Leaving Las Cruces: The Romance of Aaron Lewis and Paula Manning-Lewis

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They want to live somewhere warm, where the flies die in the winter and the tar doesn’t stick to the wheels.

PCI Inc. logo by Paula Manning-Lewis as a SophomoreSomewhere in time, a small girl is given a stack of paper and a pencil. Her mother is watching as she holds the pencil in her little hand and begins making marks on the surface of cotton. She is mesmerized for hours by this activity, as she will be mesmerized by making art for the rest of her life. In High School, she takes every art class she can and it leads to her first opportunity to realize that she can do this for a living. She was a Sophomore when it happened. One of her former substitute teachers presented the art students with an opportunity to design a real logo for a real company for real money. She won the contest. It wasn’t long before she was turning through the Yellow Pages and saw her own work printed for all the world to see.

Aaron Lewis as a kidSomewhere in time, a small boy is hypnotized by the sounds coming off the vivid colors of a spinning disc. He’s playing with a Fisher Price Record Player and it is magical and mysterious and precious and everything that makes anything awesome! When this boy became seven he began making sounds of his own with a plastic guitar and there was no stopping him. At 19 he was making his living from the background of wedding after wedding and as the world around him got married, he made music.

These two children grew up to become Visual Artist and vocalist, Paula Manning-Lewis and Composer and Musician, Aaron Lewis. Together they are the band, Sunlight, and they run Chroma Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

 

Organ mountains in Los CrucesThey lived in Las Cruces, a small town in New Mexico. Aaron was friends with Paula’s little brother and the two knew each other for eight years before they ever thought about anything romantic between them. Aaron was 14, Paula was 17 and had a son. Aaron tells me he’d ask his mother, “Can I go stay at Charles’s house? Because he has an older sister that has a kid and they’re a family,” the implication being that his mother had nothing to worry about.

Paula continues, “Little did they know we were the drug dealing party house!”

“And then I worked for you.” Says Aaron to Paula.

“And then you worked for me in my studio for a year.” Paula simultaneously confirms. They were telling the story back to each other as much as they were telling it to me.

“And then we got accused of bending each other over the framing table,” says Aaron to Paula.

“Yeah, my stupid ex-husband because he was projecting and he was the one out fooling around, so of course I had to be fooling around,” Paula says, “which I wasn’t.”

Aaron LewisNot only were Aaron and Paula not seeing each other, but until the accusation occurred they hadn’t considered it. They were just friends, such good friends, in fact, that anything more would be too weird. Ah, to be young and still believe such a thing! They fell off speaking terms for a spell when Paula’s ex-husband moved in with Aaron. 

“Was that the day you guys got divorced?” Aaron asks Paula.

“No, the day I left him. The divorce was like a month later. But yeah.” And they laugh as Paula tells me, “I didn’t talk to him (Aaron) for a little while because I was like Fine! You chose your side, Asshole!”

Aaron explains, still smiling, “What was I gonna do? I wasn’t working. He showed up on my doorstep and said, ‘I’ll pay your rent for the month.’ I said, ‘Right on, dude!’ and then he got drunk and threatened to hurt me and I kicked him out the next morning.” That was when Aaron got a better idea what it was that Paula was going through, “Pour alcohol and instant asshole will appear.”

Aaron and Paula were soon best friends and did everything together. They took the kids out for hikes. They watched football together. They watched Beavis and Butt-Head together. And everyone in their small town just assumed they had been romantically involved since before Paula’s divorce, which was irritating. One night, one of their inebriated friends said to them, “You guys should just do it and get it over with!” at which point Aaron and Paula left.

They went back to Aaron’s house, sat across from each other and talked about it. Would it be too weird? Would it ruin their friendship? They were both afraid it might, but they finally kissed—and felt fireworks go off. Although they kind of freaked out and left right away after that exciting kiss, the two have been inseparable ever since.

Paula tells me, “Especially since he was totally willing to come in and be Stepdad and accept all my kids, and actually knew all my kids from the time they were babies anyway. He was always around anyway, so it wasn’t like a stranger was coming into the house. Actually, we moved in with him because my stepdad was a douche and kicked us out on the street-“

“Because I’m a bad influence on Paula,” Aaron explains, beaming with pride.

Paula happily says with sarcasm, “Aaron was such a bad influence! Making me smoke pot and all those terrible things, fixing my car for me and giving me rides when my car wasn’t running.” It was October 21st, 1995 and it’s the first anniversary they celebrate, the day that Paula and her children moved in with Aaron and they became a family.

Aaron begins the story about their first real date, “I conveniently ran out of gas-“

wedding photoPaula continues, “he conveniently ran out of gas so we had to walk to his place and my creepy Stepdad decided that he was gonna go check on me and make sure that i was--I dunno what he was checkin' on, but he found Aaron’s car stopped on the side of the road and called the police. Was it the police that called you in the middle of the night?” she asks Aaron.

