Tony Cummings met up with Yorkshireman Paul Mirfin of the Americana team with a growing reputation, THE PAUL MIRFIN BAND
The Northern Echo newspaper recently ran an article on The Paul Mirfin Band, where they were called "a Christian folk rock group". Paul arrived in the Cross Rhythms studio to talk about his band's steady three-year ascendancy, and with their debut full-length album 'Ancient Roads' receiving attention and a powerful new video "All I Want To Be" on YouTube. I began by asking this engaging Yorkshireman whether he was happy with the "Christian folk band" label.
He chuckled when he responded, "I'll accept it if that's what they want to call us. I'm a Christian in a band who sings about Christ and what he's done for me. I'm not quite sure about the 'folk' bit, though. Our music has gone on to have a bit more of a blues-rock vibe with a bit of folk in there."
The band - Paul Mirfin (lead vocals, guitar), Warren Timmis (guitar), Mark Boyle (banjo, shruti), John Evamy (violin) and Paul's brother Ben on drums and BVs - have been bringing their Yorkshire slant to American country porch music for a little over two years. Their formation is quite extraordinary. But before we go there to talk about how a dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit revolutionised Paul's life, I asked the far-from-young singer and songwriter to give me his early history.
"I'm from Sheffield, in a steeltown called Stockbridge. I went to a church there all my life. That's where I first started to play guitar. My mum and dad were churchgoers. We went to a Pentecostal church, where we had lots of tambourines and everyone played guitar. As I got older I started to go to home groups. The church lads, the youth team that I was with, set up a band and we called it Red. We used to always say to each other, 'Are you read?', which was just short for, 'Are you ready?' It usually meant going downtown or something like that. So we thought Red was a good name."
Little were the Yorkshire Red to know that, decades later, a Nashville-based Red were to go on to get major CCM success in the States. Paul's Red achieved considerably less. "We got to play the Cross Rhythms festival in Devon one year. I can't remember what year that was, but I know it was around 20 years ago. I know Gabrielle (the soul pop singer) was there. Red released a cassette called 'Ready To Serve'. We got a picture of a popcorn box on the front - one of those clip arts you can use - we got my dad to take some photos, and that was that."
Red, predictably, broke up when members of the band started getting married, including Paul. Paul had a job on the railway. He remembered, "We'd go to church every Sunday, we had two children and the years just seemed to drift by. But then about eight years ago, the marriage ended. I always had faith, and I always believed that there was a God, and I'd still go to church on a Sunday morning, but I was really struggling spiritually. God being the most important thing in my life wasn't happening. I'd started to go out most nights drinking and meeting girls. Life just went that way for a few years."
Paul organised a folk club in a pub in Knaresborough, which proved successful, but in his heart of hearts he felt dissatisfied. He explained, "I joined a Christian dating website just to meet a female, someone who could give me some good influence. I met this lady that was absolutely full of the Holy Spirit. So, when she met me, I was selling my wares, I'm saying I'm a musician, I do this, I do that, and she just looked at me and said, 'God says: "I see a man in rags." But you won't be that.' I laughed it off at the time, and I came out with excuses, but inside it felt like an arrow had been shot right in the middle of my chest. She started to pray for me regular. I carried on doing what I was doing. She cooked me a meal. She came up and cooked me a Thai green curry. I'd never had a sense of smell: I've never been able to recognise smells or anything like that. She says, 'Smell this curry. What do you think?' I said, 'To be honest, I can't smell it. But I'm sure it'll taste great.' I had no problems with my taste. She goes, 'I tell you what, I'll pray that you get healed of that.' I was like, 'No. I'm not really interested in that. But thanks.' She says, 'I'll pray anyway.' So she went away, and fasted and prayed for me. The Holy Spirit spoke to her the day that we met and said, 'I want you to fast and pray for this man, and you'll see his life completely changed.' She'd be doing it for months and she never told me. Anyway, she went home and said, 'I'm going to pray that you get healed,' and I forgot about it, carried on. I went to the pub where I did my folk evenings, and as I lifted a pint to my mouth I got my first whiff, age 40. It was a satsuma smell - because I know the taste. I said to my friend, 'Does that smell like satsuma?' He said, 'Exactly, yeah.' I was shocked - absolutely shocked. I remembered that she said she was going to pray for me to be healed. So I rang her up and said 'I've been healed! I've been healed!' That was it! I worked on the train as a conductor, so I tell everybody - people I knew, passengers on trains - I said, 'I've been healed!' People said, 'Don't tell everyone that Paul.' I said, 'I've got to! I daren't not!' So I started to run into my bedroom every night and get on my knees and pray. I'd hear the Holy Spirit almost audibly, speaking to me. I remember getting everything in my head, even a picture of my guitar, and I remember pushing it down at the foot of the cross and saying, 'It is all yours. Everything is yours. Whatever it takes, I want to follow you now.'"
