Early on a Tuesday night at Syntax Physic Opera, Paper Bird is taking advantage of its sound check to play a bit of a new song, "Parade." It is one of several things the band will debut tonight; another is the writer of the song, Carleigh Aikins, on lead vocals. Normally, this portion of the process lasts only a few seconds, but the six musicians feel good, better than they had in practice earlier in the day, and there are no real time restraints on this open-mic night. So they just keep going, past the delicate intro to the irresistible chorus. A gentle melody becomes an elaborate harmony, and the drums build like a stampede. Aikins takes a small step forward into her microphone and leans slightly back -- then absolutely tears into the third verse.
The few people in the audience ignore their dinners as they stare at the stage with a mixture of awe and confusion. The song ends, and after a pause, one of them yells out, "Best sound check ever!"
From the very beginning, Paper Bird was good at getting people excited. "That first day as a band," remembers guitarist Paul DeHaven. "That was when the magic started." That day was July 22, 2006, when DeHaven went to Breckenridge with some friends he knew through the music department at the University of Colorado Denver or from playing in various bands around town. All skilled musicians, they brought along instruments, and what started as a jam session with DeHaven on guitar, Caleb Summeril on banjo and Sarah Anderson and Esme Patterson on vocals resulted in a handful of original songs. The fledgling bandmembers, all Colorado natives, took to the streets of the mountain town, busking in the afternoon and securing a gig at a coffee shop that night. After the set, a stranger walked up and handed over a note that Anderson has to this day:
This is the thing that I live for. Humanity at its best, voices rising with the strings of guitar/banjo for the simple sake of making music. Music is a miracle and you have brought one and many here today.
Thank you so much! Please always continue to make music and in doing so bring joy to so many people. What you do is very important to humanity. We need more people like you!
If you ever make a CD please let me know and I will buy it!
Sincerely, Ben Dayton (the guy by the fireplace)
When the four friends got back to Denver, they recruited Esme's sister, Genevieve Patterson, to sing a third harmony part, and a friend, Tyler Archuletta, to play trombone. Then they decided that the band needed a name, so they all sat in a circle and started saying whatever words popped into their heads. Someone said "paper," someone else said "bird" -- and they went with it: Paper Bird. Esme and DeHaven were living together in a house in Denver, and the rest of the band moved in with them. For the next year, they took that Breckenridge fan's advice to make music for the sake of making music, playing at punk-house shows and by ski lifts and basically anywhere that they would not be booted from. "It was very carefree and wild. Our only goal was to play music," says Anderson. "I just wanted to make people feel good."
The band released its first full-length, Anything Nameless and Joymaking, eleven months after that weekend in Breckenridge. The album captured six young, unbelievably enthusiastic musicians playing pretty songs about things like bugs and trains.
Feeling that they were ready for the next step, the members of Paper Bird decided to spend the foreseeable future living on the road, so they bought a bus retrofitted to run on vegetable oil -- but something was wrong with it, and it wouldn't go faster than 35 miles per hour. A friend who lived on a farm northwest of Denver agreed to let them work on the bus at his place. The Patterson sisters bailed on the trip at the last second when their mother made an uncharacteristic demand that they come help her clean the house. Summeril drove the bus, with Anderson riding along; DeHaven and Archuletta followed in a sedan. The caravan crawled up I-76.
DeHaven had the car's hazard lights on as the two vehicles progressed at less than half the speed limit. He was looking out at fields of burdock, which he remembers were orange, when he saw a semi-truck in his rearview mirror, barreling down on the car at full speed. He had time to turn the wheel slightly before the truck slammed into the car and continued into the back of the bus, then slid into the median and caught fire.
Somehow, the only member of the band to sustain anything worse than bruises and vegetable-grease stains was Archuletta, who was thrown face-first through the car window. His nose needed to be reconstructed, and doctors told him the damage to his lips meant he'd probably never play trombone again.
Paper Bird was grounded. The six musicians scrapped their touring plans and decided to move as a unit into a house outside of Boulder, where they soon started to drive each other insane. "If you don't say how you're feeling, if you bottle it down, it will consume you," says Genevieve. They set up lengthy meetings in which each bandmember was encouraged to share his or her emotional state and air any concerns. "I feel like we're therapists for each other," Genevieve adds.
