The 5280 Interview: Paper Bird's Esme Patterson

October 16 2012, 2:40 PM

Many a hit record owes its inspiration to a stranded songwriter, so it’s only fitting that Esme Patterson’s solo debut came together thanks to a broken-down ride.

Patterson, one-seventh of the beloved Denver Americana combo Paper Bird, was touring with the band last July when their tour bus died. She took the forced respite as a sign that the 30 or so songs she’d written over the years were ready to be curated into an album. The result is All Princes, I, a record—again, a la many a hit—borne of a failed relationship.

Unlike, Paper Bird’s rootsy, mostly upbeat songs, All Princes, I is far more meditative and introspective. It draws upon Patterson’s interest in mythology, astrology, and Jungian archetypes. This doesn’t mean it’s a downer. The record has a little bit of everything—from jaunty pop throwbacks to wistful ballads of love and loss—and the tales are all gracefully told through Patterson’s luminous, gossamer voice.

Fear not, Paper Bird fans: The band isn’t going anywhere. It’s recording a new record this December, it’s exploring future projects like the one it produced with Ballet Nouveau, and (thanks to a new bus) the group continues to tour exhaustively. In fact, when Patterson sat down with 5280 this Monday, she was kicking off a week that includes an in-store show at Twist & Shout, a plane flight to New Orleans for a Paper Bird show with The Lumineers, a flight back here for her CD release/birthday party Saturday night—a month ahead of its national release date, a thank you to Patterson’s devoted Denver fan base—and a return flight to the band on Sunday.

As the chaos prepared to ensue, Patterson and her producer (and veteran Denver musician) Roger Green chatted about her burgeoning solo career, what might happen to the songs that didn’t make this record, and why Denver might just be the best music town in America.

5280: These songs have been stewing for a while. Why do a solo album now?

Esme Patterson: "When our bus broke down, we ended up unwillingly taking about nine months off until we got a new rig. So we were moored in Colorado and I decided it was time to strike. It was something I’d wanted to do for so long, and I had a stack of songs—that weren’t Paper Bird songs, for whatever reason—that I wanted to play and I wanted people to hear."

5280: So how did you cull the collection into a whole album?

EP: "We started with about 30 songs. I had some songs in mind for the record that didn’t exist yet, so it was nice to be able to look at the holes in the collection and say, ‘Oh, I want a song that means this or that sounds like this.’ I wrote about five of the songs on the record during the recording process. It was a very creative period for me. I was also going through a huge amount of personal change that gave me a lot to write about. It’s a hard thing to go through, but there’s a lot of good that comes out of it.

Roger and I met years ago, and he produced the Joe Sampson record that was so great. I invited him to a show I was playing in February, and he liked it, so he offered to produce the record. He really crystallized things for me in a lot of ways."

5280: Were you intentionally trying to get outside the Paper Bird mold?

EP: "The intention was to get out of a boy-girl, gendered love song. I’m kind of a big fan of mythology and Jungian thought, and I wanted to write songs more based on an archetypal style that balances the male-female aspects of self. I wanted to see a romantic song in such a way that it’s written to different aspects of the self rather than projecting it onto someone else specifically.

That’s a huge part of this record; it’s a bit more difficult subject matter than Paper Bird usually does. It deals with the more dark, emotional struggles, and the material is more raw. What ties the songs together is the way we wrestle with the self—anima and animus in Jungian terminology—how they both need to be cared for the way you would care for a lover."

5280: So how, literally, were you doing the Jungian thing? Was it, here’s the INTJ song; here’s the ENFP song?

EP: "It was mainly a way of healing, going through cycles of relationships and not projecting these romantic or heartbroken ideals onto another person, but rather finding a way to balance all those aspects of self within the framework of a song. I’m going to embarrass myself here, but astrology figures into my writing a lot, too. The songs 'Aquarius' and 'Swimmer' are about people that bring water to everyone but themselves. I’m an air sign, and 'Aquarius' talks about how you’re a fish and I’m a bird; we live in different elements, so how can we live in the same place? I feel lucky to have songwriting to help me work through these things."

5280: What’s the role of the producer in this?

Roger Green: "I actually had some very particular ideas that I gave up very quickly. I was planning to make a Syd Barrett, Madcap Laughs kind of record, stripped down and raw. I took some of Esme’s MP3s and showed her what I would do. Then we had some very quick dialogue where she said, ‘I like this; I don’t like this.’ Once we were into it, Esme had such a clear vision for it, that it became stepping back and pairing her with the right musicians. It was a very intense couple of months."

EP: "We recorded it between April and June, which is tight, especially considering the range of musicians that are on it. It really speaks to how rich the scene is in Denver. There are world-class, amazing performers who we could just make a phone call to and have them come in. It was like a lightning bolt, which is how it had to be. It was an emotional exorcism, in a really good way."

5280: Are you touring in support of it?

EP: "I am, but I’m still working out a schedule around Paper Bird’s tour. I love the band—they’re my best friends—and so it’s working really well doing both things at once. They can feed each other."

5280: What happens to the 20 or so songs that didn’t go on this album?

EP: "A few will go to Paper Bird. One goes to the ballet. There’s a nice give-and-take there that helps me see the way I do it versus the way the band does it. It’s helping me crystallize my process a lot more and figure out what kind of songs I want to write for myself and for the band. It’s really nice to have direction like that, an outlet for these songs that are incredibly personal or that I can do a better job on myself. I’m constantly writing, and I’m already thinking about the next record."

RG: "To me, there’s this whole other record (among the remaining songs) to be made that’s more narrative based and sounds like Sunshine Superman or something like that. Pairing those with 'Jessica' or 'All the Days' was too disparate for one record."

5280: Did you always know you wanted to do solo?

EP: "I did. I recorded a little EP about four years ago. I’m glad that record wasn’t this one, but some of the songs from that are on this record. It just seemed like the time frame for this one was really healthy. I needed to go through all the things I went through during the last four years to get to that exact moment when I could write the songs that needed to go on that record. So I’m trusting the unfolding of time as a variable in helping make these records. I’m grateful I didn’t make it before this spring, because it would’ve been totally different and not as good."

5280: Have you or the band ever had anyone in your ear telling you to move to L.A. or New York?

EP: "Of course. But because Paper Bird tours so much and sees so many music scenes all over the country, I can say Denver is the best. It’s so special. There’s nothing like it, where people work together and have a genuine community where people help each other and care about each other’s lives. They play on each other’s records and support one another, and the talent here is unlike anywhere else. There are more brilliant musicians and songwriters in Denver than anywhere else I’ve been to."

5280: We’ve often tried to explain what it is that makes Denver special musically. We’re not like Seattle with grunge or Minneapolis with the alt-rock bands. I think what it is here is the eclecticism.

EP: "To me, it’s an energy of people speaking from and connecting with their hearts more than the aesthetic approach you see in other cities. Not to say that no one else in the country writes and plays from their heart; there’s just a concentration of it here."

RG: "[Producer] Colin Bricker says it’s because no one in Denver can work in any one genre and make it. You have to work with other people. There might be saxophonists who just work at Dazzle, but no one knows who they are. The community works because everyone has to interact with each other."

EP: "It creates a richness rather than a disparateness. In Portland, the metal kids hang out with the metal kids, and the hippies hang out with the hippies, and no one knows each other. In Denver, people embrace those differences. It’s beautiful."

—Image courtesy of Greater Than Collective.

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.