20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
Paper Anthem, fronted by American singer/songwriter Joseph Hitchcock, has always been inspired in short, furious bursts, so when what he claims was a haunted piano gave him twenty-five impassioned songs, he didn’t stop to ask too many questions. The sole songwriting force behind the geographically-confused indie-rock project says that the first twelve songs landed on his 2015 debut—aptly titled By Ghosts. Hitchcock returns this year with his third album, the equally aptly titled The Year You’ll Never Get Back, preceded by the lead single “Sign Language,” available everywhere now.
Hitchcock, the son of a blues singer father and a poet mother, has storytelling in his blood. “I view an album as a movie,” he said. “I’ve been making YouTube shorts of questionable quality for over a decade now, and that bleeds into everything I do.” He thinks of songs as scenes in a larger tapestry, though they’re never written that way. “I just try to fit the songs I come up with together as cohesively as possible.”
I had the chance to get to know Paper Anthem for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where he explained his creative process, what listeners can expect from his new music, and more.
What’s one thing that made you fall in love with music?
It feels like dancing, but a dance that I can do, as I can’t dance at all. The improvisational aspect of performing and the way it allowed me to express myself through notes and keys always really drew me back to the piano as a teenager every time I had quit lessons. This ultimately led to getting into songwriting with lyrics, but that foundation of learning classical music, and writing my own pieces, was what led me to love music.
What inspired your stage name?
I was toying with a couple ideas—By Ghosts, which ended up being my first album’s name instead, and All At Once, which didn’t seem captivating enough—but as a joke, Googled ‘band name generator’ and used it. Had to click it a bunch of times, and I can’t recall if it gave me this exact combination, but I liked the words ‘paper’ and ‘anthem’ together. It made me think about how songs can be literally written on paper and then turn into this huge thing if they mean enough to people. But really, they don’t even exist at all, except for in the moments that they do.
As a songwriter, which artists have influenced you the most?
VAST, a really obscure American project from the late ‘90s/early 2000s, really shaped me, but not as much as Snow Patrol, who I got into rather late in 2011 around the time they released Fallen Empires. I fell head over heels with that band, and Gary’s songwriting. It’s the one band people always hear in my music as a clear influence. As a musician, a writer of instrumentals, both Coldplay and Foals are hugely important. I love how varied both of those bands are, unafraid of trying anything. Yannis Philippakis from Foals and also Ben Gibbard, to a lesser extent, basically shaped my lead guitar style. Ben Gibbard is an incredible lead guitarist. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
Who is your style icon?
Yannis Philippakis from Foals, but I can’t pull most of that beautiful nonsense off. I’m so jealous of his hair. And not just his beard, but just any beard. I have one of those truly awful patchy beards that is too thick on the neck. I never do anything that matters to me without shaving my face completely.
What time of day are you most inspired?
The afternoon, probably. Not in the morning, that’s for sure! I wake up kind of sad, but then at noon I start to get really excited and happy for no reason. I’m filled with energy after that.
As an artist, what would you say is the general theme of your music?
Connection between humans, and how powerless it leaves us.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’m unfortunately too stubborn to listen to advice. I wish I wasn’t. I’m sure people have told me some really smart things, but I just blocked it out. I just sort of trip through everything and learn my own lessons.
How would you characterize your new album The Year You’ll Never Get Back?
I would describe it as disappointed; the album itself is trying its best, but it’s just… sad. It also feels expansive, intimate, aggressive, soft. Gothic, in a very literal way. The imagery is abstract—and epic—yet macabre, if you dig into the lyrics. I love this record, and I feel very protective of it.
Favorite thing to do on a rainy day?
Sit in the car and just listen to it. Listen to music, maybe. I love rain so much. It’s fantastic. I perk up when it rains, in energy, and mood. If I could live somewhere it rained all the time, I’d be happy.
What is your favorite kind of song to write?
They’re all hard! I just like it when the songs pop into my head, with some lyrics, and I can just flesh it out then and there and call it done rather quickly. But that’s rare for me. Only “Speechless” and “Hills Hills Hills” have come together that way, but those are both my most popular songs, so maybe that means something. I’m always trying to push myself and write new kinds of songs that maybe don’t feel comfortable at first. I want to write songs that are more aggressive, hard-hitting rock, but also more pop, hook-laden, catchy things, in the future.