“MmHmm,” Aaron confirms and remembers how he answered the phone and was told, “You can’t just leave your car here and all that kinda stuff. And then I told them, well it’s outta gas and I gotta wait till morning, and they were like, Oh! Okay.” and that was the end of it. Then Aaron asks Paula, “Was that your Stepdad that called the police on us?”

“That’s what my mom said,” answers Paula.

“I didn’t know that,” says Aaron. I started laughing, I couldn’t believe they were still learning new things from each other after all these years. They had so many stories! We’d never be able to talk about everything that had happened to them.

Rewind. Sometime before all of this Paula had joined the Army to get away from Las Cruces, support her child, and with the hopes that military training would help her deal with her abusive then-husband. Paula remembers that experience as though it were a dream about somebody else:

Paula Manning-Lewis joined the Army in her youth“I look back at my time in the military and I’m like, was that really me? That’s not me… I’m a peace loving Hippie how the Hell did I end up in the Army? How did that even happen, ya know? What the Hell was I thinking? I wish I could just go back and look inside my brain at that time and be like—I mean I know it was mainly desperation. I couldn’t get a good job and I wanted to get the Hell away from my husband, those things. I wanted to get out of New Mexico and there was no way, there was no other way, ya know? I don’t have any money. I can’t even buy a bus ticket. Plus, I had a two-year-old son at the time, so it’s not like I’m gonna take my son and we’re gonna go where? I had a couple friends join the Army at that time, so I was like, ‘Hey I can do that.’ why not? If that Asshole husband of mine can do it I can do it. I think it was partially to get away from my husband but partially to defend myself from my husband too. I figured if I had that training he couldn’t beat me up anymore. Of course, after I went to basic and came home for my leave, he was the worst. The worst time that I ever had with him. He’d be like, ‘Oh you think you’re tough now because you’re in the Army?’ and he called me ‘Butch’ and just—he was an Asshole.”

Watson Lake near Ft Collins COAfter the nightmare of a relationship that Paula got out of, it was especially baffling to her just what it was that people were giving her and Aaron a hard time about, “So our song is ‘Let’s Give Them Sumthin’ To Talk About’…what’s wrong with us falling in love? Why is that such an odd thing?” Aaron and Paula both wanted to leave Las Cruces. Aaron was moving to Colorado for school. He took Paula and the boys with him and together they left that little gossip town behind them.

 


Aaron in ColoradoThey lived in Fort Collins. They were married a year later, on June 10th, 1997. They had moved from a place where the flies never died in the winter and the roads melted into the stickiness of hot taffy, to Fort Collins, Colorado. It was cold. Aaron remembers, “I was getting ready to graduate with my music degree and they were telling me, ‘You can’t get a job teaching guitar in Colorado, you have to teach either choir or orchestra’”…it was 17 degrees below zero, and I was splittin' wood, and my mustache was freezing, and I was like—Go back to New Mexico, what are you thinking?” He says there was no culture beyond the worship of sports teams in Colorado, and it was almost impossible to find yourself alone in the wilderness, says Paula. People were always everywhere.

Albuquerque offered more opportunities for Aaron’s music career and for Paula’s visual art career. It was closer to the grandparents, so the boys could visit family more often, and the city offered the children more opportunities than they had in a small town. It was also a place with access to the wilderness that had a full range of seasons, with a winter that wasn’t too cold. And, perhaps best of all, Albuquerque bleeds culture from all over the world and contains the deep roots of native people. Albuquerque is a melting pot boiling with wonders.

SunlightSo, after four years freezing in Colorado, Aaron and Paula migrated to Albuquerque and they’ve been here, as I write this, for 17 years and they’re about to celebrate their 20th Wedding Anniversary. The two of them are a busy team and each are entrepreneurs in their partnership with Chroma Studios, as the band Sunlight, and each as individual, independent artists. With three sons and four businesses, there’s never a dull moment for this happy couple. They’re amazing!

For both of them, their art is a spiritually meditative process that goes deep and brings fulfillment. Paula tells me, “Art is a projection of what I’d like [life] to be more than a reflection of what I see it as. ...a state of mind, happiness or joy or love. I am taking myself out of where I’m at and making myself feel better. It’s my therapy.” She just finished preparing 22 pieces for The New Mexico Cancer Center Gallery and has sold over 30,000 prints and originals to date.

Aaron Lewis composingI ask Aaron if he’s always composed, “Yes,” he tells me, “I wrote my first song before I learned how to play a song on the guitar. I sat down one day and this little lick came up in the garage and these words just flooded me and when the songs hit me they just flood me. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s like the words hit-“ and when it happens just give him some paper and leave him alone. The man is obsessed.

