There was a small controversy in the Charlotte, N.C., music scene when The Avett Brothers, the biggest band to emerge from the city since ... well, ever ... tapped singer/songwriter Paleface to tour with them. It wasn't that Paleface had said or done anything objectionable. It was that Charlotte's fledging bands thought opening for the Avetts was a ticket to immediate fame, and they were miffed it was going to a war-torn 20-year indie-folk veteran, who seemed comfortable forever slouching beneath the radar.
"Everybody wants to get famous instantly these days," says Paleface. "No one wants to pay their dues. It's what American Idol has done to music."
Paleface, an ever-scowling modern-day troubadour, has paid his dues and then some. And he has the 17 albums and wrecked liver to prove it.
He was just a kid living in New York City in 1989 when he had a chance encounter with now-well-known outsider musician Daniel Johnston, in town to record his first proper studio album. It turned out that Johnston didn't know how to finish a record on a label's deadline, but he did know the intuitive basics of songwriting, and he taught them to the young Paleface. "My first songs were my attempts at writing Daniel songs," he says.
He roomed with Beck when both were NYC anti-folk artists and he earned his nickname for his colorless skin, the result of sleeping through all the sun-tanning hours so he could play bars and open mic nights. (He refuses to reveal his real name, adding to the mystery around his persona.)
Eight years of that kind of living took its toll. "I lost the lead I had in the business because I became an alcoholic," says Paleface. "I ended up in the hospital almost dead. I had alcohol hepatitis." His trademark pasty skin turned yellow. "It was that lifestyle when you are out five nights a week and everyone is throwing back beers. I heard about Amy Winehouse and thought, ‘That should have been me.'"
But it wasn't. He made a recovery and lived to experience the last glory days of the Lower East Side, when The Moldy Peaches and Regina Spektor congregated at the SideWalk Café, a few years before the yuppies and banking class priced the artists and musicians out of the neighborhood on their long march to ruin everything.
But before Paleface headed to where an indie singer/songwriter could make rent, he met his current musical partner, drummer and vocalist Monica "Mo" Samalot.
Samalot is an even more unlikely career musician than Paleface. She was out of college and working at an architecture firm when she first picked up a drumstick. "I needed a creative outlet and I was really enjoying the Lower East Side scene," she recounts. "The drums were a natural choice. I feel like I have rhythm in my blood. I grew up in Puerto Rico and all the music there is heavy on percussion." After six years, she dropped her full-time job to dedicate herself to the drums and Paleface.
It turned out he would need a drummer by his side in North Carolina. "In New York, the audiences are quiet and hang onto every word. In the South, they more want to get down to a good beat," he says. As a result, his music has become less lyric-focused and more rhythmic: He now tours as part of a trio with Mo and electric guitarist Soren Mattson. His latest, One Big Party, has an almost Mardi Gras-like feel, with guest appearances from six-piece Greensboro band Holy Ghost Tent Revival.
But don't be mistaken: The words still matter, the mission is still storytelling and dark irony is still at work. The title track was inspired by a particularly depressing incident. "One day I was at a Laundromat and I saw a woman with a cast on her arm and she was drinking out of a paper bag in the middle of the day," Paleface recalls. "I went home and wrote that song."
"I can tell by the look you've got on your face you are so full of doubt," it goes. "You say you don‘t know why / You don‘t understand / How it got so out of hand." The decision to turn lead vocals over to Mo gives the song a sisterly quality.
Paleface says his own noonday drinking is a thing of the past but he still feels its effects. A few years ago, he suffered variety of ailments while touring the U.K. and took six months off from music. "I guess this is going to be something I do every 10 years," he says glumly.
But the twosome have managed to convince one person of the worth of the rock and roll lifestyle: Mo's father. "He is an engineer and he thought I was throwing my life away," she says. "I tried to explain that I was trying to be the best drummer I could be and it was all about the art, but he didn't understand until he saw us live. Now he is the first one to watch any video we post online."