The concept of time is no match for Paul Cherry. Incorporating the glamour of old jazz and the kitsch of new tech, he blurs the lines between the past and present, giving even the act of texting some strange pre-internet nostalgia. His silky vocals and 70’s delivery makes his latest album Flavour feel like listening to vinyls as you Insta-stalk your ex.
Served up through a series of voice mails and vignettes intercepted by glittery guitar riffs and funky synths the album makes the clock stop out of confusion. Sporting a Slow Pulp tee and electric green hair I sat down with him before his show at The Royal American to talk wedding bands, his namesake, and finding your own sound. Read our conversation below.
Sam Sullivan: Who is Paul Cherry? A lot of people have an on-stage vs. off-stage persona. Do you feel like Paul Cherry is a character?
Paul Cherry: I guess it used to be more of a character to me but I would say now they’re just kind of fusing together and I’m still trying to figure that question out myself I think. I think it’s like how bold do I want to be as the question and as I get older I fall more and more in love with subtlety in all things and like quiet subtitles are more exciting than bold loud things. So I think Paul Cherry is more or less the name for a creative outlet of music that I can give to other people in a very palatable and easy going way. I don’t want to be a band with a crazy name that you’ve never heard of that’s making really absurdist music. I just want to make songs for people to enjoy more or less so that’s all the name is. Just an easy avenue for people to access my songs and have the interaction.
You started out in the garage scene with On Top, but then you transitioned. Why weren’t you connecting with that genre? What weren’t you getting out of music that you wanted to?
I wasn’t feeling like I was doing the best work that I could do. I felt like I was letting the music scene that I was in let me be not as good as I could’ve been. A lot of people do music for the community and a lot of people can be totally fine with their band just being a vessel for them to have friends and that’s totally amazing and I love that and I think that’s what makes a lot of music scenes pulse at all or have any sort of existence. But I went to music school and I graduated and I wasn’t taking music seriously like I did in school and it was a nice break but I realized that I have these skills they’re really hard to utilize it takes a lot of hard work to put them into use but I felt I owed it to myself to give a big shit about it and do it in a really proper and pristine clean-basically it was more like making dirty garage rock music or making really clean pop music that’s actually way fucking harder to make.
I heard you were in a wedding band at one point. How did that happen?
I made On Top and then I was in it. Like I literally made the On Top tape when I was in college. Then I graduated college and I was wondering what should I do with my life people were listening to one of the songs on that tape but I wasn’t feeling like anyone really cared but I still cared a lot. When you’re 22 or 21 you’re like okay do I follow my passion or do I go and take a job? It’s like a really crux time for everyone to just decide is it time for me to do my dream or should I go and do a job?
And I felt like the wedding cover band was like the exact middle, like not making that decision yet because it paid really great so it paid like a real job but I felt like it wasn’t because I was still playing music but then after a year and a half of that I was like this is totally just a job and I was watching all of my friends take off in their bands and everyone’s personal bands getting big success and going on tour and I wasn’t but I was making great music. So then I was eventually quit that band to do this. It was time I felt like I was just so jealous of all my friends I had to quit.
Like you kinda had a point to prove?
Basically, yeah that’s right.
I read that you were named after Paul McCartney. Were your parents really into music?
That’s true! My parents were really into music. My mom still is, but I don’t think my dad listens to any music anymore which is really weird.
What were you raised on?
I was raised on 90s country music, I’m from the Detroit suburbs so there’s a lot of country music fans there. There are probably a lot here as well.I think my first concert I ever want to was Kenny Chesney. Isn’t that funny? And Keith Urban and Brooks and Dunn.
I would never imagine you at a Kenny Chesney concert.
I know a lot of country music. You could try to test my knowledge. I know a shit ton. But I also grew up on stuff like my moms music which was more honestly it’s weird my mom had bohemian style music taste she was into really cool jazz and of the time cool indie rock. But my dad just liked country and Motown and Philly Soul and Todd Rudgeren. So honestly between all of that stuff I got a really good base for music. I didn’t even really realize it at the time. Honestly I still listen to so much of the stuff my parents played me constantly and have been and continue to be really inspired by that stuff. It’s kinda crazy.
Let’s talk about Flavour! You’ve got a ton of technology and internet references in there. What do you think of the digital age?
Well now that it’s 2019 and my album came out last year, I have a whole different take on it now and I feel like there’s too many songs about being on your phone and stuff now.
No way, you’ve totally changed?
I’m totally over it.I just feel like I don’t even know if I was ahead of the curve on it but I was really into that idea when I made those songs. I think it was the right idea cause the concept was make a psych-pop album but some of the songs have to be really classic songs but singing about stuff that’s not classic. That was something that I felt really good about. There’s a song called “I See You” and it sounds like a Todd Rundgren song but it’s about being on your phone. I’m really still stoked by that but now it’s like every track I hear there a lyric about technology, you Facetime me in a song. You know? All lyrics it’s almost like people are too easy. It’s the first thing you go to sing about it because we’re all doing this shit so much on our phones. I don’t even think reacting to it is still sing about not being on your phone I just think there’s other things to sing about now and I’m currently trying to figure out what that is, that’s the hardest part.
