The Nine Lives of Paul Sanchez
The Nine Lives of Paul Sanchez
Nov 30, 2022
You Never Know
“Ram Das and Alan Watts would tell the story of the Chinese farmer ,who one day his horse runs away, and his neighbor says, ‘That’s too bad.’ And he goes, ‘Well, you never know.’ The next day the horse comes back leading five wild stallions and his neighbor says, 'That’s wonderful!’ and the guy replies, ‘Well, you never know.’ The next day his son’s trying to break one of the stallions and he falls off and he breaks his leg. His neighbor says, ‘Oh, that’s terrible!’ And he goes, ‘Well, you never know.’ The next day the army comes through conscripting young men for the service, and they take all but his son because he’s got a broken leg. His neighbor says, ‘That’s wonderful!’ And he says, ‘Well, you never know.’ That’s life. What looks like a wrong turn sometimes is the greatest thing that could have happened.” – As told by Paul Sanchez.
It has been said that the best art comes from suffering. Others claim it comes from the joy and happiness that make art what it is. New Orleans songwriter, actor, and producer Paul Sanchez, formerly of the hit band Cowboy Mouth, is well acquainted with both. From his early experiences living as one of 11 siblings in a poor, working class family in the rough Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans in the 60s to playing in front of tens of thousands of people on stage, Paul embodies a life lived.
He grew up in New Orleans, then lived in New York in the late 80’s and has since traveled all over the world. But he still loves coming home to the Crescent City.
“One of the things that makes New Orleans special to me in my travels is that it's an entrée to anywhere in the world. When you say you are a musician from New Orleans you get a respect before you even play a note that most musicians have to earn,” says Paul.
There are many glimpses into this incredible life throughout the extensive catalog of music he has written, produced, or simply been a part of over the years. His lyrics can be beautiful and dark, sometimes silly, and other times dead serious, but they always tell a story. Sanchez has 11 albums out with his former group Cowboy Mouth and another dozen or so on his own and with other musicians. This includes the musical project Nine Lives, based off Dan Baum’s New York Times best-selling novel by the same name that may soon become a television series. To be this prolific you really need to have something important to convey in your music.
“I don’t really think about what I’m going to write … before I start writing,” he says when asked about his process. “Often, I am writing so fast that I don’t realize what it is I have written until it is finished. Sometimes not until years later. When my ex-wife left me, I looked back at the songs that I had written while we were married and realized most of them were about being lonely and [feeling] unloved. The songs have always known me better than I have known myself. It feels like they are written by someone else who has whispered them to me as if in a dream, a gift from the universe. I hear a melody and words and I follow them to, what seems to me, their natural conclusion.”
Paul’s first gig was filling in for a friend at a French Quarter venue at the tender age of 16, and since then he has performed all over the world from intimate gigs in private homes to multiple Jazz Fests to stadiums with tens of thousands of people. He started singing after his father passed away when he was only five years old.
“My father was sort of the heart of the family, and when he died, [for the first six months] my mom [would spend] all day at the graveyard. I had five brothers and five sisters and most of them were still at home when he died. A little boy singing was prettier than a house full of people crying, so everybody encouraged me to sing. [Early] on I knew my singing made other people feel better. I didn’t know if it made me feel better, but it made other people feel better and that’s been sort of the inner quest [for] the rest of my life.”
Paul wrote his first song before ever playing the guitar, and at a young age formed an imaginary band with a friend and called themselves The Possibilities. He wrote their theme song at age 6 after hearing The Monkees and Herman’s Hermits.
“We’re the Possibilities,” (very 60s, he interjects), “Yes, we’re The Possibilities. We may have no style but we’re gonna try to get up high, ‘cause we’re The Possibilities, and that’s what we have: a possibility.”
In his teens, Paul started learning guitar, and at 16 he played his first gig. He was then was in a band called The Backbeats, whom he formed with Ellen DeGeneres’ brother Vance. In 80s he moved to New York’s East Village to join the anti-folk scene there and learned a lot about songwriting and performing from the people he met there.
