Interview: Amber Papini of Hospitality

Based on the critically acclaimed reviews that have been rolling in since their self-titled album’s release, Hospitality are poised to be counted among 2012’s biggest breakout success stories. This is in no small part due to the intelligent, snotty, and sometimes bawdy lyrics of singer Amber Papini. With a sound that has been likened to Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura, Hospitality make music that is bright, punchy, and complexly layered. Surviving the Golden Age caught up with Amber to discuss changing old songs, recording new songs, and coming to terms with feelings of being an outsider.


My first question is about the differences between the songs on the EP and the ones you re-recorded for the LP, such as “Betty Wang” and “Argonauts”. The versions on the LP sound a lot brighter and bigger. What considerations did you make when you were changing those?
Well, we evolved as a band from when we recorded the EP. When we recorded the EP, we were playing acoustic instruments and Nathan was playing drums in an unconventional way. The cymbals were sort of propped against the bass drum and didn’t have proper stands. He was playing more percussion and less like rock drums and I was playing acoustic guitar. Over the years, out of practicality, we decided to go electric and play a proper drum kit because we were playing loud clubs that catered to that sound and didn’t really support acoustic instruments. So yeah, we changed over time and by the time we were recording [the new album], we wanted these songs to have a proper recording. We thought they were good songs. And, you know, the EP is a totally different thing. It’s unplugged. It didn’t reach half as many people as this recording is reaching. Overall, we wanted a bigger sound and we did that. We added more instruments (laughs).

Do you consider either the earlier versions or the more recent versions as definitive, or is it something that is more dependent on the mood and the venue?
They are both really different. They’re like apples and oranges, I guess. I feel like on “Betty Wang”, I prefer the energy of the new version. Personally, I was playing acoustic guitar, but I always wanted to play electric guitar (laughs) and I wanted the songs to be more punk and more my taste in music. I really like new wave and more, like, rock and roll. So, I thought of “Betty Wang” as this, like, crazy, not a rock song, but louder and faster, with more tension.

[The new version] is sort of rowdier, I think.
Yeah, I thought of it as a rowdy song when I wrote it. And then when we played it the way we did on the recording and live at the time, I guess it was more laid back and quieter, but good. But those recordings are really beautiful, though. I love those recordings. They’re magical, I think.

I took the lyrical content of this album as narratives of transition. The promotional material described it as “commingling of past and present”. At least a few of these songs are a few years old for you. Do you think these songs still depict what you consider to be your present situation?
I think that when I wrote a lot of the songs I was really unsatisfied with my job. I was in debt with credit cards and student loans and I was also trying to make it as an artist. I was conflicted on how to pay my bills and have time to write songs and perform and all that. So, I was overwhelmed with those ideas. Those are some of the topics I was trying to articulate. I think these songs came about in about two years. I think for the most part they’re things I’m still interested in. Along with those ideas [of] debt and being unsatisfied with your job, I think all of the songs touch upon feeling like a misfit. I’ve always personally felt like a misfit and out of place. I think that’s sort of what I’m always, in the end, talking about.

In what sense did you feel like a misfit? In being unable at that time to find a venue for your expression, or in a more general sense?
I’ve always felt, and I think the other band members, we feel like outsiders. Either it’s self imposed, or it’s reality, but, personally, I’ve always sort of seen myself as an outsider. I think a lot of us do. Even if we are insiders, sometimes you feel out of place. I think that’s a concept that relates to unrequited love and other iconic subject matter of songs. I think it’s all kind of related: wanting to be accepted, wanting to be loved, or [feelings of] rejection, you know?

Well, in the past two years, do you feel like you’ve come to better terms with these issues, or do you feel like you’re still working them out?
Maybe I have, sort of. Maybe this is cathartic. You write a song about something you think about that’s bugging you. I think about it, I do it, and it’s out there. Maybe it’s over. Right now I feel like I don’t want to write about work scenarios or stuff that I wrote about on the record (laughs). Like financial situations. I don’t really want to write another “Liberal Arts” song again.

Your songs and your lyrics seem very meticulously arranged. To me, it feels like the words are the most critical in a lot of them. In the songwriting process, are your lyrics the starting point?
No, they’re actually not. They’re the last thing I do. The melody and the harmony usually come together at the same time. The melody, I guess, comes first and drives everything. Then lyrics come last. Actually, it’s funny because I don’t fancy myself a good writer or a poet. I mean, I love good poetry and I love good writing, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a good, or ever even tried to be, a good writer. I always thought “I’m not even gonna try” you know? It’s funny you say the lyrics are central. I guess I feel [that] because I’m not a very articulate talker or I don’t feel like I say what I mean most of the time. So this way of communicating is very important to me.

It definitely feels like it’s more from the gut and the heart than the head. It lends itself to introspection on the part of the listener, trying to cipher out what is meant by that.
Yeah, that’s really important, that’s really great, I think. I do put a lot of time into the lyrics and I think a lot about them. I enjoy good lyrics, so that’s an important thing for me to have in a song. I hope that people are paying attention and listening. I mean, you can or you can’t. The great thing about pop songs is that you have the music behind you all the time, so the lyrics don’t have to stand on their own, they’re working with the music. There is a balance between being too good of a lyricist and overshadowing your music. You want both to play together.

When you are laying everything out, putting down each piece of it, are those decisions made by consensus? Is there a division of responsibility within the band or are choices made by committee?
When we work together as a band, I write the songs separately and then I bring them to Nathan (Michel), and then Brian (Betancourt). Brian comes up with the bass part, usually on the spot. If there’s a space in the music that I left out that I wanted an instrumental, he would cover that and he would write his own instrumental parts. Nathan really drives the rhythmic feel of the song. Like a song like “All day today”, the rhythm is Nathan’s perspective on that. Then, as far as the LP recording goes, we recorded everything live, just bass, drums, and guitar, and then Nathan really added all the other harmonic, melodic parts. All the other instruments, the organ, harmonium and ukulele on “Julie”. Everything extra is Nathan.

I wanted to discuss your influences a little bit, particularly the Psychedelic Furs piece. You learned to sing by emulating their albums?
I guess my influences when I was younger were a lot of male, English singers–

When you say younger, about how old were you when you came to this kind of stuff?
I guess music really hit me when I was fifteen or sixteen. I started pursuing what was not on MTV and not on the radio because that music was really disappointing. I knew there was better music in the world. So I started to hang out in record stores and browsed and went to all ages shows and met musicians.

Finally, I just wondered if you could offer any specifics for any touring that may be in the works.
You can check on the Merge Records site. They have our tour updated. We have a big tour in March, with Tennis, that takes us to South by Southwest. Then, we go out with Love Language on the way back. Then we have a tour with Wild Flag in April.