Q&A with NYC-based Paula Henderson, one of the world’s most distinctive and highly sought-after baritone saxophonists

"Music is a great connector of humans and famously has always brought people together who mightn’t have otherwise found themselves bridging these divides."

Paula Henderson: The Expression Of Life

“Moist” Paula Henderson a/k/a Secretary is one of the world’s most distinctive and highly sought-after baritone saxophonists. She got her nickname as the co-leader of legendary downtown punk-dance sax-bass-drums trio Moisturizer. But she’s not limited to baritone sax: like Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra, she also plays the electronic wind instrument, a.k.a. EWI. She is a member of Greg Tate's Burnt Sugar Arkestra,'. She is performing with Melvin Van Peebles' group Wid Laxative. She has also played with The Roots, Gogol Bordello, Amanda Palmer, and TV On The Radio, with whom she appeared on the David Letterman show.

In 2013, Henderson contributed a track with Big Boss to a benefit album to raise funds for Donovan Drayton's release from prison. In 2013 she started playing with Tzar, as well as Anderson Henderson White. She has played with Burnt Sugar, Melvin Van Peebles wid Laxative, Anderson Henderson White, TZAR, and Reverend Vince Anderson. As of 2015, she is involved in the Burnt Sugar side project Rebellum. Henderson has been touring consistently as part of Nick Waterhouse's live band.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz, Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

In my life as a musician, a music lover and in general, the older I get the more I like to take in a bigger picture which is beyond the confines of any counter culture. George Clinton said if you pick a team you can’t go everywhere - I probably don’t want to go everywhere but I feel so lucky to have gone and continue going to all kinds of places, musically and geographically.  The counter culture to which I gravitated at that prime age for joining one, as a teenager, was the first wave of punk rock. I was already a devoted music lover of pop and rock - not yet a musician - and joining the punk rock counterculture united me with other passionate music fans who were obsessively collecting records and reading, studying, all the music journals. I grew up in Perth in Western Australia, the most isolated city in the world, but all this weird and wonderful music and information found its way across the world to those of us who needed it; in the 70s Perth had 2 great record stores, DaDa and 78s, and they are both still open today. Through punk rock I began to learn more deeply about soul, rhythm and blues and reggae and 60s psychedelic rock - a lot of the bands I loved covered songs from these genres - and I collected those records and of course listened on repeat. There were also some cool public radio shows at the local universities where DJs were playing non mainstream music. Through the punk scene I had a musician friend from England, Paul Cumming, who was a couple of years older who really turned me on to lots of more obscure blues, jazz and r&b artists from the 40s, 50s and 60s and I loved them and collected as many records of theirs as I could find; they were some reissue labels in the 80s that made this music available, Charley and Kent, and I bought as many of their records as I could afford and still have many of them today, having dragged them around the world.

"I think a really important one is to respect anyone who is dedicating their life to music whether you like their music or not. I’ve learned slowly to let go of judgmental positions - nobody really has the right to say a musician or band of musicians or dj is “doing it wrong” or that they suck."

What characterize your music philosophy and sound? What touched (emotionally) you from the saxophone

I’ve found the saxophone and in particular baritone sax to be a great instrument of expression for all my experiences and my emotional life. Playing bari sax feels great physically and hitting notes lower than sounds in can make vocally is very satisfying. I think when I was younger, I’d always grab on to instrumental hooks in pop music and hum those parts; I also loved instrumental pop music in the 60s, which was in those days on the hit parade on the radio. I could and can hum all the pop songs from those days - Herb Alpert, Bacharach, light orchestral pop like Bert Karmpfert. I’d hum a horn line, like for example the one in Land of 1000 Dances, without considering It was a horn line, just rather thinking of it as part of how the song went. Later - and back to punk rock - I liked The Saints which was an Australian punk band which used horns and had very catchy horn parts I could sing - the guitarist from The Saints, Ed Kuepper, broke off and started a band called The Laughing Clowns, which was kind of a punk jazz outfit with a horn section. The tenor player was a woman, Louise Elliot, and I loved her playing and the iconic figure she cut. Around that time, my aforementioned English friend Paul Cumming, who was himself a great blues and rhythm and blues guitarist and had been turning me on to Magic Sam and Doris Duke and so on knocked on my door one day and presented me with a tenor sax. He thought I “should” have one and told me to keep it for a month then if I still wanted it to “pay Cambo $400”. He then taught me how to play There’s A Riot Going On In Cell Block Number 9 by The Coasters. A month later I spent the 400.  Most of the music I write is instrumental music and I think philosophically it's a form of passing on a story which can be interpreted by the listener to be whatever they want, so it's more of a 2-way creative process.  Listening to instrumental music captures my imagination in a way that's unique for me rather than being limited by a story that might be in lyrics, although I love songs with great or relatable lyrics, and even many whose lyrics are completely unrelatable or even improper.

