One of the area’s most distinguished musicians, the soft-spoken Paul Adams studied ethnomusicology at Southern Illinois University and later earned a degree in human services from Western. A self-described “instrument nut,” guitar is just one of his many instruments, and his music is as eclectic as it gets, ranging from meditative and acoustic to new age and electronic to jazz and world fusion. Adams spoke to art & society about music as a healing tool, the state of the industry, his attraction to the Midwest, overcoming “the shy’s,” his friendship with David Hoffman, and a unique encounter with ‘80s pop icon Daryl Hall.

Tell us about your musical background and the instruments you play.
I started out playing trumpet, but guitar is my main instrument. I also play the Native American flute, five-string banjo, Chinese hulusi, Irish whistle, some keyboards, and various ethnic percussion. I’m an instrument nut and collector.

I play what’s known as the American drop-thumb fingerstyle guitar. An injury to my fretting hand forced me to approach it in a unique way. Of course, the Native American flute, in both traditional as well as jazzy and eclectic styles. Keyboards and synthesizer are used for my new age and ambient recordings (as are the flutes), and of course, the sounds of nature are used both in a musical and background fashion. We often record in the woods and use those beautiful sounds in our recordings.

I have eight albums out, as well as a side project called The Neurons I started with David Hoffman. It’s a bit of a rhythmic, jazzy, world-fusion thing. It seemed to resonate more with European audiences than those in America.

Each album can be quite different from the previous. I was fortunate to have had my first album, Various Waves, in the top five of the year by Musical Starstreams, the largest syndicated instrumental program in America. The Property Of Water was named Album of the Year by Wind And Wire magazine in 1997. Flute Meditations for Dreaming Clouds was nominated for Album of the Year by Zone Music Reporter, the main charting service for instrumental music. My album Heavens was nominated in three separate categories of music this year. And of course, David’s new album, Calmness Of Spirit, was chosen as New Age Album of the Year by The Independent Music Awards (These were voted by folks like Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, etc. It’s a big deal.) The thing I’m most excited about is David and I getting such solid penetration with the satellite networks, like Sirius/XM, MUSIC CHOICE, DMX, ABC and other digital services. It allows us to reach a broad audience from all over the world.

How did you first discover your passion for music?
I think the love of music is within everyone. Even animals respond to it. Look at a child when a band or the radio is playing—they naturally start to move. My first love was Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Then I discovered folk and rock music: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Caravan, The Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Hendrix, etc. Then there’s Ravi Shankar, Balinese gamelan, Tuvan throat singing, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir…the list of interests gets quite long. Music can almost be described as magic. Along with mathematics, it is one of our two universal languages.

How did you get started building instruments?
I started building instruments while studying ethnomusicology in college. I got into making dulcimers and banjos, and then, eventually, guitars and basses. I made a 10-stringed Swedish hummel for Daryl Hall [of Hall & Oates] years ago. That was fun. He came in the motel room naked as a jaybird when I delivered it to him. When I am uncomfortable, I tend to joke, and I said to him, “I almost inlayed Daryl Oates in the peghead!” He looked up at me and said something like, “That joke wouldn’t have gone far.” Oops. I failed to ease the tension. I don’t build so much anymore, but someday hope to get back into it. I still do some repair work for people now and then.

When and how did you meet Dave Hoffman?
I met Dave at the old Madison Comedy Club back in the 1980s. He was playing jazz as an opening act. The moment I heard him play, I knew I was hearing something very special. His playing level was very, very high. We met, talked about music and composing, recognized a kinship in the way we looked at art, and developed a friendship. He played on my first album, and while he was touring with Ray Charles, I assisted in putting together his album, From Energy to Stillness, from tapes he left me. We have worked together on various recordings since then.

Which do you like best, composing or performing?
I’m really pretty shy. I wanted to perform and compose, but was terrified. So I started building instruments as a way to be creative yet not have to perform. Then I took a deep breath and did an album. I had some luck with it. Then, I had to play live—gulp! With each performance, I lose a little of the “shy’s.” I try to take myself out of the equation (of being observed) and focus on the music.

