By Barbara Hengstenberg
Having grown up absorbing prog rock music, especially the likes of Yes, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Pink Floyd, I jumped at the chance to see the Yes Royal Affair Tour this past summer…an evening of greats: Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, John Lodge (Moody Blues), Asia and Yes.
However fantastic this lineup, the Carl Palmer Band stole the show. Carl’s drumming remains superior, strong and fluid, and his lead singer for the night, Arthur Brown, was a joy to behold, garbed in brocade, face paint and headpieces as the God of Hellfire. However, within a few lines of ELP’s Karn Evil 9, I turned to Bill, perplexed…”How am I hearing Keith Emerson’s keyboards? There’s no keyboardist up there…” only to realize the spirited guitarist was not only playing lead guitar, but Keith’s ever-powerful keyboards as well…all on guitar. The joie de vivre of Paul Bielatowicz took over the stage and, luckily for us, we had third row seats so we could witness his pianist-inspired tapping technique on electric guitar. Once their two-hour set was over, I again turned to Bill and asked, “What the heck did we just experience?”
Being that I am ever so curious over the inner workings of creatives, I reached out to Paul Bielatowicz to invite him to join WildesArt as a Visiting Artist. Over the course of three days, we created a video interview, which I’ve transcribed below. Paul is a virtuoso, both musically and verbally. He generously shared his inspirations and his work with us. So, grab a cup of tea or your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy the creative adventure that makes up Paul Bielatowicz’s artistic life.
THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC
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Paul Bielatowicz: Thank you very much. I think one key strategy that I use is that when I have a goal to achieve something, I put something in place that is a hard deadline for that. For example, I wanted to put together a solo set of material, so I booked a tour. Then, I had to put together a set of material because I had a deadline and a tour booked to do it. I wanted to start doing soundtracks that accompany silent films, so I booked a silent film show. So I had to prepare everything. That is one thing that I’ve found that has really helped me keep my time in check — having something to work towards. Because if not, I can procrastinate with the best of them. I have to have something in place in order to make me meet a target and meet a deadline.
WA: The music industry has changed immensely over the past 10 or so years. Musicians (and most artists) need to be their own business managers, agents, publicists… What are your thoughts on the business of music today? How do you do this while making time to actually make music?
PB: Absolutely. It has definitely changed. As far as I am concerned, it has changed for the better. I think the advent of the internet has changed things for creatives and artists forever. It’s changed it in a very good way. Yes, you do need to be your own business manager. Nobody is going to do it for you anymore. But then again, nobody is going to take 90 percent of your pay anymore. For me, it’s ideally suited. The huge life-changing thing that I did was start a page on the platform, Patreon. That literally has been life-changing. It has given me the financial freedom to create new music, work on new projects while I’m not on tour with other artists. Yeah, that’s been a huge game-changer for me.
In terms of how do I balance my creativity with business stuff…that is tough. It’s not always easy. I’m not very good at compartmentalizing my time. If I’m going to get creative, I usually just do that. Then, if I’m going to do promo stuff, it’s usually just that. I’m not very good at saying, “Okay, now I’m going to get creative for this hour, and now I’m going to do some business stuff for this hour.” Yeah, I’m still working on that, to be honest. I’m not quite sure how I balance that.
TOURING WITH CARL PALMER AND NEAL MORSE
WA: You began playing with The Carl Palmer Band in 2003, soon after college, and Neal Morse in 2007. How have Carl Palmer and Neal Morse influenced your life?
PB: Carl Palmer was THE first artist/band that I toured with, first kind of professional engagement. Before that, I was playing for functions, top 20 bands and that sort of thing, as well as writing for guitar magazines and recording for guitar magazines. In terms of live playing, Carl Palmer was my first experience in doing that on a professional touring level. Obviously, he’s been a huge influence. I feel like my piano influence in my guitar playing has just been accentuated through him because, obviously, I’m playing Keith Emerson’s keyboard parts on guitar in that band. I’ve always been influenced by pianists, particularly classical pianists. But with Carl’s band, that’s really made me pursue that direction a lot more.
How’s Neal Morse influenced my life? Well, I have always been a huge fan of Neal’s music. I was a huge Spock’s Beard fan. That was music that I loved to listen to. Working with Neal was really inspiring, particularly from a compositional point of view…seeing how he writes, seeing how he creates. Yeah, a very inspiring guy to be around.
