[Cover photo credit to Rachel Roessler]
LA-based musician, Producer, and composer Paul Roessler recently released new solo album, The Turning of the Bright World, via Kitten Robot Records, to which he has a close relationship as Producer and Operator of Kitten Robot Studios. As a lifelong musician who’s had a lot to do with the Punk scene, he’s particularly equipped to help musicians bring about their vision for their albums, but it’s also a skillset he’s aquired painstakingly over time. There’s the added benefit of being able to turn those skills loose on his own music, as he has done with The Turning of the Bright World.
The new 13 song album often defies traditional song structure but also ties into recognizable themes and life experiences, often crafting mood very delicately. Roessler himself took some time to find cohesion in the album, but to an outsider, that seems to lie in a certain birds’ eye view of the world itself, with it’s lighter and darker elements, and his own philosophy to “take the joy where you can find it.”
I spoke with Paul Roessler about the album, but also about his work as a Producer and his general advice to musicians creating and releasing music right now in a changing landscape. You get a solid sense of the expansive perspective that he brings to his music and also to his work with bands from what he has to say below.
Hannah Means-Shannon: When you were thinking about this project, did you plan it to be an album, or did you start with songs?
Paul Roessler: I’m always working on stuff. If it’s Christmas, I find myself in the studio. New Year’s Day is a great day to work. No one is ever here in the studio at three in the morning. [Laughs] My art form really isn’t songwriting, it’s album creating. That goes back to when I was a kid and people were making albums.
Nowadays, people put out songs, and then you collect them in an album, maybe. Things move quicker now. For this one, it took a long time for me to see it as an album and I wrote maybe twice as many songs as I put on there. What actually took a long time was for it to seem like the songs unified into something coherent that’s hard to put your finger on.
Part of it was when we went up to visit the poppies and my wife took the picture that’s on the album cover. Then I started to have a vision for it. Also, when I couldn’t think of a name for the record, I ended up taking a line from the film, The Elephant Man, and those two components helped things coalesce.
HMS: I was totally going to ask you about the cover photo since it has a very specific feeling to it that seems important to the album.
PR: My wife took her fancy camera with her and we took a million pictures, but towards the end, she just took a polaroid, and to me, that ended up being the one that was unique and had a special feeling. I’m a musician, and I’m not a visual artist at all. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to ever make a music video, and I like the idea of people with their eyes closed, listening to music. It’s odd what the visual image did, nudging me into getting this into a coherent whole.
HMS: Is there a particular song that’s also key in that way, or is the album more about the interrelationship of all the songs?
PR: If there was a definitive song, I would say that it was the first one, “Elephant Man”. The reasons that I like it are very dangerous, because there are lots of reasons that may not translate to other people. Firstly, there was a free improvisation that I made, then I forced myself to make some lyrics that would follow the improvisation. So, structurally, it has no verses or choruses, but just keeps moving forward. Who cares about that other than the guy writing it?
But when I was trying to write words for it, I wanted really good ones, but couldn’t come up with anything. I listened to the music over and over for about three hours. I was gathering little phrases, but then I gave up. I decided I was never going to know what it meant. But then I sang the phrases later and realized that I totally knew what it meant. I loved that experience of the song assembling itself in your subconscious! I like that much better than controlling it. It makes me feel like I channeled it in some way. I felt like an audience to the song, and it’s cool to be the audience because then you can be a fan of the song!
Also, thematically, I noticed that something that kept cropping up had to do with age. I want to be honest about that, because there are a million young people making really great music, and maybe I should just get out of the way. But old people still feel the urge to create, and at my age, you start thinking about dying, so without me intending to do this, death crops up in a lot of these songs. I think that’s legitimate as an artist. One of the main things about Punk is to be authentic and honest.
People might ask, “How is this a Punk record? How did you get from The Screamers, and 45 Grave, and The Germs, to here?” One of the things I’d say was, “Authenticity. If I was still making music that sounded like that, that would not be authentic.” I also think of some great Punk singer-songwriters who came along, like Elliott Smith. If you listen to his earlier stuff, I feel like he came out of the Punk scene. Also, I’ve always loved the Punk thing of trying to make your own record. For better or for worse, that’s what I do, and then I bring in some other musicians afterwards, sometimes.
HMS: Most art forms acknowledge continual development as artists age, and music is still stuck on worshiping youth a lot of the time. That cuts it off from the impressive discoveries that artists could be making later in life if they had more support to continue.
PR: That’s a great point. What it is, is that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and those guys in the 60s started out as entertainers, and they stumbled into this idea of being artists afterwards. Then the question was what does it mean to become artistic? After youth rebellion, what do you do? I think one of the big struggles for people like that is that when you are young and hungry, there’s a life or death element to the whole process, and a lot of guys got very rich.
