Paul Pigat — the remarkable Canadian rockabilly guitarist known by his stage name, Cousin Harley — is a man who laughs easily. He recalled the time when he bought his first vintage guitar. As a young man of about 17, he got dropped off outside of a Toronto location of Long & McQuade at 4:30 a.m., in the middle of a snowstorm to wait four and a half hours for them to open. The object of his affection was a 1928 Gibson Nick Lucas guitar that he knew was special and also desired by many others. He laughs as he explains that people started showing up at around 5:30 am to line up behind him and, as they approached, he said, “If you’re here for the Gibson, it’s already gone.”
In his twenties, he moved from Toronto to Victoria. “The first year was really difficult,” he explains, “it was the first time I ever had to deliver pizzas to make money and I’d never done anything for money other than play guitar really.” The challenge spurred him to become a singer and start his own band in order to get more work.
When asked if those difficult times have ever made him question his decision to become a musician, he answers definitively. “All the time. It never stops.” he explains. “Being self-employed is the best thing and the worst thing at the same time. I have no boss, but then I am my own worst boss,” he laughs. “I am really tough on myself… so I’m going to beat myself up until I get where I wanna go musically all the time.” He admits he can obsess on three notes for four hours. Music is the only thing Pigat has ever done or really been interested in, giving himself no other choice but to pursue it.
A university education in music was the only back up plan he really gave himself, which has come in very handy because he’s been teaching for almost 25 years. He released guitar lessons on DVD and now teaches privately, including online lessons over Skype. Pigat gets excited when talking about his students and how much he loves teaching them. “When you see them start to progress and start to get the ideas,” he explains, “and when they finally are starting to develop it and really starting to understand it, it makes it all worthwhile.” His teaching approach is very theoretical and pulls from his classical composition education. He doesn’t teach his students to play songs but, instead, how to understand music in order to write interesting music of their own. “Theory is everything,” he says, “Music is like a puzzle and, if you can figure out the premise behind the puzzle, then you can figure out the puzzle.”
One could wonder if he is still a student of music and if he is still surprised by things. With certainty he responds, “Absolutely. The day you think that you’ve finished or that you know everything there is to know is the day that you put the guitar away. Music is endless. Every time you open a door, there’s fifteen more doors to open. I’m constantly finding things that I never thought about before… and constantly amazed by what people are doing.”
Pigat has recently returned from a stint in Australia backing up The Sojourners and C.R. Avery and is about to jet down to L.A. to do a show with other Gretsch artists such as Billy Zoom. He also continues to perform as Cousin Harley. But there are musical sides to Paul Pigat that we have yet to see. He is experimenting with some open tuning on guitar in the style of John Renbourn and is composing again. There are some twentieth century compositions that he’s written that he describes as “weird” that no one has ever heard that he is hoping he will one day be happy enough with them to release them. Pigat is also actively seeking a hobby outside of music, which has proven to be challenge for him since all of his interests lead him back to the guitar, one way or another. It was film score composing that originally interested him in university and it’s been piquing his interest lately, too. His favourite is Neil Young’s score for Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. He was recently approached to write music that combines Bollywood music and Rockabilly for a film score, which excites him. He knows he’s always taken the road less travelled musically, and so it seems he continues to do so.
Catch Cousin Harley at the Bowness Community Hall on February 21.
By Holly Burton