Review - Polly Paulusma

With the world at the turning point of the winter solstice, Barnaby Eaton-Jones listened to Polly Paulusma's album The Pivot On Which The World Turns and caught up with the lady herself for an exclusive interview...

The Pivot On Which The World Turns is the latest album from British singer-songwriter Polly Paulusma [the sister album of which, 'When Violent Hot Pitch Words Hurt' is out in February - Ed].

Having been a fan since her first album, Scissors In My Pocket, there’s a journey here from that 2004 debut to this 2022 album (which she’s currently touring). She deliberately engages and evolves her fanbase by reworking whole albums or tracks, so you feel you’re really part of her musical process and progress. Maybe that’s because she’s always walked her own musical path, to the point of founding her own record label – Wild Sound (now owned by One Little Independent, when she decided to fund her PhD by selling it).

Her voice is both strong and wispy, finding notes in breathless tones that whisper beautiful and heartfelt lyrics that lay her soul bare. She’s unique and it’s very easy to be drawn into her catchy melodies and stripped-back arrangements that just rise and fall with the emotions in the songs.

For this album, the single Luminary stands out (which is clearly why she’s released it as a single [and the acoustic version is on When Violent Hot Pitch Words Hurt, listen to that here - Ed]), with a hook that stays with you once you’ve heard it. It seems to be a clarion call to the world, clawing its way back to the light after the first heavy waves of the pandemic – urging everyone to see the beauty around them and in them (and each other). It’s a gloriously ethereal song, both singing to the heavens and singing to the masses.

It's hard to pinpoint – and one probably shouldn’t – where you can hear influences from other artists, but I always feel she’s a glorious mix between Peter Gabriel and Carole King. That’s just to my ears.

This album contains snatches of poetry, which were clearly a successful device on her last album – Invisible Music (playing the folk songs that inspired the famed British novelist Angela Carter). These lucid moments don’t detract from the songs they are included in, and just give something different aside from the melodious singing.

For me personally, the track Tired Old Eyes is the most sublime on the album. There’s a sort of lullaby-like quality to Paulusma’s tunes and, coupled with these achingly haunting lyrics of watching a baby sleep (and passing the baton from mother to child, of future potential and the life ahead), it’s very evident here. The refrain gets you properly in the feels, especially if you have children of your own…

But I could watch you sleep for hours, for hours.
If my tired old eyes would let me.

But it’s really difficult to laud one song over another, as the whole album is just exquisite in its simplicity (which hides the complexities of the musicality and storytelling). As I write about Tired Old Eyes, my ears are warmed by a song called Robin. My mother believes that passed souls come back to visit as these red-breasted birds, and Paulusma’s chorus that ‘love like there’s no tomorrow’ reinforces that view. There’s always a quirky turn of phrase that will often be at the start of her songs, that draw you in and keep you listening for the lyrics, and this one is no different…

A robin perches on my spade,
Her breast stained red for sorrow.
Her song pours out like lemonade,
She sings, “Love like there’s no tomorrow”

If you’ve not heard of Polly Paulusma, and if you were enchanted by the rural music that wends it way through the recent most-watched BBC revival of Worzel Gummidge – with that sort of countryside-evoking folk ballads – then you should seek her out. She’s really a special talent.

Here's the interview by Barnaby (BEJ) with Polly Paulusma (PP)

(BEJ) Polly, thanks so much for allowing me to pester you with these questions. Firstly, you're currently on tour with an album you wrote in lockdown. Does it feel odd to sing those songs, created in a confined space, to a public that can all relate to that shared experience?

(PP) Yes sometimes. And yet, it’s a common vernacular. I wonder how the songs will work later, when people don’t remember. I hope they still work on some level…

(BEJ) The Pivot On Which The World Turns is another exquisite album. As you recorded your first album, Scissors In My Pocket, in the confines of your own home, did this feel like a return to that?

(PP) I’ve actually worked like that most of the time. My second record was the only one I went outside to work in a studio for the whole thing. All the others I’ve recorded mostly at home. Drums and bass I can’t do — I love the feel of having players playing together, and I just don’t have the space to achieve the separation necessary. So I work with amazingly talented musicians who can record 17 songs in one weekend, and then I overlay all my bits at home with the luxury of time and no audience. Honestly I don’t know how they do it.

