Paula Kelley Interview

By shane

The greatest thing about being a part of Excellent Online is the ability to push my favorite artists on all of you guys, and here's another one to be filed under Things You Need To Hear.

Paula Kelley released her first solo full-length, "Nothing/Everything," on Boston's Stop, Pop, and Roll Records last year - and it quickly became one of the biggest surprises to make my 2001 Best-Of lists. Inside this little pop-tastic package was a whirlwind of emotion - innocently taunting, musically charming yet lyrically intense... a combination you don't come across too often.

Paula's is a name you might be familiar with and might not even know it. Starting as a member of US proto-shoegazers The Drop Nineteens, Paula left the band just as they'd begun to make waves with the US and UK critics. Over the next few years came a couple new projects - first the one-off Hotrod, which showcased Kelley's burgeoning songwriting abilities, and then Boy Wonder, which found Kelley further immersed into the East Coast powerpop scene.

With all of her former bands behind her, Paula's now firmly established herself among the hierarchy of Boston singer-songwriters, and the new record is finding fans and critical acclaim all across the US.

When Excellent Online began seeking out artists to contribute to our first compilation disc, "Intertwined" (available for free download right here on the site,) Paula Kelley was one of the first names that came to mind. We were ecstatic when she agreed to contribute a track, and we're doubly thrilled that she allowed us to sit down and ask her a few questions:

EO: When did you first start playing music as a kid? What instrument did you start on? Who were your very first influences starting out? When did you first try your hand at songwriting, and what was that very first song like?

PK: I started out playing piano when I was about three or four. I would just bang around on it while my dad was listening to his big band records. My parents wanted to send me to the same instructor my sister went to, but she said she didn't like to start teaching kids until they were seven because their hands were too small. She listened to me when I was five, though, and decided to take me on. I only played classical then and in high school I moved on to harpsichord and played in the orchestra. I quit my junior year because the teacher there was a discouraging miserable curmudgeon (the archetype of what you'd think you'd get at a New England boarding school). That was actually the best thing that could have happened to me because then, of course, I started playing guitar.

The Bee Gees and Barry Manilow were my favorite artists when I was little. My siblings who were much older than me had moved out of the house by the time I was conscious, pretty much, and they left behind a bunch of great old records. A little later I really got into top 40 radio. I'd listen to Casey Kasem every Saturday and write down the songs in the chart. If I wasn't able to listen on a given day I'd assign one of my friends to listen and take notes for me. My favorite top 40 bands were Duran Duran and the Go-Gos.

I wrote my first couple of songs with a friend when I was nine-ish. She did the lyrics and I did the music. One was a Go-Gos inspired number called "Wait Up," the other was a sappy ballad called "Windy Skies." I remember them clearly!

EO: With Boston being pretty much the center of indie pop/rock, from the Pixies to the Muses to Buffalo Tom to the Gigalo Aunts to Jonathan Richman, etc... how on Earth did the Drop Nineteens - who seemed to share far more with My Bloody Valentine than Evan Dando - evolve from that sort of atmosphere?

PK: The Drop Nineteens never really tried to capitalize on the Boston thing. From the inception, Greg set his sites on the shoegazing scene in England. He sent our demos to British labels and fortunately it fell into the hands of a band who was doing quite well at the time and we managed to get a bit of a buzz going. We didn't even play live in Boston until well after we signed and had recorded our album. We were never popular in Boston. Because we circumvented the system of playing around at local clubs before "making it" we were rather resented by bands who were doing that. The fact that we were abysmal live didn't really ingratiate us to any of them, either!

EO: The Drop Nineteens got great overseas press right away, thanks to NME sort of lumping you guys into the "shoegazing" scene... what was it like having presumably a bigger fan base overseas than here? Did you ever play out over there? If so, what were the crowds like overseas compared to in the States? Did any one set of fans (UK vs. US) seem to "get it" any better (or differently) than the other?

PK: (See above question) Crowds were much bigger there than here. We played to 2,000 seat venues in London whereas when we toured the states we had our share of the fabled shows in Cleveland with ten people in the audience. We did better in the big cities- NY and LA- our shows were always packed there, probably because people have more access to import records and the foreign music press.