“I’d gone up to New York to be the next Bruce Dylan or Bob Springsteen. I read this tiny ad in the Village Voice that said, ‘If you want the real thing, come to The Fort at Sophie’s.’ So, I walked across the island, not knowing how far of a walk that was going to be, and in 1986 how dangerous it was. I walked into this little bar where they’d moved the pool table and the singers were just standing under this light. There’s a guy with a clipboard, Latch – who’s still a friend, so I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey man, I’m from New Orleans, can I play?’ He pulls his glasses down and he goes, ‘Are you good?’ I went, ‘I’m pretty good.’ He went, ‘I didn’t ask if you if you were pretty good, I asked you if you were good.’ One of my friends was standing with me and he goes, ‘Hey man, this guy’s f*ckin’ great.’ Latch looks over at my buddy, doesn’t say a word, looks back at me and goes, ‘So are you good?’ I went, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ He went, ‘Okay, you can play.’ I loved that. It was his first lesson: if you can’t own it, you can’t be it.”
When asked if he wrote many songs while in New York, Sanchez says he, "worked a movie up there--A Kiss Before Dying with Matt Dillon and Sean Young (she was crazy as a road lizard)--was staying at a friend’s place on 14th St. My friends were kind of, big people, and they were fuckin’ and I was sleeping on the couch against their bed, and it was obvious, so I was getting divorced and was depressed so I split, and I thought I’m just gonna do a shot at every bar between here and Houston St. and think about where I went wrong. I didn’t know how many bars they had in New York – it rivals New Orleans. So doing shots of Wild Turkey and on the return trip home, sometime around two in the morning I decided to call my ex and explain my side of things one more time. After she hung up on me, I went back and grabbed my guitar, drunk as shit and went on the roof of the building and wrote Light It On Fire.”
Many of us remember Paul from the New Orleans rock group Cowboy Mouth, which he co-founded, toured the world with, and released many albums with over 16 years. In 1992, he met a woman who gave him her card. Paul replied to her with some demos for “Jet Black and Jealous” he had made in New York in 1987 on a Tascam four-track cassette recorder.
“So, I sent them to her, and she goes, ‘I love this, I want to put it out. What I’m hearing on this record is this guy’s singing songs like he believes nobody’s ever gonna hear them.’”
And that’s how Sanchez began doing solo records and in 2006, when the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina washed away everything he owned, he decided to quit Cowboy Mouth and focus on his own material. Since then, he has released nearly 20 records either solo or with other musicians.
Paul suffered years where he couldn’t sing because of dystonia, which is a movement disorder that causes the muscles to contract involuntarily. With singers, it’s a chronic voice disorder characterized by spasms of the muscles in the larynx, which control the voice.
“The four years I couldn’t sing were very humbling, but I took it as a grace. I took it that the universe was trying to teach me something I needed to know. I’m only at the beginning of the trail of realizing what that is and then incorporating it into the music. I’m singing different[ly] than I did before. It’s like a stroke victim learning to walk again, you know? [With t]his neurological condition, the neurons in your brain are … misfiring. From the throat surgeries, the breakup, the traveling 400 miles a week, etc., they thought I was in trauma, and they said, ‘Let’s shut this guy down.’
The way his dystonia therapist put it to him was that he had a traumatic event in childhood that began a loop of “I’m not worthy” talk, and then a second trauma in adulthood altered “I’m not worthy” into “I don’t even want to be me.”
When his therapist asked why he thought this was happening, Paul said, “I think I have a profound desire not to be Paul Sanchez anymore. My brain doesn’t want to be that guy anymore. I’m now teaching my brain that it wasn’t the music; it was life.”
Thankfully, a voice coach helped get Paul singing again and back on stage for our entertainment pleasure, and we are so glad he is feeling better and singing/talking again. As for influences, Sanchez credits The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen early on, connecting to the mythos of their escaping poverty through music.
“[They were] all were very open about their own influences and as a fan, I listened to the people they talked about, and my musical education is a result of doing so, from Woody Guthrie to Frank Turner.”
“One of the most revealing interviews I ever read was Bruce Springsteen. Back in the ‘90s he took four years away from music to go into therapy ‘cause he had wanted to commit suicide. So, after four years off course he went back to music, he made a record, he’s going on tour, and Rolling Stone sends a respected writer … to interview him. At one point he says, ‘So Bruce, are you still going to do four-hour concerts, because you know everybody loves those?’ He said Bruce grinned said, ‘Well I love ‘em too, but I found out through therapy that I also stay up there that long because it’s the only place I don’t feel worthless.’
What struck me was, he didn’t say, ‘It’s the only place I feel worthwhile.’ He said ‘It’s the only place I don’t feel worthless.’ That to me was more honest. For me, I grew up in poverty, and an abusive situation, and music was my place not to feel worthless. It’s healing. That’s why you go back to it.”