I feel like when you did it there was a cool juxtaposition between timeless and the present that other people sometimes miss.
That is what I was going for! And now I have to figure out what’s the next cool thing that’s cool to me and that’s the really hard part.
You talked a lot about missed connections on that album. What drew you to that initially?
The songs are all about stuff like that but they’re not always about the same person. Like each of the songs are about different people. Like the “Your Letter” song is about my parents and then “Like Yesterday” is about an ex-girlfriend. “Hello Again” is just my general experience of being online like internet interactions with strangers. So it’s kind of like little vignettes of different people, each song is like a little spark of that intrigue or example of a misconnection kind of on accident. Just the way that I was writing it was constantly coming out in a similar way so it was cool.
You have the voicemails and the telephone and a lot of really current ways to communicate. Do you feel like the way we misconnect has changed as well?
Yeah that’s the beauty of being human. Basically my album is a variation of a theme because everybody just thinks about the same stuff, I mean honestly everybody thinks about the same things that are in the forefront of our mind. We all believe that no one else is thinking it but everyone is. I think for a big chunk of our lives we want to believe we are the only ones thinking it because either we like being lonely, well you don’t like it but there’s something indulgent about being lonely. Or you want to believe you’re the first one to ever think something up and you’re a fucking genius.
But the best realization is that your take on something that everyone already knows about is just as profound as you inventing something or being so lonely and it’s better that way, because once you put yourself into a smaller place in the world, I think the idea that you are the loneliest or you are the smartest is very self-centric concept, but the idea that you are just one of many people feeling the same way is more self-immersion with other people. I like the idea of being immersed with others more and I think that I’m figuring out that that’s what being an artist should be about myself. Once you realize that art is the vessel to connect it’s a lot easier to make it and it’s cool, that’s what I think about that.
That’s cool. I never thought of it that way.
Yeah it’s kind of weird. I spent many years thinking I either invented stuff or that I was the only one feeling a certain way. I self isolated for sure.
It’s hard though, especially going back to the technology thing, sometimes it feels like everyone’s connected but other times it just makes you feel more lonely.
I’ve been thinking about this one thing a lot and I think it might be a really stoner-y thought because every time I bring it up to people they don’t think it’s that crazy, but I think about I’m 27 years old, so when I was 15 or 16 I think I got my phone. When I was 16 your friend would go on vacation, and they’d come back and you’d be like ‘How was your trip?’ or like, ‘Where did you go? I haven’t seen you in a while?’ ‘Oh I was on vacation in Mexico it was really fun we did this and that,’ and then they would show you pictures. Now it’s like you have to keep track of the fact that a lot of people are doing a lot of stuff and your mind has created a separate space like compartment in your mind that’s over back here and it’s holding the rolodex of all your friends.
I don’t even know how many people on your Instagram you follow maybe a few 100 or 1,000 but then you’re keeping track of 100’s of people and you kinda know what they’re doing even though you’ve never experienced it at all but you know that Johnny was just in Cancun and Lindsey was just in LA for senior spring break and you know that Gary is on tour with his band and he just played his first big show opening up for them so that when you see these people again it’s almost socially improper to not remember it. Like you would feel bad if you went and did a thing, posted on Instagram about it, and went back to your friends and they didn’t say ‘Oh how was that thing you did?’ It’s a new social expectation like I keep track of 100’s of you and you keep track of me. Isn’t that weird?
Yeah, I don’t know, I kinda grew up with this so I couldn’t imagine how it would feel to not automatically know.
You just auto know what all of your friends are doing.
Kind of, it’s just a default for me where people that are older than me had to go through this weird adustment and now you’re totally immersed in it.
Yeah you just go along with it. You don’t really think about it and it’s totally fine. It’s like I’m just going to keep doing it, it’s just weird to me that I’ve created a mental rolodex. If you were to go on my Instagram and like scroll the top bubbles I could tell you what everyone’s doing. You could give me an Insta name and be like what are they doing I’d be like, ‘Oh they’re in Italy.’ I just know this! It’s so crazy! And when else would you ever be able to know that and certainly not keep track of it, and not only do I know that person was in Italy but I know where they were before that and I’m checking in with them but why? Because I love them? Because I’m jealous of them? Or because I want to be like them or what? It’s so weird?
That’s the ultimate question, like why? You can’t explain why you do it.
I know it’s weird. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I just sit in the van on tour like 4 hours of being on my phone it’s so insane.
Yeah, you can talk to whoever you’re with an everything but at some point you’re going to resort to the endless scrolling.