(BEJ) The evolution of your songwriting continues, with Invisible Music's background of poet Angela Carter, infusing a couple of spoken-word moments in tracks. Do you find you have to write lyrics before the melody, and how difficult is it to write such personal words to sing?

(PP) Ach, they just pour out. I don’t know where to put myself most of the time. I’m so grateful to have melodies spiralling around in my head and they just seem to find partners for each other. I can never say which came first. It’s a dance going on up there and partners just find themselves somehow.

(BEJ) On tour, is there a track that stands out to you from the new album that seems to connect you with the audience the best? Or, is there one that best encapsulates the entire album and you enjoy singing the most?

(PP) I love them all. I think Luminary is making the leap, and I thought it might. And Robin is wonderful because we all get to sing together for that one, and the message is so important, it feels like a credo for me, and to have a roomful of happy souls sent out into the night singing love like there’s no tomorrow makes me feel like I’ve done what I was supposed to do.

(BEJ) You're a very unique singer/songwriter, and seem to have created your audience in a very organic way, outside of the more restrictive music industry. Does this freedom create less pressure, or is the need for engagement to keep your audience up-to-date a stress in itself?

(PP) I have had incredible support for nearly 20 years from One Little Independent, who have always given me 100% artistic freedom. Patreon has been game-changing for me: my fiftysomething patrons currently buy me a day a week to actually create. There are whole songs that wouldn’t exist I don’t think if it weren’t for that. I am actively working to grow my Patreon support base to buy me more time: 250 is the goal.

(BEJ) Is it true that you once lived in the thinnest house in London?

(PP) Yes! 7’7” like living on a boat, for 12 years. It was amazing.

(BEJ) There's a contented feel to your lyrics and a more consistently upbeat atmosphere to your songs on The Pivot On Which The World Turns. Coming from a place where the world had to stop and take stock, was this caused by that taking stock?

(PP) The songs on that album were actually written across 10 years, so the impact of lockdown in a literal sense is only minimal. Luminary as a song straddled the whole period — I retrieved the guitar chord sequence from a voice memo from 2011 when I was sat in deepest darkest lockdown in 2020 and it sang to me of how I was feeling at that moment. The bass and drums parts were recorded long before lockdown, in 2018. But perhaps the way it’s arrived in the world, very slowly, emerging from a burrow almost, is indicative of the world we find ourselves in…

(BEJ) I'm fascinated by your research into Angela Carter, and your replication of the folk songs she sang before becoming a celebrated poet. Was that always your intention when going in, or were you just interested in the poetry side and it was a happy accident that music was so heavily involved in her development, that you could draw on?

(PP) I was up to my armpits in my PhD project and I realised I needed to sing the songs I was writing about myself if I was to have any hope of understanding how singing them might have affected her literary imagination. I guess the process of the multimodal in-and-out is all too familiar to me as an artist: I only have to open the cover of a book of T S Eliot’s poetry to be twitching around with song ideas. But to be writing about someone else’s in-and-out, and to be writing about muscle memory and songfulness, demanded that I engage with the songs as physical objects, bring them inside myself, live them from the inside out. So that was why the album happened. Because of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to hit ‘record’.

(BEJ) It's always an impossible question, but are there three songs you think - across your album - that encapsulate you for someone who hasn't heard your music yet?

(PP) Ah Gawd. I don’t know, you choose!

(BEJ) Had you always wanted to be a singer/songwriter growing up, or was there a path now not taken that you were aiming for? Did you listen to any inspirational musical artists that informed your passion for writing and performing when growing up, or did you just begin writing without trying to emulate someone?

(PP) I just always did it. I tried for a very long time not to do it. And I’ve tried to escape a number of times, but I just can’t help returning. I think it’s my vocation, so I’ve stopped stravaiging now.

(BEJ) Thanks for your time, Polly, and break a leg when you continue the tour in 2023.

You can find out more information on Polly’s website:

Find her on social media:

And catch her live on tour on these dates:

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