New Year’s Eve has come and gone in Santa Barbara, but outside of the Java Jones on State Street one man, guitar in hand, still serenades passersby with an improvised song about his vision of 2009. Contrary to the doom and gloom predictions of politicians and economists, his free-styled lyrics reveal that he espouses a more optimistic outlook for the new year.
Keeping with the theme of his music he dons a plastic New Year’s fedora, which serves as an amusing accent to his folk musician sense of style: a patchy beard, long, dark, grungy hair, a bandana, an overcoat. He is of medium build and has two black eyes and a cut on the bridge of his nose – apparently somebody wasn’t as optimistic as he is – but he beams a large smile from ear to ear. This grizzled looking but jovial character goes by the pseudonym Gil Paradise. “I’ve been jammin’ on the street for a long time,” he says, beginning to strum his guitar.
“A long time” turns out to be about four years. He claims that the guitar found him after he had his keyboard stolen at the age of 17. Just a year after he taught himself to play the guitar, he started performing on the streets of Portland, Oregon, his hometown. Now, four years later at the age of 22, he is embarking on a musical journey around the United States, literally.
“Right now I’m attempting to circumnavigate the country,” he explained. “I’ve already been through the big chunk in the middle. I’ve been through about 30 different states. The states I haven’t been to are; Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia : ” His recounting is distracted by a nearby patron lighting up a cigarette and, he runs over to ask if the man has another to spare. This sort of impulsiveness and restlessness is pretty indicative of his free spirited personality; so too is his lifestyle. Gil sleeps on the streets in places nobody thinks to look. He claims sleeping outdoors is better for you; it helps avoid airborne indoor carcinogens. Gil carries his belongings on his back and is his own iPod. “I live out of a backpack, and I play music everywhere I go, and that’s how I make money.”
Although he lives a drifter’s life, things did not start that way. Gil graduated high school at the age of 16 and began taking college courses. He quickly grew tired with his studies and, having moved out of his father’s house, had to find some way to make ends meet. He worked some odd jobs, but he primarily began to hone his craft as a street performer on the streets of Portland. Although street performing is now his primary source of income, Gil maintains that the money is secondary to the music. “Because sometimes people want to drop it,” he said of the donations, “and sometimes I don’t even feel like doin’ it for money. Sometimes I really just wanna jam out!”
For Gil Paradise, the emotional and creative outlet that his guitar provides trumps the lure of a more conventional music career and the better pay that would potentially come with it. “It’s all about spreading love and passion and joy. That’s what music is all about. Or anger, you know? ‘Cause sometimes that’s what you’re feeling in your songs, or sadness. It’s hard to be really sad, but it’s [also] hard to lose the blues.”
Despite the freedom of expression that playing music on the streets of Portland provided, the restless 19-year-old longed for a greater sense of adventure. So one day, he visited his dad in his office in Portland to tell him that he wanted to go to Costa Rica. To Gil’s surprise, his dad, rather than disapprove, provided him with all of the information required to obtain his passport. So with his dad’s support, Gil boarded a bus in Portland and began his journey to Costa Rica via the infamous Pan American Highway. The trip to Costa Rica only served to feed his hunger for travel and self exploration.
Since returning from Costa Rica two years ago, Gil’s been traveling “gritty style” – by any means necessary. “Buses, hitchhiking, I’ve hopped on one train,” he admitted. “I’m not really a train hopper but I will if I need to.” Hitchhiking, it turns out, isn’t necessarily the most time efficient form of travel, because “there are those times you don’t get picked up and you just have to camp out on the side of the road.”
Having their child stow away on a train and camp on the side of the road are circumstances most parents would be very opposed to, but Gil says he has the full support of his parents, who are divorced. Nevertheless, Gill knows all too well that his parents’ support comes with some reservations. “[My father] cares, but he knows that this is part of me,” said Gil. “He knows that I’m not doing it to avoid anything but because it’s a part of me : He wishes that he could still do it.” His mother, like his father, is supportive of her son’s capricious sojourn but hopes for a more orthodox and socially accepted way of life for her son. “My mom wishes that I’d go to college and become a doctor, of course,” he explained. “I still plan on going back to college, but I’m only twenty-fucking-two. I have time right now so I’m good. I’ve been trying to avoid getting caught up in any one place.”
Amidst his two-year cross-country adventure, Gil returned to Portland at one point to refuel, catch up with friends, and work a roofing job. But he was only able to write two songs while working a steady job, so he knows traveling is better for his creative process. The road, it seems, is his muse. “I get out there and do things,” he said. Sometimes getting from place to place can be a bit precarious and takes him a bit longer given his circumstances. The two black eyes he is wearing are the result of a drunken night in Santa Maria, a night he does not really recollect. But he is fixing to meet up with the group of people he was with that night and smooth things over at the Rainbow Gathering, a temporary bohemian commune for travelers in Arizona.
For this traveler, it is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. Before he last left Portland, Gil resolved not to stay in any one place for more than a week. But at the time of this interview in early January, he admitted that he’d already been in Santa Barbara for a week and a half. But that’s not because he loved the town. “There are a lot cooler places than this place,” he claimed, using Monterey as an example. “I feel that there could be a lot more love here. I mean there are a lot of really cool people here. You know, there’s a farmers market and everything, but that sort of stuff is commonplace in Portland. Something to make this place special would be an immense amount of love. There are lovely people here but it’s like one out of 50.”
Gil Paradise’s whole journey boils down to lessons learned about himself, his surroundings, and his fellow human beings. “I’m not spending thousands of dollars to learn, in theory, how the world works,” he said. “That’s what travel is all about – it’s about going and really seeing the world, talking to people, feeling it.” His preferred path of education, like Gil himself, is unorthodox.
Although Gil professes to value music over money, even he has a bottom line. Five hours of jamming on the street can bring in anywhere from $20 to $50, the good money coming in only when people feel the emotion behind the music. “When it comes to the music, especially on the streets, it sucks half of the time,” he said. “But when you’re in the right place and you play with all of your heart, I’ve had G-thugs walk up and throw a twenty bill down! I’ve had dudes in suits, when I was playin’ the blues, drop a couple of bucks.”
When it comes down to it, Gill sees musicians as defined by two groups: those who do it for the money and those who do it because it is their calling. Gil certainly identifies with the latter group and his passion cannot be doubted, because from the time he started talking to me he hasn’t stopped strumming his guitar. For anyone interested in judging for themselves, original open-mic recordings can be found at myspace.com/justgil.