When the Boston-based singer-songwriter Paula Kelley released her debut solo album ‘Nothing/Everything’ in September of last year, it was described ecstatically by one local critic as “a music reviewer’s dream”. The album’s combination of lush Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach influenced-atmospherics ; gorgeous, swooping melodies and sparkling vocal harmonies also proved popular in other circles, earning Kelley a place on a variety of East Coast critics’ end-of-the-year polls.

‘Nothing/Everything’, which is currently available in Europe exclusively through Pennyblackmusic, has since gone on to sell well in Japan, as well as in the United States. Kelley has also recently been, alongside Tanya Donnelly and Mary Lou Lord, elected as a nominee in the Best Female Vocalist category at the prestigious Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll awards, the winner for which will be announced in June.

One of the pivotal figures on the Boston independent music circuit, Kelley first came to public attention in the early 90’s as a member of the shoegazing group, the Drop Nineteens. She appeared playing guitar and on occasional vocals on their 1992 debut album, ‘Delaware’, but by the time of the group’s second and final album, ‘National Coma’, the following year had dropped out of the band, wanting to concentrate instead on writing and singing her own material. Kelley formed firstly an under-rated grunge band, Hot Rod, which released one album, the overlooked ‘Speed ! Danger Death’ in 1993, and when that group folded, a second band , Boy Wonder, in 1996. Boy Wonder, which split up in 2000, merged together contemporary indie guitar sounds with sixties-style pop arrangements, and recorded an album, ‘Wonder Wear’, in 1997, and then a five track EP, ‘Break the Spell etc’, in a different line-up in 1999.

‘Nothing/Everything’, which was originally to be entitled simply ‘Everything’, and which finds Kelley experimenting with classic pop sounds and arrangements in a purer form than when she was with Boy Wonder, is an artistic as well as a commercial triumph. Released on former Boy Wonder guitarist Aaron Tap’s new label Stop Pop and Roll, it is of all her recordings the one which she feels that she has had the most creative control over, and is closest to.

“It took us about a year to record the album” Kelley says, back for a second interview with Pennyblackmusic, and speaking to this site for the first time since leaving Boy Wonder. “We recorded it piece meal, going into the studio when we could, and when we had bits of money. It is a good and a bad way of recording to work on an album for that long. It’s good because you can be really particular about things, but that can be your downfall too because you can get into a cycle of thinking “Oh that’s not good enough. Oh, we’ll fix this. We’ll fix that.”

“The album about halfway through took on a loose consciousness, and the idea of ‘Nothing/Everything’ just stood out. ‘Nothing’ and ‘Everything’ ( two of the opening songs on the album-Ed) are both representative to me of a new beginning. The song ‘Nothing’ was written at about the time when I knew I was going to have to break from Boy Wonder, while ‘Everything’ was the first song that I wrote which signified the new direction I was taking.”

“I have done a lot of growing up in the last couple of years as well ” she continues. “It probably sounds really corny, but I think I have got more of an instinct now than I perhaps did for what’s right for me. When I was in Boy Wonder, I was held back a lot because there were things that I wanted to do, but which weren’t necessarily right for the band. Now though I definitely have a vision, which I’m just going to go for , barring nothing. At the same time though that puts everything on me. Nothing, therefore, is in my way, but I am also responsible for everything.”

Kelley’s decision to break up Boy Wonder was slow pending. The group had begun with great promise, signing a one album deal within a year of forming with a medium sized Boston independent label, Cherrydisc. Things , however, quickly afterwards began to go wrong. Shortly after the group signed its contract, Cherrydisc became affiliated with another larger New York label, Roadrunner, which specialises in hard core and punk. ‘Wonder Wear’, the first co-release of the two labels, was, as a result, poorly promoted and, outside Boston where Boy Wonder were immensely popular, sold only modestly. When Cherrydisc a year or so later folded, having been dropped by Roadrunner, the album, not part of the usual Roadrunner roster, was deleted.

Boy Wonder would stagger on for another two years, replacing in its line-up original members Jake Zavracky and Paula Natale with bassist Josh Arakelian and Tap, and would release the ‘Break the Spell etc’ EP on Tap’s then label Jackass Records, but much of its initial impetus had been lost.

“Now that I look back on it, I think that I knew inside that I would have to eventually to break up the band” Kelley explains . “It wasn’t entirely obvious though for a while. I was really happy with that last line-up of Boy Wonder. Aaron, Josh and I are all songwriters and musically get along very well together. Bruce Caporal, the drummer, and I had been playing together for a long time, but when 'Wonderwear’ came out that was the kind of apex. When things didn’t work out , it didn’t break us, but they were never the same after that. As good as I think we sounded by the end, the momentum just wasn’t really there. I think the best thing for us to do was to quit, and to do something new. It was certainly the best thing that I could have done anyway.”

