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Interview With Singer-Songwriter Paul David Stanko

Your music is described as a blend of rock, pop, new age, and classical elements. Can you share an example of a song that perfectly encapsulates this fusion of genres?

Paul: [Laughs]. Yeah, that is a mix of genres, isn’t it?

I would say “Sunrise Fanfare” is probably the most complete mash-up of those genres because it has the groove of a pop rock ballad, the instrumental texture and colors of classical but the overall vibe of a new age composition.

I really like the atmosphere of that piece. It started as an improvisation on the chord changes of “Artist’s Prayer”. I was messing around on my keyboard with it and decided to record it right into my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation for those who don’t know).

I added bass next then pulled out my sound libraries and decided where I wanted that vibe to go. I like the processed violin and English Horns at the beginning… has the longing and wonder of what a new day will hold in store for you. Then when the sun fully hits the horizon, you hear the fanfare part—the march-like quality of the brass and timpani.

It’s pretty big for a little piece!

Press shot for rising singer-songwriter Paul David Stanko.

With such a diverse musical style, how do you approach the process of seamlessly blending these different elements together in your compositions?

Paul: Seamless blending is very generous of you! [Laughs]. I really cannot take credit for any effort in blending. The music is what it is. When I am writing, I am “listening” to what I hear in my head. Like wisps of thought, I try to grab onto them from the ether and bring them into this realm.

When I write I will be at my keyboard, and I will play something, and I know where it goes—more accurately I feel where it should go—and I try to find what I am hearing/feeling in my head on my keyboard. If you were standing over my shoulder as I tried to feel where the piece went, you would hear a lot of “no”…”nope”…”uh uh…” and the like. I know for sure where it shouldn't go!

So, at least for my composition style, the music writes itself… and blends itself. All the thoughts are run through my filter—my experience as a musician—which informs how the music is realized here.

I hope that makes sense. You mentioned that your musical moniker, "Paul David," originated as a practical solution for distinguishing between you and others with the same name. Have you ever considered using a stage name or an alias, or does using your name feel like a personal brand for your music?

Paul: Well, it sort of is a stage name… it’s not my full give name: Paul David Stanko. Paul David really is a brand. For example, at my day job, in my “work drag”, I almost always wear a bow tie. Everyone knows “Paul David” always wears a bow tie. That is my brand.

Same sort of thing applies as a musician. “Paul David” has his own style, way of playing and execution of his craft… and it always gets you me—well, there is one guy in Canada who also uses Paul David, but I think I am older, so I win! [Laughs]. Your musical influences range from swing and classic rock to Broadway and the Minneapolis sound. Could you give us an insight into how these diverse influences come together to shape your unique sound?

Paul: Musicians play what they know. When you are writing and arranging, all of the styles and colors that you know come to bear on your composition. This is true of every band unless you are an innovator and are what you hear inside defies that convention—think Prince. He created a sound that took what he new to a whole new level.

For me, the choral colors of Broadway choruses are compelling. Could have been the years in swing choir growing up, but I love lush harmonies. So did Queen… so did Styx, which are major influences on me and my sound. So it really isn’t that far of a stretch to blend that sound.

The Broadway part comes out more in my construction of melody and need to tell a story. Most of my songs take you somewhere… a journey. I do like the feel of a moving melody in my mouth. A lot of today’s hit songs don’t move melodically too much. I am all over the board. THAT is the Broadway influence for sure.

My love of a groove is the Minneapolis Sound. “We Can B Free” is really about the groove… but not just the drum groove. The udu drum is a predominant part of the groove in that song. The remix has the udu replacing what would be an 808 kick as the “thum”. The bassline is funky and moving… a throwback to the ‘70’s for sure. But the whole sound has Minneapolis written all over it. You mentioned that Prince played a significant role in influencing your approach to music. In what ways do you channel the experimental and innovative spirit of the Minneapolis sound in your own compositions?

Paul: Prince wrote in every style imaginable. I aspire to that. His willingness to put his stamp on different styles was wonderful. I allow that to inspire me in my creation—to not be afraid of a new sound or style.