WA: How have you been received by Emerson’s fans?
PB: Wonderfully, absolutely wonderfully! I think what really helps is the fact that I’m a guitar player. When Carl put the band together, he deliberately didn’t get a keyboard player in. He did that because he didn’t want the comparison between Emerson and whoever he got in because, obviously, whoever he got in, however amazing they were, they were never going to be a Keith Emerson. So he got a guitar player in instead so we could have no comparisons. I think it was a very smart move. I’m rarely personally compared negatively to Keith. Sometimes the band is compared negatively because it doesn’t have a keyboard player. People don’t really get what Carl is trying to do with the band. But personally, I’m never negatively compared to Keith. I think people just respect the monumental nature of the task of trying to play this stuff on guitar. It’s usually favorable, which is very nice.
WA: How do you prepare for the intensity of your performance while on tour? Do you have a particular warm-up routine on your guitar?
PB: Nowadays, I don’t. Nowadays, sometimes the first notes I hit, aside from soundcheck, are the first notes of the show. I guess I’ve got a lot more comfortable with playing the material. So, no, I don’t really have a warmup routine. I usually dive straight in. It’s usually fine now. I’ve been doing this long enough for my fingers to remember pretty quickly what they need to do.
WA: You mentioned that touring with Carl Palmer was your first professional live performance (aside from functions and top-20 bands). That is pretty incredible! How did those first few gigs feel?
PB: How was my first gig with Carl? It was…trying to think of the correct word… The correct word is probably “terrifying.” For many reasons. First of all, every single piece of music that I was playing with Carl in that band was THE most difficult thing I’d ever played, and we were playing two hours’ worth of them. Secondly, it was my first instance where people were there at a show and they paid money to see, specifically, music played very, very well. At least that’s what they were signing up for anyway. Whether I delivered that, I don’t know. So, that really put some pressure on it. In the past, I was playing music for people to dance to. People weren’t scrutinizing what I was playing. I was aware that there were a lot of hardcore ELP fans there that knew this music intimately, much better than I knew it. I knew I had to do a good job. I had a few fans contact me when the word was out, when the press release was out that I’d joined the band. So I got a few lovely emails, welcoming me to the family. But that kind of added a little bit of pressure because I knew that there were fans there that not really were there to judge me, but you know, I had to get it right for them. So I felt a little bit of pressure of having to get it right for them.
WA: What was going on inside your head early on, knowing that you were performing the part of Keith Emerson?
PB: I’ll be honest with you. My introduction, my real introduction to Emerson Lake and Palmer, really getting inside the music, was joining that band. So I didn’t really feel daunted by the fact that I was playing Keith Emerson’s part or with Carl Palmer because I wasn’t, at that point, really exposed to that music. From that point of view, thankfully, there was no pressure there.
WA: You’ve been performing with Carl for 16 years now. Is it still just as exciting?
PB: Absolutely! For sure, yeah. To be honest, probably even more exciting because, you know, I’ve settled in with the band, I’m comfortable with the music, I’m comfortable with how things work. So I can really enjoy each show for the different experience that it is. A related thing to that, people often ask me: You’re playing the same tunes every night for an entire two-month tour…does it not get boring? And the answer is: Not at all. Even if I play everything absolutely note for note, which rarely happens…but even if I did that, every single show is different because the audience is different, the venue is different. I view a performance as not about the notes. It’s not so much about the music even. It’s about the connection between me and the audience. And that connection is different every single night. So, yeah, every show is very different.
WA: Let’s talk about creativity. When do you feel most creative?
PB: Funny enough, I think I mentioned earlier that I set myself deadlines, tours and whatnot. For me, very often, I feel most creative when I have to be, when I’m forced to be, when I force myself to be. I mentioned Patreon. When I got 100 patrons on Patreon, I wrote a song with all 100 names in the lyrics of the song. I’ve said for the first 200 people who sign up, I’m going to write them their very own composition…so that’s 200 compositions. There is nothing as good for your creativity than having to write 200 compositions. If you weren’t feeling creative before you said that, you pretty soon start to feel creative when you set yourself a goal and commit to it and promise it to people. I’ve got a deadline. I’d better get on with it!
WA: What is your creative process?
