By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Mieka Pauley.
Have you ever thought to yourself while watching a street performer play, “Where is their career going?” We’d all like to think that these starving artists will one day be the next Wesley Willis, but who can say? Mieka Pauley, the once-Bostonian and now New Yorker, was able to move from the ranks of everyday street performer in Boston’s Harvard Square to a living, breathing, recording solo-artist in New York.
However, she had to learn the rules of the game before making this leap, or did she learn the rules only to break them? Pauley tells all. BTR was able to speak with her on a Friday, though she claims that days of the week mean nothing to her anymore. We discussed the street performer etiquette, the campy appeal of James Bond anthems, and what it means to have a legacy.
At the beginning of Pauley’s music career in Boston, she said that she used street performing as a springboard to be able to tour. Her formula was to perform in Harvard Square or at open mics, make enough money in the summer and then go on tour in the fall with that.
Pauley claims that her “ah-ha” moment was when she “made enough to make a living. That’s when I realized, you think about doing music and you think you either have to make it and just blow up or you don’t get to do music at all. That was ten years ago and I’ve been making a living ever since doing music.”
She says about her fellow performers, “If you go to Harvard Square, you get a sense that it is sort of like a performance art kind of thing. Performing in front of people and the judgement, that didn’t scare me. What scared me was fighting for spots. You’d have to get there really early and I’d make sure not to drink any liquids so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t lose my spot or have my shit stolen.”
Much like the order of the Freemasons, the street performers in Harvard Square had rules that you had to follow. Pauley recounts times where she would show up early to claim a spot and then she’d be “informed that that wasn’t my spot.”
As a female vocalist and pretty much the face of her band, the discussion turned to other female vocalists who took great strides to separate the sexism that comes with their gender from their art, Amy Winehouse being the most notorious. Pauley says that others have told her that “they don’t like female vocalists but they like me” which ostensibly seems like a compliment to her but at the expense of bringing the other ladies down. We both alluded to a double standard that exists for female musicians that punishes them for the parts of their lives that have nothing to do with music (ex. Amy Winehouse and drugs) that are usually glorified in men (ex. Jim Morrison and drugs). Pauley remains hopeful of the legacy musicians like Winehouse and Adele will have over the course of time.
“I think [Winehouse’s] will be music though. I mean, I think we’re in a time where we just see every single fuck-up and it blows up for that second but her music is really what’s solid. I don’t think she’s going to be known for the drugs, she’ll go into that legendary status of dying when she was young but they’re not gonna remember her taking blow from her hair,” says Mieka.
We all think about our legacies from time to time and how our gravestone will read, Mieka Pauley is no different. As a musician, death can tack on more responsibility to the deceased as they tend to speak for people other than themselves. Pauley says that she would hoped she’d be remembered “lyrically. I like my vocal delivery but I want it to be a little more solid, I want people to be covering my songs.”
She strives to be remembered in the way that the (still living) Leonard Cohen is; but if that’s not in the cards for her, then being reknowned for the “awesome vocal control I’m eventually going to achieve” would be a nice consolation prize.
Pauley’s 2012 release, The Science of Making Choices, is a dynamic yet understated exploration into the soulful musings of Pauley’s life. Allow yourself to get lost in the whispery tones of her voice, her every utterance is like an invitation to be further immersed. Two of the most seemingly literal song titles, “Never Fuck a Woman That You Don’t Love” and “We’re All Gonna Die” are some of the album’s most powerful and hook-laden.
She explains the meanings behind the songs in a cryptic way (i.e. she refuses to go into grave detail) and puts faith in her listeners but still gives general outlines of the two. She describes “Never Fuck a Woman That You Don’t Love” as less of a command and more of a quote that she was told, and the song acts as a way to bring that quote to life in a story, ensuring that none of us are out of our element when listening. The latter serves to remind us that we, in fact, are going to die “individually”, and to “enjoy it, drink up.”
If you’re thinking that this album is written by a self-actualized prophet who has all the answers, think again. The album itself is called The Science of Making Choices but its first line reads, “I’d like to learn the science of making choices.” She says that the rest of the album is “all the ways I’ve fucked up.”
In a way, Mieka Pauley is sure of her uncertainty. We’d like to think that the people who write songs with messages have their lives figured out completely, but they don’t. Pauley’s realization is nothing if not honest, and that’s what we need. If that doesn’t entice you to listen, then maybe the fact that the second track “Wreck” could and should be used as the next Bond movie theme will draw you in.
As for the future of Mieka Pauley? She says, “Fuck, if I know” which doesn’t seem surprising. “I just want to be able to keep doing this, keep making money so that I can continue doing this. My goals have been drastically reduced, I just want to be happy and maintain.” For Mieka Pauley, that’s the one thing for certain.
To help Mieka Pauley to “keep doing this,” you can purchase The Science of Making Choices here.
Check out Mieka’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.