Nathaniel Paul. Blending art and resilience, from Waco’s cafes to the cusp of Oscars

"While the Oscars were on TV, I spent the day performing for Church Under the Bridge here in Waco, TX and forming our next film. I am making the most of this time in our lives. I am still homeless - with a film on Apple TV! Haha the juxtaposition is wild at the moment…"
1 April 2024

From a cozy cafe in Waco, TX, Nathaniel Paul shares the vibrant journey of an independent musician and filmmaker against the backdrop of his film State of the Unity. His experiences, from performing for Church Under the Bridge to achieving Oscar eligibility, underscore a narrative of resilience and passion.

State of the Unity reflects on unity and Nathaniel’s grandparents’ legacy, symbolizing his career milestone. As a co-director, producer, and actor, he highlights the unifying power of music and community.

Nathaniel Paul discusses juggling music and film roles, emphasizing adaptability and patience in his creative endeavors. His new album Turpentine tackles societal homogenization with nuanced reflections on identity and authenticity.

Starting Over captures the essence of self-reinvention, reflecting the album’s themes and showcasing Nathaniel’s blend of diverse influences into original work.

His upbringing in Indiana infused his art with imagination and storytelling, essential to his creative expression. Facing the challenges in independent music and cinema, Nathaniel stresses collaboration and engagement with audiences, advocating for the arts as a medium for truth and change.

Addressing technological advancements, including AI, he maintains a balanced approach, integrating new tools judiciously to preserve artistic integrity. Enthusiastic about technology’s role in creativity, Nathaniel highlights the potential of modern equipment to revolutionize art-making.

Nathaniel’s story is a testament to the power of art to connect and inspire, marking a journey filled with ambition, creativity, and the pursuit of unity through art.

In an insightful exchange from a quaint cafe in Waco, TX, Nathaniel delves into the kaleidoscopic world of an independent musician and filmmaker. With the backdrop of his recent endeavors, including the acclaimed film State of the Unity, Nathaniel shares his journey through the trials and triumphs of creativity.

State of the Unity, inspired by a deep personal inquiry into unity and the legacy of his grandparents, marks a significant milestone in Nathaniel’s career. Co-directing, producing, and starring in this film, he reflects on the power of music and community to bridge divides, creating a visual and emotional testament to unity.

The new album Turpentine is a blend of grandeur and intimacy, exploring the homogenization of society through the metaphor of a once-coveted cure-all. It’s a reflection on identity, misinformation, and the quest for authenticity in an era of overwhelming conformity.

Confronting the rapid advancements in technology, including AI, Nathaniel adopts a cautious yet open approach, integrating new tools without compromising the integrity of his artistic vision.

Highlighting the transformative potential of technology, Nathaniel is excited by the accessibility and quality of modern equipment, from portable 4K cameras to advanced audio recorders, heralding a new era of creativity and innovation.

Nathaniel’s journey through music and film is a compelling narrative of ambition, creativity, and the enduring power of art to unite and inspire.

“State of the Unity” was never an attempt to save our country, rather it’s a simple film that hopes to help others find the inspiration they need to go and be better and stronger and strive to achieve a brighter future.

Nathaniel, what’s on your mind today?

Sitting in a cafe in Waco, TX my first thought is that being an independent musician is a demanding career choice. There are endless opportunities, travel, shows, but also endless dead ends. You have to constantly be on top of your career and pushing forward, but being thoughtful on how you use your time. I love making art, be it film or music, but the release process can be endless. So I am excited to put out this new album – but can only do so much. On top of all that we just successfully released our film State of the Unity which was eligible for an Oscar here in the US. We didn’t end up getting a nomination, but the transcript of the film was invited into the Margaret Herrick Oscar Library in Beverly Hills, CA a huge honor.

In contrast, while the Oscars were on TV, I spent the day performing for Church Under the Bridge here in Waco, TX and forming our next film. I am making the most of this time in our lives. I am still homeless – with a film on Apple TV! Haha the juxtaposition is wild at the moment…

Congrats! on the success of State of the Unity! Can you reveal the inspiration behind it and your experience co-directing, producing, and starring?

