The Paper Kites couldn’t have chosen a better time to burst onto the scene. At the moment, many Australian musicians are making waves across the pond, and for better or worse, the folk genre is in the midst of transition period. When the conditions seemed just right, the Melbourne five-piece dropped their spectacular debut album, States. It was a calculated decision that was perfectly executed by the group and their label, Nettwerk Records, who we imagine picked up the band shortly after hearing the group’s endearing first single, “Featherstone.” During their recent trip through North America, we sat down with the band to discuss everything from working with a label to the pitfalls of an early success.
Indie Current: Without the backing of a record company, you guys gained a great deal of notoriety from “Featherstone” and “Bloom.” There are even instances where bands, like yourself, have been signed after releasing only one song. Do you think the internet has made it easier for record companies to access new music, and if so, do believe artists are losing touch with their labels?
Sam B: It’s definitely a good thing and a bad thing. It’s great because a band that isn’t signed can get their music out there and everyone can listen to it. For instance, when we first toured Canada, we had people that came out to our shows who knew us from “Featherstone” and “Bloom.” While this is great, I can’t help but feel it’s an over-saturated market. There’s so much music out there, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing. That being said, the success we have had is largely due to the attention we got from viewers [on YouTube]. I don’t think they [“Featherstone” and “Bloom”] were particularly viral, though. They kind of steadily grew, inclining slowly. I think it’s a good way for that to happen—I would have been a little worried if I woke up one day and suddenly one of our videos from zero to over a million views, it seems sort of unnatural.
Sam R: Agreed. When people jump on a band too quickly, they tend to jump off just as quickly.
Christina: I think—because we get asked a lot about “Featherstone” and “Bloom”—that there are pros and cons to the amount of influence that the internet has nowadays. Music is more accessible than it has ever been, but there are even pros and cons to that: You have to wonder where the money is going and how the artist is benefitting. It’s an incredible thing that we can access music from sites like YouTube and stream so many different artists from around the world.
IC: How have things changed since you inked a deal with Nettwerk Records? Do you feel like you’ve lost any artistic freedom?
Sam R: It definitely hasn’t taken away any of our artistic freedom… I don’t think.
Christina: Before we signed [with Nettwerk], we made a point of not letting that happen. Sometimes you hear horror stories, so it was definitely something we were very conscious of. A big part of it was to find a label that was on the same page as us; knew what our priorities were; knew the kind of stuff we care about as a band; wanted to head in the same direction as us; and shared the same values as us. These are all things I think we’ve achieved with Nettwerk.
Sam B: Yeah, and they were really good when we signed with them. They had sort of said “We want to build with you guys,” and were asking us things like “Where do you want to be 5 years from now, 10 years from now?” I think it’s important for a label to understand that you aren’t a hype act or want to be big stars straight away. They understood that we are in it for the long haul and wanted to build a career out of it. Since we had some success on our own, I think they were more inclined to run with our direction. So, yeah, they were great!
IC: Your sound has evolved a lot between each EP and album. It seems as though each of your releases has its own distinct sound and feeling. Did you purposefully set out to capture a feeling in each release or was it more of a natural evolution of the band and what you were going through at the time? Also, do want to try something new with each release?
Sam R: A bit of all three.
Sam B: I’d say all three. Even when we put Woodlands out, it was more of a concept album in terms of sound. We wanted to capture that folk vibe, but by the time we got to States, mentally I was somewhere completely different. It’s very easy for people to picture how you sound because it familiarizes them with the type of band that you are. We aren’t necessarily the kind of people who want you to think we are going to go against expectations, but by the time States came around, I was ready to push out our soundscape a little bit and show everyone what we could do. It did, however, come out quite naturally… Actually, no. I shouldn’t say that, because everything is very intentional; it doesn’t really come out naturally. We strived to get a sound that was a bit more cinematic and ethereal, and we worked with a composer in Melbourne called Tim Coghill who brought a lot of texture to songs we hadn’t previously had. The whole record is really just a collection of different times and different states of minds I was in during the last year that I was writing it. So, yeah, musically I think I was in a different place for States than I was for the first two EPs. I planned to write something that I truly wanted to create and something that I thought we should sound like. We put a lot of work into it and were really happy with how it turned out.
