By Rob Patterson, Music Critic, Austin TX
Held’s musicality is both in her blood and background. The daughter of a music professor and composer father and a mother who sang, she was immersed in music from her birth. Her earliest memories include “Vivaldi and Frank Sinatra” she recalls, “Cole Porter, Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Ella, Carmen McRae … I listened to their music very intensely for many years.” Paula studied piano and violin as a child and later the concert harp, and after tuning in to pop radio at age 12, The Beatles, Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell.
Childhood years spent in Madrid and Seville, Spain also inculcated a breadth of vision in Held (Spanish is her first language), encouraged by parents who were intellectuals with a bohemian spirit. “They both had very inquisitive minds and were hungry for experience and exposure to everything, including other cultures,” she explains.
After the family’s return to the U.S., she got a guitar and started writing songs. “I was always writing poetry,” says Held. “My sister and I shared a room and I had this little cubby carved out of a section of the room, and I put my single bed in there and plastered my wall with stuff I had written. It was my release.”
After her parents parted ways, Held spent time living with both her mother and her father in Rhode Island and Philadelphia, finishing high school in Miami. Eventually deciding it was time to strike out for new places, Held got in her car and drove north with no set destination, landing in Tallahassee. There she continued to sing, first in an acoustic guitar duo and later backed by a jazz pianist, which drew her back to the popular music standards she was weaned on. At the same time, “I was listening to vocalists who inspired me as a singer, Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday, Pasty Cline, Etta James.”
Then, after balancing stints in various combos plus solo coffeehouse gigs with day jobs, college study and raising a son, Held built a cabin in the small hunting town of Sopchoppy, FL and soon landed a weekly solo gig at a club in the nearby Gulf Coast resort town of Apalachicola. “It was where I started to learn how to perform, stretch my voice and begin to write seriously,” she says.
The encouragement of friends and listeners persuaded Held to take her music further and relocate to a music center. On an exploratory road trip she landed in Austin at the end of the summer of 2004 and ended up at the nearby Kerrville Wine & Music Festival in the Texas Hill Country. “I walked around with this big grin on my face for three days. I was awed. I feel that same sense of awe living in Austin. The bar is high, it makes you work.”
The new locale also induced a change in her songwriting, bringing new dimensions to her craft. “I just started saying no to writing confessional songs and started to let language be the driving force for my songs and write outside the box,” Held explains. “I’m a lover of the way words sound together, the language itself and the musicality of language and how it works within a melody. And I brought all that into my songwriting.”
The results duly impressed producer Doster, who created an organic and easygoing recording environment that allowed Held and her songs to blossom into the unique and distinctive work that is “DRIVE.” So climb in beside her … and enjoy the ride.