Their single-minded commitment to making music together remained. Archuletta was playing trombone again three months after the accident. Despite living in Boulder, the musicians routinely returned to Denver for shows. "We were discovering this community that was really beautiful and welcoming," says Esme. "There was this excitement that was just electric. Everyone was working together in a way that I haven't seen a music scene function since or before."
"People were really welcoming. That's so much more rare than you think," adds Genevieve. "You can't rest on your laurels here. There's a lot of inspiration and a lot of support."
They got to know a group of musicians that now reads like a roster of the city's musical all-stars, among them Ian Cooke, Chris Adolf (of Bad Weather California), Nathaniel Rateliff, Travis Egedy (of Pictureplane), Maria Kohler (of Kitty Crimes) and Laura Goldhamer, a musician and visual artist who had recently returned to Denver after going to college on the East Coast.
In the spring of 2007, Goldhamer started a community space in the basement of the Brooks Center for Spirituality and booked Paper Bird to play the first show there. In the two years that followed, the spot became a town hall for the Denver scene, offering classes and potluck dinners in addition to performances by bands of every genre. "It was like a meeting of all these different families," says Macon Terry, who played in Goldhamer's band. "There was no hype. There were no expectations."
Paper Bird dramatically improved in that creative climate. People outside the scene and even the state started to take notice of the ebullient and increasingly skilled sextet, and New Belgium Brewing booked the group for its nationwide Tour de Fat series in 2008. Deciding they needed to fill out their rhythm section first, the bandmembers asked Terry to play upright bass. He agreed immediately: In over a decade of playing music in three cities, he'd never seen a band communicate with audiences the way Paper Bird did. "There was a reciprocal joy," he says. "Being in Paper Bird helped me be inspired by music."
Satisfied with their capabilities as a seven-piece, they set out on the Tour De Fat, and Paper Bird has been on the road routinely ever since. The meticulous commitment to communication they'd established in Boulder served them well on tour, where something is always going wrong. "I'd want to be with those people at the Apocalypse," says Esme.
They outfitted their bus with bunk beds and passed the time inventing games and alternate personae to keep each other amused. "They're still the funniest people I know," says Anderson.
"Parts of it were like a Muppets movie, where we'd just get to roam around the country in our big bus, park in the Walmart parking lot, make spaghetti and watch a really trashy action movie," says Esme. "In those moments, I was the happiest -- us just being a family, having more fun than anybody thought was possible to have in pursuing this damream we built."
In spring 2010, Paper Bird released its second full-length, When the River Took Flight. On it, bright harmonies flow with grace and intricacy over effortless strings and horns. In clear, confident terms, the music expresses that feeling born one day four years earlier, which was defined in Denver's fertile scene and realized in venues (and Walmart parking lots) across the country.
Unfortunately, playing that music was not what anyone in the band wanted to do for a living.
Paper Bird did not start out as a job for its members. The band was a way to make them happy and their audiences happy -- and in fact, most of them saw commercial concerns as a hindrance to meeting that goal. "We didn't want to be successful," says Anderson.
They were briefly signed to 7S, a Denver-based management company, which advised the musicians to do things like pick a leader and hire somebody to produce their records. They did not follow that advice -- nor, for that matter, did they follow any other advice they got from anyone else in the music industry. Exasperated, 7S walked away.
Still, for a band that was actively trying to avoid commercial success, Paper Bird experienced a surprising amount of it. The band was featured in Paste magazine and the New York Times and on NPR's All Things Considered. It played alongside Lauryn Hill, Glen Gampbell, Neko Case and plenty more, and sold out venues across the country. By 2010, Paper Bird was earning enough money that its members could almost quit their service-industry jobs and make music for a living. But they weren't quite there, and as they entered their late twenties, they began to wonder if they should rethink their disdain for the industry.
They were also starting to get bored of the music itself. Paper Bird had become a purveyor of Colorado sunshine in three-part harmonies at a decibel level appropriate for folk festivals and coffee shops, because that's what had made sense both instinctually and logistically when the band started. But it did not especially reflect the backgrounds, abilities or influences of any of the seven, with the exception of Archuletta.
