Sunday, July 27, 2014

Artist Spotlight: Paul Sprawl

Paul Sprawl is an artist I learned about through another musical connection about a year-and-a-half ago, and his sound caught my attention right away.

Growing up listening to my father's Michael Hedges records, I've long felt a kinship to fingerstyle guitar.  The harmonic tapping of two hands on the neck of the guitar, drumming against the wood body of a hollow acoustic - there's a strange power I've always felt calming and beautiful.

Years later, I became a big fan of Minnesota guitarist Billy McLaughlin and his fingerstyle approach. I've been fortunate to see him play in intimate settings on several occasions and have been continually inspired by the magnetic quality of his live performances.

So, when I learned of Sprawl - another Minnesota-based musician with an incredible talent for fusing fingerstyle, experimental acoustic and bottleneck blues - I jumped at the opportunity to see him perform live.

Paul Sprawl is a California native, who's lived all over the U.S. and most recently settled in the Twin Cities.  He's been performing and writing music since the late '60s, but finally quit his temp job to pursue music full-time in the late '90s.  Choosing the life of a troubadour, Sprawl tours cross-country and internationally, with a staggering work ethic and commitment to his art.

The name "Sprawl" is somewhat perfect for a guitar style which blends technical accuracy with loose jams and unexpected twists.  Occasionally, his songs can start to spin outward and grow abstract, but then he'll suddenly bring them back inward.  His baritone vocals and bluesy harmonica reach through pockets and bring a distinctly American sound to the listener, like a campfire song held in an art gallery.

Sprawl has released nine independent albums, including 2011's stellar Dream Zoo - an album that finds his sprawling guitar technique tightened into more concise pop songwriting structures.  There's a sense of darkness sweeping down echoed halls, like the lyric, "Dreams are kept in cages, People buy tickets, They come to look and listen" from the title track, "Dream Zoo".  It's an album that's set perfectly for an introspective late-night drive down a forgotten highway.

I've met Sprawl on two occasions now and his conversations are well in tune with his songwriting sensibilities.  Both times, I've felt drawn in to his performances in the same meditative way as he seems to be playing - as if the music is light pouring out from some dark place within.

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