This is an article I wrote on Paula Perri, a singer/songwriter on the brink of stardom.
PAULA PERRI ‘07
LONDON, Ontario—She’s in the middle of a haunting rendition of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”-- just her voice, her guitar, and her heart and soul. A scan of the crowded, dimly lit bar reveals dozens of eyes mesmerized by the magic happening on stage before them. Her voice has calmed the feverish crowd; no one dares to move for the fear of upsetting the stillness and tranquility she has created.
A random gust from an air duct above the stage suddenly sends her lyrics swirling from the music stand onto the floor next to her bare feet. She lets out a “whoa, that was weird,” laughs, and continues to play. A friend juts out from the crowd and rescues the papers, holding them in place for the remainder of the song.
She finishes, and in a deep and sultry tone says, “there’s no use crying over spilled lyrics.” Resounding laughter and applause follows. The crowd is in love.
Western alumna Paula Perri is one to watch. A two-time best singer/songwriter nominee at the London Music Awards, Perri has recently been awarded a FACTOR (Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) grant by the Canadian government, which has funded the recording of her professional demo. This achievement places Perri in the company of previous FACTOR recipients including Nickelback, Feist, and one of her inspirations, Alanis Morissette. It is fair to say that Perri is on the brink of stardom. And she credits much of this success to the opportunities made available to her as a student at Western.
A King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario graduate of 2007, Perri, 26, obtained a BA in English with a minor in Psychology, but admits that her studies weren’t exactly her main focus over her university career. Instead, she was busy working her way into the southwestern Ontario music scene, a task she describes as an exciting challenge.
“You have to push and be willing to fight for your spot to play,” she says. “It’s constant work, but once you’re in it’s a win-win situation because you get to perform like you love to and at the same time you broaden your audience.”
An Ancaster, Ontario native, Perri began singing at age seven and instantly fell in love with it. “I loved being on stage and I loved where my mind went when I was singing.” She later taught herself to play guitar and since then has used music as “an escape, an expression, and a source of happiness and joy.”
Perri grew up singing in local theatre productions and her summer camp’s annual variety show. Her exposure to the southwestern Ontario music scene began once she came to university. “I was very lucky to be living in London when I started to pursue music as more than a hobby,” she says. “It has been a wonderful platform with many opportunities for me.”
One of her first and most memorable performances in London was in December
2003, when she performed live on The New PL’s morning show. It was the first time Perri sang on television. “Even though it was a local morning show, so many people who hadn’t heard me sing before were able to see it,” she says. “It allowed me to reach a much larger audience than I had in the past.” She laughs. “Plus, my friends came to watch and got to be on TV too!”
Perri took advantage of all of the singing exposure Western has to offer. She was named King’s Idol in 2004 and 2005 and in 2006, after being named King’s Idol for the third year in a row, she went on to be a top five finalist in Western Idol, the university’s annual singing competition. Perri cites this accomplishment as being her most memorable singing experience at Western. “It felt like everyone I had ever met at Western was there and all my friends at King’s were so supportive,” she says. Christine Devine, 27, a close friend and member of Perri’s graduating class, recalls this moment vividly. “It goes without saying that Paula did an amazing job singing. She’s always breathtaking. But what I remember most about that night was how she had the most fans of all the contestants, and we were crazy!”
The tension is thick as hundreds of spectators crammed into The Wave, the university’s pub and venue for music events, anxiously await the results of the Western Idol finale. Five finalists spent the last hour belting their hearts out and receiving praise from the judges. The audience is comprised of rowdy students with a few proud parents speckled throughout. Perri’s fans are the most enthusiastic bunch, some wearing homemade t-shirts and many holding signs in support. If you didn’t know any better, you
would think these were diehard sports fans at a championship game.
The judges have kept the audience in suspense for twenty minutes, or what seems like hours to this restless crowd. The emcee tries to entertain on stage but his jokes are fruitless; these fans are here for the main event. Finally, the judges emerge to report the results. The suspense has built up and Perri’s fans can’t contain their excitement any longer. The crowd chants “PAU-LA, PAU-LA, PAU-LA!” several times before breaking into a stomping drum roll that sounds like a thunderstorm. The second place finisher is announced. It is not Paula. Her fans cheer in delight knowing for certain what’s coming next. The “PAU-LA” chant breaks out again, this time louder and with simultaneous stomping and cheering. The moment is here. The first place finisher is announced. It is not Paula.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Amanda Fusina, 26, Perri’s childhood friend and university roommate. “We thought she had it. In retrospect, placing third out of the entire university is a great accomplishment. But we were devastated. We really thought Paula deserved to win.” But Perri was not discouraged. “I was so happy to have made it to the finals. Everyone was so talented,” she says. “The experience was such a rush of excitement and nervousness, and I felt so humbled by the love and support of my family and friends. It was surreal.”
In addition to being an Idol veteran, Perri took advantage of other singing opportunities Western had to offer. She played in numerous coffeehouses around campus, at fundraisers such as International Women’s Day and charity fashion shows, in
homecoming parades, and on Concrete Beach outside the University Community Centre. Perri was also a performer at Western’s Exposed Concert series and Western’s Charity Ball, and was frequently featured on Western radio CHRW 94.9FM.
Perri currently features recordings of her music on Myspace and Youtube, and has a Facebook page devoted to fans who wish to be updated on upcoming performances. With so many ways for fans to stay connected online, finding lovers of Perri’s music isn’t difficult.