How does music intersect with your job at the Human Service Center?
For those who may not know, the Human Service Center assists those dealing with various mental illnesses. It’s one of the most respected agencies in the nation. My work at HSC intersects in two major ways.

First off, it is rich artistic fodder. I am dealing with the nucleus of the human condition. The drama is pronounced: death, life, tragedy, triumph, sanity, reality. This, of course, is colored with the hue of illnesses and co-occurring things like addiction, abuse, etc. What I see isn’t the one-dimensional plot that Hollywood gives us. Generally, how the media portray these wonderful people is very limited. They have the same problems with the same depth of complexity we all have—but their frame of reference to reality is sometimes more difficult. The work isn’t easy, and sometimes there is little gratification, but this is real life, and these experiences have promoted great growth in me. We are all a bit lost in our own way.

The second and more practical way is that I get invaluable experience seeing how music can be used as a tool to assist clients in dealing with symptoms. It is useful for stress management. It can be utilized in assisting with communication and the expression of feelings. I have clients that use gentle music for relaxation, gospel for a sense of connection and hope, and pop and rock as a way to offer hope and an increase in energy. The examples are so numerous. I strongly advise folks to read Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia (The movie Awakenings with Robert De Niro was based on one of Oliver’s books.) There is another book by my friend John Ortiz called The Tao of Music that I find very practical and helpful, with great examples of music to use for various applications in treatment.

Why stay in Peoria? What attracts you to the Midwest?
Well, that’s a question I still bounce about. We do tend to get a bit more respect outside of the Midwest. Sometimes the artistic openness and acceptance of edgy material is better in larger cities, but this isn’t always the case. Digital technology has brought us closer together. Dave lived in the L.A. area for years when he was with Ray Charles, and he’s not a believer that you need to be there.

The positive thing about Peoria is its sense of pragmatism, sensibility and reality. There have been times when we’ve clashed with others in the artistic community, but small-mindedness and misunderstanding (two main ingredients in personal friction) are everywhere! I could go on and on. We have great musicians and artists, beautiful prairie lands, a beautiful winding river, and it is so affordable. If I were in L.A., I would not be able to do the work I do, because I would have to work very hard making something that sells just to pay the exorbitant rent. Peoria offers the composer much more freedom of choice in painting the picture they wish to paint, rather than replicating what the corporation tells them to do. Because of satellite radio, the majority of our business and sales come from far outside the Midwest. Europe, Japan and China seem to be stronger spots for us. We also get paid about four times as much for outside gigs. But, doing the Peoria performances have been good in helping me deal with “the shy’s.”

What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry?
We are in the middle of a revolution, no two ways about it. The business model is changing. Record stores are folding. Record labels are dying. The old paradigm still exists: start a band, get a record deal, tour and play Letterman. But now, we can compose what we want to compose.

By bypassing that old model, we have freedom. It can be more holistic and organic. We compose the songs, play the instruments, do the engineering, create the covers and master the recording. We can work like painters. What used to take hundreds of professionals to do can now be done by one individual. When we get played on satellite radio and the internet, people look to see who it is and go order the album from Amazon, iTunes, eMusic or a thousand other distributors. The consumer can purchase a physical CD or simply download the album. The record executives and middlemen have been eliminated. Wow! This is revolutionary!

What is your philosophy as an artist?
That’s a big question. Let’s see…to grow and learn. To find and express your truth. To show concern for your audience while you lead them down what might be a new or unfamiliar path. To teach, educate and pass on knowledge to the younger artists. To create, work toward honesty, find yourself and absorb the utter 360-degree expanse of love. I’m afraid that sounds pretentious! I could go on forever. Maybe if I were succinct, I would say, “An artist is someone who creates uniquely, honestly, and expresses his spirit.” Whatever you do—flipping burgers, laying bricks—can be treated as art. a&s