The chance to experiment with both professionalism and different musical styles came when a small contemporary-dance group called Ballet Nouveau Colorado (now Wonderbound) commissioned Paper Bird to score one of its shows. This wasn't the first time the band had been offered a (relatively) large payment in exchange for its services, but it was the first time the job was coming from an entity that might want creative input. The dance company wasn't necessarily looking for new songs, but the restless bandmembers jumped at the opportunity to experiment. They brought in some extra musicians, adding a couple horn players and, most important, a drummer: Sarah Anderson's younger brother, Mark Anderson.
The project required a much wider range of sounds than anything Paper Bird had done before. Eventually released as a live recording, Carry On contains only hints of the danceable, polite folk found on the band's previous efforts. Instead, it showcases the wide-ranging skills of the musicians: There are elegiac piano interludes and bar-rock sing-alongs and wiry pop songs and soaring ballads and strange noises. "It changed our perspective of what we were capable of," remembers DeHaven.
They decided to use their new musical approach to take a shot at profitability, and asked Mark Anderson to join officially. Archuletta, saying he'd never wanted to make a career out of music, quit the band and moved to Alaska.
The rearranged septet set to work on a third full-length album, Rooms. Informally describing the sound they were going for as "Western soul," the musicians wrote quickly and recorded in a brief eight days. For the first time, they hired a producer: Roger Fritch, who was paid with part of the $17,000 they raised in a Kickstarter campaign.
They bought a black RV from the metal band Five Finger Death Punch and set out on what would ultimately be a disappointing tour. They often found themselves playing shows that made sense for the original version of Paper Bird but not the current one. Their nascent Western soul belonged in dive bars and rock clubs, not a bluegrass theater in Dollywood, where they played six shows in two days for crowds of senior citizens looking for Soggy Bottom Boys covers.
Still, Rooms sold at least as well as the band's previous albums. And the lead single, "As I Am," remains the best song Paper Bird has released to date, with DeHaven's nimble (electric) guitar work and Mark's rolling percussion chasing the three lead-vocal parts, which are delivered not with the breathy consistency of previous songs, but with a clarity that comes from somewhere deeper. "I was able to tap into a different strength in my own voice," says Sarah. But the album still wasn't quite what she or anyone else in the band was striving for. "In my gut, I still felt a little bit scattered," she admits.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Paper Bird had lost the reciprocal joy that had been the band's defining strength; the promising new sound wouldn't mean much if the band couldn't figure out how to restore that connection to its audiences. Feeling uninspired, Terry left the band last October. Summeril ditched the banjo and taught himself to play electric bass. Paper Bird was left with only one hallmark of its original sound: the voices of Sarah, Genevieve and Esme. And that, too, was about to change.
Like most artists who frequented the Brooks Center, the members of Paper Bird spent plenty of time on collaborative side projects and guest appearances. Terry's project was Clouds & Mountain, Mark and DeHaven had a group called the Eye & the Arrow, and all three of the band's lead vocalists joined in a release valve of a hip-hop project with Laura Goldhamer and Maria Kohler called Harpoontang. Esme has always been a prolific songwriter, and she had lots of material when she started dabbling in solo shows in 2008. At the time, she was mostly writing things that made sense for Paper Bird: upbeat songs designed to combat the shitty things in life by carving out a place where they didn't exist.
Her work is still frequently pretty, thanks to her bright, playful voice and the melodic sensibility she mastered with Paper Bird. But by 2012, turmoil in her personal life, combined with her natural restlessness as an artist, inspired her to write a series of songs that had an altogether different tone, one that sought to combat the shitty things in life by shoving them in your face.
She bought a guitar and started playing her own stuff more often. She joined the roster of the Greater Than Collective, the record label backed by Illegal Pete's, which put out her solo debut, All Princes, I, at the end of 2012, just a few months before the release of Rooms. In interviews, she was adamant that Paper Bird was still her main focus, both artistically and commercially. But she was starting to feel removed from the band. "The hardest moments for me were when everything was okay, sort of, when things were just in the middle somewhere," Esme remembers. "Over the years, it becomes a sort of Groundhog Day. You're playing the same songs over and over and over and the same venues over and over, and you feel like your wheels are spinning." She began to wonder what would happen if her solo project didn't have to compete for time and mental space with Paper Bird: "I got a little bit lost in those moments."
