The narrative goes something like this: You have your whole life to prepare for your first album, and usually less than a year to prepare for your second.
While the “sophomore slump” thing, releasing a vaguely disappointing follow-up to a surprisingly strong debut, may or may not be the most predictive model for a recording band’s fortunes these days, especially since making records is often now a less formal and less focused process than it used to be, the same handicaps are still lurking in the corner. Artists and bands can still grow their popularity well ahead of their own identity — the pressure to produce a single is more palpable — what came naturally and unforced the first time around can be second-guessed, over-considered on the next lap.
And everyone has something to compare your second record to.
But hey, there are worse problems to have than lasting long enough to actually make a second album, and for Paper Bird, whose stunning emergence from Breckenridge buskers to improbable local heroes in the last couple of years (voted top 10 Underground Bands by The Denver Post three years in a row and Best Local Band by 5280 Magazine), tapping a hypnotic musical lattice of chamber folk and ’grass Americana, stitched at the hems with bits of blues and cabaret jazz and R&B grease, their just-released second long player When The River Took Flight is a validation of their identity, not a challenge to it, in large part because some of the material will already be familiar to the band’s fans.
Vocalist Genny Patterson is glad it’s done. Finished.
“Oh, we’re so excited. It’s been so long in the making, we’re so ready for people to hear it,” she says. “Y’know, our old full length is, like, three years old now. And a lot of the songs that have really been carrying us to where we’ve gotten are on this record, so we’ve been so eager to get this out. And there are definitely new songs on it as well, and other songs that don’t work as well in live shows that I’m really excited for people to hear.
“A lot of the songs that I think are a huge part of who we are will be coming out on this record.”
And still, to our ears, the “who we are” part of Paper Bird remains an elusive thing. At a certain level, there’s a certain directness and implicit Úlan to the band’s arresting loft. You hear it especially in the more obviously folk numbers: the Appalachia testament “Lost Boys” and the grassy lead off “Steady On.” But when the band swings in deeper waters — the swirling, complimentary close harmonies and swelling trombone lines yielding to the Baroque-ish closing vocal filigrees of “Boxcars and Thistles,” or the goofy sidewalk anthem “Spit Spot,” there’s a maddening release of riff and vocal interplay and gently precise instrumentation, timing and shading, a Mandelbrot of harmonies and time figures, that belies a band deeply invested in its own craft, chasing a thing that’s many things all at once.
“It does vary from song to song,” Patterson says. “Songs like ‘Steady As,’ a couple of people brought to the table, everyone just jumped on it and we figured it out the first two times we played through it, and it was just perfect.
“And there are some songs, like the last song on the record, ‘Love Life Now,” we were really excited about. It was our bass player Macon’s first song on, but [fellow singers Esme Patterson-Collins and Sarah Anderson] and I and I just had no idea what to do with it. And it actually ended up being the day we had to record it, and we go ‘Oh, well we have to figure out vocals for this. Right.’ So we had this scratch track that just had horrible vocals on it, because we were just noodling around and didn’t really know what we were doing, so we had to make up parts over that … just turning it off and going blind, just trying to remember what was going on with chords, and it was one of the weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But … I’m so proud of how it turned out … somehow. So … you never really know how or why.”
But maybe there’s a point of reference.
Patterson acknowledged the band’s signature threefemale-vocal harmony comparisons to the Roches, the Greenwich Village sister trio from the late ’70s and early ’80s, while conceding that none of them had ever actually heard the Roches before, but another comparison longtime Boulder music lovers might appreciate hits a little closer to home.
We asked if the singers had ever heard Rare Silk, the Boulder-based vocal jazz band from the late ’70s/early ’80s, featuring sisters Gaile and Marylynn Gillaspie and Marguerite Juenemann (replaced by Barbara Reeves), whose satin vocal lines and effortless channeling of vocal jazz standards produced some the tightest and most seductive harmonies ever to pour from a Boulder club’s front door.
“Esme and I were both in an a cappella jazz choir our senior year of high school, and so we know this world … and I was also in this small group of people learning to sing jazz, and Marguerite was my teacher,” Patterson says. And she was … ridiculous. She’s still one of the best jazz vocalists I’ve ever heard. Just a complete monster. So, I never heard Rare Silk, but I did hear Marguerite a few times.
“And she was a really amazing teacher to me. It was the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Artists, the vocal program of which was really just Marguerite and four girls in [drummer/CU instructor] Paul Romaine’s basement. I definitely learned a lot. … She sowed the seeds of things in things for me that I’ve been realizing more and more in my life. Like, ‘Oh yeah, she taught me that.’” And probably brought some onstage when the band played Red Rocks last summer, opening for the film Top Gun.
“It was kind of funny, because I never get stage fright,” Patterson says. “Most of us never do. … We just go out there and just have fun. Even some of the bigger shows, our group dynamic is so powerful, it just kind of feels like we’re hanging out with each other.
“But Red Rocks was ridiculous, and I totally wasn’t prepared for it. We knew other people who had this — opening for Film on the Rocks, and we were opening for Top Gun. But you get there, and there’s 8,000 people there. And the sound is so good, you can hear everything you’re doing. I just remember being so conscious of feeling glad that there were six other people onstage with me.”
Everything after playing a sold out Red Rocks is easy.
“Well, everything has its own challenge, like playing to twenty people who don’t know you — with a bad sound system. There will always be that,” she says.
And eventually, it’ll be a headline gig at Red Rocks.
Patterson laughed. “Well, hopefully. We’re working on it,” she says.
On the Bill:
Paper Bird plays the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday, July 29.
Show at 8 p.m. The Beaten Sea open. Tickets are $15.
1750 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-2122.