Yeah it’s so weird and it’s getting old to me but it’s kinda my job too to keep up with this stuff on the phone.
An internet persona is kind of essential to be successful these days.
Yeah it’s totally essential. You never would’ve heard about me if I didn’t do it probably. Isn’t it weird?
Yeah, you don’t realize how reliant you are on it until all of a sudden it seems like everything would fall apart if you didn’t have it.
Yeah I’m still into it I don’t hate it. I don’t resent it either. I’m just very keen about it, I’m very interested in why we all like it so much.
It’s a lot to take in but it’s all relevant. I also noticed a lot of your songs are about time and the passage of it. Was that another theme you were consciously trying to explore?
I was just talking to this guy Chase, he’s really cool I was talking to him about how I just stopped having a job like 6 months ago to do music, and how it changed the way I perceive time and my relationship with time it’s really trippy. My relationship to time is changing a lot lately, and a lot of my songs are about time again now it’s just such a bizarre concept because time is created, it’s a constructed idea, but also you just age and get older. Even a society that doesn’t have time you still would have recognition of it by days and nights and you getting older.
Even if you didn’t pay attention to it, you would still experience it.
You can’t really get away from it. I realized that when I stopped having a day job at a coffee shop where I was getting paid x dollars per hour then I went to making music I was like ‘Oh my time doesn’t equal money’. Now that concept is gone for me and it’s just quality of work equals money. And quality of work doesn’t mean I spent 100 hours on this song doesn’t make it a great song. It’s like how good am I at what I do, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, I could write it in 1 day and I could still make just as much money off the streaming of it. Like that song “Your Letter” I wrote it and recorded it the whole thing in one day. The song “Like Yesterday”, it took me almost 2 years to finish that song, so it’s like it doesn’t even matter. It just matters how good the song is when it’s done. I don’t even clock in or clock out there’s no job, it’s just make songs and how good they are. As long as I have enough money in my bank account to keep eating and paying my rent then it doesn’t matter. It’s so bizarre.
That’s the thing. You could tell me you spent 5 years or 5 days on a song and it wouldn’t change how I feel about it.
No it doesn’t it doesn’t change the song. It’s crazy. You’re a lot younger than me s you have a completely different conception of what that is. You think about time in a completely different way then I do, it’s weird. Do you think the days go by really slow or really fast?
Mostly pretty fast.
You think days go by really fast? Okay.
I think days go by extremely, fast but when I was your age I thought they went by really slow. I was like wow I want this day to be over already but maybe it was because I had to be in school and wake up at 7 am and now I wake up at 10:30 everyday.
Where did you get the voicemails from?
I recorded them.
I know that, but what were you thinking about?
I was thinking about an Eminem album. Eminem has a lot of skits on his album that are really funny and weird and I was like ‘I kinda like that idea’. I got the idea for it honestly just so many songs have the phone in the song like you know that one ELO song with the phone in it. There’s one Michael Franks song with a phone in it with the ringing. There’s a bunch of Ariel Pink songs that have that. It’s just a really common theme, I just wanted to do my take on it. I liked that, I liked the phone ringing, I liked the sound of the phone ringing, picks up and the song starts. I just think it’s really cool. I really like sound effects in songs.
When I discovered I could put sound effects into my songs I really felt like it improved the songs. It just made it cooler and more of an experience to listen to with the sound effects. Those voicemails are my girlfriend and we came up with those skits together. Basically the whole album had been completed except those and I was like, ‘I want this album to feel like it plays through like a journey if you listen to it all the way though’.
It does feel like a complete narrative.
Yeah I wanted it to do that, so I was like, ‘Okay this will make it happen I’ll put all these bobs and weaves through the album so as soon as you think it’s over it changed. As soon as you think somethings going to do this, it will do that.’
When you think of Flavour, what comes to mind visually?
I think of seafoam green and Japanese cherry blossom pinks. I think of bright pastel colors. Yeah I think it’s a really light album. I think there’s a light energy to it, I don’t think it’s very dark. It’s kind of weirdly happy and sappy I think this next album I have is going to be a little emo.
Didn’t you play in some emo bands when you were younger? Are you circling back?
Yeah but emo means something completely different for me than playing emo music.
Oh, okay. You just mean like really in your feelings.
Yeah, it’s going to sound really jazzy. I’ve just gone deeper down the hole of cheese jazzy shit. I’m just trying to make, I don’t know, you’ll hear. We’ll do a couple new things at the show tonight and you’ll hear what’s going on.
How did you get into jazz?
My mom and I did jazz stuff in high school and I entered college in the jazz program but I got too scared so I dropped into the classical program. I had these friends that were really fucking good at jazz and their band was really popular and I was like, ‘I want to do this, too’. Basically outside influence, but now I just love it so much. I didn’t like jazz for a lot of my life and then it hit me all at once like a ton of bricks like, ‘Oh this is the best music’. It’s so emotional and there’s subtly to the emotional.