PB: If we’re talking about creative in terms of writing, I do very well writing for a brief — whether it’s a self-imposed brief or if it’s a brief by somebody else. When I used to write music for the guitar magazines, I used to write pieces in the style of different players. I find that quite easy because you’re kind of confined to a specific area. I think the restrictions really help. So if you have to write a piece in the style of Brian May, you don’t have so many options so it’s daunting. That really helps. Very often when I write something, it is with something specific in mind. It might be based on a piano piece, or it might be based on a technical idea or something like that. It’s rare that I just sit down and think, “I’m going to write something and I have no starting point or I have no clear direction about the sort of thing I want to write.” I don’t know who said it, it was a composer…could have been Mendelssohn that said, “The more I am limited, the more I am free.” That is very true for my creative process and I think for everyone’s creative process — to really set yourself clear boundaries in which you are going to create a piece of music or art or whatever.
WA: What is your community? How do they affect your creative process?
PB: My community is probably my Patreon page and the patrons on there, the people who support my music and follow along with what I’m doing. How do they affect my creative process? Well, they give me a reason to create. I’m writing 200 songs, one for each and every one of them. So that’s a reason for me to create. I get feedback as well. Some people suggest things. I get to explore different avenues with them. Yeah, that’s a real good support group for me. When I first started the Patreon page, I thought of it as basically me kind of giving music and it being a one-way thing. But it’s definitely been a two-way thing. It’s definitely been a reciprocal thing of me giving music and getting feedback and responding to that feedback with music, and that sort of thing.
WA: How do you spend your downtime?
PB: Downtime? What’s downtime? I’m only slightly joking there. When I’m on tour, I do this thing called geocaching. I first discovered it when the bass player for Carl Palmer, Simon Fitzpatrick, would leave the dressing room. We’d be in the middle of a tiny town in, say, Germany or somewhere. He’d leave the dressing room and come back an hour later, looking very pleased with himself and having seen all the town. Eventually, I went along on one of these expeditions. It turns out he was doing this thing called geocaching, which is basically using the GPS on your phone to find lots of hidden canisters all around the world. There must be tens of millions of them around the world. You’ve probably sat within a few hundred feet of a geocache right now wherever you are. You just find them, sign your name in the log book. They can be anything from this size [small] to a big ammo container. Sign your name in the log book, log it on your app, and you’ve found the geocache. It’s a great way of seeing new places, whether it be in your neighborhood or whether it be on tour. I’ve seen so much more of the world than I would have done, had I not been geocaching while on tour. That’s what I do on my downtime: geocaching.
WA: In what other areas do you create? Do you cook?
PB: I’ve been vegan for about 3 or 4 years. I don’t cook a whole lot. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s creative either. I’ve always said this and people have always thought I was strange — but for me, food has always been fuel and nothing more. If I could get by with a pill that would give me all the nutrients and I didn’t have to eat, I would happily do that. For me, food is not a creative pursuit.
I’m not sure where other creativity would get an outpouring. But perhaps kind of the things that go around my music. Maybe that’s marketing or some of the ideas for the artwork or just creative ideas of how to promote myself. Things like coming up with the idea of including people’s names in the Patreon name song. Coming up with the concept of doing 200 compositions. I think there’s some creativity that goes into that sort of thing aside from the actual music itself. I do get a kick out of that sort of thing.
WA: Can you tell us about the books you’ve been writing?
PB: I did write a transcription book for my album, Preludes & Etudes. That contained lots of details about the composers whose arrangements I was using…that sort of thing. I’ve had various book projects in the back of my mind. I was looking to do a theory book. In fact, I’ve got most of it done.
I actually wrote two [other books] and just never released them. I probably should get around to doing them. They were tuition [text] books. Yeah, I think I got to a point where the creativeness and the creativity of wanting to record albums took over wanting to write tuition books. So, those projects are on the back burner. I honestly had forgotten about those books until you mentioned it. Maybe you’ll see them soon. They’re all ready to go, I’m pretty sure.
WA: Do you have any plans to record an album of your own compositions?
PB: Yes, absolutely. My next album will feature both arrangements and original compositions. And they may actually be some of the original compositions that I’ve been writing for the 200 patrons. So some of those may make it onto the album and, of course, those patrons will be credited. The working title right now is “The Impressionist.” I do a lot of Impressionist piano pieces arranged for guitar, such as Debussy and Ravel. So I’m going to take some of those pieces and record them for the album, but also do impressions of the Impressionists and kind of come up with my own Impressionist style pieces to sandwich and segway each of the arrangements together.
