The release party this weekend for local musician Paul Willson’s new album “Fruits of the Underworld” will be unlike others you may have attended: not a single instrument will be played.
Instead, attendees of this Saturday’s event at the Highpoint art gallery are encouraged to bring their own headphones and listen to the album by smartphone as they peruse art inspired by or related to Willson’s music. The lack of a musical performance is as much a COVID-19 safety measure as a decision by Willson not to perform his introspective album live.
“This music lends itself a little bit more to contemplation than a loud, busy bar,” explains Willson. “It’s almost more like an art exhibit. That’s my intention for it.”
Inspired by the trauma of the pandemic, Willson’s eighth album deals with themes of grief, loss of control, anger and a search for meaning. As a licensed clinical social worker who studied music at Virginia Commonwealth University, Willson says he’s encountered plenty of depression and rage through his day job.
“This [album] is me stepping into the marriage of being an artist and being a therapist deeper than I ever have,” Willson says. “This music is really geared towards interpersonal and intrapersonal work. … The inner work that you do on your own personal journey, and also work you do with others in relationship.”
Touching on the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, environmental issues and the prison-industrial complex, the album still retains a humanist spirit even in its darker moments. Like his previous albums, “Fruits of the Underworld” features Willson on a variety of instruments including guitar, violins, tin whistle, synthesizers and concertina. It also includes Kevin Johnson on drums, synthesizers by Eric Godsey and Gabriel Jessee, bass by Evan Sarver and Godsey, and backing vocals by Hannah Standiford on one track.
Willson describes the album musically as “composed arrangements with some room for improvisation,” with elements of jazz, classical, rock, singer-songwriter, traditional folk music from Ireland and hints of North Indian music.
Willson’s musical journey in Richmond began in 2007 when he moved to attend VCU. Soon, Willson became involved in the local jazz scene as a sideman in Use the Vastness alongside Reginald Chapman, who currently plays trombone in the pit of “Hadestown” on Broadway, and Devonne Harris – who now performs as DJ Harrison – of Butcher Brown. Willson then led Old Soul, a modern jazz/singer-songwriter-style group that included Harris, Sarver, David Hood of No BS! Brass Band, and Marcus Tenney of Butcher Brown and Tennishu. Willson also previously hosted songwriter showcases at the Camel and was a member of Indonesian folk group Rumput.
Musically, Willson says he’s a bit of a “restless seeker.”
“I don’t think any of my albums is like the others, past a point. You never really find me hanging around the same spot for too long,” he says. “I feel like I just keep growing, and what I love and what I’m inspired by, it continues to change as I continue to change.”
One of his favorite songs on the new album is “The Grip,” which he says is a metaphor for when people focus too much on having control in their lives.
“It turns into depression and rage,” he says. The song is “so much about conflict and kind of standing your ground and saying no to unhealthy things.”
Willson’s event on Saturday will feature works by Willson’s uncle and internationally renowned artist Robert Patierno, Willson’s mother Diane Willson, Dave Decker, Annie Ward Love, Wyatt Ramsey, Mishari Alduwaisan and Willson’s late sister Marigene. All proceeds from the event will go to the nonprofit Innerwork Center’s programs that teach mindfulness to healthcare professionals.
As someone who’s always attuned to matters of the human spirit, Willson stresses the need to explore negative emotions.
“We’re very limited in how we talk about them, and how we give ourselves space and support to work through them and grow through them,” Willson says. “The album, in a way, is a bold statement, saying that if you tend to the underworld in a loving, nurturing way, it will bear fruit and the fruit is really worth it. The fruit might be a little weird in some ways, but it’s the stuff that gives us the deepest shades of our personality.”
The release party for “Fruits of the Underworld” will take place Jan. 29 from 3-7 p.m. at the Highpoint, 3300 W. Broad St. Pay what you can, $5-20 recommended donation.