“I don’t think I’m really good at anything else,” reflects Paul Colman after more than two decades of making music and playing it all over the world.
“Plan B is to try Plan A again in another direction. I love travelling, I love people and I’m on this journey with the real Jesus—and I sing songs. This is what I do, this is who I am, this is what I feel called to do. If someone died and left me 10 million in their will, I don’t think it would change much of what I do.”
The Melbourne musician is speaking to me from his Nashville base, after flying in from Norway. He was preparing for his brief return to Australia for Toowoomba’s Easterfest, earlier this year.
Ten years after Paul Colman Trio established themselves as one of Australia’s most successful independent musical acts before heading to the United States to make it in the “big league” of the contemporary Christian music industry, Colman is in a simpler place. But he is still doing essentially the same thing—sharing his music, his story and his faith wherever he has the opportunity, as attested to by a new album From the Saltland to the River, released without fanfare late last year.
“I’m not on any major tours, I got off my record label and no longer have a manager,” he explains. “Here I am at 45. I have done all this stuff but I feel like I have plenty of energy and plenty of years ahead of me. I have a particular set of skills that I have built over a period of time and I ask God, ‘What do you want to do with me? Because here I am.’ ”
A Cactus Heart
Given his reflective tone, it isn’t surprising to hear this mood in Colman’s new recordings. The cover art reflects the album’s most autobiographical track—a thorny, heart-shaped cactus.
“I had a pretty tough time as a kid,” he explains. “I had this massive personality and no idea how to control it or tame it, something I still have trouble with. I got beaten up a lot and I regularly got sent home from camps. Pretty much wherever I went was like a war zone. So I just ended up a bit of a junkyard dog: a bit prickly and lacking in trust. There were lots of issues associated with that rejection.”
“A few years ago, while visiting a ranch in Texas, this guy I was with pointed out a bunch of cactus leaves and one of them was shaped perfectly like a love heart. I had one of those moments when I thought, ‘Man, that’s my heart. Underneath it’s juicy and good but it’s also prickly and how many people actually get to that good part?’ “
“So even though people should be very careful when trying to write a song from God’s perspective, I wrote it thinking this is how God feels about me. He says, ‘I can see all this stuff, yet I still love you.’ ”
According to Colman, this realisation has been important in his own journey “from the saltland to the river”—as narrated in his album title—from a place of self-absorption and self-reliance to a place of surrender and greater understanding.
This motif of journey is appropriate to the story of a musician who has chased the dream with some significant successes but now finds himself more focused on a different kind of journeying.
“If God waited for your motivation to be pure, you would never do anything,” says Colman. “If He waited for you to be together, nothing would ever happen. It seems to me that God is able to use us to help people while we are totally broken, while He lovingly helps us down the road of our own healing.”
“So I don’t walk out the door to go to a show feeling I have got anything for anybody—I really just have my story and the fact that I am chasing after God. Sometimes that is a blurry picture and sometimes it is clear but I just know that’s where I’m going. So for me it’s less about music and it’s more about that journey.”
Easterfest is Australia’s largest festival about Easter. The opportunity to celebrate the message of Easter draws tens of thousands of people from across Australia—and even the world—to Toowoomba, Queensland. 2013 marked the festival’s fifteenth year.
For four days, 200 artists from across the world filled multiple stages in Queens Park, as well as cafes, restaurants, theatres, shopping centres (pictured, left) and churches throughout the city’s CBD, with music of every kind. But Easterfest isn’t just about the music.
Easterfest also partners with a number of different organisations who encourage festival-goers to play their part in making a difference beyond their immediate sphere of influence by bringing awareness to social justice issues in our world—something organisers feel cannot be separated from the message of Easter.
Ultimately, Easterfest is a celebration of life, love, community and the message of what Jesus did for the world.
Amid the journeys, cacti, deserts and rivers, another metaphor recurs in Colman’s description of what he does: being a bridge between people and particularly between the hope offered in church and the ordinary people found in a pub.
“I really burn to be part of that bridge,” he says. “It means that people are going to walk all over me but that’s what bridges do, I guess.”
Colman observes that he sees many religious people in the world becoming more religious, more insular and more self-contained. Despite being part of the Christian music industry for many years, he confesses he now has less to do with the American Christian music scene and that he is more comfortable off the Christian music circuit, often in Europe, Australia or less Christianised parts of the US.
He says he has always been uncomfortable with Christian music labels and more so with the limitations of Christian radio stations, Christian cafes and increasingly self-focused church facilities.
“If you go to the pub and ask someone what they think of Jesus, you get some interesting answers. My feeling is that the guy in the pub is not really that different from the guy in the church in essence. Yet there is a bunch of moral things that we have come up with that make you feel that we are a long way apart.“
“In the church, we have to remove a lot of our judgements to see the people as they are. I don’t really care what the answer is; I just want to be a part of the team building that bridge. If people are going to reject Jesus, I hope they are rejecting the ‘televangelist’ Jesus, because I think when most of them meet Him, they are not going to reject Him because He is awesome, He is love, He is grace, He is kindness and He is tough as well as sweet.”
According to Colman, the Queensland gospel music festival now known as Easterfest fits well with his bridge-building mission. “I remember playing at the first one on the main stage, which was a flatbed truck in the middle of Queens Park,” he recalls.
“The guys who run it have a long-term vision. It’s so nice to be associated with something that has the person of Jesus as the backdrop of everything, yet there is nothing cringe-worthy about it.”
“There is nothing you can’t invite a guy from the local pub to hear you play and he be able to say, ‘Wow, I might not share everything they are into but that was great.’ I think it’s important that Easterfest personify that—as good as anyone anywhere in the world—and I am proud to be an Australian when I am there.”
Which brings me to asking about Paul Colman Trio, mainstays of events such as Easterfest from 1998 until “taking a break” in 2004 and return visitors on each of their reunion tours in 2009 and 2011.
“The pause button has been pressed,” Colman says. “We have all got various things we are doing, so there is no plan for the trio, there is no plan to stop, there is no plan to restart—the current plan is pause and see what happens. We were together for a long time, but if you are an independent band and play largely for the faith community, which is a small part of the Australian culture, it can be a pretty tough thing and you are taking a big financial risk every time you do it. But I feel for sure we will play together again—we all love each other, which is nice.”
For the moment, Colman seems content to be playing on smaller stages. As his own manager, he responds to invitations to sing and tell his story as they come in. After his trip to Australia, he was booked for shows in Germany, Holland and the United States in following months. He is also doing some production work on recording projects in Nashville and it seems he always has enough to do.
“It’s funny, you know, it all just seems to trickle in and I never have to worry about it. As a fellow musician commented to me recently, ‘You don’t have any support but you always seems to be everywhere doing stuff.’ So I might not be impressive but I’m still around,” Colman says with a self-deprecating chuckle.
“I’m just doing what gets put in front of me. I’m not really a preacher or anything; I just have a story of what God has done in my life and what He is doing—and how He is loving, graceful and wonderful. I just try to share that in the best possible way I can, no matter where I am.”