Seattle Soulgrass combo Paula Boggs Band is known for their signature blend of bluegrass, jazzand Americana music, winning hearts across all genres. Their forthcoming new album, Janus (April 1), is a journey through the 2020s, with each song representing an aspect of life during the triple pandemics of public health, race and politics. Named for Janus the Roman god/goddess of transition, doors opening and closing, chapters ending and beginning — and Boggs’ own mother of the same name — the record includes deeply personal themes of ancestry, memory and love. The storytelling on this record will pull you in, but it’s the musicianship that ultimately takes center stage, thanks to an elegant, groove-laden soundscape crafted by an all-star backing band.
“I knew Paula Boggs Band would make a ‘Soulgrass’ album and we had the musical chops to pull that off in terms of the instruments we use, vocals and arrangements,” Boggs explains. “I hoped Tucker [Martine, producer] would take us to new places, and he did.”
Boggs’ personal story deserves a book of its own, which is why she is currently working on a memoir. Her credentials run an impressive gamut; she is a musician, public speaker, writer, lawyer and philanthropist. As a queer Blackwoman she served in the military for eight years, earning Airborne wings and a congressional appointment to the US Naval Academy, one of America’s first women to do so. She served as Chief Legal Officer, Executive Vice President, and Board Secretary at Starbucks from 2002 to 2012. She also served as Board Secretary for public radio station KEXP and is currently on board of video and audio company Avid Technology. She also served on President Obama’s Committee on The Arts And Humanities (PCAH). She has spent most of her life committed to music education, veterans affairs, and civic engagement and has put in the time to make a difference.
But music has always been Boggs’ true love, and so she left the corporate world in order to focus on it full-time, recording three full-length studio albums, influenced by a wide swath of music, from old time spirituals to jazz, to modern folk music like Sun Kil Moon and Bon Iver. Janus is an album that could only be written by this woman, at this moment in history.
The seeds of Janus were planted when Boggs broke her thumb in November 2019. For the first time since she was ten years old, she found herself without an instrument to write with. As she healed, she began playing songs on a ukulele which ended up heavily influencing the new album, resulting in the most sonically consistent songs of her career. She also came up with some pretty out-of-the-ordinary chords as she was writing. “Honestly I don’t know what they are,” she remarks with a smirk. “But the music theorists in the band — three of them conservatory-trained — insist they are 9th 11th and 13th chords — in other words I created jazz chords on a ukulele to write Americana songs.”
Except for parts of “King Brewster” (recorded by Dom Flemons in Chicago), Janus was recorded in Portland, Oregon, by Grammy-nominated producer/engineer/musician Tucker Martine at his studio, Flora Recording & Playback. The songs were either written or reimagined during COVID — some were written after George Floyd’s murder, and some during the 2020 presidential campaign. Themes of place, time, memory, identity and different kinds of love weave through each of these songs.
Funnily enough, Boggs didn’t play any instruments when it came time to record the album. Rather, she focused solely on her vocals and allowed the creativity and first-rate instrumentation of her band to flow, resulting in the live-feeling organic warmth heard across the album. The musicianship on songs like, “Motel 6 Serenade,” “Shadow of Old Glory” and “Thirty More Years And A Day” are sublime. For “King Brewster,” in addition to his vocals, Dom Flemons played two different banjos, bones and jug. Paul Matthew Moore is playing his grandmother’s Höhner harmonica on the track while Darren Loucas played a resonator ukulele. Tucker Martine played on a number of songs including the cool hand percussion on “A Finer Thread.” Guest instrumentalist Brian Myers played two different saxophones and two different clarinets on “Don’t Let The Clowns (Break You Down).” Drummer Jake Evans is a gift throughout the album but you may notice there are no drums on “Don’t Let The Clowns (Break You Down).” Longtime band member Mark Chinen plays acoustic guitar in “Nashville” tuning — a means of creating the shimmer effect of a twelve-string guitar on a six-string.
Embracing “Soulgrass” as a guiding sonic principle, Janus was written during a time of deep division in the city of Portland, which had its fair share of unsteady moments in recent years. The resulting songs are rife with nostalgia and indignation, while not shying away from some levity and gratefulness when warranted. It’s a collection of songs that exists in a specific moment in time; a musical memoir of sorts, complete with achingly beautiful soundscapes and deep emotional undertones. It’s a cohesive masterpiece, coming from an exceptional group running at peak performance.
“All the great protest songs revitalized for a new generation.” – Audiofuzz
“Some people are just blessed with gorgeous voices. I’m a little jealous of Paula Boggs.” – Adobe & Teardrops
“Their music employs a heck of a lot of oomph, but you’d better be ready for some serious spiritual cleansing: Their music entertains, but the band’s best quality is their ability to inspire and enlighten through song.” – Atwood Magazine
“With a long history of activism from both Paula and the band as a whole, their music intends to inspire listeners to see the world through a slightly different and more unifying lens.” – Folk Radio UK
“Boggs makes a certain kind of urban, jazzy music that seems permanently nested within the structures of traditional folk, bluegrass, and even standard blues harmony. In other words, she’s all over the place. She calls her music “soulgrass,” and she reminds me a little of Gil Scott-Heron, if only for the razor-intensity of her words.” – San Diego Reader