But I have to credit my late jazz professor, Paul Smoker, with opening me up to free improvisation and finding music in all things. HIS innovative trumpet playing—which was WAY out there—opened me up to new ways of thinking about sound, timbre (color) and texture. THAT always finds a way into my compositions. I love working with “found sounds”. Prince did some of this, but I always like “hidden” or different things in my compositions. In “We Can B Free” my dog, London, adds her barks to the handclaps in vs 3. She was barking her fool head off when I was trying to record—probably wanted a walk—and I caught it on the recording. I moved it to match the claps and now it lives there forever!

Your approach to musical inspiration is fascinating, as you draw from various situations and themes in your life. Can you take us through the process of transforming a situational experience or theme into a fully-fledged song?

Paul: Let’s continue the theme of “found sound” with this one. A few years back, I worked for an iconic restaurant in historic Minneapolis department store that was closing its doors for good—the business just wasn’t there day-to-day. As with most things, when it’s about to close you get insanely busy. We knew this and moved from taking walk-in customers to just taking reservations through because we were booked from store open to store close 7 days a week.

One regular customer, an older woman, did not like that and called and left a voicemail expressing her displeasure. I had the foresight to record her voicemails (she left two) on my phone, knowing someday I would use them.

Karen Wants a Reservation” was born from stitching this real-life voicemail into a quirky little song.

This is my first song composed entirely of samples. I created for a contest, but loved the outcome so much, I released it.

I began by figuring out the structure I wanted. I manipulated the samples so it there were original thoughts, but pre-recorded content. I then listened to the voicemails and figured out how they told a story. The “chorus” was all about “I don’t have a computer…what in the hell”. It provided the anchor for the story. Other structural punctuations were her various other insults (all G-rated I might add) peppered throughout.

For this song, I chose to do thematic sections with portions of the voicemail in the groove, and then for the “verses”, I let her tell her story—an old lady rap if you will. Kind of recitative style from opera music… that moves the story and allows her to express her displeasure with us. There is a funky breakdown punctuated by her calling us a “nut case” which is quite fun.

That section leads into the instrumental bridge. I created this by manipulating the pre-recorded samples which ends back at the “chorus”. I ended the song with the end of her second voicemail. My favorite part of the whole experience, and probably what prompted me to record it, was after chewing us out in her own way, she ends with “So take care, bye!” I absolutely love that.

And the answer to the most frequently asked question: we probably let her in, but that was 7 years ago, and I don’t actually remember, but we knew who she was, so we probably let her in.

You mentioned having sketches of song ideas in your DAW. How do you decide which ideas to revisit and develop further, and what criteria do you use to determine whether an idea has the potential to become a complete song?

Paul: Truly, it’s what inspires me. I listen frequently to the sketches I have made to see if I feel called to do more with it. Sometimes I work a little on it and put it away because the time isn’t right. I actually have two complete songs finished, but the time isn’t quite right to release them yet.

There really isn’t a criterion to decide what has potential. Art isn’t as black and white as that. It’s what I hear and what I feel moved to work on. I can write under pressure and for specific things. Together We was written for my day job as a conference theme. That was just something I did for a specific outcome—less inspiration than intent. It’s still a fun tune.

Collaborations can lead to exciting musical combinations. If you were to collaborate with Sheila E., Harry Styles, Robyn, or the Teddybears, how do you envision the fusion of their styles with your own, and what kind of song or track would you create together?

Paul: Well, since they are all influences, I think it would easily be a combination of what they do and I do. To speculate on what kind of a track it would be isn’t really fair to the creative process. If we have chemistry, we would come up with something unique to our collaboration. It would be fun, for sure.

Your recent single, "Artist's Prayer," is intriguing in its theme and title. Could you elaborate on the emotions or experiences that inspired this song?

Paul: I was reflecting on a poem I wrote early in the 1990s which is not titled but would probably also be called an artist’s prayer.