‘Nothing/Everything’ is the first of Kelley’s albums which she has self-produced, and was recorded at Zippah Studios in Boston. The album was engineered and mixed by Zippah’s owner, Boston producer and musician, Pete Weiss.

"I decided to produce ‘Nothing/Everything’ myself simply because I knew exactly how I wanted the songs to sound” Kelley enthuses. “Even when I have worked with producers in the past, I have always had a large hand in the outcome. Aaron also really encouraged me to go for it. At first I thought “We’ll have a producer”, but then I thought “Wait a minute ! I am confident enough to know what I want to do.” I really wanted to be able to guide it.”

“Pete Weiss is great with sound” she continues, explaining his role in the recording “ A lot of producers are there simply because they want to put their stamp on a record. Pete’s ability though as both an engineer, and also a producer, is that he is great at understanding the feel of a song. He was able to help to give the record a nice, pure sound.”

A complex and detailed record, ‘Nothing/Everything’ employs, alongside Kelley, the talents of eight other musicians , and uses a wide range of instrumentation including, as well as guitars and drums, a melletron, a Moog, pianos, keyboards and strings. The majority of the album, was carefully planned and structured in advance, with very little improvisation actually taking place once the band reached the studio.

“Only a few parts did come about at Zippah” reflects Kelley. “I tend to have the whole song arranged in my head before I actually sit down and write it. I always have the majority of the parts, especially the harmonies and the strings and the riffs, written beforehand. I am also really particular about there not being any superfluous parts. I am a real stickler for arranging.”

Despite its open sixties influences, ‘Nothing/Everything’ comes across as a curiously contemporarary, and distinctly unretrospective . This is undoubtedly due in part to its lyrics, which look, with a wry and unflinching twenty first century sadness and cynicism at self-doubt, and love on the rocks and on the slide. As Kelley is quick to point out, however, the album has also maintained its contemporary edge as result of her decision to use modern age rather than older era equipment in the studio.

“A lot of bands, that are influenced by the music of the sixties or seventies, tend to focus on the sound” she says. “They all use vintage gear. I love vintage gear, but I am not much of a gear head. I am more concerned with the song itself. I always do what I feel is best for the song, and use whatever I have in my head. It has never mattered to me if I have been able to capture the sound of an era or anything like that. ”

As well as Cherrydisc, Kelley also fell into conflict with Caroline Records, the large independent label which signed the Drop Nineteens in 1991. The Drop Nineteens were always more popular in Europe than back home, and, on the back of their success, Kelley was able to secure a deal with Caroline for Hot Rod also. Despite Kelley spending several months in London promoting ‘Speed ! Danger ! Death !’, and being encouraged by the label to relocate the group in England, it, however, refused to release the album in Europe and only gave it a small American release, effectively, as a result, killing both the record and the band.

In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Kelley is extremely wary of becoming involved with another larger label again, and has opted to release ‘Nothing/Everything’ with her friend Tap on the fledgling Stop Pop and Roll label instead. The current state of the corporate music industry, with all its emphasis on imagery and fashion. also alarms her, and has too had a direct bearing and an influence on her decision.

“I won’t say I haven’t had bad experiences in the past” she says. “Those experiences are, of course lodged in my head. I also find though the whole shape of the industry right now pretty scary.”

”I don’t think the way things are going now that I would want to be on a major label. I don’t want to do the rock star thing, and to be a major label puppet or anything that is going to make me wear midriff-bearing shirts and tight ass pants and to have to groom myself in that way. I’ve got no interest in it. I think what would be better for me was if I got some sort of publishing deal, or something like that instead. I’d much rather be behind the scenes, and writing songs for people who dress like that rather than doing it myself. Just because writing is my focus, I wouldn’t want to risk having to compromise.”

Ironically ‘Nothing/Everything’, which Aaron Tap and his team at Stop, Pop and Roll have pushed hard, has been the most successful of all of Kelley’s albums since ‘Delaware’. While Hot Rod only played half a dozen or so shows in their short lifetime, and Boy Wonder were never able to break away outside the
perimeters of Boston , Kelley has successfully toured in California and on the West Coast to promote ‘Nothing/Everything’. More recently she has played gigs to large audiences in Chicago and Illinois , and also hopes to play shows in London next year.

She is now working on writing and rehearsing an as-yet-untitled follow-up to ‘Nothing/Everything’ which will be released on Stop Pop and Roll in 2003, and which, as a contrast to the first album, she hopes to record at Zippah over the space of two and three weeks.

“My solo stuff will always be the most important thing to me now” she concludes happily. “If I ever form another band, it will be as a side project or as something completely different to what I am doing now.”

From second guitarist to band leader to singer-songwriter, Paula Kelley has been though several transisitions in the last decade , but has also come a long way. Now having found her most natural forte as a solo artist, and having found through small label work and Stop Pop and Roll a way of releasing records on her own terms, her musical career has paradoxically, in the age of the big deal, and in contrast to her past experience, never seemed more assured.

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