Was there a certain album or artist that was a game-changer for you?
Chet Baker Sings. Do you know that album? Chet Baker Sings, that was a big turning the page to jazz for me. That and like Joni Mitchell. You ever listen to Joni Mitchell? Yeah, her album The Hissing Of Summer Lawns I was like, ‘Okay yeah that’s really cool’. Then honestly yeah those were the two, yeah. that when I was younger that were like, ‘I think I really like this’ but mostly it was my friends band Mild High Club that was like, ‘You guys are so fucking cool, I want to be like you’.
You’re on tour with The Marias! What’s a record that reminds you of touring?
Okay there’s a lot. The records that remind me of being on tour probably because I always listen to them while I’m on tour it would be like this Prefab Sprout album called From Langley Park to Memphis and then there’s an album called oh! Tenacious D, that Jack Black comedy music we always listen to. What else? There’s so much, it’s like so much music.
Does it change depending on who you’re with?
Yeah like my drummer and I always listen to deep groove music and like deep cuts. I’m like constantly searching deep tracks but then when Roy drives we listen to groove music but when I drive we listen to a lot of new music that’s coming out because I use that as a time to explore what’s happening. Keagan’s new to the band but he’s been jamming a lot of country which I love. We listened to country in the road yesterday. We went from like, what’s his name, Conway Twitty to like Rascal Flatts. If I would say the music that reminds me of being on tour is country music like 90’s country. It’s like open road music for me. A lot of house music reminds me of being on tour because I like to listen to house music when we’re driving. Steely Dan. Steely Dan is really good open road music. Like Gaucho, you know that album? That kind of stuff.
Any tour revelations? I feel like on tour you have a ton of time to think.
When I’m on tour I feel like I’m ready to make a million songs but when I get home I’m like nothing matters. It’s this horrible duality where like I really wanna be making music when I’m on tour and sometimes when I’m at home, I don’t want to be making it. It’s like a grass is always greener thing, like being at home I want to be on tour, being on tour I want to be at home. That’s the big realization that I’m making like why can’t I just want the thing while I’m doing the thing?
I feel like you experience so much on tour, then when you get home you have the memories but don’t have that same feeling you did in the moment.
Yeah, the thing is I’m experiencing life right now, and when I go home and I work on music I’m not experiencing it I’m just making it so it’s really hard to come up with awesome song ideas once you’re in the studio, because you’re just in a room and it’s like not that exciting. But right now I’m excited because I’m experiencing new people and a new place so that’s when the best ideas come, so they’re valuable so I’ve got to write them down come back to them later. When I go to LA and work on music everyone’s like you got any phone notes? Everyone’s always like what do you have on your phone? I’m like alright I’ve got this lyric and we make an entire song out of that one line it’s crazy.
What’s one thing from tour that you’ll never forget?
When I played my first show in Europe ever. We played in Croatia and it was sold out. I was like, ‘I will never ever forget this feeling’. It was so dreamy and weird. It was like, ‘Why am I in Croatia and why are there 100 people to see me?’ It was so crazy.
It’s another one of those technology things. All these people in this tiny European country not only know who you are but love you.
I remember before we even played this guy came up to me on the street in Croatia and was like ‘It’s you!’ I was like, ‘yeah’. It’s crazy.
My last question is: What’s the most “Paul Cherry” thing that’s happened to you on tour?
Every time my band harasses me or makes fun of my lyrics to me or fucking grills me. I feel like I’m easy to make fun of. I feel like I’m an easy target so whenever I feel like people are poking fun at me it’s on brand for me. Yeah. Cause I can take it, I can take a beating, I can take a hit and not a lot of people can. I can just take it, like whatever you throw it at me I’ll throw it back, so that’s what I feel like is on brand for me. Also just trying to be really nice to people I meet is me being on brand. Just be trying to be really nice and thoughtful.
That’s a good brand. It’s a rare brand but a good one.
Yeah it is rare. It’s also kinda hard sometimes when you’re feeling lots of different ways and meeting lots of different people and they don’t know what you’re feeling and they expect you to be really happy but you maybe had a bad day.
Yeah, I think people have an expectation because they listen to your music and see you online, so they automatically assume they understand you.
I think I’m a lot different than the way my music comes off. Do you think so?
I don’t think so.
Am I different than what you expected?
Not really. I’m not surprised, but I didn’t have an expectation.
That’s good. You shouldn’t.
Your hair was a surprise, though.
Yeah I know it’s green! I was getting bored in Chicago I didn’t even care what color my hair was I was like, ‘I just want to do something with my hair’. My friend dyed it for me, I like it more than I did when I got it. When I first got it, I was like, ‘This is not on brand for me’.