Amongst the acts Paulusma has supported are Bob Dylan, Jamie Cullum, Coldplay, Marianne Faithfull and Gary Jules.twitter/pollypaulusma

One day my friend was effervescing about her English supervisor-cum-musician who had “played Glastonbury.” My ears pricked up. “She’s an academic AND a rock star? How cool. I wonder how she does both.” Finty sends me her email address. Polly Paulusma. (“Is that a stage name?”, I wonder.) I send Paulusma a message, and she invites me over for tea one Sunday afternoon at her home in East Cambridge.

Pulling up in her cul-de-sac, all the houses are identical except one, fronted by window boxes brimming with red flowers. Surprise, surprise, it’s hers. I reach the front door and can hear tweeting and chirping. I look down to discover I’m stood on top of an aviary of birds underneath the porch.An equally chipper Paulusma opens the front door and welcomes me in. I meet the family: husband, two sons, dogs, cats and brass instruments to boot. The house is covered in artworks and there is a freshly baked chocolate cake cooling on the kitchen counter.

By day, Paulusma teaches students to kill the author and focus on the words. By night, she’s a folk singer-songwriter. Amongst the artists she has supported are Bob Dylan, Jamie Cullum, Coldplay, Marianne Faithfull and Gary Jules.

We go down to her garden shed. It’s an office-type space filled with books and various string instruments in different shapes and sizes. It doesn’t take long for me to realise that the shed is Paulusma in room form. She tells me that she taught herself to play guitar aged 14, but swears to never to have learnt properly. “I have no idea how I’m playing music. I don’t read it. I just take my guitar to crazy places that just sound nice. If people ask me what key I’m playing in I have no idea, it’s so intuitive, like you’re flying in the dark.”

"When you pick a slightly unconventional path in life, it’s always a bit of a struggle, but I don’t think you have much choice. It’s like you’re following a scent … you’ve just got to follow your nose."

Paulusma graduated from Murray Edwards College, then known as New Hall, in 1997, where she read English. I ask her what Cambridge was like in the 90s.

“As a town it was an absolute dump. We’re talking ’94 to ’97, so before the biotech explosion, before the Grand Arcade. There was nowhere to eat, nowhere to go out. I mean literally the restaurants were all just horrible. There was one really upmarket Chinese place just opposite St John’s which was the place. No one could afford to go to it of course but we always used to stick our noses against the window.”

She spent her university days playing in ten-member soul funk covers band Uncle Shrunk.

“Being in that band was an absolute scream. That last May week … we did thirteen gigs in eleven nights! We could be seen running up and down King’s parade with drum kits and tambourines back and forth between different balls. My friend, Claire, who’s an actor now, and I both got firsts but we were both so naughty! We were never really there … There was a lot of slight disgruntlement that these two quite naughty girls had done well. And whenever I was playing I was thinking ‘well this is the extra-curricular fun bit’ but in hindsight that whole experience of being in that band was absolutely as much of my education as my degree was.”

Degree in hand, Paulusma moved to London where she landed a “dream job” working as a researcher for the six o’ clock news on the BBC World Service. But she soon grew disillusioned.

“I just felt like a battery chicken, laying my egg every night at six o’clock. You came back in the following day and it was like Groundhog Day – you’d start all over again. Over time you’d get a deep understanding of Northern Ireland or the Israeli-Palestine conflict with iterations, but day to day there was just no time to get your head into anything. The trajectory was up and up into a kind of boredom. The management level were all hideously depressed and I just thought: ‘I don’t want to give my life to these walls.’ Yuck! I remember the looks on peoples’ faces when I handed in my notice.”

What followed was, in her own words, “a bit of a muddle”: she was doing music, had written a novel, now wrapped up and banished to the confines of her attic, never to re-appear, she tells me, cringing.

“My parents didn’t like this roaming around in the woods. My dad found it very upsetting. I was trying to do something. I didn’t really know what. But throughout all this time I had been doing music, it was one of those constants and it had never occurred to me to try and do it properly.”

Paulusma at the 2007 Godiva Festival, just one of many she has played, including the legendary Glastonbury.flickr/lee jordan

I asked her when this finally occurred to her.

“There was a definite moment: some friends had asked me to backing sing on their record so I went into the studio for a day and that was it. I was like ‘Yep. This is it!’ It’s like a humming, or a tuning fork you hit and just go ‘ahhhh God!’ From that moment it took me three years to get signed to a label. It was a long battle with dragging guitars up and down escalators. In the meantime I just thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to get on with it’ and made my first record alone in my garden shed.”

Since then, her career has taken her on tours across Europe, America and parts of the Middle East, which she tells me about between bouts of infectious belly laughter.

“I did two tours of America, coast to coast. That was amazing. Going across that big middle bit is quite scary … ’cus it’s big … and there are a lot of people ... that are really scary! And lots of touring in Italy, which was also great. Of all the places in the world to do loads of eating and singing Italy’s quite a good one.”

Along the way she accumulated a family of string instruments, which she gets out and introduces me to one by one.

“This is Pablo, the Mandolin from South America; Molly, the Martin I bought in Cambridge when I was first starting out. I would run back to save her from a fire; Alexis the bog-standard but beloved Stratocaster, and gender non-specific; and Mustafa the cümbüs from Istanbul. I got him when I was playing the jazz festival there. There was a power cut in the middle of our gig, all the lights went out, all the instruments went dead apart from my (acoustic) guitar and it was just beautiful. Everyone huddled to the front and it became candlelit.”

"You have to have a kind of tunnel vision to really succeed in Life with a capital L, in that way that people measure success.”

Academia fell to the wayside, and music became Paulusma’s “100% thing”.

“That period of time only really came to an end because of children. I didn’t want to be on the road anymore, so I took a step back from music. Then the academia sort of bubbled up naturally, like it was stepping into a gap that had opened up. It made complete sense and provided a really nice balance. When you do music all the time, you run out of things to say. You need to live in order to be able to create stuff, and you can’t do that if you’re stuck in a tour van all the time.”

Over the course of our conversation, Paulusma had shared a great many reflections which resonate with all those trying to maintain similar balancing acts of life and career.

“For years I had thought that music and academia were these two irreconcilable sides of my life and that were always going to be slightly at war with each other, but they’re actually very compatible: studio work and research work, they’re the introverted side to both things whereas gigging and teaching are these extrovert activities; they’re part of the same palate. Once your energy’s up for one you can do the other quite well. So the axis actually cuts across them. It’s to do with the atmosphere of the activity.”

“When you pick a slightly unconventional path in life, it’s always a bit of a struggle, but I don’t think you have much choice. It’s like you’re following a scent, you can’t really control it, you know … you’ve just got to follow your nose. It looks chaotic from the outside but it feels right on the inside.”

I asked her how she can tell when something’s right.

“It’s the skin. I’ve always trusted my skin as this organ of truth. When I hear a beautiful song or read something beautiful, all my hairs go ‘phwoom!’ My mum has the same with art, she’s so funny. I genuinely think that the music industry right now … people who are making music … it’s like they’ve taken off their skin and left it outside the studio because it’s so shit.”


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“Whether I’m capable of actually having two ‘full’ careers like that … this is the thing: you start feeling like you’re somehow amputated. You have to have a kind of tunnel vision to really succeed in Life with a capital L, in that way that people measure success.”

And how does she measure success?

“I guess by the overall sense of satisfaction I get over the course of, say, five years of swinging around between music and academia and then coming out the other side and thinking: ‘yay!’. Not through promotions and salary grades and all that stuff. If you’re that kind of person then whoopee-doo, life’s a lot more straightforward.”