IC: Your songs often touch on very personal stories of past relationships and feelings. Is there a song that carries the most sentiment to you? Do these songs ever strike up bittersweet memories?
Christina: Yep, I think so.
Sam B: We had a hard time recording some of them.
Christina: Yeah! I found that, particularly recording, some songs were very hard to do. Some I didn’t even write, but I knew that Sam had written them from my point of view, if that makes sense? When watching other artists, I alway wonder what they are thinking about while on stage. For me, it’s show to show. Some shows I will be playing the songs and concentrate more on trying to sing it really nicely or play it well, then I’ll have other nights where it comes naturally. You know, it depends on the circumstances. I’m not really sure why, but some nights I’m really intensely thinking about what I’m singing—and there are at least one or two songs in particular that are really hard to sing.
Sam B: Everyone seems to connect to our songs in a different way. For example, I had a girl come up to me the other day who had cried at two different points throughout the set because they had taken on their own life to her. So while they are very personal to us, they become very personal to other people for their own reasons—and I think that’s a great thing! I love the idea of being able to move someone else in that way, especially when they get out what I put into the songs.
IC: Are there any songs in particular that are tough to perform?
Sam B: “Paint” is pretty brutal. That’s pretty confessional. I suppose when it was written and when I sing it—even though it’s not something that’s relevant now—I still remember that feeling. “Tenenbaum” is another sad song. When playing in a live setting, you definitely try to think about the state-of-mind you were in at the time, just to remember what it was like. But like Christina said, when you are thinking about what you wrote, it becomes hard to sing, so you sometimes need to shut it off a little bit.
Dave: Does it actually help to be in a frame-of-mind where you feel the emotion of the song and deliver it in a way that is doing it justice?
Christina: Sometimes it is good, but most of the time I try not to let myself get to that point, because it can affect the rest of the performance. If I’m feeling sad and get too involved, I might be a mess for the rest of the set.
IC: You guys have done a substantial amount of touring since the release of States, including a support slot for City and Colour. Will you be taking a break following the conclusion of your North American tour?
Sam R: We will take a bit of time off. There will be a few announcements to come on a few small tours, but certainly nothing straight away. We will be out a few times until the end of the year.
IC: Have you enjoyed your time touring?
Sam B: It’s been great! We never really know what we’re doing sometimes—even until a month out. There are definitely plans to do a bit of touring towards the end of the year, but I think when next year hits, we will be working on a new record that is currently in the works.
IC: With the new record, do you think you will strive for a new sound again or can we expect something similar?
Sam B and Christina: We haven’t really talked about it at all.
Sam B: I never really go into anything saying I want to move away from what we’ve done. I kind of just write them, and when we put them together, they go through “the Paper Kites filter.” I haven’t really done any writing since we finished States, and I’ve been jamming my head full of new music trying to relearn what makes a great song. So it’ll be cool to see how it comes out. It’s always a big job and the second release is kind of the “cursed release,” but I’m pretty determined to not fall into that.
IC: As you just mentioned, you’ve been jamming your head full of new music. Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?
Sam B: It’s hard because everyone is into such an eclectic selection. Even the things we are into, they themselves are very different. It’s not like anyone listens to one genre of music.
IC: That’s good because everyone brings something new to the table.
Sam B: Lately, I’ve been listening to Sharon Van Etten. Have you heard of her?
Christina: I’ve never heard of her!
Sam B: But I really like a lot of cinematic stuff. For example, I’ve been listening to a lot of Brian Eno, which is just ridiculous. I actually have this book my brother got me that’s called “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” that was selected by a panel, but I’ve been trying to work my way through that because obviously they’re in there for a reason.
Sam R: We all have all sorts of different bands that influence us in one way or another, but not necessarily bands that sound like us or we want to sound like—just small aspects. Like, a few of us may enjoy listening to Phoenix, but that doesn’t mean we want to start making dance-rock or anything. It just inspires us because maybe the way their textures work is really interesting, or maybe the way the song builds is interesting. We might take those aspects of a song and then listen to Fleetwood Mac and say “Jeez, those rhythms are really beautiful,” you know? It’s just this eclectic mix that we’re inspired by and they all kind of come together.
