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I like the fact that I'm not a frontman but I'm doing it anyway," says Paul Fonfara of his current musical project, Painted Saints. "I got sick of being in all these bands and being the forgotten guy on the side and not getting any credit. I think that's one of the reasons I'm writing my own songs now."
No stranger to the local chamber-roots scene, Fonfara has had his share of supporting roles opposite leading men over the years, including those in Munly De Dar He, the Denver Gentlemen, DeVotchKa, and Boston transplants Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs. A highly skilled multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, clarinet, saxophone, cello and bandeleon, among others, Fonfara is also the newest member of exotic road-surf outfit Maraca 5-O. But these days, the restless, sleepy-eyed 28-year-old who hails from the white-trash boonies of Wellington, Colorado, would much rather front than follow.
"The music I'm doing is similar to all of the other bands I've played in," Fonfara concedes. "I don't think it's the best band I've been in, but I think it's the most personal one. I don't think I sing well, but I think that's sort of a strength because I can be totally honest, write lyrics about what I do, and just get up there and feel like I'm naked on stage. When you don't give a shit about what people think, it's very liberating.
"My lyrics are all pretty self-absorbed," he continues. "I hate to say that, but I think they are. But in most good bands, one person has to be the final voice."
Singing his own compositions in a natural baritone (and sometimes even whistling), Fonfara covers topics of loss and black-sheep anguish with a set of pipes admittedly less stellar than functional. But as far as vivid storytelling in a Painted tune, it's not unusual for the Virgin Mary or St. John of the Cross to make cathartic, scene-stealing cameos. Or for a disillusioned protagonist to take a poignant header off the Hoover Dam. And given the current situation in the former Garden of Eden, a tune like "Doused Apples" borders on the prophetic: "He stretched the desert flat and read tea leaves to understand/He monitored the pulse of oracles on television screens/And ate apples doused with gasoline to prove them all wrong/And shot open a mouth filled with button eyes and razor-blade teeth."
"I spend more time thinking about cool string lines than I do about lyrics or my own voice," Fonfara says. "But I do write from scratch. It's probably not as good as if I did steal something, honestly."
Fonfara's dark and dense arrangements definitely borrow old-world riffs, running the gamut from Hungarian folk music and rollicking Dixieland to klezmer and spaghetti Westerns. In their current inception, the Saints (rechristened after a brief fling as the Grand Ouija Jihad Orchestra) feature several of the Front Range area's top-flight musicians: violinist Kelly O'Dea (Tarantella) and upright-bass player Mike Brown (Room 40, Gladhand), plus cellists Ian Cooke (Uphollow) and Tom MacKenzie ("a total L.A.1980s butt-rocker," Fonfara notes). Also on loan for several upcoming shows is the highly versatile Maraca rhythm section: drummer Mike Behrenhausen and marimba/saw player, Theron Melchior.
"I've got a different band for every gig," Fonfara says. "We don't have to practice, really. All of these people could hear a song once and play it live; they're all great musicians. But getting five people in the same room is a fucking monumental task.
"We've got a few offers to go play in Europe," he continues. "But not everybody wants to go on the road, not even to play the Lion's Lair of St. Louis. Honestly, I'm just gonna do it myself, and whoever plays, plays, and that's the end of it. You do it for its own sake. And if no one shows up, then it's just me -- and that's cool. I'll get up there and play my clarinet and sing out of tune. I don't really have anything else to do."
Considering Fonfara's busy schedule earning a teacher's certificate and giving clarinet lessons at Lakewood's Rockley Music Center, nothing could be further from the truth. To complicate matters, Fonfara suffers from insomnia -- a side effect that comes with being bipolar and mildly schizophrenic.
"I take so much damn lithium, my piss probably glows in the dark," he says. "It's radioactive. I have to take up to 750 milligrams of lithium a day. It doesn't really help, though. Sometimes my emotions have no reality with what's going on, and that's what's tough about it. There were times when I was living in my car and I was the happiest I've ever been.
"I always feel good when I do music," he continues. "That's the only thing that really keeps me going. I can't not do it. It's more helpful than any drug. I'll go a week where I'm just so pumped up, and I'll crank out three paintings. When I started this band, I wrote ten songs in a month, 'cause that's all I did all day. But then I'll crash and get so depressed that I won't even get out of bed."