Paul Corliss talks ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’, wanderlust, and the characters who live inside him

Happy Mag digs into the artistry, songwriting and characters who inform Paul Corliss’ trio of singles Travels, Travails, Triumphs. 

Last week, we were treated to the blissful country rhythms and vivid storytelling of Paul Corliss’ trilogy of singles ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’.

The sonic odyssey traced the singer-songwriter from folk to soft rock, as guided by his tales of the heartbreaks, victories and defeats that come with a life on the road. 

Paul Corliss interview

“I tend to romanticize places I enjoy visiting or places I’ve lived,” Corliss tells us in a new interview, “these new songs include reflections on places that are burned in my soul.”

Below, the Austin-based musician swings by Happy for a deep dive into his new singles collection, the influence of wanderlust on his songwriting, and crafting compelling second-person narratives. 

Catch out full interview with Paul Corliss below, and scroll down to listen to his new singles dubbed ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’.

HAPPY: What are you up to today?

CORLISS: I’m watching basketball, walking my dog and practicing guitar – I suck on guitar, but I’m always trying to get better. I’m also looking at a map of Australia and planning a trip.

I’ve not yet had the pleasure of visiting your country, but I’m so excited that people halfway around the world are enjoying my songs.  

HAPPY: Tell us a little about where you live, what do you love about it?

CORLISS: I’ve lived in Austin, Texas for less than two years, so I’m still getting to know it. The Austin area has been the fastest-growing metro area in America for the last decade, so it is literally growing and evolving before your eyes.

Austin has had a thriving music scene for years – “live music capital of the world – and there is a strong sense of community among artists. There’s so much talent here that I’ve put in work to step up my game.

I’ve met some incredible musicians in my short time here and the vast majority have been kind, welcoming and supportive of my efforts.  

Paul Corliss interview 

HAPPY: Your new tunes, ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’, take us on a journey across America. What sparked this wanderlust in your songwriting?

CORLISS: I tend to romanticize places I enjoy visiting or places I’ve lived, particularly in songs. On my first album, ‘Glow,’ I wrote the song ‘Miami’ when visiting South Florida on a rainy day.

I wrote Stuck in Reno while literally stuck at the Reno airport with my daughter for 10 hours during a blizzard. While those songs were based more on real-time experiences, these new songs from the TTT trilogy include reflections on places that are burned in my soul.

Chicago Feels shares all the goodness of my favorite big city, the place where I grew up and still call home – I love the skyline, the trains, the food, the lakeshore, the sports teams, the people.

In Headed West the main character is leaving New Orleans, which I did myself after living there from 2001-2006.

And while that song is not a first-person story, I also have a desire to head west at some point. My wife is from Colorado and it’s our dream to make it to the mountains at some point.   

HAPPY: The first track, ‘Headed West’, is pure country gold. You sing about a drifter chasing a new horizon. Is this a story you know well, or a dream you hold close?

CORLISS: The drifter is just a character I had in my head – someone who feels the urge to leave a relationship when things get a little too intimate or when he has to commit.

For him, it’s easier to start over in a new place and he likes the challenge of starting over. Saying goodbye is emotionally exhausting for him, so he just splits when he’s had enough.    

HAPPY: We gotta talk about that epic guitar solo in ‘Chicago Feels’! It screams Windy City grit. Did the spirit of Chicago itself channel that solo, or was it something else?

CORLISS: Michael Smith, who produced these singles at his Sunland Sound studio in Dallas, plays multiple guitars on all three tracks and just let it rip. Michael is an incredibly talented player – so versatile and tasteful.

He actually recorded that solo when I was away from the studio, and the first time I heard it my jaw dropped. Holy shit! I love how it sort of comes out of nowhere and closes the tune with pure muscle.

It kind of feels like a 1982 Camaro flying down Lakeshore Drive with the gas pedal grinding into the floorboard.  

HAPPY: Seems like your protagonist in these songs can’t stay put for long. What’s the allure of the open road for them, and maybe even for you, Paul?

CORLISS: I love travelling. The road becomes a metaphor for life’s endless possibilities, where each twist and turn offers new experiences and insights.

Travelling serves as a catalyst for growth and self-exploration. It’s a journey marked by chance encounters, unexpected detours, and the constant pursuit of new experiences.

I find it fascinating how different cities or regions in America have their own cultures, their own unique landscapes, and different climates. And I love how those contrasts are even more profound when travelling to other countries.

My wife and I hiked the Swiss Alps last summer, going from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland over the course of a week, and it blew me away that in the first half of our trip the locals spoke French and in the second half the locals spoke German.

I’ve never been to Australia, but I’ll get there eventually – maybe music can take me to your country? Let’s do this!   

HAPPY: You mentioned these stories are fictional, but with a sprinkle of truth. What real-life experiences snuck their way into these songs?

CORLISS: While the narratives in these songs are predominantly fictional, they’re often infused with fragments of personal truth and lived experiences.

For instance, the narrator in Headed West moves away from New Orleans – something I mentioned earlier as one of my personal experiences – and winds up in a Colorado town called Fountain, which was the hometown of my in-laws.

In Secrets Have Short Lives the main character is fired by video call and that kind of happened to me once.

The rest of the stories in these songs have very little in common with my life or experiences, but I like to include flashes of my reality – almost like an inside joke, it makes me smile.

Whether it’s a fleeting emotion, a vivid memory, or a shared moment of humanity, these elements of truth hopefully make the songs feel more authentic and relatable to the listener. At least that’s my intention.

HAPPY: ‘Secrets Have Short Lives’ sounds like a deep dive into the dark side of life on the move. Broken hearts, bad bosses – How’d you find the balance between the fun and the struggle?

