Pal Shazar

With one too many talents, you can always start again

Wise Elephant Interview - August, 2003

Born, raised and punished in Los Angeles, Pal Shazar began her artistic career at a time when creative souls roamed wildly on the West Coast. Co-creator of the band Slow Children in the early 80's, she has since released six solo recordings in addition to collaborations with musicians such as Mike Scott (The Waterboys), Jules Shear, and Sara Lee (B-52's, Ani Difranco).

In addition to her writing, Pal designs a line of t-shirts called, A Pal Shirt, that have been building momentum on the fashion scene. Seen on actresses Jennifer Aniston, Elizabeth Shue, and Jenna Elfman, what started out as a diversion has turned into a smashing success. Did we mention that she was an accomplished painter? Enough already! I met with Pal at Rightous Sound in New York City.

WE: What project are you working on?

PS: Since I've been playing solo, which is about 15 years, I've never made a record that was close to what my performance was like and I thought it would be a good time to do that cause the shows have been going so well. It's not just me on guitar, but they're pretty sparse recordings and I think they'll be evocative of what it's like to see me in a club.

WE: I've noticed, from the last couple of gigs, that the songs you've been playing are a lot darker in tone.

PS: Wow.I didn't realize that. I think of them as very tender, but I'm not afraid of dark and I much prefer music that's introspective as opposed to oh, observations of what you see with your eyes, so if it reflects that, I'm happy. The only intention I had with the recordings I'm doing now was to take songs that were particularly tender in performance and consider them. Then I started to write more songs, and it was the first time that I sat down to write where I gave myself a direction to go in. I've never done that before.

WE: What is usually the inspiration for your songs? Do you look to the world around you or are they more internal?

PS: You know, I think it's really important to be aware of what's happening in the world and to allow myself to feel for other people living far away from me and not just myself and my friends. I know that gets inside of everyone, even if it's on a subconscious level, that's a very deep level. But no, I do not sit down and write my response to what is happening in the world. I'm just not that kind of a writer. So I think that what these songs do, what my songs have always done, without sounding too foolish, is go inside a place that I can't see, and I don't really like to look too closely at what's in there. I just trust my artistic sense. I love to write, I love language, so I simply start writing based on whatever might be inside there. I make sure I rhyme and I make sure there is a particular structure that I like in a song, but I don't really want to know too much until the song is completely done. Then I can look at it and I can think "I would love to share this with the audience" or "No, I don't think this is anything the audience needs to hear".

WE: When you write for other people, like in the past you have written for Matthew Sweet, do you alter your process?

PS: It's easy for me if somebody just gives me the music. Then I know ok, this is a melody, or this is a form they really like. If they don't have the ability or don't want to write the lyrics I can do that for them. So I just write within the outline of the music.

WE: So the approach is more having a place to start.

PS: Yeah, but I learned how to write songs that way. I had a partner in Slow Children. He just gave me finished songs and I wrote the lyrics. Years later when I was writing songs alone, I would write the music and then fill in the blanks with lyrics. I like that.

WE: I hear that you have written a short story that was recently picked up by Penthouse for publication.

PS: Yes, well, it's a chapter of a book.

WE: Really, what motivated that?

PS: I've been a book junkie all my life. I really can't live without a whole stack of fresh books on my desk ready to read. I feel the same way as I did when I took drugs (laughs).I had to know there was always more. So, with books I have to know that I've got a bunch of fresh books in my cupboard. The most commercial writer that I enjoy is Russell Banks. I tend to really like people who are dark and funny yet have a unique way of expressing words we have heard before. I really have to search for books that are going to appeal to me. I imagine most people do it this, I imagine some people do it this way. Most people tend to read what everybody else is reading and feel more comfortable going with whatever has already been given a thumbs up.

WE: Do you think the book is similar to the content in your music or is it a different thing all together?

About two years ago I started to write something that I knew had nothing to do with songwriting at all. It's a whole different inspiration; it's a whole different place. I write songs on a chair at a table, I write sentences in a notebook by hand in my bed. So, I guess I got 40-50 pages in and thought, you know, this good but this isn't the kind of book I'd ever want to read. It was just too wholesome. So, when I realized that I didn't want to go further with what started to look like a book, I just closed my notebook and I thought, "that's ok, just write songs" and without any warning I woke up one day with an idea for something that I thought was fabulous and I just went with it, and I took it all the way until it was finished. And it was a book.

WE: It's complete?

PS: Yeah, but I think it was so many years coming. There was a particular episode in my life that I really had to think through, for a long time, and I believe that the book is an outpouring of those years of thought. So it was wonderful for me to write it. It was a joy for me to write, but I made sure while I was writing that there was nothing journal-like about it. I didn't want it to be a self-indulgent kind of writing, I wanted it to be sellable. So I kept that in mind. It's like, "there's got to be characters. This isn't about you, it's about them and what you've learned through them". So I made sure I was writing it as a book every moment.

