While Mieka Pauley worked her way to a degree in biological anthropology at Harvard, she found on-the-job training in her chosen vocation of music on the streets of Cambridge.
Frustrated in her attempts to nab prime busking spots — she’d get brushed aside by scene veterans who, she quips, seemed to be backed by some sort of folk music mafia — Pauley tested herself in the ultimate short-attention-span-theater of Red Line subway platforms.
“I only know a few covers, but as the audience changed I would do them over and over,” she says in a telephone interview from her current home base of New York. “I’d sing ‘Angel From Montgomery,’ people would put money in my guitar case and get on the train, and I’d start it again.”
Tunes like that John Prine favorite, or Otis Redding and Steve Cropper’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” were great vehicles for Pauley’s smoky, soulful voice. But she tested her own songs in settings more conducive to their emotional intimacy, like the open mike night at Club Passim.
Pauley, 32, hasn’t yet made a big commercial breakthrough, but has earned her keep through relentless touring since her days of busing to New York for gigs at the Living Room and then returning in time for her secretarial job at the Harvard Business School the next morning. She’s opened for artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Jason Mraz, won national songwriting contests, and recorded a series of EPs and two full-length albums. She plays Johnny D’s on Saturday.
“There’s some very quiet but super-intense songs. And then there’s songs that are very outright angry. She pushes as much as someone with an acoustic guitar can, and then beyond,” says Passim managing director Matt Smith, who remembers her from her open mike days. “There’s a force there. She’s not just a quiet little folk singer.”
Pauley is not much for the nakedly autobiographical style of confessional songwriting. Each of her songs does spring from her own emotional experience, but she leaves the details vague enough for listeners to fill them in on their own. In tandem with her steady hand on acoustic guitar and a voice that could almost suit a jazzy crooner, her songs often go right for the jugular. “Let’s have another go,” she sings to a former lover in one, “This time I promise I won’t be a psycho.”
In “Wreck,” she proclaims “I want to wreck your home/ I want to get your husband alone” with a sad sexiness that’s not so much come-on or threat as it is a weary confession, a peek at the fury of desire.
She initially feared the song would prompt an “unstable person in the audience” to commit a rash act against its author, so she’d only play it at, say, a “sparsely attended coffee shop in the middle of nowhere.”
“You could raise some serious emotional issues that somebody’s going through at the time. And I’m afraid of having that effect,” she says. “I was afraid that after the show I’d go out the door and someone would [kill me].”
The first influences Pauley cites are vocalists: Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. She originally wrote songs expressly to complement her voice; only later did she study songwriters like Patty Griffin and Jeff Buckley. Seattle-based producer Geoff Stanfield (Sun Kil Moon, Firehorse) helmed her 2012 record “The Science of Making Choices,” filling in a full-band sound around Pauley’s guitar and voice. A rumbling bass and electronic beats pace “Another Go” into a desperate rocker; string backing lends a bittersweet sense to the shipwrecked chamber folk of “Ether.”
“The thing that is so incredible about Mieka is, she’s just raw emotion. It translates in her voice, in her songs,” Stanfield remarks. “She's got a true voice. When she opens her mouth, I know it’s her.”
Pauley has looked to fan funding for most of her recorded work, including her latest effort, which was financed through PledgeMusic; Cosmopolitan paid for a 2009 EP after she won the magazine’s contest, becoming something called the “Fun Fearless Female Rockstar of the Year.” (Hey, if the shoe fits.) Though she’s proud of what she’s managed independently, she’d happily sign with the right label, she says, and wouldn’t mind achieving enough commercial success to finally ditch a couch-surfing lifestyle that’s compelled her to be on friendly terms with a long line of friends’ cats from coast to coast.
For now, she savors moments like her two turns singing the national anthem at Fenway Park; the first time, her parents and brother (who she describes as “hardcore Red Sox fans”) flew up from Florida to watch.
“That was the moment they realized I wasn’t [messing] around,” she says.
As if there was ever any doubt.