Members: Amber Papini (vocals, guitar), Brian Betancourt (bass), Nathan Michel (percussion, other instruments)
For Fans of: Belle & Sebastian, Tennis, Vampire Weekend
Amber Papini just arrived home to her Brooklyn apartment, finally unwinding with a bottle of water and handful of vitamins—after a long day of teaching second graders. Her soft, almost mousey, voice is a tad strained, as if this school day might have been an eventful one. Education wasn’t exactly her field of study, but it’s been working out quite nicely thus far. After spending most of her post-grad years bouncing around from day job to day job, she’s appreciating the stability that teaching offers.
“It was trial and error of having other jobs,” Papini sighs. “I just really like the children, and I like some of the intellectual pursuits and development that you can get from it. And I’m on my feet—it’s so much better than being behind a desk or a computer. I was getting all these health problems from sitting behind a desk. My eyes are much better, and I’ve lost weight since I’ve been teaching.”
“Plus, there’s the summers off,” she adds, laughing, at the last minute, “which leaves a lot of time for music.”
As singer, lyricist and chief songwriter behind Hospitality’s dreamy, fine-tuned pop, Papini has been needing a lot more free time lately, especially with her band’s self-titled Merge debut hitting shelves. There aren’t too many teachers moonlighting as indie-pop stars, but Papini is (in her own words) “a dreamer.”
Hospitality is crammed to the brim with hooks: Papini sings in a cutesy, faux-British lilt, almost as if she’s projecting these songs to herself in a hair brush while bouncing merrily in front of her bedroom mirror. And the music (conjured largely by bassist Brian Betancourt and multi-instrumentalist Nathan Michel) is simultaneously atmospheric and muscular, with superb, bottom-heavy production from Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells) that gives the songs a beefy ’70s feel, in the mode of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
But critics (and, most likely, fans) will perk up their ears to Papini’s semi-autobiographical lyrics, which sprout in foggy clusters of detail—depicting the ironic disconnect of New York City’s overstuffed metropolis, where lonely, disillusioned souls wander aimlessly through mobs of faces, making plenty of social appearances but never true connections. On the album’s swirling opener “Eighth Avenue,” over a gorgeously descending guitar progression, she sings: “I’m feeling much older / Somewhat a generation gap / You won’t understand / I’m lost in a land / I’m not 27.” In the second verse, she’s a fly on the wall of a naïve post-grad’s cluttered (yet somehow empty) apartment: “Watch the computer, sit by the telephone / Waiting for hours, video games / Books on the bed, cards I never sent / It’s not like a dream / I thought it should be.” But there’s also plenty of heart in Papini’s vividly drawn world—New York seems to be an emotional and cultural roller-coaster that leads to an eventual dead-end, but Papini’s characters are magnetically drawn to this utopian mirage, just as the singer was in real life.
“I grew up in Kansas City,” Papini says, “and I was involved in a lot of music there, going to a lot of rock shows at all-ages clubs. As a teenager, I was obsessed with record stores and going to shows, following bands that were on Merge and Matador, stuff like that. Then I got out of Kansas City because I started pursuing sound design for theater—writing music and recording music, technical design. I went to grad school in New Haven [Connecticut] at Yale for that. While I was there, I started writing for songs and music for plays, and I realized I didn’t want to write music for plays or anywhere else. I wanted to write songs for myself.”
It was during her experience at Yale that the seeds of Hospitality were sewn. At a local party, Papini met Michel, a music student and composer who released electronic music on label Tigerbeat6. The duo quickly began collaborating, first with Papini singing on his album, The Beast, followed by a short European tour. And it was Papini’s unflinching attraction to New York that led to the band’s genesis.
“After New Haven, I moved to New York because I always wanted to move to New York, get a day job, write songs and be a songwriter. My sister lived here, too. I didn’t really know how I was going to do it—band or solo—but what happened was that we started playing with my sister, who is really encouraging, and Nathan. Brian knew Nathan’s music, and we had mutual friends. Brian really wanted to play music with Nathan, but he didn’t know anything about my music. Eventually, we all got together at this shitty practice space where it was really loud and you could hear all the metal bands playing next to us, with us trying to play all these delicate songs that Brian and I had written.”
In 2008, the band released an EP, featuring many tracks that would later be re-recorded for their full-length. Their set-up was laughably lo-fi: Michel played percussion instruments (not a full drum kit) while Betancourt powered his dexterous basslines through a guitar amp (a surefire way to blow a speaker or two). Their intelligent, minimal sound was certainly in place, and while they made a small splash on the local scene, they hadn’t reached their true potential—the kind offered from the confines of warm studio sound. Hooking up with Stoneback was crucial, the band striving for a “classic sound” with “minimal production.” With higher fidelity came higher reward.
“I think I start from biographical stuff,” Papini says of her songwriting process. “It’s good to start with a muse or something, someone that inspires you, and then I can play around from there with memories of past experiences that don’t really relate to the present or what I’m actually talking about. But there are always topics that attract me…rejection—in love or rejection from society.” The buzzing, insular “Sleepover” was initially inspired by a documentary on Kurt Cobain (“When he was a teenager, he slept on couches of his friends and put a sleeping bag behind the couch or something”) until she connected those images to her own memories: “And then I thought about having a nomadic life. And I had boyfriends when I was younger who were nomads and would sleep on different people’s couches. So that’s where it was coming from, and sort of being in a shitty relationship, but not really caring about it, being sort of apathetic about it.”
But perhaps the band’s most representative song is the fittingly-titled “The Right Profession.” “It’s a mix of all these experiences from when I was a teenager, wasting time, listening to records and smoking cigarettes in my friend’s apartment—‘one more song before I go.’” It’s also about career dissatisfaction, of course, about being stuck in an endless cycle of tedium while your mind and heart yearn for something more.
Papini—the quirky second grade teacher, the songwriter, the eternal dreamer—may be fixated on disappointment and disconnect, at least in her songs. But these days, “The Right Profession” is starting to take on a different kind of meaning: “Right now, I love my job, but I also love music, and that’s kind of what it’s about.”