Fleetwood Mac is Back in the Form of Paper Bird

Look at the cover of Paper Bird’s eponymous album. Standing clustered together in Old West-styled garb on a white background, shades of Fleetwood Mac are apparent. Musically, the Denver band strikes numerous similarities to the Stevie Nicks-fronted band. With multiple female harmonies, catchy hooks, and driving pop songs, the appeal is undeniable. Singer/keyboardist Genevieve Patterson doesn’t run from such comparisons.

“We were really inspired by Fleetwood Mac,” Patterson admits. “That was a band that really spoke to us—just because of the similarities, like the male/female thing, multiple writers, and just how in-depth and varied their records are.”

Co-produced by John Oates, the album is also a huge departure from previous releases. Gone is the gothic folk of stand-up bass, banjo, and acoustic elements more at home on the back porch than the rock clubs the new electric instrumentation supports. The band’s triple female harmonic leads have given way to a classic single lead/backup harmony structure. That’s not to say the band doesn’t fall into the old vocal patterns — and over a rock beat the merged voices become a powerful weapon. All told, the album appears to accomplish Patterson’s goal: “You can listen to it again and again and again.”

New Times caught up with Patterson in sunny Colorado to discuss Paper Bird’s new musical direction, working with producer John Oates of Hall and Oates fame, and the art of vocal harmonies.

Paper Bird is scheduled to perform Tuesday, November 1, at the Rebel Lounge.  
I recall seeing Paper Bird at a festival in Colorado early in your formation, maybe 2006-7. I was impressed with the harmonies then, and recall a very raw, stripped down sound, a kind of Old West, back-porch sound. Clearly, the band’s more polished now, more rock oriented, so how did you get from there to here?

Genevieve Patterson: I think we just grew up a lot. We switched over when went we separate ways with the [original] bass player, and instead of getting another standup bass player we decided it would be fun to see if our banjo player [Caleb Summeril] could play bass instead. So he started playing electric bass. He learned really quickly and worked really hard at it. We noticed how it cleaned up the sound, and that there was a lot more power and a lot less clutter for the vocals. It gave us better expression for the songs we were writing. We just went with it. It was pretty natural, but it worked.

The band had more of a gothic folk sound early on. Was the plan always to add more rock elements, or, given some of the artists you shared stages with, like Neko Case and Nathaniel Rateliff, did those elements just creep in?

We love those bands, but when we were in the studio writing these songs, we were really inspired by Fleetwood Mac. That was a band that really spoke to us — just because of the similarities, like the male/female thing, multiple writers, and just how in-depth and varied their records are. I think it was people from other generations we were drawing from more.

The Fleetwood Mac comparisons are pretty obvious.

Yeah. It’s just so nice when people in the music business are really skeptical of a band that doesn’t have a lead singer to take a nod to some of these bands from the past where it’s really worked in the songwriting process. It was nice for us to align ourselves with their methods.

Was it difficult then in the past based on the band structure, as far as getting gigs? Is this why your albums were self-released? Were you being told, “Look, there’s no lead singer, there’s no front person for us glom on to,” and so they passed on Paper Bird?

I think we were a lot of reasons we were self-releasing in the past. We were a little unclear as what was the best route was to get our music to people. We weren’t clear. Sometimes it’s hard living in Denver knowing what the realities of the music business are. We were a little impatient in the past, too. We would record music as fast as we could and just want to release it. Now with this record, we wanted to take time to write it, workshop it, and really overwrite. We had about 60 songs that we whittled down to the 11 on the record that we worked on. It was a really time-consuming thing. You can’t be so impulsive; you have to stay grounded and take all the steps. It’s really been a more grown-up process.

I see this album as a big step forward even from Rooms, your previous album.

I think so. We’ve grown a lot. I think we put a lot of work into this record and it felt more intentional in every way. It wasn’t just recording the songs we were playing. It was workshopping and really deconstructing our processes and really looking at our past and being intentional about. I think we did learn a lot about ourselves and did grow a lot.

This album was produced in part by John Oates of Hall and Oates fame. He’s an amazing songwriter, though most of his hits were more dance pop or disco-oriented. Was he very influential in shaping these songs at all?

He was really helpful in being somebody with so much experience. I felt like he could be somebody who could come in and see what we were doing and had going for us and really help us with the direction. He helped us pick the songs he thought we worth recording. He helped with a lot of form. There was a song where he came in and said, “I’ve written a chorus.” But a lot of the time, it was more production and arrangements, and he had a really high bar. He wanted every song on the album to potentially be a single. He didn’t want it to be clear what the single was. He didn’t want any filler. He wanted every song to be on par with all the rest.

And he’s such a good vocalist and backup vocalist. It’s an art form not a lot of people have knowledge of. Hall and Oates has always drawn from Motown, so he was really good at helping us come up with really effective vocal parts and lines and aspects.

How did he end up in the picture?

We were looking for people just to write with. We’d never done any co-writing, and his name came up since he lives in Colorado. We have the same booking agent. We sent him the demos and he liked them. He just drove himself down from Aspen with a guitar and showed up where we rehearsed and hung out. It was wonderful. Really surreal, but wonderful. (Laughs)

Earlier you mentioned difficulties with harmonies. You’ve got three voices, but now it’s more of lead harmony than background harmony. Is that something that’s difficult to balance within a group?

It’s been really fun. We’ve definitely learned that sometimes the best way to get something across is that if you’ve trying to tell a story, it’s better to let someone have the lead and do more backups. We’re doing a lot of songs like this. It’s very different from the early albums when we’re singing three-part [harmony] all the way through. There’s something about having each individual voice telling a story. We’ve utilized that a lot more on this record. I like being really intentional about when the harmonies come in and making the most of that.

Making a full album is a lost art these days. It seems like everyone is rushing out songs — singles — these days. That’s the way the model works today.

Sometimes people hear the word single like a dirty word — like people worked really hard on one or two songs and then slapped the rest on there. I think making every song something that you put your whole effort behind feels really good. It feels like we’re making a record you can listen to all the way through, and I’m really proud of that.