But in school, he tells me, “I went through the long period where everybody had beat the fact out of me that you could ever make money as a musician and went the teacher route…” Aaron was a music instructor in Albuquerque Public Schools for years before he realized he had to dedicate himself entirely to composing music. The realization was a leap of faith for Aaron, and music saved his heart from the toll empathy takes on teachers:

“I was the High School music teacher. Everything was like the musician’s dream job, supposedly, you get the salary, you get the benefits, you get summers off, you get all this stuff…We get summers off because I don’t have a creative bone in my body until about July 28th, and then I have to get it all out of my body by August 5th and do the recovery time necessary to the emotional toll it takes on you to have 150 children looking up to you wanting you to care about what they’re doing—you are caring about what they’re doing and it takes a toll…like seven of them drop out, the ones without parents drop out with like three months to go in their senior semester…I’m too empathetic to be a teacher. You have to be able to separate yourself as a teacher. I can’t separate myself from the problems of the class.”

Paula adds, “It was very stressful, he was always stressed. He had major stomach pains whenever school started—“

“And it was because I wasn’t composing,” says Aaron, “I figured it out in a staff meeting. I was sitting in a staff meeting and I was writing a piece of music,” I watched Aaron’s face as he remembered that moment, that moment he sat in a staff meeting and the room around him vanished and all he could hear was the music in his mind flooding his consciousness and driving him to write it down with a mania, “and these teachers were looking at me like, ‘How are you writing music without an instrument in your hand?’ and uh—as soon as I came to that realization—I don’t care what they’re talking about, this is great! I want to be playing!” It was the moment he knew that writing and playing and creating music was what he was meant to be doing, that and nothing else, “The name of that piece of music was called Awaken.”

Teaching in public schools was Aaron’s time in service. They laughingly told me that his response to the recruiter who offered him the opportunity of enlistment was, “Fuck off.” and that was the end of that conversation. Aaron grew up in a military home, his father was in the service and had top secret clearance, which means that to this day Aaron doesn’t know what his father was doing for the military. Having that mystery remain so close to home left him skeptical but his background gave him the tenacity to instruct rowdy West Mesa students. Paula can attest to this, having once substituted one of Aaron’s music classes, “I told the class, at the time, ‘You DO realize that I’m Mrs. Lewis, right? He’s gonna hear all about this.”

They both laugh remembering and Aaron continues the story, “That was my first music dictionary punishment, ‘We’re going to start on A from the music dictionary today and we’re not going to stop until I’m no longer annoyed with you. This is a vocabulary test’” His students protested, “You can’t do that!” and he said, “Oh yes I can. This is music education. I’m giving you a musical education, now begin. If you can’t talk about it then you’re not learning anything so get back to work.” His rowdy class shaped up quick! “And they were never awful to a sub ever again,” says Aaron.

It was ten years ago that Aaron quit his job as a teacher and dedicated himself as a composer, but it took one step more than the inspiration of ‘Awaken’. It took faith. As Aaron tells it, “We were watching ‘The Secret’ and I said, Okay, if this nonsense is really real then by the time I’m done watching this movie I will have sold my first piece of music and if that happens I’m walking in tomorrow and I’m quitting.” At the time, Aaron had his music available online for seven cents per play and when the movie was over, sure enough, he had seven cents from a listener, “It was just taking the leap of faith and it’s called faith for a reason. I know I’m going to be okay. I know nothing is going to hurt me if I do this because this is the right thing to do.”

To date, he’s made more than $12,000 streaming his music online, and that’s saying a lot because one stream is just one-third of a penny. I’m trying to do the math now. If one stream is one-third of one cent then one dollar is equal to 300 streaming plays by listeners making his music heard more than 3.6 million times! It’s been ten years, four albums, two commissioned plays, and countless gigs since then and Aaron Lewis is still composing.

Sunlight performingSunlight is Aaron’s song-writing avenue, “I compose music for string quartet. I compose music for classical guitar. I compose music for bizzaro, strange, soundscapes and then I write songs.” He knew that Paula had always wanted to sing and asked her to help him by teaming up as Sunlight. Paula insists it’s all Aaron and he disagrees and tells her, “I couldn’t sing the stuff that you sing…because of the way I want the rhythm to go, the music itself would have to be cut back significantly for me to be able to sing and play.” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Sunlight live and can attest that the two really are the perfect match!

Part II

 

Experience the work of Aaron Lewis and Paula Manning-Lewis in the following places:


Visit the Aaron Lewis website
Visit the Paula Manning-Lewis Website
Paula Manning-Lewis on Facebook

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