A pivotal point in Paul's life came when a friend offered to take Paul to Philadelphia to see David Crowder, who was doing some revolutionary things in worship music by integrating a strong blue-grass element into his songs. Remembered Paul, "I went to see him and absolutely fell in love with that style of music. I thought, 'Wow! This will go down really well in Yorkshire'. Once I'd bought his album, I couldn't listen without bursting into tears. God was really working on me. When I got home, the first song I wrote was called 'Carry Me'. I knew that what God had called me to do, there was no way I could do it without him. So I wrote 'Carry Me' as the first song."
Using musicians he'd become friendly with during his weekly folk club Wednesday evenings, he was soon ready to give his new gospel songs an airing. Paul explained, "When I gave my life to Christ and pushed all those things at the foot of the cross, I heard the Holy Spirit say to me, 'I am going to restore the years that the locusts have ate.' I'd just started doing some outreach gigs at Nero's cafe in Harrogate. It's two floors. The first one we did from day one, they were packed. People couldn't get in the building: they were absolutely rammed."
The news of this powerful new aggregation, The Paul Mirfin Band, seemed to spread like wildfire. "We would play at this lovely little pub in Knaresborough, upstairs. It was just a few guys with instruments playing songs, but in a very short space of time the pub would get absolutely rammed on a Wednesday night. People would be queuing, actually sitting on the steps, just to listen to us - which I thought was fantastic. There was a lady who was working on Songs Of Praise who'd heard about what was going off in this Nero. She came and met us, then she says, 'I'm going to pass the information onto the Songs Of Praise editors.' I got a phone call from Songs Of Praise saying, 'We've heard what's going on. We'd really like to do a clip about you and your life.'"
The fact that Paul was a long-time rail-worker fitted in neatly with Songs Of Praise's ideas for a future episode. Remembered Paul, "They filmed that Songs Of Praise where I work, on the railway. I think that episode was about railways. They had Ruby Turner playing in Birmingham New Street, then they had us playing in Harrogate station. I'd said to the station bosses that Songs Of Praise wanted to do a thing about me, and the railway were really excited about it. It's a small depot that I'm at - we're all like family - so they were really excited. The station supervisor was shouting 'Hallelujah' down the speaker, and we got a really large crowd in the concourse as well."
Paul continued, "We did 'Bring The Rain', which is on the new album; then we did 'I Saw The Light', the old Hank Williams one. We always like to play that - we like to play it in pubs and clubs. There's a part where he sings, 'Praise the Lord, I saw the light,' and wherever we play - we played in this pub that seemed really rough, and literally the whole pub was shouting, 'Praise the Lord, I saw the light!' When I wrote 'The Fighter', which I really believe the Holy Spirit gave me, a film director walked up to me after that gig and said, 'I really like that song. Is it about God?' I said, 'Yeah, it is.' He said, 'Oh, that's really interesting. I'd really like to make a music video, free of charge, because I love the song so much.' I had an inkling from the Spirit that there was going to be a music video made of it, then out of the blue this director walked up to me in the middle of the pub, and that was that."
In 2016, the band recorded a mini-album, 'Bring The Rain', then the following year the band launched a PledgeMusic campaign, and the funds came in to make a carefully produced album at Homefire Recording Studios in Harrogate. The album, 'Ancient Roads', is a revelation. Wrote Cross Rhythms, "Paul's husky, emotive voice exhorts us to walk the walk on the title track - 'Walk down ancient roads/The roads paved with gold' he sings over a kick drum dominated bluesy accompaniment which sounds like something Steve Earl might record if he ever got saved. Then there's 'The Fighter' with its memorable Trinitarian lines, 'Well, there's one of you/And there's three of me/Come on and fight.'"
The response to 'Ancient Roads' has been hugely encouraging for the band. Said Paul, "'Ancient Roads', which is based on Jeremiah 6.16 - the good path, and there's 'Revelation' in there - that won Single Of The Week on BBC Introducing. To be able to have Jeremiah sang out on BBC radio to lots of young 'uns on BBC radio. 'The Fighter' won Best Rock Video in London. It's going down really well." Now the band have released a video for the album's "All I Want To Be", a song Mirfin wrote about his daughter.
One intriguing fact of The Paul Mirfin Band is that not all of them are believers. . . but then, neither are the growing number of Americana music-lovers who would name the band as one of their favourites. Commented Paul, "We get just as many non-Christians as Christians that follow us. The non-believers in my band are very open guys, quite happy to be called a Christian band, and they're a fantastic set of musicians."
So does Paul harbour a dream to leave the railway? "I'd love to do that, and people have said to me, 'I'm sure you're going to come off the railway.' But I'm not in any rush, because I completely believe in his timing for things. While I'm on the railway, God's using me on the railway. I've got Railway Mission Bibles that I give to the staff, and they're absolutely loving them. A lot of my railway colleagues come to my gigs, and they absolutely love it. So it's all in God's timing, not mine."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.