Tony Cummings caught up with the one-time Newsboy, PAUL COLMAN
Australia has produced its fair share of exceptional Christian music talents. But as far as Cross Rhythms is concerned, one of its greatest musical treasures, though never reaching the fame pinnacle of a Darlene Zschech or a For King & Country, is Paul Colman. So the news that this brilliant, challenging, insightful (and often hilarious) singer/songwriter is about to play three gigs in the UK, as part of a long European tour, prompted us to snatch a conversation with the veteran songsmith.
He has a head-spinning recording history. In the '90s Paul recorded in his homeland two solo albums and then formed the Paul Colman Trio with bassist Grant Norsworthy and drummer Phil Gaudion. pc3 (as they were often known) became the hottest thing in Australian Christian music (for a season outselling Delirious?) and eventually in 2001 relocated to Nashville, USA. The Trio had some success in the US CCM scene and received a Grammy Award nomination for 2002's 'New Map Of The World' album. But a few months after their 'One' album pc3 broke up. Paul recorded a solo album, 'Let It Go', then in 2005 joined CCM stars Newsboys replacing guitarist Bryan Olesson and appeared on the band's 'Go' album. In 2009 Paul left Newsboys and released a solo album of covers and previous hits, 'History', and then in 2011 returned to the studio with Norsworthy and Gaudion for one final Paul Colman Trio album.
Tony: You've kind of fallen off the Cross Rhythms radar. Tell me what you've been doing since that last Paul Colman Trio album - say from 2012 to when Covid-19 struck in 2020.
Paul: Just before that record I had a period of time where I realised that I needed to focus on mental health and emotional health. Before that I had just really focussed so heavily on my career and on music, on pushing that. So I kind of had a choice between chasing my demons down and making that my number one priority, or going gung ho back in my career. I was in the position where I couldn't do both. So rather than doing promotion, rather than pushing records, rather than trying to find new record companies and managers and agents and rather than doing copious amounts of touring, I did music, but I wasn't doing it in a way of trying to get my name out there continually. I had gotten to a point where I found that self-promotion ran counter to what I was trying to achieve in my emotional and mental health. So, over the next few years I did release stuff but I didn't really push it. I just kept it on the low-down. I did some gigs. I still did about 80 trips to Europe to different places, mostly to Scandinavia, Germany, places like the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland. But I was really under the radar. It was all word of mouth, and it might have been seen on Facebook but it really wasn't other places. I was discovering that I really preferred that way of doing what I did rather than the publicity way of doing what I did.
Tony: Were you a bit alienated from USA culture?
Paul: No, I came to the realisation quite a few years ago that I don't really write the kind of music - my natural joy of what I write is not something that is marketable in the American Christian music market. I don't really think the same way as a lot of those people. Now I will say this - I don't think I'm right and they're wrong or other way around and I certainly still maintain all my friendships with people. But I grew up in a country where people hate religion, mostly, and hate authority so when I learnt to write songs I was singing in pubs, I wasn't singing in churches. So the style of writing I developed was something where there was a lot of subtlety and metaphor and ironically I kind of got a lot of that from the way Jesus communicated. But a lot of times some of those places in America they want this stuff to be a bit more obvious. It's just not what I love, it's not what I like and I can't even do it. I've tried but I couldn't do it. So no, not alienated, I just came to the realisation that it just wasn't really me to write that way and talk that way.
Tony: How did covid affect you?
Paul: Up until then all of my touring was mostly in Europe and all of it was, as I said, word of mouth, a few organisations here and there but largely friends putting on shows or churches or bars, whatever. As soon as covid hit I knew that that was all cooked, none of that was going to happen. I started selling health insurance in the United States. Actually, covid was fine for me. It stopped what I was doing workwise, no doubt about that. And it stopped travel to see my family, but I'd done so much work in the previous decade on myself that covid wasn't really any sort of personal crisis at all. It was just annoying and horrible for people who passed away, and frustrating at not seeing my family, but actually covid kind of felt like it didn't affect me in a bad way emotionally at all. I had to do something different to pay the bills and I got a lot out of doing that. When the music market opened again, instead of rushing out to do music I was so much enjoying not talking about myself and not singing my songs that I started speaking for non-profits on tours, and that's what I did more than anything up until this tour. This is the first kind of thing I've done where I've jumped out there for three and a half, four years. I really enjoyed turning up somewhere and talking about the needs of others, almost like people didn't need to know anything about me. I found that really fun and what's interesting is now that I've returned to playing my songs and sharing my story it feels very different, very fresh, much less self-focussed. It feels very much like all those years have paid off in a lot of ways. Yes, I lost a lot of momentum and yes, I was off people's radars. But the person that I am [now] is someone that I'm enjoying being. You can fool anyone when you turn up to a town. I did that for a long time, I fooled everyone with what my therapist called on-stage Paul. But backstage Paul was not fooling anyone I was close to. Those two people have become much closer together and so the peace and joy I am experiencing in performing is wonderful now. That's really my story. You get Grammy-nominated for singing about love and then your wife divorces you because you're a jerk. That's not a great thing to happen to you and you can go one of two ways. For me, I ran towards why that happened, I wanted to know who I really was and I wanted to come to terms with the things in my life that allowed that to happen. Therefore, that's why I feel there is so much joy because I'm enjoying doing it but I don't need it like I used to and that's been really great for me.
