On Friday the indie rock project Paper Anthem released their band new single Sign Language. The project which is fronted by American Singer / Songwriter Joseph Hitchcock are set to release their third studio album in March 2021 called The Year You’ll Never Get Back. Whilst the album was written over a number of years there are themes in the track that are relevant to last year. I spoke to Joseph to find out all about it and also what the inspirations where behind the song Sign Language.
Hello Joseph tell us three unknown facts about yourself?
1. I lose my balance really easily. Sometimes run into doorways as I pass by. Don’t know how.
2. I can’t stand the feeling of my hands not being perfectly clean. I avoid Doritos as much as I can.
3. I intensely dislike Inception. I know I’m in the minority on that one! Love his other movies, though.
How did you get into music?
My estranged father is a blues singer and an amazing guitarist, so whatever biological interest I have I got from him, although he never taught me anything. My mom made me take piano lessons from age 6 and I didn’t particularly enjoy learning classical music, but that foundation is really important to my style now. Also, some weird ragtime influences made it in there somehow which show up in songs like ‘Au Revoir Nexus’ and ‘Fork in the Road’, both on my last record ‘To All the Sailors We’ve Lost.’ After five-ish years of that I was a kid and totally over it. I just wanted to play RuneScape on that school computers. But as a teenager I eventually came back to it on my own. Every time I passed my piano at home I’d sit down and improvise some crazy, dark suites off the top of my head for a half an hour and that probably was me developing my style more than anything, before I got into writing pop music.
Who do you find your inspirations?
My first big musical inspiration was Snow Patrol. They were the first artist that I got really obsessed with as a musician. I learned how to play a bunch of their songs and I feel like they taught me how to write both lyrics and song structure. After that, it was Coldplay, for a while, and then Foals, then Death Cab for Cutie. I got into them really late. I never even heard them when I was in high school, somehow. Now I’m really into The 1975 and Pale Waves, and my brain is subconsciously trying to figure out what to learn from them.
Tell us all about your brand new single Sign Language?
‘Sign Language’ is one of my more upbeat rock tracks. It’s really fun to play live, it’s the one I naturally just practice the most. It was the first song I wrote after the release of my first album, ‘By Ghosts,’ in 2015. I remember the first person I sent it to was my mom, and she didn’t like it at first. She was really disappointed at first because it didn’t follow the same song structure as the songs on my first album. A lot of my early songs, in a very Snow Patrol vein, tended to start small and layer instruments one after the other, a bit like a techno song–a weird influence of mine–whereas Sign Language just comes right out of the gate with energy and doesn’t let up until the end. She came around, though, thank goodness!
How long did it take to write the song?
I think the bulk of the song was written in about 30 minutes, but there was some minor lyrical tweaking here and there after that as I began the demo-ing process.
“I really miss playing live and I want to play these songs so badly“
Where does the inspiration for the song come from?
I called the song ‘Sign Language’ because I was fascinated with the way’s hands are used to communicate non-verbally in relationships, and the way you can feel when something is wrong in the mind of your partner just by holding their hand. I wrote it about a relationship I was in that taught me that you can’t help someone who isn’t ready to be helped, or isn’t ready to help themselves, in terms of, like, their goals, or their future. There’s also a bit about genetics and how I feel like I reached a certain age where I realized I was doing some of the same stupid stuff my parents did, and it makes me feel like this naive biological failing that hasn’t had the kinks worked out in the production line.
Tell us about how you have been making music in lockdown?
I try not to get too ahead of myself–hilariously, he said, having finished this record in 2019–but I have been working on some stuff. Last summer as I was first dealing with the lockdown and going to work, I made a really intricate demo for a song called ‘Car Crash’ that I think will be on my next album after this one. I hear melodies and lyrics in my head all the time. It’s actually really annoying. It makes it hard to go to sleep sometimes. So, I record those and work on them later. Some of those are really interesting to me and will definitely turn into songs soon.
What is the most challenging thing when it comes to producing a record?