The idea to make a film came almost a decade ago. The idea of launching into film was never really a thought – more of a dream. With over 120,000 songs coming out everyday now with Spotify – and more to come with the creation of AI – we knew we had to think differently about our lives. The music industry is changing rapidly, some good changes, some not so great.

The film started with a basic question. What is unity? Is unity possible? When my Grandfather passed away in the fall of 2015, following my Grandmother’s passing earlier that year, I was struck with an existential crisis. Two major pillars in my life were removed. It left me wondering who I was. The couple who had fathered and raised 10 children, built a home, and provided for a family and created a welcoming home for so many more, had left this earth. How could I honor this legacy? How could I create a space that could invite others in and foster peace and inclusivity – an inclusivity that I felt as a young person in my grandparents home? These were the questions that loomed over me when the concept for “State of the Unity” emerged.

The premise would be simple: to unite people through a common act of signing their names on something. How could we bring people together? By utilizing music to bring people together peacefully to create a space of inclusion. Naturally, being musicians we would have them sign our touring vehicle. By having strangers stand up next to each other, from all walks of life, and stand together in support of a common cause. The simple act of signing something with your name, meant you stood for something greater than yourself. Your narrative could exist amidst many narratives and peacefully move into the future, both figuratively and literally.

This artwork that we created through music, community, and collaboration became a visual reminder of what can unite us. “That it is not a shared narrative of a future, rather a narrative of a shared future. A future in which people have equitable access to the American Dream.” -Dr.David Anderson Hooker. “State of the Unity” was never an attempt to save our country, rather it’s a simple film that hopes to help others find the inspiration they need to go and be better and stronger and strive to achieve a brighter future. To continue to hold space for those we don’t agree with and to do so peacefully.

The car and our collective journey of shared moments are captured in this film. This film is the true embodiment of the cause. I believe this film would have made my grandparents proud.

It has been surreal to be on tour with our film and music and to win over 20 awards worldwide from the ‘Grand Jury Award’ in Las Cruces, NM to the ‘Excellence in Filmmaking’ in Sedona, AZ followed up with becoming Oscar Eligible? What a whirlwind. The film is a universe that we have created. You can jump in the car and see what it’s like to be on the road in pursuit of a dream. A dream of a better world, a dream of making a movie, a dream of writing great music. I look back now and realize it was mad for us to even attempt this all. It was a film that we directed, produced, and starred in.

But now that we are off and running with this new direction – an album and a film combined we have to keep going. We have innovated to create something new – now we hope to continue on this path as the music industry continues to get overwhelmed with more and more material. This is a path for us to continue to create meaningful work in both music and film and have an avenue to get it out to the world.

How do you juggle your roles as a musician, director, songwriter, and producer?

It all comes in waves. I will focus on songwriting for a few weeks, then I might dive into film production and editing, then I will spend a few days in the studio. The major issue I had to learn to deal with was the feeling of postponing gratification. Basically if something wasn’t right, be it the film or the music, I would have to wait for the opportunity to arise to get it right. Sometimes a work would need time – sometimes it needed additional input and minds. But I take it all in stride and love making art and telling stories whether it be through songwriting or filmmaking – the through line is storytelling.

What kind of album is your latest one, Turpentine?

It’s a really fun record. It has really big moments and some really intimate and vulnerable moments too. Lyrically it explores a lot of territory dealing with challenges we face as we all become more homogenized with social media and technology. Turpentine was once called “Wizard Oil”. It offered to cure all illnesses. Everyone wanted it.

We are living through the most homogenized times in human history. We are all reading the same news, buying the same goods from the same companies, and thinking and feeling the same way. We all live on our cell phones and use the same devices. It’s scary. Our ability to think independently, even basic thoughts or concerns, is being challenged. You can leave a conversation in LaPorte, Indiana and have the same conversation in Paris, France – quoting the same sources and using the same facts. Combine that with the inability to think independently and what have we become?

It feels like things could combust very easily – similar to turpentine. At one point in history it was thought that drinking turpentine could cure anything hence the name “Wizard Oil” – that is part of the inspiration of naming the album turpentine. Not only was the conclusion false, but people were actually in fact drinking poison. We are living through a time much like the 1820’s – where misinformation abounded. A time where groupthink is completely ridiculous and actually harming us all. Rather, we are being stripped of what makes us distinct and unique – like turpentine – it will rip away all of that to make us uniform. We are left perfectly identical – coughing up blood on our deathbeds.

