Bedroom-pop artist Sam Paul says that people often find their home towns boring, and when it comes to his experience growing up in Aurora, he's no exception. But when he started writing songs for his new album, Looks Like a Heart, he wanted to capture the beauty in mundane things.
He bookends the fifteen-track LP about Colorado, which he released digitally on September 16, with songs about traffic intersections. On opener “Parker & 225,” he sings about the off-ramp not far from where he grew up in Aurora; the final track, “Evans & I-25,” references inspirational quotes from the LED billboard at Barbee’s Freeway Ford.
“In a general sense, I think that anyone could find beautiful-ness in their everyday, no matter where they're from,” Paul says. "And then in a more kind of a Colorado-centric sense, I think that there's been a lot of change, obviously. I mean, that's a little bit cliché. But in the course of my life, Denver and Aurora have just changed a ton. And obviously, I've changed a ton over the course of my life.”
He says he’s thought about making an album about Colorado since he was a sophomore at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora and heard Sufjan Stevens's 2005 concept album, Illinois, which references the state's landmarks, events and places — the shocking and the banal.
Like Stevens, who wrote about Illinois serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Paul covers notorious Colorado anti-hero Gerald Foos, the former owner of the Manor House Motel, who fancied himself as a pioneering sex researcher and spied on people having sex in their rooms.
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The hotel was just down the street from Fitzsimons Army Medical Center (now the site of Anschutz Medical Campus), where Paul was born three decades ago. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in the surrounding seedy Aurora neighborhood. When he learned about Foos, he was captivated by both the man's obsessions and his observations about human nature.
“I think his most interesting insights really had to do with how people act when they're alone," says Paul. "His kind of depressing takeaway from it was that people are mostly sad or lonely when they're alone. And I just kind of reflected on that. It's such a bizarre story, and I think that it deserves to be written about.”
He was also inspired by Pedro the Lion's Phoenix, and says his fifteen-track Looks Like a Heart “sounds like if Andy Shauf and David Bazan had a baby and Phoebe Waller-Bridge walked it to the bus stop.”
On “High School,” Paul sings about his time at Smoky Hill, which he graduated from in 2008. He was part of the International Baccalaureate program, which he says was “super nerdy” and something of a school within a school.
“I didn't fit in there, especially when I was younger,” he says. “I never really felt like I was smarter or especially gifted or anything like that. I was in those programs, but when you're a kid, you don't really have perspective to reflect on those things.
"That song is really largely about about growing up, getting older and feeling like you have missed opportunities, missed chances,” he continues. “Youth is wasted on the young — all that stuff.”
Paul says he’s always had a sense of otherness, like not quite fitting in among the hyper-intelligent people and being something of a slacker with shaggy hair.
“And I'm half Filipino,” he notes, "which is kind of an otherness thing on its own, where I don't feel super Asian, but I also don't feel super white. I think that when you grow up as a person of color, you have an awareness of being [different] when there aren’t a lot of people of color around.”
While a freshman at Smoky Hill, he started playing bass, and he and his buddies formed a funk band; shortly after that, he gravitated toward the acoustic emo of singer-songwriter Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.
For his part, Paul, who had been penning poems and short stories, started writing his own songs the instant he started playing guitar.
“Writing is something I've always felt like I had to do,” he says. “In some ways, I think it gets harder to say that stuff as you get older, because maybe I'm self-conscious about it just feeling too magical or something. But I think if I were to say it in more grown-up terms, it is a vital part of the strategy I use to deal with my mental health and an integral part of the way I process the world — whether it's day-to-day minutiae or bigger stuff.”
Paul was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder two years ago, and he says losing himself in the process of songwriting helps him cope.
“Sometimes just finding something that you can really be a part of can give you some purpose and can take your mind off of whatever you’re feeling,” he says. “As long as I can remember, it's something that if I would just be feeling really emotional or having a hard time with something, making stuff can help me feel a lot better.”
While he's been writing songs about Colorado for a long time, one of the oldest tracks on Looks Like a Heart dates back to around 2012. “Not the Best, Man” is about being drunk when he heard one of his best friends asking someone else to be the best man at his wedding.
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“Denver Metro Area” is about development and how much the city has changed, but Paul says that as much as your home town might change and you complain about transplants from California and Maryland, it’s still your home town.
“At least I do always still love it, and I’m drawn to it for that reason,” he says.
The song “Going Bald” is about a physical change, but he’s using that to look at other things, with change a theme that runs through Looks Like a Heart.
“These songs are looking at changes in relationships and with other people, or with yourself or with your city,” Paul says. “I think that's definitely the thread that runs through it.”