“Let me keep it light and say ‘good to see you!” said Eric Rey, drummer and facilitator of the New Haven Free Public Library’s new Virtual Artrepreneur Series.
As about 20 people joined the Zoom meeting on Tuesday afternoon, his inaugural guest, musician Paul Bryant Hudson, smiled from the meeting’s neighboring window. The two musicians, who have played together many times, quickly fell into a conversation that ranged from the current pandemic, to Hudson’s learning music at his great-grandmother’s knee, to what it is to be a Black man in America today.
The Virtual Artrepreneur Series bills itself as “conversation with prominent New Haven artists as they discuss the opportunities and challenges unique to being an artist and an entrepreneur.” Hudson thus made for a savvy choice; as a musician and bandleader, he has been a part of numerous efforts — from New Haven’s branch of the Sofar Series to The Jam, a monthly session at The State House that was sold out on its final night before the shutdown, to At Home in New Haven — to build community and showcase and cultivate local musical talent. He is also a formidable singer, songwriter, and musician in his own right, able to silence a room with the emotion in his voice or bring the house down leading a band into some of the deepest grooves in town.
Hudson and Rey started with their lives under Covid-19. “I’ve missed picking up coffee. Basic human things,” Hudson said. He mentioned that he went by Koffee on Audubon’s pickup window for an americano with a splash of liquid sugar, “as I do when the world is not ending,” he said. Rey mentioned that he wears a mask all the time when outdoors. “It has the ancillary benefit of protecting my nose and mouth from pollen. I’m able to enjoy the outdoors a little bit more than I would otherwise be able to do,” he said. “On the other side of the coin, I’m developing a crazy tan line.”
“It’ll be a a symbol of vigilance,” Hudson said. “The most responsible people will have the gnarliest tan lines.”
That was all they needed to crack the conversation open. They got into the protests in New Haven and elsewhere. “There’s a lot of people hurting and struggling … and a lot of black people hurting under white supremacy,” Rey said. “And people are pushing back in some amazing and important ways.” Hudson mentioned that Monday was his birthday, and while he felt the anguish of the country in turmoil, he also felt “the struggle has been a source of uplift” in the connections he has made with people around him.
That was the question Rey used to dive in to the personal history of his guest and his positions on being an artist now.
“At this point in life it’s just really core to my identity,” Hudson said. “It’s a decision to exist in who I am.” But who he is, he said, has “tiers” — “black, artist, man, father, and so on.” he said. “That artist tier for me was a difficult one to wrestle with because it didn’t necessarily fit into societal expectations,” or “what my life was affording.”
Coming into music was a part of growing up. “I inherited music from my great-grandmother, who was a brilliant pianist and writer,” Hudson said. Her name was Syla A. Artis Branch, and she was the minister of music at Christian Tabernacle Baptist church for 50 years. “She was good with her hands in ways that I’m not,” he continued. “It was effortlessly bestowed on me. I grew up next to the piano with her,” he said. He watched her perform in church, and saw a “beautiful, spiritually connected musician” who was also “intentional about reaching into other musical spaces…. I inherited her piano and her sheet music, and a lot of the stuff I found in there was standards. It was cool for me to realize that a lot of the stuff we listened to her play back in the day were just jazz standards. That stuff feels foundational to me.”
He began to play music himself. But as a child, “I never really led with that — I never wielded it as a tool for my own success.”
After eighth grade, however, he went to Co-op High, where “I made the conscious decision to be about it” — to make music a central aspect of his life. “I remember really trying to get good.” It was a “coming-of-age phenomenon, comparable to coming into awareness of your body, your feelings and emotions, the people you’re attracted to, the way you want to be in the world.“
But Hudson also found that being creative wasn’t just about letting it flow. “There are folks who can create on auto-pilot,” he said; they “exist in this constant state of creativity, or it appears that way.” By contrast, he said, “it’s always been a struggle for me. It’s been a matter of me making decisions to create, and carving out real time to do so, and carving out time for me to be with it. It’s not sexy. It looks like frustration and sadness sometimes.”
Part of that struggle isn’t just about wanting the final product to be good. It’s also about thinking hard about what the music might mean to others. “Over the last month or so especially, I’ve been thinking about the actual value of music and creativity to the culture and to communities,” Hudson said. “One thing it does — that I’ve seen it do — is that it metabolizes trauma. Without access to music and the ability to create, I feel like Black folks especially would be in a different place. For me, I’ve been able to move and grow from traumatic happenings because of music,” not only in creating his own music, but in taking in the music of others.
“Trauma in itself is not a nourishing thing, and yet still somehow it has been a conduit for a lot of beautiful ideas…. I feel like music is a really key piece of that,” Hudson added.
But some things remain difficult to express. “There are things I haven’t figured out how to bring together,” Hudson said. “I struggle to really capture what parenting and fatherhood looks like through music. That’s something I battle with. Love songs are so beautiful, but I also struggle to connect those ideas.” Lately he found himself “wanting to expel more joy in creating music,” he said.
