By his own account, Paul Labrise has never given an interview until now. Which, given both his talent and his history in the local music scene, is mildly astonishing. Especially since talking with him is how I'd imagine a conversation with the protagonist of a Talking Heads song -- say, the guy in "Once in a Lifetime." A little folksy, a little out there -- unlike many musicians, Labrise is a perfect spokesman for his own songs.
A lifelong Pittsburgher, the singer and guitarist had served stints in the well-regarded local '90s group Bitter Delores and played keyboards for Boxstep while developing his voice as a songwriter. His alt-country-tinged solo records, including 2002's Crawl Out of This, received enthusiastic reviews in the local media, but Labrise seemed content to keep a low profile -- if he thought about it much at all.
"With all the bands I've been in and all the years of experience, I haven't done a lot of promoting," Labrise says, wryly. "I don't have a real plan or an agenda." But that might be changing. With his latest, Star Delight, he's streamlined his idiosyncratic vision toward something he feels is more accessible. "For that reason, I'm more interested in marketing it and trying to get it out there."
Star Delight's 11 songs are performed mainly by Labrise, with help from his casual backing group The Trees: Jay Matula (drums), Megan Williams (violin, vocals), Justin Brown (bass) and Vince Camut (pedal steel). Under Labrise's reedy, Dylanesque voice and smooth arch-top guitar, the band builds a reverberating chiaroscuro of pronounced outlines and deep shadows, alt-country twang and big-city heartache. Some of Star Delight's sonic luster is the work of old friend Jay Valentich of the Pleasure Technicians, who added polish and depth to the ProTools tracks Labrise recorded himself at home.
It's an impressionistic approach that serves Labrise's open-ended lyrics. "I feel like the imagery I'm putting forth are the times that you think about when you're waiting for the bus -- the idle time, the in-between moments," he says. "When you realize something you have to do, or have to make a decision, or when you're, you know, just being."
"I'm not much of a storyteller," he adds. "You can just let the melody and the words that are associated with that melody, and all the music behind it, just create a mood. And you're most likely gonna end up in the same place as if you sat down with the lyrics in front of you and thought, 'what's going on in this song here?'"
Labrise's penchant for humble, concrete images over abstraction and explication gives his songs a bit of a William Carlos Williams feel, if that poet had forsaken Patterson for Pittsburgh, a stethoscope for a six-string. (And like Williams, Labrise seems quite content to pursue his art alongside the pleasures of a profession and home life: He works for the Art Institute while taking Web design courses -- "the only thing that's kept my interest, I'm really into it" -- and, with his wife, recently purchased a home in the West End.)
On one of the album's highlights, "Vanishing People," a Celtic guitar motif folds into a tonality reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," as Labrise sings of "A quiet night, everyday faces, holding out to a burning light / Muted sky, vanishing people, dancing in and out of sight." By the end of the song, those faces vanish into the bright light, but why, we'll never know. Even Labrise is unsure.
"It could be that they're going to sleep," he suggests. "Or changing. Or they're waking up. Or it could mean, like, a nuclear war. I don't want to sing necessarily about nuclear war -- what I'm trying to say is not in that line. ... It's about change, I suppose." He pauses. "It is partially about death, but it's more about living. If you listen to the words, I say exactly what I want to say."
Paul Labrise and The Trees CD Release with Slim Forsythe & The Park Lane Drifters. 9 p.m. Thu., April 19. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net