EO: What was the band's reaction to getting lumped in with the other shoegazing bands? Was it something you were ok with, or do you think the UK press was misunderstanding the band?

PK: It was fine with us at first, after all, that was the sound we were going for, and we were grateful for the attention we were getting. After the first record and EP came out, though, Greg made a conscious effort to change the sound because the MBV comparisons were getting to be a bit much and he wanted us to have our own identity. I didn't stick around to see the results of the new direction, though!

EO: Regardless of your take on the "shoegazing" genre, you guys suddenly found yourselves having attention paid by fans of those bands. Most of those groups (My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, etc.) seemed to attempt to make grand, sweeping lyrical statements about love, life, the world, etc., and then along comes this American band singing about Winona and covering Barry Manilow and Madonna. Was it ever hard to translate the more kitschy side of the Drop Nineteens to the stereotypical art-school, turtleneck-wearing fans of shoegazing?

PK: I didn't really concern myself with how we came across to other people. That was Greg's job.

EO: You left the band shortly after touring for "Delaware." Now, I seem to recall reading at the time that Greg was sort of a... well.. to be honest, an ego-maniacal power-hungry freak. Without asking you to point fingers, was that the case? What was behind your decision to quit? And do you ever talk to those guys anymore? Or have any idea what they're up to these days? (I haven't heard a peep since "National Coma.")

PK: I'll make no bones about the fact that I was very unhappy in that band. It's always difficult when someone wants you to fit into a mold that wasn't meant for you. I had to write my own songs the way I wanted them to be and Drop Nineteens was not the vehicle in which I would be able do that.

I actually met with Greg and Steve last summer- they approached me about making another Drop Nineteens album! I couldn't do it because I was too busy with my own stuff- Nothing/Everything was about to come out. I'm not sure I would have done it, anyway...

I don't know if they went ahead and did it without me, I haven't heard anything else about it.

EO: Your next group was Hotrod, and I still love that record to this day. Obviously it was a bit of a change in pace stylistically, and a lot more "poppy" overall. Was this where your tastes were leaning, or was it at first just a calculated step to distance yourself from the "shoegazing" tag?

PK: I've always been a bit of a pop girl and that pretty much always comes through in my songs. It wasn't a calculated departure from the Drop Nineteens- I don't ever calculate how I'm going to write, I just go with what comes out of my head at the time. I wrote pop songs before I was in that band and after.

EO: I thought it was especially cool that Mat [Flint, former frontman of UK shoegazers Revolver] played on that disc - me and my friends were all in college at the time, and Revolver was one of our favorite bands, so it was cool to see you guys working together on something... Do you ever hear from Mat these days? I heard that he got into the club scene, and then his name starting popping up on Death in Vegas releases...

PK: I hear from Mat once in a blue moon. He is playing bass in Death in Vegas and he DJ's, too. A while ago he said he was going to get his own project going- I don't know what's become of that.

EO: Hotrod broke up shortly afterwards. Why was this such a short-lived project?

PK: For a couple of reasons- the record didn't do very well, so that wasn't really incentive for the guys to want to stay in the band. Plus, they were all in other bands, too, so their own stuff took precedence. For a while I was determined to find other people and make it work. I even moved to England and tried to get Virgin to release the record over there (I couldn't believe they didn't, after the success of Drop Nineteens!). They told me to get a band together and start playing shows, then they'd "consider it." I finally found a drummer and Mat was still playing bass, but after two years I just didn't have the energy to pursue it. What I really needed was a clean slate.

EO: Boy Wonder was next. How would you describe the difference musically between Hotrod and Boy Wonder?

PK: Boy Wonder was even poppier than Hot Rod- more in a power-pop sense, I think. I left behind most traces of indie rock influence, probably because I was listening to a lot of Phil Spector and Beach Boys at the time. I really became a stickler for arranging during the Boy Wonder era, too. I got a lot more confident about my music and realized the need for certain parts to be there, even if they seemed of negligible importance. Small things, like a shaker or a one note piano part, can make a big difference.

EO: So what finally made you decide to try and do the solo route?