Not stress-eating. Making creative decisions really does me in and makes me turn to vices. I recorded this, mostly, in 2017, in Oakland, California with my usual producer Chris Daddio of the band Everyone Is Dirty. I’d go over there in two-week blocks, by myself, no band, making all the decisions–with Chris’ brilliant insight, thank God–and each eight-hour day would always be left with a ‘think about how we’re going to approach this song tomorrow’ so I’d panic and head straight for my favourite restaurant and eat way too much. So yeah–that’s my thing: food. Specifically, Mexican food. I don’t know how to get through creative projects without it.
You have an album coming out soon as well, what can you tell our readers about that?
Yes, this album is called ‘The Year You’ll Never Get Back,’ is a collection of songs about a turbulent year I had in 2016 where a lot of things fell apart for me and I felt like I had to reassess who I was and what I was going to do. Unfortunately, I feel like 2020 was a bit of a repeat of that for me. I was backpacking in Europe for a while which I was really excited about because I had never really travelled before but I had to come back to the States because of this pandemic and move back home. A lot of artists have felt really aimless, I imagine, not being able to play shows and having to put their records on hold, me included. So, it just so ended up that this album became a prophetic warning to myself. ‘Sign Language’ will be on it, and it comes out 5th March. I’m really excited!
What is your favourite song off the new record?
My favourite is one called Daywalker. It’s seven minutes, my longest yet. It just has my favourite groove, energy, and power of anything I’ve done so far. Very piano-driven, but in a rhythmic, hypnotic way, with some of my favourite guitar lines I’ve come up with, and some absolutely gorgeous string playing by Sivan Lioncub, the lead singer/violinist of Everyone Is Dirty. Sivan actually walked through the studio–which is also their house–when we were layering up the basics of that song and told me it sounded like procession, and that really stuck with me. It has this religious epic feel to it, but it’s about a romance.
How do you warm up for a show?
Panicking. No, not really. Uh, it’s just been me, for a while, although I use a combination of friends and session musicians for shows, so I have to run around setting up merch tables and video cameras after soundcheck, say hello to friends and family, etc. It just feels like a race to the stage and then after the set I can relax. So I don’t really have a tradition or specific thing I do, yet. Maybe I should find something. Shows are really kind of awful for me except for the part where I’m on stage and get to play music. I love that part. That part’s fun.
Also let’s talk tour – will there be live shows coming next year?
Nothing booked yet, but if I got something set-up for the second half of 2021 that was safe, that would be amazing. I really miss playing live and I want to play these songs so badly. They’re so different from my past work. The rhythms and grooves of these tracks would be something really fun for a live setting, I think, and I can’t wait for my fans to hear it.
What is one of your favourite songs to perform live?
‘Cardboard Cove’ from my first album is one of my favourites. The constant hammering of the piano is a good way to work out the jitters. I feel like that song grounds me, in a live set. It’s one of the first songs I wrote so it reminds me of where I started. It’s a song that’s comforting to me. Very simple, but sweet. Fans tend to say ‘Hills Hills Hills’ is their favourite, but my friends tell me ‘Cardboard Cove’ is theirs.
What is the toughest songs to perform live and why?
‘Pastime’ is the most physically difficult. It’s emotionally exhausting. Every time I play it I get really into the story and the experience I wrote it about and feel very moved and hurt. By the end of the song, I’m playing octaves on the piano with both hands for over a minute. It murders some sort of tendon or something in my left arm. I won’t change the song for that reason, or anything. It actually kind of feels like a nice workout. But I hope to someday get a piano player for live shows so I can just play guitar, which is my favourite instrument to play.
How have you been keeping creative during the covid pandemic?