Tony: Are the songs you are singing in this tour, are they a mixture of brand new songs and some very old songs?
Paul: Some of the songs go back to the early '90s and one of them I wrote a couple of years ago. Not a lot of brand new songs right now because I've written hundreds of songs since I released my last album in 2016 but I haven't felt I wanted to release anything. And to be dead honest, it's not like I had emails begging me to release new music. It's not like the world is crying out for more Paul Colman music! I don't know if that's the case; I'm not sure if there is a market of people who still want to hear what I have to say. But as I've been travelling around I've been enjoying the fact that there have been people saying "Yeah, we've been following what he's been doing" and "We've listened to Paul Colman Trio songs and Paul Colman songs." So mostly it's from my back catalogue but there are a few new songs. I've written three songs on this tour, I just haven't played them. I've still be writing, still being creative, but figuring out what I want to say and how I want to say it, that's been part of the journey.
Tony: My absolute favourite Paul Colman performance is that rap you did on the Newsboys' "Your Love Is Better Than Life". Any chance of you doing that live in a concert - and don't say "I dunno!"
Paul: I hate to burst your bubble that was Peter Furler. I played guitar. So sorry. You know what's cool about that? It's that your favourite moment is something I didn't do! But I don't really care. That doesn't upset me or offend me and I'm not even pretending. I'll tell you something else that's kind of like that that made me laugh. A friend of mine in Norway a few years ago said, "I like your new record but I think you should go back to writing songs like 'If I Was Jesus'. I said, "I didn't write that." The funny thing is, I don't mind, it doesn't worry me at all. I don't get offended by that. I was there, part of writing "Your Love Is Better Than Life". I remember sitting down with Steve Taylor - thinking this is like one of my childhood idols and I'm sitting, writing a song with him - and he beat me out on just about every lyric on that album. I contributed pages of lyrics to every song on that album and every one came back and Steve's was better. So I'm sitting opposite to Steve working on the lyrics to 'Your Love Is Better Than Life' and I remember thinking 'I think I have a line which is better than his' but I couldn't make myself say it. Eventually he said, "Paul, what's the deal?" and I said, "Um, well, er, I wonder if we. I think this might be better if." And he goes, "What is it? Yeah, that's better." I was like, "Oh my gosh, I gotta write that down, I got that from Steve Taylor!"
Tony: Final question. The world is in a mess, the Church is in a mess. How strong is your faith at the moment in giving people hope?
Paul: The first thing is, I don't know if the Church or the world is in more of a mess than it's ever been. I'm a history teacher and I don't think there's been a time in history where the Church has really been great. And name a time in history where human nature hasn't dominated and created a mess. I don't know if it's worse now or not or whether we've just got more cameras and also whether social media has meant that more idiots get a voice, I don't really know. But in terms of me personally, I have so much hope and so much joy in my heart that's bursting out of me and I think a lot of it comes from the fact that after many, many years of having an identity that was very much out of balance and out of shape, I started to accept. My understanding of who God says I am, and he says that I'm his kid. So my identity doesn't depend anymore on what you say, what an audience says, what my kids say, what my ex-wife says - not that she says anything bad - not what anyone says. When I walk into a room I don't need approval like I needed to. That battle is still there, but I gotta tell you, it's nothing like the noise it was. All I know is that my job is to get up every day, to love God and love others starting with myself. I haven't got that hope, but God's Spirit within me has that hope in spades and so if I cooperate with that Spirit, if I cooperate with God, I find that I have hope no matter who I'm talking to. I definitely have opinions about the Church and about the world, I definitely have those and some other day over a beer or whatever I'll fill your ear full of those. I think in the end God wants to love other people through you and it looks different a lot of times. Sometimes it's words and sometimes it isn't. So I find at this stage of my life with my relationships as many as possible that have been reconciled and intact especially the ones with my kids who are beautiful and brilliant, I have a lot of hope and a lot of peace and if I look at the chaos around me, I don't know if it's any different to what it's ever been. Maybe we're in a better place than we were. I'd rather live now than in the Middle Ages or the Crusades or the world wars. I dunno if it's worse or not.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.