Smile Politely

Dense with local music

Paul Kotheimer wants you to know that he is alive and well and that he has a new album out. MY MESSAGE is 40 minutes of “mostly acoustic music with a long list of guest artists.” The Curses; John Coppess and Suzanne Warner; Kenna Mae Reiss; Elizabeth Simpson. Violinist Claire Johnson of The Yellow Jackets. Guitarist Sam Payne, host of The Urbana Hootenanny. Cody Jensen and Charlie Harris from Bone Jugs N Harmony. OddMusic composer Jacob Barton on voice and udderbot. Ryan Groff, lead singer of Elsinore. Plus a few other very special guests. And, of course, Paul Kotheimer.

Kotheimer is celebrating 20 years of recording music on Hand-Made, his DIY label. He started in October 1994 with his first cassette. MY MESSAGE is his twelfth full-length solo release. It’s an ode to the “awesome, vibrant, dense-with-talent local music scene” of C-U.

Smile Politely: How did you come up with the idea for this album? When was it hatched in your brain?

Paul Kotheimer: Here’s what happened: At the end of last summer, I was really digging the music of Bones Jugs N Harmony, and I was getting ready to record them over at Musek Haus in Champaign. The songs Bones Jugs writes are so fun and straightforward, without being frivolous, and I got the idea to write a song that made fun of myself for the fact that my songs are always so heavy on having a MESSAGE.

I’ve also been performing as often as possible at Urbana Hootenanny, Monday nights at the Rose Bowl, and it was a Monday when this idea hit me. So in addition to the song…being about “my Message,” I also wanted to have it written, start to finish, and ready to perform in time for Hootenanny that night. Those two constraints got me the song, and I think it’s a good title track and “theme song” for the disc. And then, well, if you’re me, once you [write] a song entitled “My Message,” it pretty much just HAS to be the title track of the new disc.

And so I had an album title and then, as I went along writing new songs and starting to record them, I hit on the idea of having at least one special guest on every song. My previous release, THE KILOGRAM OF GOLD, was recorded almost entirely solo, but with occasional cameos by guest artists. It felt like I needed a change of pace from the headphone-overdub-layercake method of home recording. So that’s how I ended up with such a big list of guest artists.

SP: It seems that people download music or buy it on vinyl anymore. Why buy MY MESSAGE, the physical album, instead of just downloading it?

Kotheimer: A hard copy of MY MESSAGE, with its booklet and all the hand-made packaging elements…the HAND-MADE aspect of the hand-made record label is kind of an important part of the work I do, I think. And I’d love for you to have a physical copy of the disc so you can get an idea how I do it.

SP: I did get the copy you sent me and there’s clearly a lot of love in that bundle. It’s crafted and not just made.

How did you get everyone together to record the music? This is a pretty huge project!

Kotheimer: It’s kind of astounding how many full-length albums of local music get made, considering how big a project it is and how rarely any of us artists ever break even on them. Talk about doin’ it for the love. Dang.

The way I did it, in terms of personnel, was to book everything really far in advance. The biggest session date, for example, was… all four members of The Curses, plus four guest vocalists, all in the same room, with me on piano, plus Colin Althaus (of Tara Terra and Earth Analog Studio) at the mixing board. I think it was, like, February or March when we started looking for a workable date, and more than one of those people had their schedules jam packed with school commitments and exams and shows all the way through the end of May. Meanwhile, there were several people who were planning on leaving town at the end of the semester, so we had a really narrow window of opportunity, and long story short, we just made it work.

It probably also didn’t hurt that I obsessed really hard about each guest cameo on my own time, so that the time the guest artists spent in rehearsal or recording with me could be, like, laser-beam focused but at the same time fun and at ease.

SP: Focused but fun! Yes. I like that…

What do you hope to accomplish with this album? What will people take from it?

Kotheimer: In general, I’m of two warring minds about what I want to accomplish with my music. On the one hand, it’s really satisfying to hand-deliver copies to my in-town friends and go to the post office with copies for my far-away friends, and hear a few kind words back. That’s enough. And if someone who remembers my work from 20 years ago -when they were in college, say, and I was playing open mic at the Red Herring- and they write me a note to say they were into my songs way back then and they love the new stuff, too, then that’s icing on the cake. You know -wholesome, healthy, fulfillable ambitions. On the other hand, though, dang it, I want my work to take me to the next level. I want the work to really pay off. I want to pay for my son’s college education with, like, one song -ambitions which are less healthy. So I try to focus on the very fulfilling and fulfillable, and leave the millionaire superstar songwriter delusion where it belongs: In the past.

Kotheimer: With MY MESSAGE in particular, though, I want to accomplish some new things artistically. I feel like this album, with the booklet and the range of lyrical themes and the guest artists and the home studio/project studio hybrid production, is next-level work for me. The fact that there even IS a “next level” to get to after eleven albums is very satisfying for me, and I hope that fact will help other original music-makers in town find inspiration to keep on keeping on with their own art-making and music-making.

And I hope that audiences will have the time to sit down and give MY MESSAGE a good attentive listen. If they do, I think they’ll take away from it all the things you’re supposed to get from a really good album of recorded music: You’ll have some favorites that become ear worms and stick with you for a week, or keep coming back to you for years. You’ll respect the whole album, and get a feel for why each piece is where it is. You’ll hear something new after multiple listenings and go, “A-ha! I get it now.” I think a good album is like a good short movie or work of fiction in that it rewards you for the attention you give it. It doesn’t waste your time with bullshit. It teaches you a few things about how the people who made it see the world.

Sometimes it even gives away a little bit of the magic trick and shows you how good art gets made and suggests that you could maybe make some, too. I know that’s a lot to hope for some local music CD, but, hey, I’ve been at this a long time. Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger. Bald old songwriter’s gotta have a dream, right?

SP: They sure do. Thanks! It’s been so great talking to you!

Kotheimer: Does this mean you’re not gonna ask me about the time I did sound for Braid at the Red Herring in, like, 1996 or something? When Roy [Ewing] was still the drummer and the red-haired guy slipped on the concrete floor which was wet from condensed humidity because the Herring was pretty leaky and dank in the 90s? And then I had to run to the Colonial Pantry and get him a bag of ice?

Or what it’s like to party with Austin McCann from Total Asshole? ‘Cause here’s what it’s like: First he asks you some incongruous question, and you have no idea how to answer and he just like blinks at you. ‘Cause he’s a Zen master. Then, eventually, somehow or another, somebody makes a reference to David Foster Wallace -usually it’s me- and then he barrages the whole party with astounding DFW trivia, some of which he’s reading directly from the Wikipedia article on his phone. It’s very Urbana. Urbanalandia, in fact. Also, speaking of Urbanalandia, have I had a chance to tell you about my upcoming line of “MAKE URBANA WEIRDER” swag? ‘Cause I have a design that’s gonna make me boatloads of t-shirt money at Farmer’s Market and the Co-op, I think.

SP: Ha! Make that t-shirt money, man. And, hey, maybe your bald old songwriter dreams will come true!

Paul Kotheimer is an ambitious man. He’s got his fingers in a lot of pies. T-shirt and hand-made CD booklet pie. He’s playing at Mike ‘N Molly’s tonight starting at 8:30 p.m., as part of the solo performers showcase.

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