"My musical life is so full and rich and varied I really don’t have any kind of feeling of anything missing from that part of my life except my own band Moisturizer which disbanded 10 years ago. I hope to bring it back in some form in the next decade."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I’m lucky (and old) enough to have more precious memories than you’d want me to share here. I’ve been lucky enough to play with many of my musical heroes; most illustriously and unbelievably I played Tears of A Clown, a song I’d loved my whole life, with Smokey Robinson and The Roots on late night TV in NYC, and twice I’ve had the opportunity to play with Irma Thomas whose record is one I’ve been carrying around for 40 years and is now autographed by Miss Thomas. I also got to play in a band with Melvin Van Peebles for many years, songs I'd loved on his wonderful albums which I'd started getting into 20 years earlier.

I’ve played in a lot of magical spaces, studios and live music venues - these places feel like sacred temples to me and I’ve had profound experiences (of worship!) in many, from CBGBs to Carnegie Hall, Electric Lady to Ryman Auditorium. I’ve toured internationally a lot with Nick Waterhouse and have intense memories about the experience of dozens of shows, people I noticed in the audience, maybe spoke to, people at venues who treated us kindly and very much shared our love of music. Even though I tend to wear sunglasses when I’m playing the saxophone,  I’m always watching the people in the audience as far as my eyes can see and when I think about a city I visited and a show we played there I  often characterize it by whom I saw in the audience. For example at a recent NW show in Barcelona, I was watching 3 people front and center in the audience - a woman and two men, older people; as the show went on I gleaned that they are percussionists - they were playing “air” percussion along with us and pointing out and discussing the percussion moves of our  our percussionist and backing vocalist Carol Hatchett. I like when children are in the audience and often remember them. I’ve recorded in some historic studios with Nick Waterhouse and Binky Griptite and Nicole Atkins and have found the experience of tracking live to tape with a band to be one of the loveliest forms of intimacy, because it’s like you’re making a baby. When you have the opportunity to do so in the very room in which many of your favorite records were created by some of your favorite musicians in history, that’s amore!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

There isn’t much I’m missing as music from the last 100 years is more available than ever for our listening pleasure at all times and young musicians everywhere continue to replicate, reinvent or synthesize the music they like.  As always at any time there is a small avant garde inventing new ways of combining sounds, and it’s always exciting when you happen upon an example of that which resonates with you. My musical life is so full and rich and varied I really don’t have any kind of feeling of anything missing from that part of my life except my own band Moisturizer which disbanded 10 years ago. I hope to bring it back in some form in the next decade. I don't really have any fears about music as part of the human experience dying out in the future -- in the 70s in the disco explosion people feared DJs would wipe out live music, but that didn't happen. Now with the advent of streaming, DJs are sometimes worried that that possibility will make them obsolete but I don't see that happening either.  People still crave music being shared with them by other humans. So, all the things that were still are - live bands with musicians playing instruments, radio stations with human DJs and programmers, vinyl recordings ... there's just more choice but the classics are still there for us if we want them.

A meeting point for people of all ages who are wild at heart, and favorite among hipsters, New York is ahead of its time as it embraces. Why this city is/was a Mecca of avant-garde people?

