Paul Basile is the driving force behind the Brooklyn-based indie-folk band Great Elk, but he found his voice in an unlikely place. He grew up on Long Island, first learning to play saxophone, then picking up guitar while at college in upstate New York. He didn't start playing seriously until after he arrived in Bethel, Alaska.
"Maybe it was because I had more time," he joked.
When Play caught up with Basile over the phone, he was in the middle of a layover on his way to Bethel. He lived there nearly five years, beginning in 2002, when he volunteered at an assisted-living facility for adults with mental illness. He later bounced between stints as a newspaper reporter for the Delta Discovery, a fisherman and a sled dog caretaker. (He ran in some local sled dog races but said he had no notable finishes.)
"I'm sure if you've heard of Bethel, you've heard or been part of conversations like the one I overheard today on the plane. Somebody behind me mentioned that they live in Bethel, and the guy in the other row was like, 'Oh God, Bethel -- if you can live there I guess you can live anywhere,' " Basile laughed. "It's a town within the state that I guess has a bad rap, but it's a pretty special place. I really loved it."
Basile originally signed up for a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He was assigned to Billings, Mont., even though Bethel was his first choice. So when he signed up for a second year, he reiterated that he wanted to go to Alaska. He got his wish, and after his year was up he didn't leave.
"Maybe it was because it was so different from where I was from," he said. "I was from the suburbs -- the suburbs that all other suburbs derive from -- so to be in a place that was so isolated and extreme in a lot of ways, it was just exciting and enriching."
Basile met his wife in Bethel and found a community of musicians. A friend of his ran a coffee shop, and he started playing there on the weekends.
"After a while, people started saying to me, 'Hey, you should do that some place other than here,' " he said. "For better or worse, I took it to heart after hearing it enough times and decided to get serious about it."
With a bedroom-recorded EP in tow, Basile moved to Brooklyn in 2006 to focus on music. He first connected with guitarist Patrick Hay, and the two started playing together in various lineups. They started using the name Great Elk, which was sometimes the title of a full band, sometimes a Hay/Basile duo and sometimes just Basile.
A network of friends of friends of friends led to the Great Elk lineup that solidified around 2010, but for this Alaska tour, Basile is back to flying solo. He said he visits the state about once a year, but this is his first tour here since 2007. If all goes well with this trip, the plan is to bring the full band next time.
In 2012, that group released "Autogeography," a blend of heartland rock and indie-rock's gentler side. Basile described the album as an autobiography told through the context of geography, and Alaska plays a prominent role in that story.
"It's this idea," he said, "this big sense of home -- having briefly experienced the connection between a person and a place -- and longing for that."