In addition to the aforementioned demo-ing, I’ve been trying to work on screenplays, as I’m also a filmmaker. This is such a great time to write things in general before things, hopefully, go back to normal. I’ve been trying to work on the first season of scripts for my dream project, this show called Conspiracy Club. It’s about three teenagers who investigate bigfoot and UFOs and ghosts and stuff. It sounds terrible but I’m really proud of it. If I could pick one thing after music it’d be that. I hope I get to make it someday. I’ve also been trying to learn how to draw again, digitally, with this tablet thing. I used to draw constantly when I was a kid–mostly comic books–but I grew away from it because of, again, RuneScape. So I suck at drawing now but I’m trying to come back to it.
” I was fascinated with the way’s hands are used to communicate non-verbally in relationships, and the way you can feel when something is wrong in the mind of your partner just by holding their hand.“
What is your favourite song you have ever written and why?
I’d have to go with ‘Daywalker,’ again, from my upcoming album, because it’s my favorite to listen to and it just means so much to me. I feel like I perfectly captured how I feel when I’m falling in love with someone. It’s really intense for me. I’ve been trying to avoid relationships as much as possible now for that reason, which Covid is fantastic for. I’m just really, really proud of the lyrics. It’s not a single, unfortunately, but I’m going to do a music video for it anyway. I keep visualizing stuff like The Witch, like colonial America, religious fears and stuff like that, fire. I literally cannot wait for people to hear this song more than any other.
How do you go about writing lyrics? What inspires you?
I write the music first, the instrumentation. Section by section, I vocalize random vowels, noises until the melody feels right, and then the words gradually form out of those noises. I try not to rhyme too much. That’s a pet peeve of mine. I like to tell a story, but not explicitly. I’m really visual, or at least I am thinking of visuals as I write. I don’t know how much that translates. Sometimes people see very different things than me when they listen to the final song. Which is great! That’s what art is about.
Our site also is about improv – in a music sense, what have been some of your favourite improvised melodies that you have created and been able to use in songs and why?
I love improv, but so far I’ve only used it as a writing tool. I’ve never had a band I could write with, or anything, but I really hope to get one within the next couple years so I can experiment with both recording as a group, to open up opportunities for improvised moments, and jamming as a band. So: I can think of two, but they weren’t by me, and they were on my last album, not this one.
The first: in my song ’21st Season,’ the producer/bassist Chris Daddio and drummer Tony Sales were both in the same band at the time (Everyone Is Dirty), which opened up the possibility for them to do some cool things together on the fly. When they got to the bridge, I only intended for the drums to start doing a steady 4/4 build, but Chris ended up joining Tony and held a C# with him for the rest of the section on the first take unexpectedly and it was so cool. That take made it on the album and I love that moment. The second: on my song ‘Wishing Well,’ Chris was playing the guitar on that one, and I was wanting to capture some psycho pedal chaos energy, and he did a whole take of just turning dials and messing with it, and in the background there’s this evil goblin-esque growl, or something, in the fuzz, and I love it. It was just a perfect moment. So thanks, Chris, if you’re reading this, for both of those!
‘The Year You’ll Never Get Back,’ is a collection of songs about a turbulent year I had in 2016 where a lot of things fell apart for me and I felt like I had to reassess who I was and what I was going to do“
What are your plans for 2021? If things doesn’t get cancelled?
Maybe I’m being overly cautious. I was just too optimistic last year! I thought we’d be playing shows by now. But yeah, I’d love to play shows. I’d love to travel again, if other countries stop banning Americans (good for them, though, we handled it so poorly). I’d love to go to G-Fest this summer, if possible. It’s a festival for Japanese monster movies. I went there when I was eleven and loved it but haven’t been back since, but my friend really wants to go and I’ve had recently rediscovered my love for that genre after over a decade of being embarrassed by it, so I think it would be a wonderful experience.
And finally, why should people check out your music?
If you like music made in the smallest quiet space of an emotional state, in the vein of late 90s/2000s alternative piano rock, but like to see some genre experimentation, then I think Paper Anthem is for you! Does that sound like a commercial? Anyway, I’m still working my way up towards being more popular, but sometimes people discover me and just really, really love it, and it means a lot to me when that happens. And I hope the next person who feels that way is whoever’s reading this.