The veteran folk singer Paleface has circled around success for more than two decades without ever getting much of his own. He was friends with Daniel Johnston and Beck before anybody knew who either one of them was; in the early 1990s he was managed by Danny Fields, who had also managed the Ramones and the Stooges. In more recent years he has performed with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Moldy Peaches and recorded with the Avett Brothers.
But somehow none of that success has rubbed off on him. Through a combination of bad luck, bad behavior, and bad business, Paleface never capitalized on his major-label record deals or the national press that accompanied his tours with the Crash Test Dummies and Billy Bragg.
“I’ve really had an up-and-down situation,” he says. “In the late ’90s all the alcohol abuse caught up with me, so I was off the road for years. That’s one of the reasons that a lot of people outside the music business don’t know who I am, because I wasn’t out on the road. It’s like, people in the music business know who I am, but that doesn’t translate to anything else, especially now. I used to call it Danny Fields’ revenge, because Danny used to shout and yell at me all the time about all the mistakes I was making, not paying attention to the music and just partying all the time. I try to tell the younger crew, don’t look to me, I’m a bad example. You’ll be working in a shoe store, trust me, if you don’t take care of business now.”
The stage name Paleface came from his first years in New York, which he says was a “rawer place” in the 1980s. His emergence in downtown clubs sparked a mean streak in an older generation of musicians, who called him Paleface and started rumors that he lived in the subway. “It was their joke on me, and then Danny came along, Danny Fields, and he said, ‘That’s a great name. You’ve got to keep that name.’ And then there was nothing I could do about it.” Now, more than 20 years later, it seems to have stuck for good—the singer and guitarist won’t reveal his real name.
By the time Paleface got sober and returned to performing in 2000, a new generation of New York folk was emerging.
“I stumbled on this scene in New York that had all these great performers,” he says. “Langhorne Slim was there, the Moldy Peaches were there, Kimya Dawson was writing songs, Regina Spektor was there. There was an open mic every Monday, if you can imagine an open mic with all those names I just told you. It was really great, something to behold. I remember one night I was standing in the back and I turned to my right and somebody was standing next to me, and it was the kid from Home Alone. So okay, the word’s really getting out if we’re getting Hollywood kids who are interested.”
Among all that talent, Paleface eventually made the deepest connection with Monica “Mo” Samalot, an architect and fledgling drummer who served as a kind of den mother to the scene.
“She had money, because she had a good job, so she had a nice apartment and she’d invite people over after shows,” Paleface says.
Eventually Samalot bought a drum kit and started performing. “All those people were songwriters,” Paleface says. “Nobody had a drummer!”
In 2008, both Paleface and Samalot tired of the New York grind and moved to North Carolina. It’s cheaper, and a more convenient base for touring, which the duo has done almost non-stop since arriving in the South. They just completed their first European tour, and before that spent a couple of weeks playing clubs on the West Coast, and they have East Coast shows scheduled through July, all in support of the 2010 album One Big Party, a collection of twangy, catchy indie folk with hints of both the ’60s folk-rock scene and ’90s alternative music. The new environment and new partnership have kick-started a modest career that not too long ago seemed like it could never be salvaged.
“The South, I don’t know, it’s got its own vibe,” Paleface says. “It seems like the South and the Northwest are the two places in America that have some sort of awareness of their own—I don’t want to say weirdness, but their own character. Those two places seem to have it more than other places that we’ve witnessed in America.”