On November 12, 2013 Tam Lin's newest album Medicine for a Ghost is set to be released. The new album will consist of 10 tracks, all penned by Weinfield himself. Each song tells a unique story and incorporates elegant melodies that touch on deep-seated emotional scars and inner demons as well as religious references. To get a better understanding of this enchanting music we caught up with Paul Weinfield to give us the scoop on his music.
R. Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourselves?
PW. I was born and raised in New York City. My mother is a composer and my father is a poet. My earliest memories are the sound of the intervals she played on piano keys, and the rhyming books on his shelves. That explains my love of words and music, I guess. But I could have started the story somewhere else too: in a marketplace in Morocco at seventeen, or on a beach at Lake Michigan a few years before. My life has been defined by every moment in which the world became a window that looked out on something else. I think that’s why I, like many musicians, believe music comes from another world. When I play music, I’m most myself, but I’m also in touch with something far beyond. So in a way, my story is pretty simple and pretty universal: I was born, I learned a few chords, and music opened me up onto an infinite world.
R. So how did you guys meet and end up as Tam Lin?
PW. Tam Lin has had several incarnations, but the current one is a collision of two different groups (we joke that it’s a bit like the formation of Guns’n’Roses.) One group of musicians was centered around the musical, “Lizzie Borden,” and another was centered around the jazz-fusion group, “Wu Li.” That sounds like an unlikely bunch to play folk songs, but Tam Lin plays unlikely music, so it all works out well. The advantage of bringing musicians with so many different backgrounds together is that there are no obvious conventions to the arrangements. Playing with musicians who understand different kinds of sonic space is wonderful, because you can just say to them, “Play!” and something strange and magical always happens. There’s no talk of, “Well, this is how you’re supposed to do things.” There’s a balance between form and formlessness. We have fun, in other words.
PW. Tam Lin is a fairy king from a Scottish ballad, but Tam Lin is also me, and I am both a person and a fictional character! The name “Tam Lin” first came to me in a dream, and it’s always been a little unclear whether I am Paul or Tam Lin. I think that lack of clarity is there for a reason, to teach me something, because sometimes in my music I have to be really personal in order to express my truth. At other times, though, I have to turn myself into a myth in order to understand what it is I’m doing. So the name “Tam Lin” keeps me on my toes. It keeps me asking, “Is this song about me or something beyond me?”
PW. Sadness. I think all music, even happy music, comes from the blues. I remember being nine and starting to write songs. They were nine-year-old songs -- you know, about talking animals and such -- but I remember the feeling of seeking release through my voice. Even then, there was a tension in me that I knew could be resolved through music. I think about that tension a lot when I write. It’s easy either to avoid sorrow or get stuck in it. But the best songs I’ve written, the ones I go back to again and again, are the ones that touch that old sorrow, and then, at least for a moment, set it free.
R. Would you say music is a question of instinct and talent or something you can learn? Or the truth lies somewhere in between?
PW. I believe we’re all musical beings. Music is harmony, and all of us instinctively seek harmony in our lives and in the world around us. Some people might have an easier time finding that harmony, say, by hitting a high note, but technique is really much less important than people think. To me, music is both the journey and the result of finding harmony with who you truly are. Everybody already has a sense of what that means, and yet, everybody has to learn over and over again what that means. The answer to your question is “both”: we’re born musical and we have to learn how to be musical too.
R. Your upcoming fifth album Medicine for a Ghost is a mix bag of emotions. Why so many emotions? Can you talk us through the making of this album, and how different is it from the previous ones?
PW. I’m a person with a lot of contradictions. I’m very happy, I’m very melancholy, I’m angry with the world, and I’m totally at peace with it too. There comes a time as an artist when you realize you can’t make music according to other people’s emotional categories. When I started assembling the pieces of Medicine For a Ghost, I was very clear that even though I had a theme in mind -- childhood -- I couldn’t make an album with just one emotional tone or sound. I’m lucky to play with a versatile band that was happy to jump from hard rock to jazz to folk to psychedelia. So we just let ourselves move through the different emotions without worrying too much. And the funny thing is: when you don’t let yourself be confined to one feeling or sound, you actually end up sounding more like yourself. You think you’ve done a million different things, but then other people hear your music and say, “Hey, you’ve really got your own style there.” Becoming one thing by trying out many things is a curious feature of creativity.
R. How do you work on lyrics? What is the source of your inspiration?
PW. I mostly finish lyrics by taking long walks through the city. But first, I get up in the morning and try to write down my dreams. There’s usually a key to a lyric I’m working on hidden there. I try to copy words and phrases from the dream into my notebook, and then I’ll write a dialogue with myself about what I’m feeling that day. It’s like I’m interviewing myself: I’ll write a question to myself and then try to answer it truthfully. Like that, line after line. When I feel something start to happen, I’ll get up and start walking through the city. As I walk, the pieces of the lyrics assemble themselves into whole verses and choruses. Walking is really important to me, because I have to be able to feel the rhythm of the words in my body the way a dancer feels the dance.
R. A little birdie told me that you have a PhD. Do you like the sound of Dr. Weinfield? How did you obtain this?
PW. To me, “Dr. Weinfield” will always be my father. Even when I taught college classes, I always insisted students call me “Paul.” The road to getting a PhD was a strange one. When I was a teenager, I had this dream of going to India. When I went to college, I thought I’d study Sanskrit and try to learn what the ancient Indian sages knew. That took me to India, and then back to America again to continue studying ancient religions. But I eventually became disillusioned with living on that purely cerebral level. I realized that, all along, what I wanted was to express my deepest yearnings through music. I think my realization came down to this: to be happy, I have to have a craft, a skill that I truly love to do. I do enjoy reading about different cultures and different ideas, but the craft of writing academic articles doesn’t interest me at all. I’d rather read those same books and then sit down and write a song. And I think that’s because, for me, while writing an article can teach me knowledge, only writing a song can teach me about why that knowledge came into my life at that particular time. Songs for me are the books of the heart.
R. What's on the horizon for Tam Lin?
PW. I feel my music wants to travel. Europe and the American South have felt like natural destinations, but I’m open to wherever I get led. That could mean old-fashioned “touring,” though I find something restrictive about that word. Music spreads on its own, and I think I’m here only to support that spreading, so it’s not a question of hitting a certain number of big venues in a certain number of big dates. It’s about connecting with people, and that could take the form of house concerts, playing in the street, or just talking to others and learning to understand them. In the end, the connection is the music.
Last but not least...
R.You receive a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. You arrive and the infamous orange-skinned, green haired Oompa-Loompas greet you and invite you in. Whilst inside you have secretly been told you are here to create a new chocolate recipe for the world. What will it taste like?
PW. It’s quite hard to improve on chocolate, you know. But if I had to give my culinary recommendations, they would be these: The chocolate should taste like fresh figs, the Mediterranean at dawn, the hair of your seventh-grade girlfriend falling across your face while you sleep through a rented movie, wood-burning stoves in the country morning, rain on New York sidewalks in June, the slightly sweet pain of regret, and the peace your hands find after a long day of labor. Get to work, Oompa-Loompas!
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