“Open my eyes that I may see the world through an artist’s eye. Let me hear the melodies of enchanted seas and feel the wind lift a bird to flight. Let me imagine a rose in bloom under April’s fragile snow. Let me see the bridge from God to earth build of Love, Truth and Hope.”

So other than my eyes, you are the first to behold this creation! [Laughs].

The imagery of how an artist sees things is powerful. And it dawned on me that, isn’t that really the call of every artist facing a blank canvas, a bare stage, an empty page? Don’t we all want to see the world in a fresh, new way? So, I penned the lyrics, then as shared in previous interviews, decades later, the music came. How do you hope listeners will connect with its message?

Paul: I hope they see themselves, as creatives, in the song. I hope they feel the chant-like vibe and allow it to help get them in the zone for their own creativity. I hope they understand the intent is about love and creation stretching from themselves to the whole world. You mentioned that "Artist's Prayer" has lush vocal parts influenced by The Carpenters and Queen. How did you approach the arrangement and production of these vocal sections to achieve the desired effect?

Paul: I build the chords “on paper” first. I literally have a scrap of paper with “T, T2, B, B2…” etcetera when I am singing into the computer, so I know where I am going part-wise. The chords are based on what I have written, so I want to make sure I am in line with that.

Some songs require less complex timbers, so they have a more traditional 3-note chord as the backing vocals. Other times, I am a huge fan of 7ths and 9ths, so those are part of my sound and often creep in. If you were to perform a live show right now, in Paris or Hawai'i as you mentioned, how would your diverse musical style come to life on stage?

Paul: Well, it would have a big band with horns! I love the sound of a live horn section, and most of my arrangements have horns. They help convey the energy of the song and harken back to my dad and his love of big band music. Plus they can be just funky!

I would use samples with live musicians to recreate the sounds on my records… as long as money is no object! As you continue to navigate the music scene, what are your goals for the remainder of the year?

Paul: I am going to release at least one new track this year. The Perpetual Motion of Water is a composition for RAV Vast and various instruments. It’s a very minimal, meditation-style track. I played a piece at college called “Rhythm Song” which was an ostinato pattern played on the marimba with a melody imposed over it. I was listening to that track recently and it inspired me to create something similar with my RAV Vast. The is a riff, or ostinato, pattern I play and through accents and volume control the melody is picked out of that ostinato pattern. It’s pretty cool.

Other than that, finishing a few more tracks and hopefully getting into the full studio to record this fall. Are there any specific milestones you hope to achieve or projects you're excited to work on?

Paul: I hope to work with Matt Fink again on my big band/dance track “Gotta UnF*** Myself” this fall. It’s a banger with a great message.

Beyond your music, is there anything else you'd like to share with your listeners? Whether it's a personal anecdote, a message of encouragement, or a glimpse into your creative philosophy.

Paul: Each one of us has a unique gift to share. Yours may or may not be the same as mine. You may or may not feel you have a voice, but here’s the thing: if something ignites your soul, you have a voice!

When you do your art, do it for you first. Not everyone is going to join your parade, nor should they. When the criticism come, and they will come, let them be like water off the back of a duck. Let them flow over you and not get stuck in your teeth like the shell of a piece of popcorn: irritating you and causing you pain.

Remember, everyone has the right to their own perspective and their own like and dislikes. While it would be super awesome if they had kept their pie-hole closed, you cannot let their criticism tear you down. Your art wasn’t meant for them.

You do you, Boo. Let them do them. But don’t give them free rent in your head with any negativity they may spread.

In the same way, if you don’t prefer someone’s art, you can still support them and encourage them on their journey while not partaking. They may resonate with others who are not your audience, so let them go and support them! The only way we end this conflict with each other on this earth is to realize not everything we prefer has to be what others need to prefer. Let each one step to the music that they hear….and let everyone else step to the music they hear. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights, Paul. Your musical journey and the diverse influences shaping your style are truly inspiring.

Paul: Thank you so much for the time and the platform. I appreciate you and all the readers out there who are giving support to independent musicians! You are appreciated!

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