Playing To The Rafters, Singing Like A Man Possessed
Konrad Wert is a teacher by day, but when he plays his country-folk songs for fans in his home of Austin, Texas and elsewhere, he goes by the moniker Possessed By Paul James. In truth, "Paul James" is a fiction, a combination of the names of Wert's father and grandfather. Those who have seen him perform, however, would agree he seems possessed by something.
Wert has been making music professionally since 2006, and is often what amounts to a one-man band, playing banjo, fiddle and guitar and stomping his foot for percussion. What he sings in performance, he says, may or may not reflect the way a song was originally written.
"In the recording studio, that's a great way to present the music. But in a live show, in an interaction," he says, "whatever's gonna come is gonna come. For me, that's the purest pleasure of playing music: It's almost a conversation, with a listener and a musician."
When he's not performing, Wert teaches disabled children at an elementary school outside Austin and is a father of two young children of his own, all of which influenced his latest album, There Will Be Nights When I'm Lonely. He joined Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon at NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters to discuss it and perform a few songs live; hear more at the audio link.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Konrad Wert is a teacher by day, but when he plays his country folk music for fans in Austin and elsewhere, goes by the name Possessed By Paul James. Konrad Wert's been making music professionally since 2006 and is often what amounts to a one-man band playing banjo, fiddle and guitar, stomping his foot for percussion and singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KONRAD WERT: (Singing) Well, sometime in the morning, when the sun come up, well, I know what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna grab my coffee cup...
SIMON: When he's not filling up a room with his one-man band, Konrad Wert teaches disabled children in an elementary school outside of Austin. He's father to two young children of his own, all of which influenced the songs on his new album. It's called "There Will Be Nights when I'm Lonely." Konrad Wert, also known as Possessed By Paul James, stopped by our studios.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOY MURIENDO")
WERT: (Singing) Herrera, Herrera, El Diablo. Herrera, Herrera, El Diablo. No mas, no mas, no mas, no mas, no mas...
SIMON: Very nice. And I didn't realize before - we should explain you've got what I'd call a stomping board.
WERT: Just a piece of plywood, just to get some resonance, just for kicks and giggles.
SIMON: Is there a story behind this song?
WERT: Well, when we recorded "Soy Muriendo," sometimes we'd record with just, hey, press record. So, what you really heard just now isn't verbatim of what the recording of the song is. I think it's partly how we approach the music. In the recording studio, it's a great way to present something. But in a live show, in an interaction with you, Scott, for example, whatever's going to come is going to come. And for me, that's the purest pleasure of playing music. It's almost a conversation with a listener and a musician. So, the story behind that song really is just working as hard as you possibly can Monday through Friday, 60-hour weeks and finding your release, finding your release in a song.
SIMON: Yeah. And when all is said and done, we're all muriendo, aren't we?
WERT: (Foreign language spoken)
SIMON: I want to get to an explanation for your name. But seeing you in person, I think I understand it better. I'm being absolutely respectful.
WERT: By all mean, by all means.
SIMON: So, when you sing, are you possessed by Paul James?
WERT: Well, the story is meant to be sincere. Paul was the name of my grandfather, Paul Wert, and James is the middle of my father, who is living. He's down in southwest Florida right now - Melvin James Wert is his name. The way we've always found music coming through is in that manner, which you just kind of saw. It's not meant to be pretentious or pushed; it's simply meant to express the power of music. And sometimes the power of music takes over completely. And as a schoolteacher, it's also a nice way to keep your professional career and your musical hobby, if you will, in two different areas.
SIMON: Have your students seen you perform?
WERT: My students have seen me perform in the context of being the schoolteacher in the classroom setting. They know we use music as a teaching tool, but I try to keep those things very separate because the goal is to always really engage the children and to have families' trust in what your intent is. And that's to drive and push and love and care and inspire students.
SIMON: Actually, I bet you're a great teacher.
WERT: I like to think I am. I really sincerely enjoy it.
SIMON: Do you want to play something?
WERT: There's a song called "We Welcome You Home." It's not from this current release but it's a lovely song I'd love to hear.
SIMON: By all means. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WELCOME YOU HOME")
WERT: (Singing) I've resolved all my demons, oh, by singing and screaming my shame. Well, I've opened up all those dungeons and I've laid with the bodies I've slain. I've seen the Christians and the pagans break the bread and they drink the wine. Join hands, sings the chorus, oh, tonight, no, we'll never die. Yeah, yeah. Well, we welcome you home. Oh, we welcome you home. Yeah. Well, welcome you home. Well, it's so good to have you back home. Go ahead. Well, these are your friends. Oh, and some of them lovers. Bombs bursting in air, oh, as we run for cover. Join hands, sing the chorus, oh, tonight, no, we'll never die. But if we should happen to lose you, we will sing in the sweet bye-and-bye. Yeah, go ahead, go ahead. Well, we welcome you home. Well, it's so good to have you back home. Hey, hey. Well, we welcome you home. Well, it's so good to have you back home. Well, we welcome you home. Well, it's so good to have you back home.
There you go.
SIMON: Very good indeed.
WERT: Thanks very much.
SIMON: Really. You grew up in a Mennonite community?
WERT: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. My extended family still - my mother and father - still very much Mennonite. It's a lovely story. Where my parents moved down to southwest Florida on the Gulf side in a small town called Immokalee, Florida. And there, with a few other families that moved down, started the church community. And my sister and I were raised there until we moved away. But for a time, mom was wearing her covering and we were attending church, easily, you know, three times a week with our community meals and our gatherings. It's a real eclectic community in Immokalee. There's Haitians, there's Native American, there's African-American, there's the farming community and whatnot. And so sometimes services would be trilingual - a very unique flavor of the Mennonite church down there in southwest Florida.
SIMON: Yeah. Now, I now Mennonites are often misunderstood...
WERT: Fair enough.
SIMON: ...and there are, you know, several different varieties of Mennonites throughout the length and breadth of the United States.
WERT: That's right.
SIMON: I'm not familiar with Mennonite music, let me put it that way.
WERT: Sure, sure, sure.
SIMON: Do we hear any influence in your songs?
WERT: I think possibly with the writing. There always seems to be intent about community. And we generally approach live performances as 50-50. It's 50 percent the musician, 50 percent the audience. It's an equal approach of how we can gather together and share our strengths and share our burdens. Some say it's better than church. I've heard fans say, hey, this is better than church - not disrespecting church in any manner. But there's definitely a theme that - come on in. We know you're broken. So am I. Let's gather together and have a good time and let's share some song.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: That's Konrad Wert. And you can watch a video of Possessed By Paul James performing in the studios of our member station WAMU on our website npr.org. By the way, WEEKEND EDITION's theme music is composed by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.