Musician and Entrepreneur Paula Boggs on upcoming album ‘Janus’: “The songs on ‘Janus’ fall in three buckets.”

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Photo by Tom Reese
       

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, a particular woman comes to my mind. Paula Boggs of the Paula Boggs Band is more than a musician. The Seattle-based leader of the band is making her mark as a leader and role model for women in the business world and the music industry. I’ve had the chance to interview this very talented entrepreneur several times over the years and am pleased to once again share the news of her upcoming new album Janus which is scheduled for release on April 1.

From paratrooper to litigator to the Board room, Paula Boggs has shattered multiple glass ceilings and is working on the next. As a former officer/paratrooper in the U.S. Army, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, an attorney in both private practice and the corporate world for top Fortune companies including Dell and Starbucks, and having been appointed by President Obama to serve in his administration as White House Council for Community Solutions, it’s easy to see that Boggs’ skills, focus, and tenacity have made her a successful woman in business and she has proven to be an inspiration for others.

After beginning on piano at the early age of six, Boggs was drawn to the guitar at the age of ten. It wasn’t until her late teens that she decided to put her music aside and pursue a career in business — and what an amazing and successful business career she had! However, when a personal family tragedy struck in 2005 and as a way of healing, Boggs decided to pick up her guitar and start writing. During this time, she attended some songwriting classes and ultimately formed the Paula Boggs Band with their “Seattle Brewed Soulgrass” style of music.

Retiring from her position as Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of Starbucks back in 2012, Boggs began her new journey which she describes as her “True North.” She is the founder of Boggs Media LLC and is passionate about speaking out against social issues and racial injustices.

Paula took the time to fill us in on the new album, a few of the songs, the band, influences, and offers some inspirational advice for young girls.

Your new album Janus will be dropping April 1st and the title holds a special meaning to you. Please share with our readers the backstory on the title of the album.

The past two+ years forced more quiet and isolation. I’m usually a “go go” person juggling a zillion things. Pre-Covid, I was on the road quite a bit too. The screeching halt of all that led me to spend more time with myself — walking, reading, reflecting, writing. Years ago, I started a memoir, working on it only in fits and starts. I’m not sure I could write/reimagine the songs on Janus were I not also writing a memoir. The memoir process forces me to reflect on the how and why of present, the lives and sacrifices of my ancestors, memory “sparks” of childhood, my teens and into adulthood, the many guises of love, empathy and purpose. The setbacks and fears. “Present” only lasts for a moment before it’s “past.” I sought a title that captured how I felt, at the precipice of chapters ending and beginning, doors opening and closing — teetering, seeking balance, but also wiser hopefully from the journey so far with just enough optimism for a road ahead. The symbolism of Roman god/goddess Janus seemed to fit, and as an added bonus, my mom’s name is Janice, so in a way, the album honors her too.

The theme of Janus is very deep and personal, covering your journey throughout the pandemic touching on public health, race, and politics. When approaching the songwriting, how did the songs come to you?

The songs of Janus fall in three buckets. Two songs I started writing in my 20s but never finished — “Ebony Revisited” and “Motel 6 Serenade.” In each case, there’s tension between the youthful impulses that led me to start writing them and an older me reflecting back on a time long ago. I made major melodic changes in both. “Motel 6 Serenade” needed help from the band’s keyboardist/accordion player, Paul Matthew Moore, an accomplished composer, who arranged it. During Covid, I re-wrote lyrics too.

The second bucket belongs to “A Finer Thread,” the most recorded Paula Boggs Band song, and one of two songs on Janus for which my partner of thirty-three years and artist spouse is the muse. Versions of it appear on two earlier albums — A Buddha State of Mind and Carnival of Miracles — and EP Electrokitty Sessions. Honestly, I never felt 100% good about how I sang it, its vibe. Producer Tucker Martine helped us reimagine it and what you hear on Janus is where we ended up. I think my voice, the instrumentation, and vibe have finally found their best home.

The other seven songs I wrote in 2019 and 2020. Each of those seven has a story and triggering event. I broke my thumb in November 2019 and could not play guitar for a year. After five months, though, I could play ukulele and most of these songs are shaped by that instrument. And yes, these songs cannot be divorced from my living through three pandemics while writing them — public health, race, and politics.

Paula, you’ve created poetry in every line of this song,
and I’d love to be part of it.

The first single off the album is a duet with GRAMMY-winner Dom Flemons called “King Brewster,” an extremely personal song. Tell us more about “King Brewster” and how you chose Dom Flemons for the duo.

Shortly after I started sheltering at home, my sister let me know she’d been contacted by an Alabama lawyer hired to settle King Brewster’s estate, several hundred acres, with his heirs — numbering in the hundreds. Until this call, I’d never heard of King Brewster, and importantly, my deceased father never knew he had this ancestor. Within a short period, I learned a lot about King from my sister, ancestry.com, and other sources. For whatever reason, Alabama has good records, better than many Southern states. With work, you can find documentation of enslaved persons listed as property, along with cows, pigs, and other livestock. It’s sobering. My sister learned King was born in 1829, that his father was the slave-owner, his white half-brother fought in the Confederate Army, and in his will, he left King a pocket watch. I found King’s voting (first time 1867) and property records before (1865-1880) and after Jim Crow kicked in (1880-1913/death). Most of these things I was learning at the same time our nation wrestled freshly with George Floyd’s murder. The direct line between then and now was for me inescapable, propelling me to write.