What triggered the creation of Starting Over and how does it fit into the album’s narrative?

You know if you load a bag improperly, you can’t just keep throwing stuff in it. It will always be a mess unless you take everything out and start again. At some point in life, you have to go backwards to get going again. This single was about the fear that starting over could lead to repeating the same mistakes. It’s only through going back that we can move forward as painful as it can be.  

Can you reveal who have been your major artistic influences in music and film?

Musically speaking some of my first influences musically were bands like Silverchair, and The Offspring. But I was also really into folk music like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Then I really started listening to jam bands – I wrote my first research paper on the American innovator and icon Jerry Garcia. Now I find myself listening to a lot of The Clientele, Mac DeMarco, and Spoon.

In film, the first movie I remember falling in love with Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky”, Michel Gondy’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, Sam Jones with “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart”, and finally Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez with “Blair Witch Project”. I loved how the first three utilized music in a way that felt integral to the film itself.

How has your upbringing in Michigan City influenced your creative process?

I was 4 when we moved from Michigan City to South Bend, IN. So I have only a few memories in that city – but both places have this post-industrial vibe. I had always felt this tedious relationship that existed between industry and society. My music was influenced by this because I really appreciate the power of storytelling. I would sit with my grandmother and grandfather and my parents and hear of what South Bend, IN was like before the collapse of Studebaker. The sight, sounds, and lights. Yet, what I grew up with was nothing like that – more vacant buildings and collapsing infrastructure. It has changed a lot for the positive since my childhood, the city required a sense of imagination growing up. It’s great to see a renaissance coming to my childhood home, believing in a better future. But the city helped me to imagine a time gone by or a better future – I hope to bring that type of storytelling to my music.

What’s your take on the significance of independent music and cinema, and the collaborative efforts needed to support them?

Great question. To me, as an artist the arts are more important now than ever. In that same breath, it is harder financially than ever before as well. The lines between disciplines are being blurred because of the breakthroughs in technology. With 120,000 songs a day released on Spotify, it’s hard out there just to break through the sheer volume of material. The only way to survive is to build meaningful relationships with fans and listeners. Whether you do that in film or in music – or a combo – you have to build a real relationship.

The arts are under threat because of many things over the last decade. Changes in tastes and preferences from the pandemic. Undue pressure on venues and artists with rising food and travel costs. Yet it is vital for artists and musicians to go where politicians and others may be afraid to go. To speak the truth before it may be widely accepted. Art has always done that – and has to continue on.

Collaboration is key to survival. Working together to resolve the problems that we all face as independents. To be able to inspire each other and talk about what works going forward. We are all part of a much larger online scene – but we have to stay in touch to help each other grow.

How do you perceive the impact of technology, including AI, on the music and film industries, and how do you adapt to these changes?

It’s going to be vast and fast. If we had a choice, we could try to be intentional about how we integrate AI into the sacred process of songwriting and artistic creation, but I am not sure we do. You have to decide for yourself artistically how to integrate these new tools into your process. Is it mastering – or songwriting? For me I am not going to integrate it into my songwriting process, but I will use it to refine a master track or clean up a recording. But we have to be intentional about this moment. I don’t think you can ignore what’s going on, so you have to bring it in a way that doesn’t flatten your work. It’s exhilarating to see how it is changing tasks like quantization – but I am not so excited about the new “material” from legacy artists.

What’s been the most thrilling development in music and film over the past year?

In the past we were valued for how we could complete a rote task over and over. Now the emphasis is on the ability and speed at which we can learn and adapt. The survival equation is shifting under our feet.

I just purchased a new DJI Pocket 3 with a wireless field recorder. It shoots in 4k in D-Log and records at 32 bit audio. It looks incredible and is image stabilized as well – and it fits in your pocket. You can realistically be carrying a full studio and professional grade video camera at the tip of your fingers. The learning curve has been flattened with new learning tools for guitar, singing, piano, video editing. You can get answers to complex questions in seconds. What is possible? Sure feels like anything… that gets me stoked. I just want to keep creating meaningful art – and technology is making that process faster and more convenient. So who knows what comes next, but I’m excited for the future.