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Paul Allen: Plugged-in mogul
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 team.

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.)

More: Experience Music Project 

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 caliber?

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.

Bing: More on Paul Allen's music and life

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 work?

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 current struggles?

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 days.

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 music writing.

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