Today, while many of his influences circle back to his originals, Paul says he gets inspired by songs he hears.
“Alex McMurray, Davis Rogan, Jim McCormick, John Rankin, John Thomas Griffith—great songwriters inspired me to try to write great songs.”
And besides the music Sanchez creates, he’s also an actor.
“Acting, for me, is completely different than making music. Making music is an expression of who I am, my essence in words and melody. When I am acting, I memorize the lines and then I say them as the director would like them to be said. More often than not, a director will come up to you right before a scene and ask, ‘Can you say it like this?’ Being a musician, I try to mimic the tone and inflection, the rising and falling of his or her voice. More often than not the director is thrilled because what I’m doing is saying it like it has been in his or her head for months. I’m not trying to put my stamp on it; I’m trying to put their stamp on it because it’s their show, not mine.”
He even spent some time filming the hit HBO series Tremé, which Sanchez says was a joy.
“David Simon and Eric Overmyer are true music fans, and they treated the musicians like gold … [and gave] great advice.”
Paul says the show was so real, it felt like the writers were eavesdropping on the lives of him and his friends, adding that the writers love NOLA and it showed in the series’s writing and direction. He says they created a historical document of the culture and music of New Orleans that’ll be invaluable in years to come. And he has many interesting stories from his time filming.
“We were filming a [funeral] scene in a church Uptown. [It] was packed with musicians, mostly hired extras, and I sat next to John Boutté. On a break, David Simon sat and talked to me and John. I mentioned that it was amazing to see so many musicians gathered [in one place] and how they were committed to realism no matter the cost. David Simon responded with, “It isn’t the money; it’s the emotional equity.” I was so struck by the phrase that I turned it into a song with Alex McMurray called “Emotional Equity,” which appeared on my release, Paul Sanchez and The Rolling Road Show - Reclamation of The Pie-Eyed Piper.”
Paul notes that the NOLA music scene is far more diverse now than it was in his youth. There wasn’t much of a scene for singer/songwriters when he was young, and he credits Tréme with bringing a new perspective to the music scene. He adds that NOLA provides a unique place for artists of all ages, noting that you may not get rich, but you’ll always be playing music.
He’s been around the world and performed in some amazing places, with some amazing talent, so I asked him to share some of his most memorable experiences.
“When I was in Cowboy Mouth, we played a music festival in Atlanta, Midtown Music Festival, opening for Cheap Trick. The audience in front of us was 50,000 people, [and] the crowd literally disappeared down the street as it sloped down from the stage.
Ellen DeGeneres had Cowboy Mouth on her show after [Hurricane] Katrina, and it was pretty special. I knew her when she was starting up: she opened for a band I had with her brother Vance DeGeneres, [which is] pretty funny looking back ‘cuz we were the hot new-wave band in New Orleans at the time, and she was just looking for a gig. It was wonderful to be on her show. It’s always wonderful to see someone you know live a dream.
I feel the same way about Darius Rucker. He has always been so generous to me. In 2016, he brought me on tour to write songs. The songs were never used, but he also brought me on stage to perform during the tour and most notably for me, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. There’s no way a Channel Rat like me gets on that stage without somebody like him putting me there."
When asked if there an album, performance, or project he is most proud of being involved with, Paul speaks of his project Nine Lives: A Musical Adaptation Live, which is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Dan Baum. It follows the lives on nine people in New Orleans from 1965, when Hurricane Betsy ravaged the city to 2005 when Hurricane Katrina destroyed it.
Speaking of Nine Lives, it may have a new life of its own, possibly becoming a television series soon. After a disappointing experience with trying to get it on Broadway, there’s a new team of people involved with doing it right this time.
“Nine Lives has been a very interesting journey. It started in 2007. My friend Colman deKay goes, ‘Hey man, I read this book called Nine Lives, a bestseller, and I think you and I should turn it into a musical.’ I thought he was insane. I can’t write a musical. He went to bed and I started flipping through the book. I found the scene where John Guidos goes to his first drag party with his clothes in a Schwegmann’s bag and I fell right in, and I wrote “Feels Like a Lady.” I took it downstairs to him and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He goes, ‘Oh boy! Let’s finish it now!’ And we did. Then he wrote to Dan Baum and said, ‘My friend and I have written some songs out of your book, and we’d like to turn it into a musical.’ (After some initial skepticism), he loved it. I wish I could’ve brought it to fruition in his lifetime.”