Her reveries did not escape the notice of her bandmates. "Ever since she started doing her solo thing, it just felt like that was where her attention was," says Genevieve -- and she didn't blame her sister. "I can't imagine Esme without her solo career. She was a huge part of the development of Paper Bird in so many ways, but the last few years it just became more and more evident that a lot of her sensibilities with music and a lot of her needs as an artist for self-expression just were not compatible with how the band functioned."
By the time Paper Bird realized it wanted to be a Western-soul band, Esme had found a savage thrill in standing alone at a microphone with an electric guitar in her hands. For her second solo record, Woman to Woman, she wrote a series of songs written from the perspective of women addressed in the pop-music canon. In the lyrics of Esme's "Never Chase a Man," for example, a disgusted Jolene replies to Dolly Parton's pleas for sexual mercy with, "Your man don't mean a thing to me."
Esme celebrated the release of the album this past March with a sold-out show at the hi-dive, where she commanded the stage like a panther surveying its prey. To be in the audience was to understand why Dolly Parton was so afraid of Jolene.
The fanfare that accompanied Woman to Woman included a brief review in the New York Times, along with a Twitter endorsement from Elvis Costello, whose "Alison" had inspired one of Esme's response songs.
Her solo project wasn't the only thing competing with Paper Bird for Esme's time. She'd also written a handful of songs with Austin-based artist Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who performs as Shakey Graves.
Rose-Garcia spent the first several years of his musical career as a one-man band, and as a consequence, he has a tendency to deliver his music a little differently each time he plays it. "It's like trying to hit a moving target," says Esme of singing with him. "We have a stupid amount of fun together."
It shows: Their first collaboration, "Dearly Departed," is a Halloween-themed sex-pun sparring match (Him: "You used to bite, I used to moan." Her: "But now I'm mumbling and you choke.") The song is a delirious mess they wrote in a matter of hours before a show last year when Shakey Graves opened for Paper Bird; today it has over three million plays on Spotify. They performed it together on Conan last month.
For Esme, juggling her various musical exploits with Paper Bird's schedule was becoming impossible. "I still really wanted to make it all work," she says. "I didn't want to leave, which I think was stubbornness on my part." It certainly wasn't a passion for Paper Bird's music.
"At a certain point, we all just realized that whatever Esme was really focusing on was nothing to do with us," says Genevieve, "and that she was going to be happier and we were going to be happier if we found somebody who wasn't trying to balance a bunch of things that were unrelated."
They made it official before a show in Oklahoma City, on the final day of a two-week tour in May. "The band put it in front of me," recalls Esme, "saying, you've got to do one or the other: You've got to do your own music and leave the group, or you've got to just be in the group, because it's too hard chasing our schedules around each other.
"In that conversation, I just realized that it wasn't fair to the group to try to be in that band when I couldn't give that band what it deserves and what it needs. And I couldn't give my own music what it needs and deserves while being in that band." They agreed to play the rest of the shows they had booked, which took them through the end of September, and then part ways.
The full realization of the breakup hit Esme two-thirds of the way through the set that night, while she was singing the bridge of a new song by DeHaven called "Make You Mine" -- and when it did, she passed out cold. "This sounds incredibly dramatic, but I felt for a moment after that that there was a part of me that had died," she says. "The part that was trying to still be in that band. I just...got unconscious for a moment, and I woke up in a new world."
Paper Bird cut its set short, thanked the crowd, and started what must have been the longest ten-hour drive in band history.
Back in Denver, the remaining members of Paper Bird considered how to fill their new vacancy. An obvious candidate was a Canadian singer named Carleigh Aikins, who'd cut her musical teeth in the booming Toronto music scene of the early 2000s that produced Broken Social Scene and a slew of other well-known indie bands. Aikins had spent the last couple of years singing with Polaris Prize-nominated Bahamas and has a side project with Josiah Johnson of the Head and the Heart. When Jack Johnson brought Bahamas along for a string of sold-out shows last year, he asked Aikins to sing backup.The members of Paper Bird got to know Aikins on various tours, and the connection was immediate. "She feels very Colorado to me," says Sarah. They contacted Aikins to see if she would become the band's newest lead vocalist. The timing was perfect: Aikins told them she had just left Bahamas and was looking for a new project.
From their first practice together, Aikins and the rest of Paper Bird have been an exceptional fit. Aikins's savvy pop sensibility and confident voice helped the band finally realize the sound it had been working toward since Carry On. "It brought something out of Genny and I," says Sarah of this new version of the band. "It feels like raw power. This is what I've been waiting for for eight years."