WE: You were writing for others to read, you wanted something sellable, that would be picked you ever write songs thinking the same thing?

PS: Never once in my life. Never. It's a totally different experience. I do paintings and I have no need for the paintings to be seen. There are other forms of work that I do with my hands where I do it because I want it to sell. It's like, all these different things that I enjoy doing, they serve different purposes.

WE: We've talked about your writing, briefly about your painting, and you also have a line of t-shirts called A Pal Shirt. This is a lot of creativity rolling around your brain all the time. Do you ever find it distracting to have so many talents?

PS: No, the worst thing for me is when my brain is not engaged in making something. I just read this interview with the Japanese clothing designer Yoshi Yamamoto whose work I think is really fabulous, and he said that when his creativity is realized, he is happy. The rest of his life, he suffers. And really, I don't want to speak like someone ungrateful to be alive and to be living in an environment of nature and to have a wonderful human being to share my life with. I've got lovely things to be enjoying life for, but as somebody who's relied on feeling good about themselves through their artistic output since childhood, it's like a very deep habit. I have to work really hard to be ok during the quiet times. Creating is not hard for me. Coming up with something really special is magical, but the act of creating is not difficult for me.

WE: You've been signed to major record labels, indie labels and have release some recordings yourself. You've had Robert Mapplethorpe do your album covers, friends design your album've kind of run the gamut on people investing time and money on your career to help you succeed. Which has been the most helpful?

PS: When I was in my band Slow Children and we were signed to RCA Records, their clout allowed my partner and I to walk into Mapplethorpe's' studio and be photographed. If I would have called Robert on the phone and said, "I have been living and breathing Patti Smith since I first heard Horses and I only want you to take my picture", he might have come through. However they [RCA] paid him a big chunk of money. He didn't have to know a thing about me or my music to take the gig. But he was absolutely charming. Years later, having been approached by a few photographers at my gigs, one of them, Linda Troeller, approached me and said, "I love your music, I want to take pictures of you", which was the total opposite of what happened with Mapplethorpe years ago. All I can tell you, and it's not the fault of anyone, but when I posed for Mapplethorpe I was so unaware of myself that I don't think those pictures were a loss, but the shots I did with Linda, with no money involved, were so far superior in revealing my face. By then, maybe I had built up confidence and I had built up a sense of knowing who I was as a singer in the world.

WE: Do you also think that because she went to your shows and she heard you as a musician she might have had a better idea of how to capture you?

PS: Yeah, she might have. She has a very strong style as does Mapplethorpe. They couldn't be more different, Linda uses beautiful moody colors, Mapplethorpe was very famous for his stark black and white. But I think that when you colaborate with anyone, they can only work with what you give them. Even if they have a strong style, it is a collaboration. They can only shine as much as their subject is shining for them. I still think being photographed and liking what you see is one of the hardest things for anyone whether you look like Natalie Wood or Shane MacGowan. I mean, I have seen a picture of Shane MacGowan where I thought now that photo is great! Where you go, ok, it's great because of the guy and the person taking the picture. So, I think that having a relationship with someone who really does feel like they know something about you makes you more comfortable, but I think I'm more comfortable in my life now than I was in my first band.

WE: You've said that creating art is not something that is difficult for you, but promoting or trying to make a living at your art is a completely different game. Do you actively promote your music or your art?

PS: With my music, I love to do my shows. And as I live in New York I do my shows at this great club called The Living Room. I've been playing there for about four years now. That's my way of letting the public know that singing and songwriting is one of the things I love to do. I put myself into the world in that way. Making phone calls and sending out records I do on a very, very small scale and mostly for a new CD. I'll send a box of 100-250 mailers to everyone I know. I rarely solicit to people I don't know, and it's mostly like, "look what I've done", and amazing things have come to me as a result of this very soft sell. I've gotten a song in an independent highly circulated film based on sending it to a film producer that I happened to have met.

WE: The film Walking and Talking?

PS: Yes.Ted Hope. And from now on I will always send Ted Hope my work. So I think every individual needs to see what feels comfortable and maybe push themselves a little bit to do things like, "Oh, I can't call this DJ on the phone". It's really hard to do something like that, but don't stop yourself from doing it. If you say, like I say to myself, "I hate doing this", just don't do it anymore. So every once in a while I will try something to help promote myself and if it makes me feel uncomfortable I just won't do it. But I'm not that successful. I can't say, "look what all my efforts have given me". I find that everybody has a bucket of energy and you spend it in the ways you think are the wisest. One very wonderful writer's advise to other writers is to empty the well every time you sit down to write. Don't save any ideas; don't save anything because when you sit down to write again the well will be full.