PK: In reference to my previous answer- I developed firm ideas about how I wanted my songs to sound, but being in a democratic band made it difficult for me to put my foot down sometimes. I'm a classic confrontation avoider (in bands, anyway) and in Boy Wonder I'd often acquiesce to have a happy band but sacrifice my feeling satisfied with the end result. The band was together for five years and we were doing quite well for a while, there. Wonder Wear came out on Cherrydisc and seemed like it had a lot of potential to do well...but we had problems with the label and we felt let down by the whole thing. It didn't destroy us, per se, but morale was never really the same after that.

EO: The lyrics on the new record seem to be a bit more mature and focused, with themes of reflection and cautious glimpses to the future... Did you aim to go more personal with the lyrics, or did it just happen that way?

PK: Again, as with all my songs, it just happened. Although I don't sit there and think, "Hmmm...what am I going to write about today..." the themes always end up reflecting what I'm feeling at the time. Good ol' subconscious!

EO: How would you define "pop music"? And, more specifically, how do you define "baroque pop," as your media kit likes to say... :)

PK: I think the definition of pop music has changed over time. I believe the term originally meant music that's currently popular. What used to be consistent in pop music was a hook- lyrical or melodic- that people could grab onto, hence, its popularity. Now, however, since so much of what's popular isn't hooky or catchy, the term pop has come more to mean that which is catchy, whether it's popular or not.

Baroque pop is pop music with a classical influence. Bands like the Left Banke and The Association are the archetypes for the label, I think. There are lots of parts on Nothing/Everything that are based on classical music - a harpsichord part in "The Light Under the Door," the arrangement of "For Someone," many of the strings lines in general.

EO: I've read a few critics who seem to immediately want to draw comparisons between you and Juliana Hatfield, which seems WAY off to me, other than the Boston connection and the fact that you two seem to share a certain vocal tonality. Does it bother you when critics use words like "chipmunky" and "pixie-ish" when talking about your singing voice? Do you ever feel like some people are too busy caricaturizing your voice to catch the deeper emotions in your songs?

PK: Yes, I LOATHE that!!!! I don't think there's a female artist out there today who doesn't go through that. People are always comparing everybody, man or woman, but with women it's so often based on the sound of your voice. You know, "chick rock" is a genre and all that bullshit. My favorite comparisons are ones where I know it's based on the overall sound rather than my vocals- recent ones have been Todd Rundgren, Eric Carmen, and Dusty Springfiend. Yeah, Dusty's a woman, but obviously our voices are nothing alike (unfortunately, for me!). A strange new development in the Juliana Hatfield vein- lately I've gotten a couple Lisa Loebs! Where the hell does that come from??

EO: What's your take on the state of "pop" music today? It seems as though anything with a slight "alternative" stance has taken a backseat to the pop-by-numbers of boybands or the dumb-angst of Limp Bizkit. Do you ever see indiepop growing bigger than it currently is (in terms of commercialism)?

PK: Indiepop meaning pop on indie labels, right? I really think it has to. Major labels are so out of control and there's such wealth of indie music bubbling underneath the surface that something's got to give. I would hope that what gives is that people finally get sick of listening to such godawful "music..." I think it's gotten to a really sad point- I was just talking to my friends about something that exemplifies how bad it's gotten. We were listening to the radio and some typical alterna-boy rock band came on. It was some innocuous song with three chords and some distortion and a bit of angst and a hint of a melody. We said "Hey, what's this? This isn't bad!" but then we thought "What, are we out of our heads?" We were just saying it was all right because it didn't completely suck! Woo hoo! It's mediocre! Remember the days when pop music was actually good and mediocrity sucked? Depressing.

EO: Your album was released on Boston's fledgling Stop, Pop, and Roll Records. What do you see as the primary pro's and con's of releasing on a small indie label vs. a more well-known indie or major label? Did you go with SP&R out of necessity or choice? Are you happy where you're at, or do you ever want to see yourself sitting down with Tommy Mottola to discuss your five-album deal with Sony?

PK: If it ever came about, I would go into a major label deal with extreme trepidation. Majors, even large indies, don't have your best interest in mind. They just don't, no matter what they say. When the album was nearing completion, I did a small amount of shopping around, but Stop, Pop, and Roll made me an offer that was very appealing, from the standpoint of potential growth and a spirit of my being part of a team, rather than being a disposable commodity.

