Paper Bird Takes Flight

Paper Bird banjoist Caleb Summeril talks with Pollstar about the band’s unique sound, its first electric moment, and its upcoming tour with The Infamous Stringdusters.

Hailing from Colorado, Paper Bird defies convention by combining the luscious harmonies of its three female singers – Sarah Anderson and sisters Genevieve and Esme Patterson –  backed by Summeril, guitarist Paul DeHaven, drummer/percussionist Mark Anderson (Sarah’s brother), and upright bassist Macon Terry. 

Plus, Sarah plays also trumpet and the men often harmonize with the ladies, so the roles within the group are not rigidly defined.

Since forming in in 2007 Paper Bird has been steadily growing its fan base through three studio albums and constant touring as well as working with a ballet.

That’s right, a ballet.  Paper Bird scored a collaboration with Ballet Nouveau Colorado that resulted in 2011’s Carry On.  Other high points in the young band’s career include being featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and making the Denver Post’s list of “Top 10 Best Underground Bands” three years in a row.

With unusual time signatures, four instrumentalists, and three ladies providing vocals, how do you describe Paper Bird’s music to the uninitiated?

It’s always kind of a tricky question.  Basically, I say folk music.  It’s folk-based … but it has elements of old R&B, country, jazz and pop, it’s all over the place. Lately we’ve been saying indie-folk or baroque-folk to explain it.

Do the harmonies drive the band or does the band’s instrumentation drive the music?

Usually when we write a song the melody line is there and the instrumentation backs it up and from there the girls build the harmony.  Looking at it like that, the instruments are kind of driving it.  But the girls have written a couple of songs where they started with a harmony line and we figured out what chords go behind it.

Did you and your bandmates always plan for Paper Bird to sound this way or did the band’s sound grow organically?

We never planned how it was going to sound.  We definitely changed over the years, especially with the addition of drums a few years ago, Mark joining the group, that’s really changed what we could do. We don’t strictly play acoustic instruments anymore. [We have] electric guitars, electric banjo.  It’s kind of evolved to where it is right now.  I wouldn’t say we got too much direction from anybody outside the band about where it was going to go or what things we were shooting for.  It just kind of happened.

How long was Paper Bird strictly acoustic?

We started that way. Probably for the first two years of the group.  It just came about as we got gigs and plugged into the P.A.s and stuff. 

So there wasn’t any specific Bob Dylan/Newport Folk Festival moment?

I think Paul played electric guitar first at one show and I was giving him crap about it [becoming] a big deal.  [But] I don’t think a single person said a thing, even in our band other than me.  It wasn’t a big deal when it happened.

Your home state of Colorado has a very vibrant music scene and includes such diverse groups as Yonder Mountain String Band and Big Gigantic.  Do you see Paper Bird as yet another Colorado band with a different sound or do you see the group as something closer to what has come before you?

I do think that we’re doing something that’s new and unique and kind of our own thing.  We definitely were influenced by the other Colorado groups that have had success. … Seeing groups that have become successful encourages us to keep at it rather than trying to imitate a sound.  We’re just writing what we want to write and that’s the sound that has come out of it.

Paper Bird has played a lot of festivals.  Considering the unique sound of the group did those festival performances attract or catch the attention of other artists appearing on the same day?

Yeah, definitely.  Especially those festival scenes where there are hundreds of musicians and fans.  We always make a new contact, somebody who says they have never heard anything like it.

Has that opened some doors for you?

Yes. Even this Infamous Stringdusters tour we’re going on.  We met them first at Floydfest. They knew of us through Sarah and Mark’s older brother who runs a ski company.  It’s networking.  If you find an act that likes you and you like them, we put our business teams together to hopefully scheme something up.  The more we’re out there playing and meeting people, more opportunities are coming up.

Photo: Norah Emily
Ogden Theatre in Denver, Colo.

How active is the band in social media?