THE INNER LIFE OF A WORKING MUSICIAN
WA: What can you tell us that perhaps most people don’t know about you?
PB: Hmmm…let me think. I’ll tell you a few things. I am terrible with my left and right. I have to really concentrate to figure out which is my left and right. I’m terrible with faces. These are all bad points. Yet, I struggle with recognizing faces so much that I find it almost impossible to pick out which waiter or waitress is actually looking after us in a restaurant. I have to always ask the people who are with us, “Is that our waitress?” Also, that makes watching movies really difficult because if anybody changes their clothes during a movie, I struggle to keep up with the plot because I don’t know who’s who. Gangster movies are almost impossible for me because I really struggle to keep track of who’s who because everyone is wearing suits. They all look the same to me.
Something else that you might not know about me is that my parents once had a cat that said “sausages.” True story. I don’t know how old I was, maybe 9 or 10, or a bit older. My mom asked me if I wanted sausages for dinner, and the cat, before I could respond, turned to my mom and went “sausages.” I would not lie about such a thing as my cat saying “sausages.”
WA: What’s on your playlist? What do you listen to, to relax at home?
PB: Much of the music I’m listening to is to get inspiration for things I’m working on…be it writing, arranging, or whatever. I guess my go-to relaxing music would be, certainly classical. Maybe Debussy, Chopin. Chopin Nocturne is fantastic for relaxing. Anything by Debussy, really, is great for relaxing. One of my favorite bands is Muse. I listen to Muse a lot when I run. I run a few times every week. I have Muse on in my headphones. It’s either Muse or Beethoven — something joyful and stirring to help me keep up the pace and keep the miles going.
WA: What’s on your book pile?
PB: I usually have two books on the go. At the moment, one of those books is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For anybody who hasn’t read it, obviously it’s an epic, thick book. But it is very, very meaty as well, in terms of there’s a lot of content in every sentence. Every sentence is incredibly descriptive and beautifully written, really well written. I’ve got the most modern translation, and that really helps. I’ve had that on the go for a while. I stopped reading it for a while because the problem with War and Peace is there’s so many characters in it. If you lose track, it’s hard to pick it up. In the middle of the last tour, I happened to leave it in a hotel room, so that reading stopped for the rest of the tour. The hotel mailed it to me, so I’ve got it back now. It’s definitely a slow burner. I’ve just finished Treasure Island. The other book that I’m currently reading, I’ve just had this recommended by a good friend: James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. It’s kind of an autobiographical thing. “The warm and joyful memoirs of the world’s most beloved animal doctor.” He’s a vet in the 1930s in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s fantastic! I’m loving it! So, yeah, those are my two books I’ve got on the go now.
WA: What brings you joy?
PB: Wow! What a question! Life! I’ve just enjoyed the whole experience. From an early age, I’ve been very conscious that life is finite and that you’ve got to make the most of it. So, I try to get the most out of everything I’m doing. I try to get joy from everything, really. I enjoy spending time with people. And I enjoy cats. We’ve got two cats, Darwin and Emma. Darwin’s a daddy’s boy. So, Darwin brings me lots of joy. Just life in general. The wonder of nature. Being out in nature. That’s fantastic. The whole experience. Just enjoying every moment of the experience as it happens because you’re never going to get that moment back.
WA: What is your dream? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
PB: When I was at college, my dream was to tour the world with a band. I was lucky enough for that to happen a few years later. I’ve kind of had to reestablish my dreams. Now, my dreams are to have a recognizable style, to kind of create my own musical universe, do something unique, and create some unique art. Play solo shows, tour with my own projects, and start doing that a lot more. That’s what I’d love to be doing in 5 to 10 years.
PRELUDES & ETUDES
Listening to Paul’s CD, Preludes & Etudes, I am moved by his symphonic arrangements of Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Debussy, and others. Upon further, deeper listening, and realizing this album was created by an Impressionist guitarist reminiscent of keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, I have been left speechless (which is a quandry for a writer). You need to purchase a copy and have a listen for yourself. It is truly incredible, inspired work.
You can purchase a signed CD of Preludes & Etudes, as well as keep up on Paul’s upcoming tour dates with the Carl Palmer Band, and solo projects at: www.PaulBielatowicz.com
Support Paul’s work and follow his adventures by joining his Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/paulbielatowicz