The Nine Lives record was actually made from a grass-roots organization called Threadhead Records, where people could donate money as little as $5 to help New Orleans musicians get back on their feet after Katrina. This was well before Kickstarter or Go Fund Me. Paul and his friend John Boutté did a fundraiser one night and a chance meeting helped get the funding for the record.
“This guy from California walks up and says, ‘Hey man, you guys are great together; you should do a record.’ I look at him and go, ‘I just lost everything I own. I can’t afford rent, let alone a record.’ He went, ‘Well, how much do you need?’ I told him and he said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ Being in the music business I thought, ‘Yeah right.’ Two weeks later he calls up and says, ‘Okay I have a check, where do I send it?’ I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t say, ‘I need you to sign a contract’; he didn’t say, ‘I need to hear the music’; and he didn’t say, ‘I need to own the music.’ He said, ‘Where do I send the check and promise me on your word as a gentleman that when the CD comes out, you’ll pay us back from CD sales.’ They started this thing called Threadhead Records and in four to five years’ time, they put out records by sixty artists who didn’t have the money to do it. In my opinion, it both saved and changed the face of the New Orleans Music scene for generations to come, because they gave so many artists the chance to record.”
And the story for how the funding for Lives came about is quite interesting, and it involves the infamous Pepsi Challenge.
“Pepsi had this challenge where they were going to give away $50,000. We were the ninth-place contestant and we got $50,000, and then Threadheads raised another $150,000.”
Paul’s industry friend, Michael Cerveris, brought the idea and the songs to his people in the theater scene, and they ended up with a playwright named Lisa D'Amour. D’Amour had gone to Dominican High School in New Orleans. She was not a true New Orleanian, although she claimed to be. She worked on Nine Lives for a year and a half and ended up trying to cut twenty of the original 39 songs, writing ten of her own. She wanted to start it all off with a slow, mournful dirge called “I Feel Like I Wanna Die Today” instead of Paul’s original upbeat song.
“I’m like, ‘You don’t get New Orleans at all baby. We dance in the face of death,’” Paul laughs.
After he parted ways with D’Amour over creative differences, she took all the same characters and turned it into a show called Airline Highway and it ran in Chicago from December 2014 until February 2015, then on Broadway from April 2015 until June 2015 before it closed for good.
“So, mid-pandemic the rights have lapsed, they don’t own my music anymore, and I get an e-mail saying ‘Hey, we found this great director who wants to do it and we’d like to pick up our option to the music again.’”
After more communications and some further attempts to change Paul’s vision, Nine Lives was shelved once again.
“These are my songs, and I don’t want some stranger changing them and writing lyrics for them. I told them the same thing I told my ex-wife: you can’t have my songs. You can have the clothes off my back, you can have my last dollar, but you can’t have my songs.”
Once the producers let the rights to the book lapse, and Chris Joseph, who started Threadhead Records, got wind of it, he bought the rights from Dan’s widow and put Paul on as a partner. Bohemia Production Company loved it and wanted to produce it as a dramatic series that leans heavily on music.
“I didn’t have a problem with that, because music is used so interestingly in television shows now. So, I said, ‘Great, run with it.’ [T]hree days later, the creative director was having drinks with an old friend who is a writer, and he says, ‘Hey, I think we’ve got our next project. It’s about a book that’s about New Orleans after Katrina.’ He said his friend put down his drink and went, ‘Please tell me it’s Nine Lives, because it’s my dream to write [it].’ Extremely serendipitous.”
“For me it’s really great that it has a possible life as a tv show, because so many people are invested in it emotionally. It also captures a period of time in New Orleans that I was born and grew up in which made writing the songs possible. I didn’t have to write a Katrina Record post-flood. I wrote this thing called Nine Lives, where I was speaking through nine different people’s voices – actually like twelve to twenty different people’s voices. I was speaking about my feelings about the flood, but I didn’t have the soul crushing experience of it being [in] first-person. I didn’t realize that until later.”
Nine Lives as a television series is still very much in its infancy, but its future looks very, very bright.
“The vibe I’m getting is that they see it and hear it the same way we do. The fact that the writer, Frank Everleigh, lived here, the fact that he’d been through that experience of having been ostracized by his community, and the fact that I’m very passionate when I speak about it, well, they were really taken with that. They really want to have my voice in on the script. So, I’m excited to have some input on the script because the Broadway writers weren’t like that.”
I smile and tell Paul that that is why the first option isn’t always the best one ... because you never know.
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