Paul Margolis dropped in on the weekly gathering of our songwriters group in the back room of a Fells Point bar not long ago and we did what we do to all newcomers: We passed him the guitar and asked if he had a song. Shy, and apologizing upfront for what was to follow, he played a tune he had just written called "Song From Jail." It came out tender and haunting, his clear, mellow voice enhanced by a subtle, understated guitar style. Our jaws scraped the floor long before he was finished.
I was stunned later to find out that this was the same Paul Margolis who plays a sparkling, flashy, anything-but-subtle lead guitar for the Polkats, a local band that started out four years ago playing exuberant Mexican polka music. The Polkats -- including John and Joe Shock, John Keith and Mike Barth -- has evolved since into a nearly indescribable quintet, whose range extends from the irreverent "Bobby Sands," about an Irish hunger striker, to an eclectic, totally bizarre but engaging version of "Born Free." The band's style was found so original by Musician magazine last year that it named the Polkats the best unsigned band in the country and gave it $10,000 in sound equipment.
Much of that equipment is now in Paul Margolis' Cheswolde basement, where he operates a small, busy recording studio in his off-hours. When I stopped by to talk to him he was in between steady day jobs, but not too concerned. Over breakfast with his wife, Deena Feigelson, a local painter, and their 17-month-old son, Evan, our conversation ranged from songwriting to guitar playing to hopes and dreams. But, of course, it had to start with the most obvious question.
Q: What's a guy named Paul Margolis doing playing Mexican polka music?
A: It's not something that trips lightly off the tongue, is it? I'd spent about four years in Los Angeles playing guitar, and I came back to Baltimore and met John Shock, who plays the accordion. I was very eager to play music with John. He said let's put together a Mexican folk music group. He could have said anything and I would have said yes.
Q: It sounds like this is one of the anythings he could have said.
A: Yeah, but I loved this music from the first. It's a very stirring, very physical music, very different from the rock and country I'd been playing.
Q: Uh, about the accordion. Aren't your worried --
A: Everyone blames Myron Florin for the accordion. He was the guy who played with Lawrence Welk. He single-handedly made the accordion the squarest instrument on earth. But we play as an opening act for a lot of national groups, and that exposes us to a whole different crowd who might not go out to see a Mexican polka band.
Q: So is that essentially what you are? Paul Margolis, Mexican polka-ist?
A: No, that's not what we are anymore. We now play a lot of country, hard country. We are bombastic, we play everything fast and loud. I get the feeling if we ever played this music in Mexico we'd be arrested.
Q: How long have you been writing songs.
A: I've been writing seriously for the last 10 or 12 years. I knew a very good songwriter in L.A. and I played him a whole tape of my material. His only comment was, "Well, that's OK, you have to ruin a lot of canvases before you do a good one." I was trying to write for other artists, but everything sounded contrived. It didn't sound honest, it didn't sound real.
Q: So how does one go about writing a song?
A: I think you should write about what you know, what's on your mind. Make it clear and simple so people can understand it. That's it. When I read back through the lyrics of songs I wrote years ago, I don't understand what I'm talking about anymore. I just tear 'em up as quickly as possible. Now I try to make it as clear as possible.
Q: How did "Song From Jail" originate?
A: I've never been in jail, but that entire week before I wrote it, I was having a bit of a personal crisis. It may or may not have been leading up to a birthday. I'm 33 now. I was just feeling trapped. I mean, I like being married and having a little boy and a house, but I was feeling trapped by circumstances, just a big feeling of entrapment and of time slipping away. The song came from that. The jail metaphor came through. I wish I were a good enough writer to be able to say directly I am feeling entrapped and time is slipping away. But I find that confessional writing to be very difficult.
Q: Where do your tunes and melodies come from?
A: That's hard. I think my best melodies come from just singing to myself. My father does that. He's not a musician and many people would claim he's downright tone deaf. But he's always got a song in his head. It actually can be very infuriating if you're around him early in the morning. He's whistling, singing from the time he gets up till the time he goes to sleep. I find my best melodies come out of thin air.
Q: Do you think the Polkats will eventually get a recording contract?
A: I think so. We would like to put out records, but we're a fringe act. We're on the far outskirts of the musical mainstream. And how many records that will sell I don't know.
Q: Are you happy being on the fringe or would you rather be in the center?
A: I guess it's not something you choose. You just choose to do what you do and you find yourself on the fringe. You find that's how people regard you. It's not like I feel like I can change my mind and say I want to be a mainstream artist. You find you're the type of artist you are. I find our music completely accessible. It often surprises me to find we are regarded as an eccentric band way out in left field.