting each person’s journey is slightly different but hold a common theme. The orchestra percolates with the struggle: sometimes violent, sometimes sanguine, the question is never too far out of mind. Finally, our hero announces to the world, “I’m gay” and a magical transformation takes place (complete with fairy dust). As the burden of lies and secrets is lifted, the piece moves from minor to major. 

Transformed by the honesty of living who he is called to be, there is a new love theme—the love of oneself, the love of all of who we are—filled with hope of what this new world will bring to us. Again, we hear thematic material from “I’m Coming Out” helping to celebrate the life changing decision of our hero. Finally, after the celebration, the call of the world beckons. Hints of what came before are overwhelmed by knowledge the life is richer and more rewarding by being who you are boldly. With that, our hero marches out into the world armed with the truth.

You can listen to how this all came out on my Reverbnation page. 

* Influences from Minneapolis and Prince:
    * How has being from Minneapolis and the influence of Prince played a role in your writing, arranging, and producing music?

He definitely informed me as a young artist.  He taught me cool. He inspired my work ethic.  He challenged me to learn more instruments than I knew. He inspired my dancing. He inspired my views on sex. 

Today, most all of the music is just me, something I for SURE learned from Prince.  I am not a great guitar player, as he was, so when I REALLY need guitar, I hire the incomparable Alex Maiers to lay down those tracks for me. It’s his brilliance you hear on “We Can B Free”.  

    * Are there specific elements of the Minneapolis Sound that you consciously incorporate into your work, or is it more of an underlying inspiration?

Rhythm, funk…texture.  In 200 Balloons (a B-side from the Batman era), Prince states, “My funk is multi-layered…” That line stuck with me, so all my music has MANY layers.  I also put humor in my music and things way back in the mix with the hope that you discover them on a future listen someday. Just as “Emergence” had “hidden” messages, most everything I do does. I fully was inspired to do that by Prince. 

* Defining Traits:
    * You mentioned loyalty, openness, and bravery as defining traits. How do these traits manifest in your collaborations and the way you approach your music?

Took balls to reach out to Dr. Fink of Prince and the Revolution to try to collaborate for Superhuman!  I mean, here is someone who worked with one of my idols, and I just …reached out!  But yeah, that’s the definition of courage—you just do that thing.  Just so happens he is one of the nicest musicians I’ve met, which doesn’t hurt!  But being open to new influence and experiences is very important to who I am as a musician and as a person. 

* Your Recent Project – “Artist’s Prayer”:
    * “Artist’s Prayer” seems like a deeply introspective and spiritual piece. How did the lyrics, written in 1993, resonate with you when you revisited them, and how did the song evolve during the creative process?

It was a call for inspiration when I penned the lyrics, and that call never dies in an artist.  As you stare at the blank canvas, the bare stage, the blank staves, you just ask the Universe for something—a whisp of an idea.  That idea still resonated with me when I dug the lyrics out.  That is why I chose to write the song.

Originally, the song opened with a piano ostinato, not a guitar one—and the crotales in the first verse were consistent with the other verses. Once I heard how beautiful Alex plaid on it, I muted the piano at the beginning and moved the crotales to not compete with what he way laying down. 

    * The inclusion of lush vocal parts and guitar elements in collaboration with Alex Maiers brilliant guitar textures adds unique dimensions to the piece. How did this collaboration enhance the overall sound and atmosphere of the song?

Alex and I work very well together.  This was one of those where he would send me tracks, which would inspire other ideas, which I would tell him, and he would make the changes and send them back, which inspired more changes, etc.  Thank goodness, Alex is a patient and generous man. 

* Upcoming Projects:

    *Tell me about your new single “Persistent Motion of Water”.

After writing and premiering “Stardust Once Again” for RAV Vast and choir with imPulse, I was in a handpan mood. So, I took one of the RAVs I didn’t use for that piece and began playing around.

I had recently rediscovered “Rhythm Song” by Paul Smadbeck—a piece a friend and I played at one of our college recitals.  Like its name implies, it’s very rhythmic.  It also takes and pulls the melody from notes you are already playing, which is rather indicative of the RAV, which only has 7 different notes (10 total pitches) to play with.

I wanted a rhythmic piece where the melody emerged from notes already in play. When you listen to it, unless you’re really concentrating on it, you’ll not really notice there are only 7 different notes being played. 

I also wanted the commentary between electronic sound and acoustic sound.  So I am performing several MIDI patches which give an electronic vibe juxtaposed against an udu, shaker, rain stick and handmade sacred drum I made a few years back. I love the “thum” of the udu and the deep resonance of the sacred drum.  

And being a fan of found sound (most of “Karen Wants a Reservation” is found sound), I recorded a sparrow at beach in Laguna Beach, California, on a recent trip.  …and they make an appearance at the beginning and end of the piece.

It’s a haunting, rhythmic-yet-relaxing feel overall.  In the second evolution of the melody, I manipulate the sound so it feels like you are in the middle of the drum underwater. I really like that effect!  

    * “Affirmation” carries a powerful and positive message. What motivated you to create such an uplifting piece, and how do you envision its impact on listeners?

There are too many silly, self-indulgent, co-dependent love songs our there.  Why add to that repetoir?  Look at the state of the world. It needs, literally, affirmation.  People need to remember that THEY are a part of Source Energy (or God, or the Universe or whatever words they are most comfortable using)…that THEY are powerful creators…they THEY are loved.  That’s what “Affirmation” will do when it is released.  Provide that—well—affirmation. 

    * Any other projects on the horizon?

This past winter was interesting here in Minnesota. During the Christmas seasons there was no snow.  In fact, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it rained.  All our Christmas plans cancelled on us last minute.  And this is the fifth Christmas without my family around, and I was missing them. While my husband and I had a lovely time together, it just didn’t feel like Christmas. So, I wrote my first Christmas song, “It Doesn’t Feel like Christmas (without you)”.  It has a little Latin vibe to not make it a total downer, but I think a lot of people can relate to the sentiment of lost love or loved ones not being where they used to be at the holidays.  

My plan is to release that late October or early November.  In time for the holidays. 

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