Genevieve agrees. "The music that we've made in the last four months is what I've always wanted to play," she says. "There's a hunger there."
And Paper Bird proved an ideal interpreter of Aikins's songwriting. She has no formal musical training and documents her ideas by singing all the parts, which works nicely for a band with three lead vocalists. The first song she brought them was "Parade," which is about the struggle to balance the deluge of digital information with a flesh-and-blood relationship.
"We all freaked out when we heard it," says Sarah. Initially, Aikins wrote the song as a quiet, unobtrusive thing. But the input of the re-energized Paper Bird turned it into a powerful force. During the sound check at Syntax, Mark broke a drumstick for the first time since joining the band in an effort to play hard enough to keep up with the three singers.
"This feels amazing," says DeHaven. "It's always been important to me to make music people connect to, and that feeling is stronger than ever."
Aikins still lives in Toronto and has traveled to Denver periodically over the last several months to work with Paper Bird. The band has managed to reinterpret its back catalogue and write a handful of new songs, which it plans to slowly perfect before releasing a new full-length in 2015; the musicians hope to give fans an idea of what to expect by releasing a video or single before the end of the year. They've re-signed with 7S, which was impressed with their recent output. This time, they're willing to let the management company participate in delivering the band's music to fans and cultivating its public image.
Esme just finished a tour with Shakey Graves, performing an opening set of her solo material in addition to the collaborations with Rose-Garcia; next year the London-based independent label Xtra Mile Recordings will put out a full-length version of Woman to Woman in Europe. In the meantime, she's officially moved to Portland.
"The Denver that I knew doesn't exist anymore. The town is full of interesting, brilliant, creative people, but I'm not as connected to them," she says. "Maybe that's just part of growing up. Things change and things fall apart." Still, she adds, "I'm really proud of the city, to have been shaped by it and to shape it. I think I'll always say I'm from Denver."
On December 17, she'll be back to headline the Bluebird Theater -- a rare billing for a Denver artist just a few years ago. It's a more regular occurrence these days, thanks to a complicated, gradual evolution involving a huge range of people in the music industry and even some who aren't. And there's no question that Paper Bird and its peers -- bands like Snake Rattle Rattle Snake and A. Tom Collins -- have helped draw the national attention that Colorado's music scene currently enjoys. "Denver is becoming worldly," says Genevieve. And Paper Bird will provide proof of that when it brings its newly international membership to a headlining set of its own at the Bluebird on December 26.
Paper Bird did not announce or publicize this appearance at Syntax Physic Opera; the show was designed to be a trial run before a two-week Midwestern tour. Still, word has gotten out, and the small venue is full of friends, devout fans and a slew of Denver musicians, including both Esme Patterson and Macon Terry. For the first time in a while, the members of Paper Bird are nervous. Off stage, they huddle together and sing a section of an older song, "Hold Me Down," as a last-second realignment. Any lingering doubts vanish as soon as the set begins. Paper Bird plays with an ease and skill it has spent eight years developing, and Aikins is a natural. The musicians are no longer grasping, as they were on Rooms; the old songs sound like they were meant to be played this way, and the new ones are immediate hits. The crowd migrates closer to the stage, and a few people start dancing. Terry shows his approval by removing his shirt and throwing it at Genevieve while she plays a new keyboard part. "I'm more excited about what I saw at Syntax than when I was in the band," he says later. "I went as a friend and a former bandmate and left as a fan."
Just as it was during sound check, "Parade" is a showstopper. Aikins finds some primal thing inside her on that final verse, and Genevieve and Sarah meet her there on the chorus: Heard the news today that we don't have to stay/But we can't go home anymore. When it came down to me, I felt free, I felt free/I forgot what I came here for.
The crowd erupts the moment the song ends. Genevieve, her cheeks flushed, sighs contentedly and searches for the right thing to say into the microphone. Her eyes fall on Terry and then her sister, and she decides to paraphrase a lyric by their Harpoontang bandmate Maria Kohler: "Cheers to life. Cheers to change. Nothing but love. Nothing but net."
Esme Patterson plays the Bluebird Theater on December 17 with Kitty Crimes and Land Lines.
Paper Bird plays the same venue on December 26 with the Centennial.
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