Rey countered; in his experience of watching Hudson perform and sharing the stage with him, he had never found a shortage of feeling. “There seems to be this crazy deep well that you’re drawing from, this well of emotion,” Rey said. “Just watching it, being a part of it, I sometimes have access to a wider range.” Which, for Rey, was a form of liberation. “As men, and particularly as black men, I think we get put in boxes.” Hudson’s music, Rey said, allowed him “more access to the joy, and on the other side, hurt, and sorrow, and pain…. I feel like I’m glimpsing a piece of vulnerability that I don’t always get to experience for myself or with other men.”
“I appreciate that,” Hudson said.
“I appreciate you,” Rey said.
“The box you’re talking about is super-specific, and it’s something to wrestle with,” Hudson said. “When I’m on stage and writing music, I’m completely aware of that box. I’m touching it, and feeling it, and trying to exist beyond it.”
“You were talking about the value of the work,” Rey continued. “I know you’re someone who has thought deeply about the economics of the music — how people are making it work, or not making it work…. I’m thinking music broadly, but also locally for you. How are you making it work? What can community do to support what you’re doing?”
“I have a job,” Hudson said; he works at Dwight Hall at Yale. “This is my privilege and sometimes my curse. I want to acknowledge the privilege piece because not everyone has the ability to wield duality this way. Sometimes I feel self-conscious that … having a stable stream of income gives me a flexibility that other folks don’t have.”
But the security also enabled Hudson to think more broadly. “I always feel it it takes art and music being accessible for people to acknowledge the value of it. We’ve seen it over the past couple months,” he said, both in the loss many people felt at not being able to go to live shows, and the response from within the creative community. The shutdown had reaffirmed the importance of art in people’s lives — but that importance did not translate to remuneration.
“I’m a dreamy cat,” Hudson said. “I think about what I would love to see. I would love to live in a space where the Black music that has informed American pop culture and the artists who are the foundation of all of that are the most affluent and financially regarded individuals in the game. And in the same breath, I would love to exist in a space where rich people pay artists and musicians based on the way they need art and the way they covet art.”
“Wealthy people consume so much of our creative identities,” he added. “Imagine how different the economy would be shaped … all of our society, our culture,” if influence generated the proper remuneration.
“Black music specifically has shaped the world,” Rey said. “This came from us.”
“So here you are, you’re out in the world, you’re making music. You’re a dad. What advice would you give teenage Paul?” Rey asked.
“I think about this all the time!” Hudson said. “Me and young Paul would go on a weekend trip. When I was 13 or so, I was obsessed with the Berklee School of Music…. I spent a lot of time trying to get good at … things other folks had done already. I spent a long time trying to dissect the genius of other folks … to embody it. My progress always happens in realizations, epiphanies. But a lot of those things were diversions from who I actually was. When I was 16 I thought I was getting really good at writing. I was writing songs using Donny Hathaway’s formula — the shapes of his songs, how they grew and diminished. Then at 22 I realized that formula didn’t even fit with my style. So the thing I would want to communicate is why it’s so important to walk and grow in our own truth as an artist. What are healthier ways to learn and grow from other people? I’d really want to share that with myself.”
Rey countered. “While you were studying Donny Hathaway, were you actually getting closer to yourself?” he asked.
Hudson smiled. “I am who I am because of these tangents,” he said. He recalled a lyric he had written for a song; the final line was that “I am blessed to be part of the sound.” He meant the sound he heard his great-grandmother making when he was a child, but it was about the wider Black culture he grew up in, too. It was about the ancestors. “I value the history of it all. We’re all born of these ideas,” he said. The hope, he said, was “to honor those histories and to honor those inheritances while … also allowing my own self to shine through.”
And meanwhile, Hudson’s development as an artist had to be kept in balance with the other aspects of his identity, particularly as a caregiver. “Kids aren’t good for business,” Hudson joked.“That’s not why you have a family.”
“I wasn’t ready for how difficult it was to remain creative. Especially when my niece came to live with us,” he said. His niece was three months old then; she is four years old now. Hudson spoke of the radical “shift in priorities” that accompanied that. “I had a couple of cool things I was working on, and I couldn’t imagine anything being as important … as the creative space I was inhabiting back that. My consciousness was grounded in that.”
That all changed, with the niece and with the birth of his own son. He marveled how, “despite always being an artist, how many surfaces there can be in your core identity. How many other things you can fall in love with,” he said. “I feel a sense of loss sometimes, and in the same moment, a sense of gratitude to be able to spend time with my family and watch my babies do their thing, instead of being here making music.”
And speaking of making music, Hudson took the opportunity to announce that he was planning on releasing a song on Juneteenth, called “John,” an “interpretation of the story of John Henry” that “riffs on Langston Hughes’s Harlem. It’s a story about ancestry and ancestral gifts.”
He wrote it five years ago. “I finally got it right,” he said.
The next installment of the Virtual Artrepreneur Series happens June 17, and will feature Dylan McDonnell. Visit the New Haven Free Public Library’s website for details.