What does the word “beauty” mean to you?
Unfortunately, it just makes me think of beautiful women, and makes me wonder if the deepest loves I’ve fallen into are just evolutionary tricks caused by their genetic luck. It bothers me how powerful beauty is, and how much our world revolves around people who have it. I think someday soon, we’ll all live in virtual reality, and have constructed avatars that look however we want. Or maybe science will let us alter our own DNA to look however we want, and then anyone can be as beautiful as they see themselves. These are the things I think about, I guess.
What kind of artists did you grow up listening to?
I didn’t really have a favorite band until 2005 or 2006, maybe? Which was VAST. But I don’t know if that counts as growing up, since I was already in high school by then. When I was much younger, I was exposed to bands like Talking Heads, The Who, and Frank Zappa, and I’m sure there’s some influence there on me, but when I first started really getting into music was probably in the late ‘90s, when I’d buy soundtracks and albums for my favorite movies. Godzilla: The Album and Digimon: The Movie’s album made a huge impact on me. There’s a Ben Folds Five song on Godzilla: The Album called Air, that is at least 75% of my piano style. Later, I got considerably into the music on The Matrix albums.
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
Never had a problem with drugs, alcohol, or smoking, but I’m pretty addicted to food. I wish I could stop that. It’s emotional. I’ll just eat until I have trouble breathing. I read someone online compare feeling full to like being hugged from the inside, and maybe that’s part of the appeal. Music doesn’t help, because I get so stressed out about creative decisions on my albums that I tend to go to a restaurant at the end of each recording day and make some bad decisions there.
Favorite movie of all-time?
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is astounding to me. I can’t imagine getting sick of that one. The sequences, even the ones not involving music, are so… musical, and frenetic, that it just captures my brain. And my heart. The costumes, the music, the acting, the colors… wow.
The last book you finished?
I can’t remember the last book I read that wasn’t about the music business, or a German grammar book. I try to read as much self-teaching material as I can in my spare time. Also, at the risk of sounding really uneducated, I just adore movies and television shows and don’t really get much of anything out of reading fiction, in comparison, anyway. I do love reading screenplays, though! I like that they’re not overly detailed, and only include the basic dialogue and actions, so I can use my imagination to fill in the rest.
One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Make as much art as possible, even if it’s not perfect—these times don’t last forever. The people don’t, either.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
Well, I can’t pick someone I’m a massive fan of, because I get starstruck really bad and embarrass myself. For example, I’m a huge fan of Wolf Alice but I can’t listen to them now without feeling awkward. Anyway, I’d pick Ed Sheeran. I do like some of his new stuff, I suppose, but for the most part I preferred his first record and fell off the train a bit. So, I don’t think I’d feel nervous around him. But he seems like such a cool guy. We could talk about how amazing ketchup is and eventually I’d try and see if he remembered the time he opened for Snow Patrol at The Beaumont in Kansas City and he stole my picnic table.
The last series you binge-watched?
Well, I usually almost never binge TV shows! It doesn’t even matter how good it is, I just get exhausted after two or three episodes and stop for the day. But, I noticed this series called Flack had just popped up on Amazon recently, and it looked like it was about a PR company for celebrities, and I thought that was interesting since I’m doing a PR campaign right now and I wanted to know more about it, and that’s the most hooked I’ve been in a while. It was so good. The finale is like a masterclass in screenwriting as far as I’m concerned. Apparently there’s a season 2 already out in the UK but I have to wait God knows how long because I live in America.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Food delivery services. And World of Warcraft. That’s another vice that took hold of me. Got rid of it, thank God. Now I can’t see an advertisement for the game without feeling tension in my whole body.
What can we expect to hear next from you?
Well, of course there’s my new album The Year You’ll Never Get Back, but also I’m already writing more stuff, because I want to be able to release more new music shortly after this album comes out. I have so many songs I’d like to do! As difficult as it is to be a musician in these times, that’s the one thing I like about today: artists are encouraged to release songs frequently. I think that’s exciting and fun and can keep you connected to your audience in a more engaging way.