We’re involved.  Mark, our drummer, is like our online guru. He handles most of the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram stuff. … He’s the youngest one.  He kind of gets it.  That makes me feel old.  But it’s a crucial part of it and it’s how most fans stay involved. It’s an essential piece and something we do focus on. We can always get better at it and have more of a presence.

With so many performers in Paper Bird do any members partake in role playing?  That is, when onstage, does one take on a funny personality or is one portrayed as the brains of the group?

I don’t know if there is, we’re pretty much ourselves onstage. We’ve definitely got different roles within our group that maybe come out a little bit.  As much as it might be cool to say there’s a mystique about us, I don’t know if there is.  We’re just trying to do what we love to do and get up there and mean what we’re doing.  But I don’t think we’re trying to present anything other than good musicianship and good songs.

We’ll goof around and do some weird stuff, but we’ll do that on the tour bus, too, just for each other.

Does the band like to play music when you’re not working, such as jamming on the tour bus?

Definitely.  Everybody writes so there’s usually always a time when somebody has a guitar out or I’m making beats on an iPad. Creativity is always happening. … It’s what drives us.

Photo: Norah Emily
Paul DeHaven (guitar), Macon Terry (upright bass) and Mark Anderson (drums).

Do you already know what the finished album is going to sound like before you go into the studio or is it very much a product of the moment and you never know how it will turn out until you listen to the playback?

When we go in there we have the songs, basically, in order.  This last album we recorded … was really our first studio attempt with a producer in a fully functional studio.  We took some time to do it. … The studio had way more toys and amps and guitars for us to play with.  That helped shape the sound we got out of it and kind of dictated the ultimate product.  The foundation and framework of the songs existed before we went in there.  And we’re paying by the hour so we had to take advantage of that.

What was it like to have a producer for the first time?  Did he play more of an in-charge role or was he there to carry out the band’s wishes?

It was our good friend Ryan Fritch.  He’s been in a bunch of bands.  He usually scores music for films but he does his solo acts and a bunch of other projects.  It was a great experience.  There was a couple of songs where he was like, “I don’t know if this fits” … this new input that we wouldn’t have thought of as a group that really changed some things for the good.  Also, he was able to communicate with the engineers better than we could.  A middle ground … I think a producer should function that way.  He wasn’t too authoritative, but he would speak his mind if a take wasn’t good or [something] didn’t fit.

How did you get involved working with a ballet?

On MySpace, I think, is the simple answer. They approached us, sent us a message asking if we were interested.  Initially they asked if we would just use our old material and they would choreograph to that.  But Paul got the message first and didn’t tell us that, and we wrote all new songs.  It came about from that.  And the process of writing with choreography in mind led to more instrumentation and longer songs.

What do you think the members of Paper Bird learned from that experience that you can use now and in the future?

We really learned a lot.  Musically, we learned the importance of dynamics and flow a little bit more.  And the ability to go in a little bit weirder of a place, not just to make the crowd cheer but to make them feel something, have the listener experience things … explore what we could do musically. That was the result of us having to play two acts, little more than a half hour each of nonstop music so there weren’t breaks in the songs. The band was always flowing.  And we learned how to listen to each other and become a better band because we had to be so tight with that.  That was the first time we brought Mark, our drummer, on board.

Do you hope to do similar projects in the future, perhaps more visual projects like movie scores or songs for television?

We would love to score some TV, films, whatever. The process is amazing. As far as doing the live performance, it’s tricky. … [The ballet] was a great experience but it also had its negative aspects, the feasibility of it all.  Taking something like that on the road would be easy for us but for the dancers it would be crazy.

We’ve been approached by the Colorado Symphony and some other people to do projects like that.  I think it’s on the horizon.  I don’t know exactly when but we love that sort of thing.

When you’re touring what are some of the problems a band consisting of three ladies and four men might have to face that fans might not be aware of?

