You could say that Mieka Pauley, an entrepreneurial singer-songwriter, is driven.
She’s a Harvard graduate who skipped second grade, a performer who raised the $17,000 she needed to produce her last record via online donations, and a woman who says she is “obsessed” with biological anthropology.
Pauley also does a lot of driving. She makes her living performing — she does about 150 shows a year, she estimates — and she’ll do a gig in almost any type of venue, almost anywhere she can go. And since she doesn’t like getting on planes and flying, a la John Madden, she drives almost everywhere.
That has gotten her into trouble on occasion. “I’ve got a track record,” she says in a phone interview from her apartment in Queens.
“For the most part, I do most of my traveling from show to show in my car,” she says. “It’s pretty simple. Most of the time, it’s just me, not a band in a tour bus or anything like that. I really, really hate to fly. Sometimes, not often, I have to fly. And that really makes it hard, because I have too much to put on a plane. Especially my acoustic guitar. I really, really hate having to check it.”
She has put as many as 35,000 miles on a car during a year. “Right now, I’m driving a Toyota Camry. I was driving a Nissan Sentra, but I totaled it,” she says. “When I started out (in the early part of the last decade), I was driving an ’82 Datsun, and it was always breaking down on me, so I’ve definitely had to upgrade to better cars.”
So, how did Pauley total her car? “A couple of winters ago I hit some black ice (on I-84 in Connecticut) and rear-ended a dude. There was really nothing I could do about it. The front was just bashed. I really couldn’t get it fixed, so I had to have it declared totaled, got the insurance money, and bought the Camry.”
There are even more harrowing stories than that one. “I’ve done some really stupid (stuff),” the Harvard grad says. “I remember one winter, I went over a pass in Montana during some bad weather. All the trucks had chains on their tires; of course I had no chains. I have to get to the next show. I have no choice about the matter. I can’t just travel during the summer, or during good weather.”
Pauley is among the songwriters who will be performing at the New York Songwriters Circle Showcase on Friday, August 20, at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. Other performers include Shaun Ruymen, Reed Waddle, Charlotte Sometimes, and Princeton-area fixture Toby Lightman. Tina Shafer, a singer and songwriter herself who will also be performing, has been running the New York Songwriters Circle — now officially and legally known as Song Circle — for the past 21 years.
As a concert venue, the Circle has been host and home to performers such as Norah Jones, Eric Bazilian, Siedah Garrett, Marc Cohn, John Oates, Phoebe Snow, Vanessa Carlton, and many others. After being an exclusively New York phenomenon in its early years, the Song Circle has expanded to Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and, soon, Milan, Italy, in addition to Hamilton.
Shafer, a Cleveland native whose mother was a composer who taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music, received an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a master’s in vocal performance from Juilliard before turning more to vocal coaching, as well as the business side of things, then to straight-up performing. She even studied the physiology of the voice with a prominent physician who specialized in surgery of the vocal cords. “I figured that I would never see a dime in classical music unless I moved to Europe,” she says.
She performed as a singer-guitarist-pianist in New York and wrote songs for singers such as Sheena Easton, Celine Dion, and Donna Summer. Later Shafer became part of a group of songwriters who would get together periodically to perform her songs and each other’s, and the group evolved into the New York Songwriter’s Circle.
“What we are is kind of a farming ground for finding talented performers and original songs. We’re really looking forward to the showcase at the Grounds for Sculpture,” says Shafer, who admits that one of the compelling factors was the free dinner all of the musicians will have.
Pauley’s first name, Mieka, is a family nickname; her full name is Mary Domenica Pauley. She was born in Boston but moved across the country because her father, who worked several business management jobs, moved often. With her mother and four siblings, Pauley moved to Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, and Denver, where she went to high school, before college.
She began piano lessons at the age of five and then became fascinated with jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. One of her early teachers gave her a book with musical scores, and she began learning how to compose pop-style tunes. As a high schooler, she began playing her uncle’s guitar and writing her own songs.
Pauley says that since her dad was a Harvard alum, it was assumed that she, too, would go there. “It was always in the back of my mind; I could show you baby pictures I had where I was wearing Harvard shirts.”
Still, she somewhat balked at that. By the time she was in high school, she had decided that she would choose music as a vocation, though she didn’t know the specifics. She strongly considered attending the University of Miami, which was near her homes, first in Hollywood and then Pompano Beach, and which had a strong jazz and world music studies program and a great engineering program. But it only took one trip to Harvard Square to change her mind.
“I sat there and watched the street performers, and I knew that’s where I had to go,” she says. She started out playing at open-mike nights at cafes near the Harvard campus, and she performed on the street in Harvard Square.
She graduated from Harvard in 2002 with a degree in biological anthropology. “I had been thinking about going into engineering, and when I went to Harvard I started out in physics. But it kicked my ass. I know I’m not a stupid person, but it was above and beyond what I was capable of, so I had to choose something else. In that time period, I also knew that I wanted to do music, and I didn’t see anything I was going to do in academia. I looked at which majors, or concentrations, as they called them, had the least amount of requirements so I could do a bunch of other things, and the choices were philosophy and anthropology.”
Pauley knew nothing about any type of anthropology, but now she is obsessed to the point that “everything I look at is through those glasses. I am obsessed with society versus the individual. Of course, it makes things kind of hard. You could be sitting in a bar with me, and I slip off into that kind of tangent; human interaction simplified into primate versus everything else.”
Luckily for her and everyone who listens to Pauley’s music, however, the obsession doesn’t make its way into what she sings about. Her creative process has not developed the way she wants. “I wish I had a creative process,” she says — but things haven’t been too problematic. Pauley has recorded two records as a solo artist and one with her band, the Mieka Canon. Her 2007 record, “Elijah Drop Your Gun,” was funded totally by donations from fans. She has been compared to artists as diverse as Tori Amos and Jeff Buckley (whose mother she serenaded earlier this year at South by Southwest in Austin).
She hopes to begin work on recording another disc this fall, but she continues to work as many gigs as she can. “Next week, though this is out of the ordinary, I’m playing four gigs in a week in the New York area, including the one at the Grounds for Sculpture.”
Pauley will play as much as possible, in all settings. “You can overplay it, but I’m trying to get involved in as many things as I can. I often play in typical music venues, clubs, halls, in New York and Boston, but I will also go around the country and play colleges, bars, coffeshops, anything. I play a lot of house concerts — just someone setting up some chairs in their living room, and I come in with my PA system, and it’s a concert.”
New York Songwriters Circle, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Friday, August 20, 7 p.m. Concert directed by singer songwriter Tina Shafer features Mieka Pauley, Reed Waddle, Shaun Ruymen, Charlotte Sometimes, and Toby Lightman. Rain or shine. $25. 609-689-1089 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.