In varying degrees, some artists have succeeded in maintaining an urgency, but when you have ten houses, and kids, and grandkids, your daily life is managing all of that. I had never had that breakthrough, and the urgency I feel in making art is kind of the same. I still feel like there’s something in there that I have got to get out and say.
HMS: You’re also much more involved in music than even some other musicians might be. You don’t quietly make an album and that’s it, you not only make your own music, but you work in a studio all the time Producing other peoples’ music. That’s a way of life.
PR: Oh, yes, I do 60-hour weeks every week. A lot of that has been Producing and recording other artists, which I think has been really, really good for me. It’s not only the collaboration and cross-pollination, but it’s taken my ears to a new level. There are some people who come out of the gate being able to do Production, but I had to slowly learn every element of it, from mixing, to arranging, to singing.
People now compliment my voice, which is still weird to me, because I’ve always been a piano player, and people never want the piano player to sing. But I realized that I didn’t find that voice until I was at least in my mid-thirties. Mixing has taken even longer to learn. Wanting other peoples’ music to sound good drove that, and of course, that shows up now when I got to make my own records, too.
My own sound that I go for is a little more Jackson Pollock than some of the other people I work with. I’m kind of a “splatter method” recording artist for myself. [Laughs]
HMS: I love that comparison. What does that mean for you?
PR: There’s a little bit of Brian Eno and John Cage, with random accidents. I work with some artists where there’s an immense amount of polishing and editing, but I still go back to capturing something spontaneous, even if it’s a little bit wrong. I get bored with making things super-perfect, but maybe that’s part of the Punk in me.
HMS: I noticed a quote on your website where you talked about the idea of “artistic success” and that you think it’s a subjective thing and hard to verbalize. I’m hearing that a lot even from young people lately. It’s very hard to define goals and benchmarks in the world of streaming. Do you still think about that when you’re making an album?
PR: I can go a step further from when I wrote that, because I’ve really evolved my thinking from having Produced people for the last ten or fifteen years. I really believe that there are probably 100,000 people right now who you could drop back into the 60s and they would be revered as geniuses. They would be revered like Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, David Crosby, or Neil Young. There are people with that sort of talent, but it’s impossible to discern it because there are so many right now. I still read an article in The Guardian the other day saying that there was no good new music! You’d think that person would get half-way through writing that article and realize, “Wow, I sound like my parents!” But he still got it published.
I think it’s the opposite, but how do you navigate that? From the time I was 16 and wrote a Rock Opera, I wanted to be the greatest of all time. I get to this age and two things have happened—there’s so much more talent now, and not only that, but music’s place in the culture is so much less than when I was a kid. We’re just scrolling. There’s wonderfully imaginative stuff going on, but it’s attention on other art forms. One artform is getting people to feel outrage online. It’s the same emotional charge you used to get from hearing Johnny Rotten in a Sex Pistols song. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a productive artform! It’s possible really destructive, but the people doing that are extremely good at it. Music is now just a vague background noise.
What can I say to young people right now about this? I think making music is doing something like exercise, or going to the gym, meditation, or petting your dog. It’s something you love. It’s something you do that makes you a greater human being. If you’re a person who has the driving need to fulfil the ego-side of it, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, you will make incredible sacrifices to do it.
If you really want to make a job doing music, though, there are all kinds of jobs making musical content. But that’s not really what we’re talking about, is it? We’re talking about serious personal statements. I encourage people to do it, though, because I feel that it’s really deeply important. I heard a person describe the word “spiritual” as “the things you do, but you don’t have to do in order to keep a roof over your head and fed, the things you do for the joy of it.” Why wouldn’t you do things like that if they bring you joy?
HMS: These are indeed extreme sacrifices for many people, young and old. I’ve heard a lot of stories, especially of being on the road endlessly.
PR: The payoff for this for me, and something that I want people to get from my record, is when I get an e-mail from an artist I’ve worked with, and they’ve gotten their music back, and they say, “I’m listening to this over and over again.” I know that feeling, when I’ve finished a song and I’m listening to it over and over again.
At first you’re looking for something that’s still wrong, that needs to be fixed, but you’re not finding it. It’s a state of pure bliss. That’s a very rare state. Musicians tend to be a tortured bunch, so it’s rare for them to be in that state. I can get that from listening to other artists sometimes. I can listen to something over and over again in a state of transcendent, transported bliss. But that’s the hope, that if you send this music out in the world, at least one person receives that state of bliss.
HMS: It’s pretty amazing when a song is not simply on repeat, but each time you hear it, it seems to change or be part of a journey going further into it.
PR: I’ve heard someone say recently that the deepest desire of an artist is connection. That is a deep connection if someone is hearing what you have to say and it’s resonating so completely. It may sound trite, but everyone has to be reminded of why we do this. We have to take the joy where we can find it.