By Mac Wright
Let’s start with a quote by Billy Joel: “Honesty is hardly ever heard, and mostly what I need from you.” If you need honesty, look no further than Paul Travis. Whether it’s his songwriting, his live show, or his Instagram profile, Travis seems to seep honesty from every pore. But more on that later.
Paul Travis released his first album Songs for Ruth in 2014 and has had steady releases since then, culminating in a catalog of over 30 songs. On April 20th of 2019, he released a collection of songs from 2017 titled Beauty Queen.
This record feels almost like a time capsule. Like moments collected and set on a shelf (after all, I think we’re all feeling a little nostalgic for 2017.) I think there’s something to be said about Travis’ ability to capture a feeling and allow it to permeate not just the songwriting, but the arrangements as well. The first song and title track of the record has a weeping slide guitar throughout it, and that sets the tone for the record. It’s like Damien Rice and Sufjan Stevens had a love child, and out came Beauty Queen.
Now back to honesty. THE LYRICS. Travis’ ability to create visuals that immediately make the listener feel like they are a part of something is something rarely heard. His falsettos tug on your heart strings as they plead for something that feels just out of reach. Not to mention THE STRINGS. They feel like a safe, warm bed for all the feelings this record brought out in me. They ground and soothe in a way that I could not anticipate I would need. The arrangements not only support the song, but support the listener through their personal experience. Lastly, where this record could feel predictable, the drums come in and snap you back to reality. They drive the songs with an urgency that feels like each track could be life or death, but in a way that there’s comfort in either of those options. Overall, I would describe the songwriting as raw – which is what I personally long for in a singer-songwriter.
Imperfection is a trait that I believe each record needs to have in order to connect to the listener on a personal level. For instance, one of my favorite things on this album is the fact that you can hear Travis whistle as he breathes at the beginning of “Roots.” In my mind it helps it feel raw and helps you feel like he’s right there in front of you, not just a bodiless voice you put on to distract yourself. In this record however, I felt like there was an imperfection that got in the way of my listening experience: inconsistency in mixing.
As an engineer and producer myself, I know how hard it can be to add your signature to the sound without stepping on the art itself. There were moments in some of the tracks where the lyrics were drowned in reverb and muddiness that caused me to crave a live performance of the songs so I could hear it unencumbered by synthetic effects. Other times, I just wanted the drums and guitars up a little more to drive the vocals rather than hide behind them. However, by the end, it felt like the album found its pocket and made me love the last few songs more than I could have anticipated at the beginning of the record.
In the end, I return to honesty: something that cannot by definition be faked or faltered, and exactly what I received from Beauty Queen. I walked away feeling like I actually did something with my day rather than just blend into the monotony of life. I found some new songs to listen to when I need a quick escape and felt understood in a way that can only come from this kind of sonic landscape.
Make sure to follow Paul Travis on Instagram. You can listen to my favorite track “Roots” below.