CORLISS: I like dark songs and dark characters. I’m drawn to gritty stories, where shadows lurk and characters are flawed, real, and raw. Some of my favorite American songwriters are incredibly adept at conveying the dirty, seedy underbelly of life in their music.

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of the band Drive-By Truckers from Athens, Georgia both write fascinating songs about flawed characters that might drink too much or have a violent streak.

Cooley has a song called ‘Panties in Your Purse’ that colorfully tells the story of a woman who cheats on her husband, gets caught, loses her kids and moves back in with her mother – her life just goes to shit.

The protagonist in ‘Secrets Have Short Lives’ isn’t quite as self-destructive, but he’s lost his job, lost his girlfriend and he’s pissed off and lonely. People’s lives fall apart all the time, but no one likes to talk about it. Sometimes the darkest stories hold the most truth. 

HAPPY: This whole trilogy was cooked up at Sunland Sound Studio in Dallas. What kind of magic did that place weave into the music?

CORLISS: Actually, these songs were first cooked up in the home studio of my good buddy Brian Roach, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and plays bass on all three TTT tracks.

Roach is incredibly talented and super encouraging in helping me bring new songs to life, along with our buddy Brian Tadlock on drums. Another Fort Worth musician, guitarist Saint Clair Newburn, came up with the chord progression for ‘Secrets Have Short Lives’ in a session at Roach’s.

We created demos of each TTT track in Fort Worth, then I took them 30 miles east to Dallas and Sunland Sound, Michael Smith’s studio that’s really gaining some acclaim among Texas musicians. Sunland Sound is a converted garage that kind of feels like a cave – it’s a place where real work happens. No frills.

I love going in and rolling up my sleeves with Michael and Nate Wedan as my producers. Aside from being a kick-ass drummer, Nate is a very talented arranger, and he helps me refine song structures.

He also establishes mood and feel with his drumming, which is the first thing we track during the recording process. And Michael is just a beast in the studio. He runs the board, he mixes, he edits, he coaches, he plays multiple guitars on every track.

Michael has a room with 10-12 guitars hanging on the wall – different makes, models, vintages – and chooses the right instrument for the right moment in each song.

He’s crushing a guitar while sitting at his computer and working the board, all at once. It’s fascinating to watch and he’s so fucking good.

The magic of the studio comes from the other musicians involved – Michael and Nate are brilliantly talented and very generous with their time and expertise.

Roach too – he might be my favorite person to play music with in the world (although he never plays publicly). I would not have these songs without those guys. 

HAPPY: From Texas twang to Chicago rock, ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’ is a genre-bender. Did this musical journey just happen organically, or was it a deliberate exploration?

CORLISS: The musical journey of ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’ was both organic and deliberate. Sometimes I have a genre in mind for a song and it seems to have a mind of its own, going on to somewhere I didn’t expect.

‘Chicago Feels’, for instance, ended up with a catchy synthesizer lick that Michael came up with in the studio – it sounds like the 1980s to me and changed the whole feel of the song (in a good way).

‘Headed West’ fucking grooves because of Nate’s drumming – the beat is so chill, so contagious, and I love his subtle work with brushes.

Michael’s slide guitar in the opening of ‘Headed West’ was totally inspired by Derek Trucks – we died laughing when Nate suggested Mike play that part like Trucks, only the best slide player in the world.

But damn, he sure as hell he pulled it off. Sometimes it’s best to just let things unfold as they’re meant to. Don’t force it. Just go with it.

Paul Corliss interview

HAPPY: ‘Travels, Travails, Triumphs’ is just the beginning, right? What’s next on the horizon for Paul Corliss?

CORLISS: There’s no plan. I was in a band for several years in Dallas, a really talented cover band, and I yearned to create something original.

But then when I moved to Austin and left that band, it was sort of like a small piece of me died. I built that band from nothing, started it in my garage, and then I let it go. I missed it – still do sometimes.

But I also felt uplifted, free and open to new possibilities. I’d sort of accomplished what I set out to with the band and it was time to do new things.

I released my first album, ‘Glow’, shortly after that departure, and then I wrote the ‘Travels, Travails and Triumphs’ songs. It all just kind of happened organically.

Right now, I’m booking some live performances around Texas with new collaborators I’ve met in Austin, also reuniting with my favorite collaborators from the past on occasion, and we’ll see what happens.

Getting established musically in a new city, especially one with as many talented musicians as Austin, isn’t easy. But I embrace the challenge. I believe in myself. And I’m having fun. It’s all about having fun for me.

HAPPY: Any advice for aspiring singer-songwriters who dream of weaving tales through music, just like you?

CORLISS: Don’t’ be afraid – to quote the title track from my first album ‘Glow’: “Life moves at light speed, no time to worry, no time to cry. Buckle in, enjoy the ride, take the leap … fly or die.” So my advice is to just fucking go for it.

Stay true to your unique voice and vision, then let ‘er rip. Surround yourself with a supportive community of fellow artists and collaborators who can offer feedback and encouragement along the way – you can’t do it yourself.

At least I can’t. And above all, have fun exploring new avenues of expression. Music is supposed to be fun.

HAPPY: Lastly, what makes you happy?

CORLISS: Music makes me happy. Singing a favorite song I’ve heard a million times makes me happy. Learning something new and complex, pulling it off live, that’s rewarding.

Coming up with a catchy melody or profound lyrics gives me confidence. Performing live is the ultimate adrenaline rush – I compare it to tearing down a mountain on my snowboard.

You’re totally in the moment, you don’t have time to think, and that’s my zen. And goodness, I Iove watching and listening to others play live.

Jamming out to my favorite bands – or discovering new music and performers – really makes me happy. Seeing music make others smile makes me happy.