Krista McNaughton, 24, a recent King’s alumna, has seen many of Perri’s performances. “It’s hard to describe in words how amazing Paula actually is,” she says. “You can really see how much she enjoys what she’s doing, and she makes the largest crowds seem intimate.”
Carlen Costa, 28, a Western alumna and close friend of Perri’s, says, “It’s the originality in her voice and the way she hits those big notes that makes her singing special.” During a typical performance, Costa says, “you’ll look down and suddenly notice you have goose bumps everywhere. It’s intense.”
Kevin Collins, 22, also an alumnus and an avid Perri follower, says, “What makes her unique is her raw talent. There’s no smoke and mirrors to try and enhance her sound. It’s just her doing her thing.”
Mark Wellington, the University Student’s Council manager of Student Life at Western, recalls the first time he heard Perri sing eight years ago, when auditioning for King’s Idol. “The day following the auditions, the judges could not stop talking about her
performance.” Since that time, Wellington has booked her for various student and charitable events. “Paula immediately connects with audiences,” he says. “Her performance hugs an audience like a warm embrace.”
Perri is very thankful for the many outlets Western provides for musicians during their university career. “With such a broad range of avenues to perform through, I was able to create a name for myself and gain a bit of a following. When I would play at off-campus events I had some people who had heard me play before and would come hear me play again.”
Perri parlayed her campus experience into appearances at the London Music Festival, nominations for best new artist and best singer/songwriter at the London Music Awards and, one of her proudest accomplishments, being invited to perform at Canadian Music Week in Toronto. She says being a part of Canadian Music Week was beyond her imagination. “It is the biggest music festival and conference in Canada and to be accepted into it was unreal. It was front-row access to music industry execs and a performance experience yet to be matched.”
When asked to describe her music, Perri is reluctant to commit to a single genre. “I would say my music is mostly acoustic folk. But I’m trying to write more songs with an indie/blues feel to them.” She pauses. “Pop, maybe? I don’t know, a bit of all of those!”
The collection of artists who have inspired Perri’s music is also eclectic. “The first people to really get me excited about playing guitar and singing were Alanis Morissette,
Jewel, and Jann Arden, but my biggest inspirations right now are Joni Mitchell and Hawksley Workman.” Perri also channels inspiration from artists featured on CBC Radio 2. “Canada is filled with beautiful songwriters and I learn about a new one every day that I listen.”
After graduating from Western, Perri moved home to pursue a career in event planning and continue working on her music. She is currently one of four organizers of the Hillside Music Festival, an annual outdoor concert in Guelph. “This experience is helping my music career in terms of learning the business from a promoter/venue perspective, and I’ve made a lot of valuable contacts,” she says. “I just have to make sure I don’t get settled. It’s easy to get comfortable making money, but music is my ultimate goal.”
Perri sings and plays guitar solo regularly at various venues in London, Hamilton, and Toronto. One of her proudest accomplishments post-university was recently being accepted to a songwriting workshop lead by one of her aforementioned inspirations, Hawksley Workman. “The experience pushed me and gave me a new confidence. It was such an honour to play for him and so humbling to hear him enjoy my voice and songs.”
Perri is reluctant to name her biggest supports, because she has so many. “I am so grateful for my family and friends coming out to dodgy venues and paying money to see me when they can see me sing any day of the week one-on-one for free,” she says. “Knowing that so many people believe in me is a difficult feeling to describe. I’m just so thankful.” Though she has received critical acclaim and has plenty of credible performing
experience, Perri does not feel above playing at lower-scale venues. “I’m happy playing anywhere where people will listen.” One of her latest performances is a case in point:
It is hot. Sweltering. Sticky. Claustrophobic. Hot. The venue is the London Music Club, a century home turned local music hotspot, in the basement. It’s raining outside. The crowd is restless but nonetheless devoted: Paula Perri is about to take the stage. People keep pouring in to the point where you find yourself questioning the capacity. The event is treated as a reunion of sorts, former King’s and Western students brought back together in the name of Paula. The lone bartender is working frantically to serve everyone their cold beers; you doubt the venue anticipated such a turnout—they underestimated her fan base.
The band takes the stage. Their heads almost touch the ceiling. “Hey friends, thanks for coming,” Paula coos into the microphone. “Is it hot in here?” she asks. “No, it’s just you Paula!” someone yells from the crowd. She laughs and ever so coolly says, “Let’s get this party started.”
Perri’s success during her undergrad at Western and to date has culminated in a prestigious prize: a FACTOR grant from the Canadian government in November 2009. This grant allowed Perri to create a professional EP. “I was so thrilled when I received the acceptance letter,” she says. “It was a bit unbelievable. I can’t believe a jury of music experts listened to my music and thought it was good enough to support.” It confirms what her fans have known all along—this girl is going to make it.
While Perri looks back on her years in university as being most influential to her
music career, she admits she wasn’t exactly a model student when it came to academics. Her grades were average, but she spent a lot of her time devoted to “gigging” and getting involved in extra-curricular activities. She once took a bus to a gig in Toronto when she had an essay due the next day that wasn’t completed. “You can see where my priorities were,” she says and laughs. “Whoops!”
Perri insists that an education is important, and having her degree is a comfort since music can be an unsteady career. To those beginning university and hoping to gain exposure for their music, she recommends using all the opportunities available in the university community.
“Scout local bars, radio stations, and clubs to see if they need performers for events. Enter as many contests as you can and take advantage of the internet as a platform to get yourself heard,” she says. “There are many opportunities for young artists to gain exposure out there, so take them and never stop trying.”