Since the first minute I came here in 1989 I have felt physically magnetized by the city and returning here after an absence always gives me the same feeling, so not knowing anything about science I inferred that Manhattan itself must be exerting electromagnetic properties on me and millions of others. NYC is for people who prefer to be and possibly draw inspiration from being surrounded by humans on all sides rather than wide open spaces or natural environments.  When I first came here I felt like I’d stepped inside my record collection and books I’d loved and as my life has gone on that has only become more the case as I have actually met in person and even played music with some of the characters who captured my imagination long before I dreamt of moving here.  The luxury I feel at having moved through the world discovering music and the people behind it before the internet is immense, because when those connections were made purely in time and space as we used to know them, they could only really be understood as magic or mystical experiences. I have had so many magical mystical moments since the day I arrived here and I can only assume the same is true for the millions of people who flock to the city from everywhere on earth decade after decade regardless of all the ways the city changes - so much is no longer here and people lament that all the time but personally I can still catch a thrill just walking down any street in New York.  Every day I see musicians everywhere, riding the subway, walking the streets, taking up space with instruments in public places. I remember my early gigs here and no matter how humble they were - I played a real early one with Reverend Vince Anderson who I met in the back of the Village Voice in 1996 and have been playing a weekly gig with ever since - we played at the First Street Cafe in the East Village, I was on bass clarinet and The Rev on accordion, and there were 5 or 6 people, but in my mind the fact that I was playing in New York elevated the experience to penthouse proportions. For me NYC is the penthouse of the world. 

"I’ve found the saxophone and in particular baritone sax to be a great instrument of expression for all my experiences and my emotional life. Playing bari sax feels great physically and hitting notes lower than sounds in can make vocally is very satisfying."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could somehow ensure that all people who dedicate their entire lives to playing music could make a reasonable living doing so I’d change that. In some countries society builds in safety nets for artists and musicians. In the United States it isn’t the case. The pay scale for working musicians is shockingly low and so much of a musician’s livelihood depends on luck. I think most musicians devote their life to this practice without even having a choice - being a musician just kind of happens to you and many of us commit to what may end up being a life of sacrifice that in so many cases doesn’t seem very rewarding, regardless of the level of somebody’s so called talent. I believe that most musicians would really just like to show up to work every day and make an honest living, but our work is not framed that way by society despite the very obvious and unquestionable fact that there is as much of a demand for live music the whole world over as there has ever been. People everywhere still love going to shows! And listening to records!

What does it mean to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

When I started playing saxophone in bands in 1984, there weren’t so many female instrumentalists. I have to say that I never felt being a woman disadvantaged me and it certainly didn’t stop me doing what I felt I wanted or had to do. People would be surprised to see a woman playing g saxophone and strangely some still are. While personally, I don’t care whether people are men or women as long as they are nice, and I’ve played with dozens if not hundreds of musicians, male and female and more recently some identifying non binary, and almost all have been very nice and great musicians. That said, stereotypes exist and are perpetuated and it’s great to see them now being eroded, albeit slowly. I look forward to the day when it’s really unremarkable that an instrumentalist might happen to be a woman so that the question just goes away and hopefully when the day comes, I will have somehow helped.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

I think a really important one is to respect anyone who is dedicating their life to music whether you like their music or not. I’ve learned slowly to let go of judgmental positions - nobody really has the right to say a musician or band of musicians or dj is “doing it wrong” or that they suck. One’s relationship to music is so personal and there are infinitely many ways for it to play out. The world would be so boring if everyone agreed on what constitutes good taste.

What is the impact of music (and culture of) on the racial, political, spiritual, and socio-cultural implications?

Music is a great connector of humans and famously has always brought people together who mightn’t have otherwise found themselves bridging these divides.  Obviously from everything I’ve said the role of music in my life is like that of a religion, and I think the way people come together in religious groups - supportively as a community - is reflected in my ever-expanding music community. People who share this deep reverence can recognize one another and are often willing to put aside other differences, seeing them as less important.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Well. I always like spending the whole day in New York City because the days are longer here since things don’t close so early and breakfast is served 24 hours. This question is hard for me to answer because I often have such a good time wherever I may be; I don't crave other periods of time, past or future, particularly. In a sense, I always crave the movement of being on tour and when I am in that position I feel most at home - but then I come home to New York City and I think that's where I actually feel most at home if I must stay put. Maybe I'll take a trip in a time machine to sometime in the near future where I get to spend the whole day in Tokyo (which I haven't visited yet) because I'm on tour with a band I love and my own instrumentals project is the opening act and we are playing at a super cool venue and eating lots of yummy food. I think you meant the question differently, as in a trip in a time machine back into the past. Maybe I'd like to be in New York City in the early 80s get a rent-controlled apartment in the Lower East Side that I might keep for decades, go and see Blondie at CBs then go to Studio 54. But really, I'm just as happy having got here when I got here, I think time has always been on my side.

 

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