At this point I'm happier being in the forefront of a small label than being on the back burner at a large one. It's nice to get attention, you know? If I'm going to ever generate large-scale interest of any sort, I feel it will be in other ways, like publishing. I'd rather write the songs and let one of their puppets record it, then get the dough but not sacrifice my soul in the process. Then I can make my own records on the side, the way I want to. Sound like a good plan?

EO: What's the deal with the Bee Gees fetish? How did your occasional Bee Gee's tribute band come about? And is it ever hard playing gigs, with you guys focusing on the actually great early stuff vs. the cheezy disco years (which I'm assuming certain drunken yahoos probably request at the shows?) What's yer favorite Gibb tune? (Mine's easily "Every Christian Lionhearted..") And who's the coolest Bee Gee? And doesn't Barry's chest hair ever frighten you?

PK: As I mentioned before, I've loved the Bee Gees from a very early age. I had actually just met (the guitarist in my band) Aaron, and I was at a gig of his. I overheard he and another friend of ours, Ad Frank, discussing starting a Bee gees tribute band. I pushed in and said under no circumstances were they allowed to do this unless they involved me. I learned to play bass for that band- now it's my favorite instrument to play!

We've managed to avoid playing "Staying Alive" the entire three years we've been together. If we ever get a big money gig or something, we'll bite the bullet and learn a couple crowd pleasers. We already do a few- Jive Talking, How Deep is Your Love, Nights on Broadway...

I think my favorite song is off their early 70's album, "A Kick in the Pants is Worth Eight in the Head" that was sadly never released. It's called "Dear Mr. Kissinger." There's a lot of great stuff on that album. If you ever come across a bootleg, grab it and run like there's no tomorrow.

My favorite Bee Gee was Robin when I was little, but now I think its Barry. I love his singing on that late 60's early 70's stuff. Very raw and emotive. I wish he'd go ahead and get a goddamn haircut, already, though. He's not fooling anyone anymore!

EO: So what's the future hold for you? Any wide-scale touring plans afoot? Future releases, appearances, etc.?

PK: We will in fact be coming to the Midwest at the beginning of April. We're playing the first annual Chicago IPO [International Pop Overthrow] festival and we'll have some other dates TBA. We'll begin work on the next album this summer. I'm very much looking forward to getting the new album started. Whereas "Nothing/Everything" was a mix of new songs and songs written over the years that didn't quite fit my bands, the new one will be comprised entirely of songs I've written in the last year, so I'll feel like it's more immediate and cohesive.

EO: Did ya make a New Year's resolution this year?

PK: I never make New Year's resolutions. I did, however, make a resolution to myself recently. It's to stop giving such a big shit about little things. Big things, though, they get the big shits.

EO: Would you say overall that you're a happy person? Self-criticism and self-doubt run fairly rampant on this record - occasionally to the point where I'm prone to go, "Aww, she's being too hard on herself." But just when I think I've played armchair psychiatrist to a T, you turn it around with a self-confident blast... are we seeing the Two Sides of Paula, or are a lot of the tracks on the record merely manifestations of the internal dialogues we're all prone to having with ourselves?

PK: It's hard to say whether I'm happy overall or not. I spend some time happy, but I certainly know miserable pretty well too, then all sorts of points in between. Being hard on myself, though, that's a skill I've pretty much perfected. Maybe it's my twisted way of ensuring I'll have something to strive for- being better than me. It's a goal that constantly regenerates, as it can never be attained. Sounds frustrating, doesn't it? I'm a bit afraid of being satisfied. Satisfaction can lead to stagnation...and I can't think of anything I'd rather not be. You're right, though, there is some confidence in there amid all the doubt. If there wasn't, I wouldn't be bothering with this, would I? I'm pretty sure I know what my strengths as a songwriter are, and as far as the weaknesses, well, I have confidence that they're not beyond hope!

Find out more about Paula at her site,, or visit Stop, Pop, and Roll Records at And we'd of course be remiss by not mentioning that you can download Paula doing a stellar Bee Gees cover right here on our own "Intertwined" CD. Images taken from and were photographed by Liz Linder.