Dave: I think that question could be asked to every member individually. Like, how does your approach to the instrument change and who inspires the way you play? Every song has a different answer. “I admire the sounds of this guy, the writing of this one, and the shredding of this one.” It’s a really interesting question that you always hear musician asking each other.
IC: I think it’s something that everyone is interested in. Everyone has their own thoughts of a band even before they meet them and make assumptions based on their sound.
Christina: I feel like I’m always inspired or challenged by other people’s lyrics. You can be challenged by the lyrics of any genre, so it’s very wide.
IC: It depends on what kind of song you’re trying to write—like a happy song or a sad song. There’s a big difference.
Christina: Yeah exactly.
Sam B: When you try and create something that is your own sound, like Dave said, you do take elements of what you listen to. But you put it through this process of playing it how you interpret it because of the bands that influence you. Dave’s playing style is brought about by the bands he grew up listening to and what he perceives is the style. Christina is different and Sam is different. So, in this way, it is very hard to pinpoint what we sound like. A lot of people say “Oh, you sound like this band or that band,” but it’s really hard to pin down what exactly we’re doing at the moment. Still, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
IC: What has been your biggest challenge as The Paper Kites? As far as touring, recording, or just general band stuff?
Dave: Merch. We seem to be cursed without merch.
Sam R: One of our biggest challenges is what we’ve just been talking about: Finding a balance between who inspires us, how our music should sound and what direction we’re going in. But I think that’s one of the best things about a band. There are different personalities all creating something unique. One of the biggest challenges, though, is dealing with big personalities. I mean, I’m really proud of how our stuff turns out. Sometimes I’ll listen back to recordings and feel like 90% of it I’m really proud of, although getting to that point is always a struggle. That’s an honest way of putting it and I think a lot of bands would agree with me on that; it’s hard to get a final result without getting really personal.
Sam B: It can definitely be emotionally exhausting.
Christina: That’s a good thing, though. At the end of the day it’s always a struggle, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t want to be part of a band where one person writes all the songs and the other people just perform it. That’s not a band—that’s a solo artist with session musicians. It’s always hard to get there, but it’s good because it means all of us care enough. If there’s a song that means a lot to us, and we put a lot into it, we will fight for it when we’re talking about which songs are going to make it on the album. I guess it shows everyone is invested and serious about being the best band we can be.
IC: I think it shows you guys have a lot of heart. Also, I believe that a lot bands would agree with you to some extent, at least, in large part.
Sam B: Except for those soulless bands, right?
Sam R: Yeah, I really think it is something most bands struggle with, and I hope they struggle with it just as much as we do.
IC: What has been the most memorable moment you’ve had while on stage?
Sam R: There’s one instance we often talk about. It happened years ago in Brisbane, Australia, at one of our first big shows. We were opening for a really big Australian singer/songwriter called Josh Pyke, and it was halfway through our first tour when we were still learning a lot. It was about an hour or two drive to the venue and the whole way we were discussing how to be really professional. We were like “Okay, we’ve made a few silly mistakes, but its time to get really professional, get in the right headspace and be totally ready!” Then, of course, early on in the set, Dave’s guitar just stops working. He just ran off stage, found the other band, grabbed their guitar, and then ran back to finish the song. And the guy’s guitar was for a giant! The next song, Christina was supposed to play, so I handed off the guitar to her and it was down to her knees! She was trying to play it and it was just an absolute disaster.
Dave: I was playing it at my knees, then I gave it to Christina and it was down at her ankles! While she played, I was tying the strap behind her. From that point, we just decided that we shouldn’t try and be so “professional,” we should just go with it.
Christina: To make matters worse, we were a very new band, and I went up to the guitarist, Matt Fell—who is a seasoned pro—and asked him “Can we borrow your guitar?!” Feeling totally inadequate to be playing with them.
Sam B: Something funny happens almost every night. Sam might throw in a bass line that’s totally different and make everyone laugh—but it’s not always something the audience notices. Stuff happens all the time, but it’s hard when you’re trying to come across as professional musicians to shake mistakes off.
Sam R: The harder you try and look professional, the more stupid you look when you mess stuff up.
Dave: I think the pros look professional because they are so relaxed, not because they are trying to look professional. They just know what they’re doing.
Sam B: But it’s good when you screw up because everyone realizes you’re not above anyone as musicians.
Dave: It also helps you to not focus so much on screwing up.