POLLY PAULUSMA with the DIVINE COMEDY and DAVID CELIA at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Wednesday (September 15). $13-$15. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
There's a sudden renaissance in the softer end of the pop spectrum happening across the pond of late.
From the tinkly piano stylings of Jamie Cullum to the soulful crooning of Katie Melua to the baroque acoustic ballads of Damien Rice, the UK's cultivating a slew of singer/songwriters who, while not slick enough to give Sir Elton a run for his money, appeal to more, er, "mature" crowds than to those with art-school haircuts and ironic T-shirts.
The interesting thing about this current crop of soft-rockers is that they're barely into their 20s. Like me, they're the kids of the 80s who spent their formative years listening to their parents' Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez LPs.
The latest addition to the new acoustic generation is Polly Paulusma, a wickedly wordy guitar-toting belter whose debut disc, Scissors In My Pocket, recently dropped on One Little Indian (home to Björk and Greg Dulli), and who's already opened for Dylan (!). Similarly raised on passionate, intelligent strummers (Nick Drake is her hero), Paulusma claims she and her peers are reacting to Britain's lamentable tradition of prefab pop.
"When I was making my record, the music industry, especially in the UK, was all about Pop Idol," she says ruefully over her mobile, en route to check out the Edward Hopper exhibit at London's Tate Modern. "It was so depressing - they just wanted glorified karaoke and had no interest in anyone who played their own music and wrote their own songs. All these talented people washing around in London, and nobody was signing them.
"What came out of it were loads of self-sufficient people. Katie Melua went through the same thing. Necessity has forced us back to basics, because the industry let us down. It gave us a chance to explore things by ourselves and find a whole different voice that we wouldn't necessarily have found if we'd been scooped up by a label after the second gig."
The result is a record that, like Paulusma herself, doesn't pander to trends. Scissors In My Pocket is charmingly quaint, with none of the saccharine overproduction that makes folks like Jamie Cullum hard to stomach. Recorded in a shed in Paulusma's backyard, the album homes in on gently strummed acoustic guitar and quiet piano, with periodic flourishes of Hammond and dulcimer alongside the singer's terribly sweet girlish coo.
Several tracks are fleshed out by string and horn sections, but unlike the high-drama orchestration on, say, Damien Rice's O, Paulusma (who can't read music but claims she wrote the arrangements using downloaded software) keeps them low-key, which works well with the disc's intimate folkiness.
It may not be the most efficient way to work, but Paulusma insists on keeping a "wobbly" homespun aesthetic.
"All of the songs are done in one take," she crows proudly. "I worked with a producer recently and watched him clumping a track together - he'd do five takes and then take the best bits of each one and hack it all together like a patchwork quilt. I'd rather have a full performance, cuz even if there's a little blemish in it, it's real."
Paulusma's also mastered a subtly spiky wordplay - lead track Dark Side nods to Pink Floyd with a chorus about "the dark side of my mood" - which is no surprise, considering she graduated from Cambridge with a degree in English lit.
With the horror stories I've heard about the icily snotty profs peppering UK academia, I figure the experience must've been good preparation for dealing with cranky critics.
"Um, no," she states matter-of-factly. "I think a lot of gigging in London did, actually. London crowds are so standoffish - they just fold their arms and stare at you with these blank looks on their faces.
"But you know, out of all of my friends, I'm the only one who uses my degree every day," she continues. "All these people studied these obscurely wonderful things, like medieval history, or some proper academic subject, and then they end up becoming accountants."