written by: Ashley Szanter photos and video by: Natalie Simpson
If you read about Paul Jacobsen’s day-to-day life on paper, you might not immediately assume he has tons of musical talent. As an employee of Instructure, an education tech company, Jacobsen spends his days in the corporate world. At night, however, Jacobsen steps into the spotlight–literally. The Salt Lake native has made more than just an after-hours hobby out of his music, with solo albums already out and commitments to two groups, The Lower Lights and The Madison Arm, performing all over Salt Lake. “The Lower Lights has kind of taken off–it’s a gospel, folk, bluegrass band–and our Christmas shows became unexpectedly popular,” he says. “We have five nights planned at Kingsbury Hall.”
While Jacobsen plays gigs close to home today, he spent a good four years trying to break into the music scene in New York City. “I was performing at the lowest possible definition of playing music. I moved to NYC and realized what it is to be a small fish in a big pond,” he recalls. “But it’s good to have those moments to realize you aren’t as cool as you think you are—I couldn’t beg someone for a bad review.”
He doesn’t regret the string of rejections he faced in the NYC music scene, even as he remembers a particularly sobering moment outside The Living Room, a well-known venue where singers like Norah Jones got their start. “They wouldn’t book me because I didn’t have enough of a following. I was handing out flyers for a gig of mine at a lesser venue. The door guy was like, ‘dude, you can’t do that here.’ I thought, not only can I not get a gig at The Living Room, I can’t even hand out flyers for my crappier gig,” he says. While there were some glimpses of big-city success, including a set at the legendary CBGB’s before it closed its doors in 2006, mostly he faced rejection and times he questioned whether he really wanted to pursue music.
A compelling job offer spurred Jacobsen’s return to Utah 10 years ago. Salt Lake inspired him in ways NYC never could-—while settling down and starting a family, he released a second album, Paul Jacobsen and The Madison Arm, in 2008 (his first album, You Might Regret You Ever Cared, came out in 2003 before his move to NYC). Even with two albums under his belt, trying to get Jacobsen to pin down his musical style can be challenging. “Well, I’m not folk enough for folkies, not indie enough for the indie kids and not rock enough for the rock people. I’m in this in-between place,” he says. “Indie folk is the closest I can get, and I still get a little itchy when I say it–maybe just some non-centrist form of folkish music.”
While nailing down his sound might be difficult, Jacobsen has no qualms about discussing the influence Utah and Salt Lake City has on his sound and lyrics. “Part of the inspiration comes from the songwriters and musicians around me. A lot of the best literature and art is unafraid of embracing its place,” Jacobsen says. “I love the writing of people who are unafraid to embrace where they’re from. I think it comes from a much more truthful place.”
Good Things Take Time
Jacobsen’s upcoming, untitled third album is slated for a Spring 2018 release–10 years after his last record. “One of the reasons it takes me so long to write is that I’m very critical of lyric writing, so I’m quite slow. I have the music first, and then I tend to obsess over the lyrics,” says Jacobsen.
See more inside our 2018 Jan/Feb Issue.