Around the time I was writing “King Brewster,” I got more involved in the Recording Academy and was elected a Pacific Northwest Chapter governor. Dom Flemons was a DC Chapter governor, and I’ve been a long admirer of his work with Carolina Chocolate Drops and after. His Grammy-nominated album Black Cowboys is brilliant. While learning more about King, I learned more about Dom’s work with Smithsonian Folkways and other efforts that preserve and celebrate Black roots music. I reached out to Dom and that led to an animated conversation about early Black folk, blues, and bluegrass/country music. I shared with, and he loved, a Spotify playlist I made called “Black Chicks Americana,” and by the time I finished “King Brewster,” I hoped, fingers crossed, Dom would collaborate, so I reached out and shared the lyrics. He responded by saying, “Paula, you’ve created poetry in every line of this song, and I’d love to be part of it.” With that, we began figuring out what that meant, and ultimately, Dom not only lent his voice but also ended up playing banjo, bones, and jug on “King Brewster.”

Tell us about the Paula Boggs Band and the collaborative process for the recording process for Janus.

Paula Boggs Band started in 2007, and we had our first gig in January 2008. In those 15 years, Tor Dietrichson (percussion), Mark Chinen (banjo/guitar), and I have anchored the band. Jake Evans, our second drummer, joined the band in 2018. Following a laundry list of bass players (including Marina Christopher, who played bass on every Janus track), Alex Dyring, our current bassist, has played occasionally with us for years, including on tours. Paul Moore, on keyboards and accordion, first subbed with us but has been a band member since 2017. Finally, multi-instrumentalist Darren Loucas was a sub for Mark until I broke my thumb in 2019, and since then, he’s been a jewel addition to the band. I write most songs we perform, and I wrote all the songs on Janus. Typically, I’ll bring a new song to the band, and each band member figures out his/her part. Three band members are conservatory-trained, so often, their parts are charted. At rehearsal, we brainstorm sections of a song, figuring out dynamics, instrumentations, vocal harmonies, and the like. It’s an extremely collaborative process, and I try to always be in active listening and low ego mode. For Janus in particular, we recorded rough demos of all songs for producer Tucker Martine, and Tucker put his brand on each one. For example, verses were cut from “Ebony Revisited” and “Shadow of Old Glory.” The end of “Shadow of Old Glory” was inspired by listening to Sun Kil Moon.

As we reflect upon Black History Month and Women’s History Month, why do you feel it’s important to have these months and to continue to share the history of the accomplishments of those that came before us?

It’s likely not unique to us per se, but the United States, in my opinion, has a tendency to not tell, skim over, forget, or sanitize our uglier chapters — particularly when it comes to women, Black people, and other BIPOC communities. Today’s efforts to ban certain books and thwart the teaching of history are just the latest manifestations. George Santayana is credited with the famous quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On a more positive note, there’s always something new to learn. I didn’t know about King Brewster until 2020, but now I do, and anyone who listens to the song in a way gets educated, too — not just about King Brewster but about a time and place not as far away as many like to believe. These dedicated months are a more formal invitation for us to learn more, feel more, be more.

Are there any creative Black women who inspired you to become the woman you are today or continue to inspire you?

WOW, so many creative Black women have and do inspire me, but here are a few. I once sat next to Toni Morrison at a dinner. Her writings are fierce, poignant, raw, sometimes ironic but unfailingly, they drip with literary excellence. I aspire to write that way in song. Nina Simone never allowed anyone to box her in. Viola Davis takes me new places every time I see her on screen. In 10 minutes and 23 seconds, she owned the movie Doubt even though Meryl Streep was there too. The lesson: always make it count. I’m impressed with and inspired by a younger generation of Black queer female artists, like Allison Russell and Arlo Parks, who unapologetically explore identity in their music.

Jumping taught me how to manage my fear…to leap literally into the unknown, to trust my preparation for the leap in hopes of reaping its reward.

What would be the one piece of inspirational advice you would like to offer to young girls looking to enter the music industry, college, workforce, etc.?

Life’s crooks and turns can be as exalting as they can sometimes be devastating. My greatest success in college, music, work, life followed crushing failure…I mean dark stuff. We all fail and fear is human. What separates the more successful of us from those less so often is how we respond. I have enough life in rear view to know I would not be the person I am today without failure. Similarly, fear can be rational, but if we let it, it can paralyze. In a past life, I was an Army paratrooper, jumping out of well-functioning planes and landing safely. I was afraid of heights before learning to jump and afraid of heights now. Jumping taught me how to manage my fear…to leap literally into the unknown, to trust my preparation for the leap in hopes of reaping its reward. It became a metaphor I’ve leaned on many times for school, music, love, life.

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