The essentials, really. When are you going to eat?  Where are you going to sleep?  How are you going to shower?   With seven people that all gets a little more complicated.  We’re not making a ton of money … we’re profiting a little bit but we’re still not at the point where we can afford hotels every night.  We have a network of people pretty much across the country, [for us] to stay at a family member’s house or a friend’s house. Our bus is pretty fully functional. We have a kitchen, bunk beds and everything.  We can pull up to an RV park where everyone can get a shower and sleep before we cruise to the next town. 

Running the tour bus is a crazy thing, too.  We do that on our own.  We’re not renting the bus from a company.  We all drive.  When it’s trickier driving, some are better and more comfortable when situations are scarier or more hectic.  I think we’d like to hire a sound guy before a driver.  It’s all what the money dictates.

How about other touring essentials, like laundry and such?  With seven people it must be tough coming up with clean clothes for every gig or providing time and a place for the ladies to apply makeup.

You got to make sacrifices in personal hygiene sometimes. The ladies are super-experienced about being on the road. … We do little things, whether it’s having that one clean shirt or wearing deodorant that might make you feel better.  It’s not crazy.  None of them are super-girlie or out of control. We understand the show biz side of it where we have to look good up there. … It can be tricky from time to time.

Does the band have any pre-show rituals or traditions?

We usually try to get in a little circle and try to get on the same page.  Get amped up. … Kind of look each other in the eyes and say, “Let’s have a good show and knock these people out.” That’s the only thing we ritualistically do. As we tour more we’re developing more things we do in our day-to-day basis that keeps us sane.

What can you tell your fans about the upcoming tour with the Infamous Stringdusters?

We’re really excited about it. It’s going to be some new markets for us.  The Stringdusters have a pretty good fan base so I think that will speak well for us. We’ll [make] some new fans.  But we’ll also try some new material out that we’re working on right now, to see how it goes over before we record the next record.

Do you road test your new material before recording it?

Most of the time we like to. We haven’t always.  If we record a song and then road test, it always kind of evolves a little bit as we hit the road and see what works and what doesn’t.  This time around for our next studio album we’re going to road test most of them.  That’s the plan.

Is there anything you’d like to tell the world about Paper Bird that folks might not be aware of?

We’re at a point where we’re working hard to get to where we want to be and make a career doing this music.  We’ve been at it for seven years and it’s been hard.  We’ve made sacrifices in our personal lives just to keep at it.  The more we play in front of people and the more fans that come out and see us, the more that drives us to do what we want to do. If anything, come and give us a shot, see what you think.  And tell your friends, too.  That support helps.  With all the saturation and competition and all the new great musicians out there, you’ve got to find your niche.

Photo: Norah Emily
(Left to right) Esme Patterson, Genny Patterson and Sarah Anderson at the Ogden Theatgre, Denver, Colo.  

Upcoming Paper Bird gigs:

Nov. 22 – Paonia, Colo., Paradise Theatre
Dec. 1 – Muscatine, Iowa, River’s Edge Gallery
Dec. 2 – Indianapolis, Ind., White Rabbit
Dec. 4 – Columbus, Ohio, Newport Music Hall
Dec. 5 – Madison, Wis., Majestic Theatre
Dec. 6 – Lawrence, Kan., Liberty Hall
Dec. 7 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater
Dec. 8 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater
Dec. 10 – Austin, Texas, The Parish
Dec. 11 – Fayetteville, Ark., George’s Majestic Lounge
Dec. 12 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Track 29
Dec. 13 – Carrboro, N.C., Cat’s Cradle
Dec. 14 – Wilmington, N.C., Ziggy’s By The Sea
Dec. 17 – Knoxville, Tenn., Barley’s Taproom
Dec. 18
Nashville, Tenn, The Basement
Dec. 19 – Columbia, Mo., Mojo’s
Dec. 20 – Kansas City, Mo., The Record Bar

Appearing with The Infamous Stringdusters Dec. 4 through 14.  Visit for more information.