The tech billionaire and philanthropist recruits
A-list rockers for his major-label debut
By Alan Light Special to MSN Music
"I consider myself a good amateur musician," says Paul Allen. "I haven't been in working bands or
anything, but I just never stopped. I started playing guitar in high school and
slowly kept working my way — I say that it took me 25 years to learn to play
'Purple Haze' half-decently."
Still, this part-time guitar player hasn't done too badly for himself. The
60-year-old co-founder of Microsoft is currently the 53rd-richest man in the
world, according to Forbes. (MSN is owned and operated by Microsoft.) Since
leaving the company in 2000, Allen has been involved in a variety of business
and philanthropic efforts. He owns the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and the NBA's
Portland Trailblazers, and is a part owner of the Seattle Sounders soccer
On Aug. 6, Allen released his second album, "Everywhere at Once," an affable, blues-based set
recorded with his band, the Underthinkers. Allen wrote or co-wrote and sings all
13 of the songs, and plays guitar on five tracks. Some of his high-flying
friends also lend a hand: Guests on the album, which was produced by Doyle Bramhall II (Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow), include Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, Chrissie Hynde, Joe Walsh and Derek Trucks. (Proceeds from the album will
benefit education programs at the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle,
which Allen opened in 2000, and more recently expanded to delve into another pop
cultural interest, science fiction and fantasy.)
In a recent telephone conversation, Allen talked about the making of the
album and his writing process, as well as the connection between his love of
music and his business efforts and the thrill of recording with some of rock's
greatest figures. "I remember being back in college and learning how to play
(the James Gang's) 'Funk #49,'" he says, "and now here
I am sitting with Joe Walsh and watching him play my song!"
MSN Music: Was this album a long time coming, or was it an opportunity
that presented itself?
Paul Allen: I did an album called "Grown Men," which came out over 10 years
ago. After that, I was only writing music sporadically. Then I had a change in
the musicians in my band, and it kind of clicked. It spurred me to want to write
more, and then it all just poured out, and I ended up writing over 50 songs.
I talked to some friends — I'm fortunate enough to have great musician
friends, people like Dave Stewart and Robbie Robertson — and Robbie proposed some
producers, and eventually hooked me up with Doyle Bramhall. We re-recorded a
bunch of the songs; most of the album is the result of working with him to push
and improve those songs I had written, plus I came up with some more
specifically for the album.
What was the pitch you made to the guest artists? How did you rope these
great players in?
Well, you can't really rope them in. An artist has to like the song to want
to sing it. We started taking the songs around: We played the song "Rodeo" for
Chrissie Hynde, and she liked it, and the Wilsons liked "Straw Into Gold." I was
so fortunate to have these amazing musicians want to contribute — and that made
me want to write more songs!
What do you learn from being in the studio with musicians of this
When you see people that are veteran musicians at the top of their game, it's
like the big leagues versus the minors. I was blown away by the skill and the
approach they would each take, from such a unique, personal style. For every
musician, it's so important to try to put your own soul into the songs.
I was fortunate enough to see Jimi Hendrix, to see Eric Clapton from a few feet
away, and there's just some God-given talent with guys like that. Their
abilities are so far beyond mine.
How does playing music fit into your daily life? With everything else you
have going on, how much time is there for writing and practicing?
My life is one of the most variable out there. I'm involved in so many
things: technology, sports, philanthropy, music. But on vacations or at night, I
have a home studio here at my house on Mercer Island. So I usually get to write
in spurts, and there will be a bit of music that gives you a feeling, you start
to hear some lyrics or you come up with a riff. You start with something, and
sometimes you get some traction.
What is the relationship between playing music and your everyday
A lot of what I do is about creativity, coming up with new ideas. And writing
songs is in that vein. You have to put in the time, and you have to collaborate
— to get people to listen to your ideas, to take the best from their ideas, and
to mold it to be the best it can be. I had to learn how to listen with an open
mind, and that's so important to songwriting and to being a musician. I had to
go through a whole stage to learn how to play in a band and listen to the other
musicians, and that really applies to everything.
Given your unique position in the technology, business and music
communities, what advice would you give the music industry to turn around its
The sad thing is that getting music for free has become so pervasive. All the
new ways to download are becoming an economic system, but it's diminished from
what it was just a few years ago; it's a smaller ecosystem financially. Live
performance has become much more important and you have to find creative
approaches to fill those gaps. I went to see Mark Knopfler recently, and they
sent out a USB stick with the concert on it.
But good songs and good music still come to the top. The biggest bands can
still succeed, and the small, niche acts can find a place, but it's hard for
those in the middle; that's greatly diminished. I'm sure there are some who
would have succeeded who probably won't get the support that they should have
gotten. But you have to deal with the realities. You can't wish for the old
Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff
Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN
Music, he is the former editor-in- chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the
director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the
Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling
Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in